How to Avoid Meeting a Prophet in a Dark Alley

It’s a fairly regular occurrence, you know. A body is simply walking along, minding their own business, when a voice whispers from the alleyway. “Psst… I’ve got something for you.” Little does that body know what lies within that creeping darkness – the stark reality that faces them as the prophet proceeds to dress them down.

What do you mean that’s never happened to you? I had thought that moment in New York was a little weird…

Anyway, I’ve been getting my own little dressing down while reading Jeremiah. It’s strange how relevant the Prophets are even today. Gives weight to Jesus’ phrase about the words not fading. Jeremiah was writing to Judah warning them to turn back to God before their lifestyle led them straight into the not-so-loving arms of Babylon (or as Jeremiah says “the North.”) So what was Judah’s problem? Well, there were two problems.

The first was the lack of proper worship. Sure, Judah was visiting the Temple, observing the festivals and sacrifices, and saying the right words. Everything’s cool, right? It would be, if they weren’t also hedging their bets and praying to the Canaanite idols. There were some extra sacrifices, and even some children given to the fire to prove devotion – and the priests even encouraged that behavior. God in one instance even says to not bother about proper sacrifice protocol, since they didn’t seem to care about his guidelines about worshiping one God.

And we worship some extra gods ourselves, don’t we? “What? No,” you say. Well, the culture at large worships some gods. Some worship Roma, the goddess of nation. Some put their idea of national identity before anything else. Sometimes these individuals put more faith in their chosen political party, candidate, or system than in God. Some use political affiliation as a test for whether or not someone is a true believer. Others worship Aries, the god of war, putting a great deal of faith in their own or their nation’s weaponry. Some worship Venus, the goddess of sexual desire, bowing to pornography and selfishly using sex to gratify themselves. Some worship Plutus, the god of wealth, only feeling secure when enough money is in their bank account – and trusting only that number in the bank account. Some worship Liber, the god of freedom, trusting only in their ability to choose any and every option that comes their way, distrusting any authority that seeks to limit their freedom, even at the cost of personal harm. Others worship Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, eager to serve their master through anger and returning whatever slight might be thrown their way. These are just a few of the common gods in our current cultural pantheon, and much like Rome, many of us are quite welcoming to any and every new god or goddess that comes along, thinking, “It wouldn’t hurt to have an extra helper…”

Second, Judah’s lifestyle was not reflecting God’s Torah or God’s character. Judah’s power structure was such that the wealthy and powerful were abusing and refusing to help those who were poor, foreigners, or the weak. Where God had said to lift up and take care of neighbor, foreigner, orphan, and widow, the Judahites were oppressing, extracting resources from, and ignoring the cries of those very people. Not only that, but the leaders of the nation were making nice with empires and kingdoms and building up an armed force – both actions that would lead to them landing squarely in Babylon’s sights.

Jesus said it much more positively, but the entry level message of the Law and Prophets is: “Don’t be a jerk.” It’s a pretty low bar, really. The trick is, it’s hard to be loving, kind and compassionate when we’re more worried about “getting ours” than about our neighbor. See, Judah’s worship led directly into their actions. They didn’t see God as big enough to handle all of their problems – hence the resort to other gods. And if God isn’t enough to handle our problems, then we go about trying to sort out our own lives and make sure me and mine are covered – often to the exclusion of everyone else. The current American attitude of “if someone else has a thing that means I lose” is a terrible attitude to live. It’s like saying, “God doesn’t have enough love to go around, and if God loves me and mine, He can’t possibly love you and yours, too.” Boy howdy that’s creating an idol in your head and calling it God.

God’s love, care, and presence aren’t limited resources we must all fight and jockey for. If God is infinite, so are those things. Through His prophets, God often reminds His people that He is a compassionate God, slow to become angry, quick to show mercy and full of loving-kindness. Those that lose sight of that fact can be tempted to introduce just “one more god” to help God out. And once monotheism becomes polytheism, there’s no reason to stop at just two.

So how do you keep from having a prophet pronounce judgment? Well, trust God and don’t be a jerk, especially now. Patton Oswalt’s late wife Michelle McNamara said: “It’s chaos, be kind.” So many people look around and see nothing but chaos and want just a rock to cling to in the storm. We already cling to the Rock of Ages. Why not invite others to give up their mini-gods and find that same security?

What do you find captures your trust? What gods have crept into your life? How do your priorities and family calendar reflect who you worship? How do your habits and giving reflect the God of creation? In what ways do your worship and lifestyle match up?

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5 Surprising Christmas Heresies

Every year I am shocked and appalled by the number of individuals who spout heretical beliefs about Christmas. These beliefs do nothing but endanger the spirit of Christmas and holiday cheer. I like to consider myself an orthodox Christmas celebrator, but even I may fall victim to having shades of these dark heresies lurking among my celebrations. Be vigilant and know how to guard yourself.

The Nogmenian Heresy

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These heretics are those individuals who purchase and drink Egg Nog before the official start date of the Christmas season – Thanksgiving Day – the earliest a Christmas tree should go up (barring certain special exceptions for accommodating out-of-town family.) These heretics are seeking to earn their way into Christmas instead of allowing Christmas cheer to meet them at the appropriate time. Christmas cheer isn’t something to be earned or striven for, but a free gift of the season. These heretics often have marketing jobs and are leading millions astray by putting up Christmas displays in stores before Halloween. Heresy generally starts small, but can grow to unimaginably horrific proportions.

The Jingle-onatist Heresy

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There is one exception to the Nogmenian Heresy – Christmas music. Christmas music may be played at any time of the year someone needs a short burst of joy and hope. The Jingle-onatists, however, see this is an evil that is unforgivable. Their lack of true Christmas spirit sends them into a rage when Christmas music is played outside of the Thanksgiving – New Year time slot. These Jingle-onatists look down on the lowly, humble, and needy with haughty eyes and cold hearts even during the difficult periods of the calendar. Guard yourself against this lack of generosity and allow yourself to rejoice in the happiness of others.

The Santarian Heresy

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These are those heartless individuals who would go about with “Merry Christmas” on their lips, but despising Santa Claus in their hearts. These are those that… I can barely bring myself to write the words… don’t believe in Santa. They would ruin the Christmas joy for others by relegating a beautiful story about a man so unconcerned with himself that his entire year is dedicated to making gifts to give away for free to children as a story meant for the ignorant and childish. These people say Santa is merely a man, although a quite incredible historical figure, while discounting the more legendary aspects and feats of his life. This heresy is heartbreaking enough when it is kept in the shadowy places of the heart, but even worse when it pours out its venom on Christmas celebrations.

http://wcrz.com/how-to-explain-santa-to-children/

The Cupnostic Heresy

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This truly baffling heresy has taken root in the coffee-obsessed culture, especially of America. Every year now, for the last several years, Cupnostics have taken to social media to protest coffee cups that don’t seem, well, Christmas-y enough. Personally, if someone has enough energy in the morning to complain about the packaging their coffee or tea arrives in, their priorities are confused, and maybe they don’t need the caffeine anyway and should skip this morning ritual. See, these people see a fundamental separation between the matter of the cup and the spirit of the drink inside. Instead of seeing both as a beautiful combination of function and life, they complain about the evil of the cup while celebrating and cherishing the spirit of the fluid inside. This is just tedious and silly. Just enjoy the peppermint-mocha-frap-milky-thing-with-a-drop-of-coffee as you hold the beautiful container containing it.

The Sweaterists

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I must still do research on this particular group to discover whether it is, in fact, heretical, or just a new way of celebrating the season. This group seeks to wear ugly Christmas sweaters… ironically. Suddenly, a whole market has emerged for ironically ugly Christmas sweaters that cater to nearly every taste. Before, ugly Christmas sweaters were unironically given gifts meant to warm hearts, and flush faces with humility during the Christmas season. And let’s be honest, most of the “ugly” Christmas sweaters aren’t so much ugly as just tacky – which we in the South understand and celebrate with glee. We do tacky Christmas better than just about anyone. So I put this group on notice – research and interviews will continue to determine its status as a Christmas Heresy or offshoot of Christmas orthodoxy.

May you have a wonderful Christmas season, free of heresy, and full of joy, hope, love, and cheer. And however you celebrate, Merry Christmas.

I Am Sure Glad Genghis Khan Wasn’t the Messiah!

I’ve recently begun playing an “empire building” game… mostly because my laptop cannot run anything more recent than 2007. Besides the game’s AI playing a horribly ironic prank on me (making my chosen world leader, Genghis Khan, start on an island with no exit…), it’s been an interesting exercise in considering how I would run a civilization. My tendency is to play defensively and work toward world peace and unity… except with the Genghis Khan playthrough, because that wouldn’t make sense, would it? I do pause and consider my actions before attacking another city…

That aggressive method of world diplomacy goes directly against what I’ve been reading in Zechariah. In between all of the promises of blessing, encouragement to complete the work on the second temple, and charges to live faithfully in regards to one another, one passage jumped out at me. On my first reading, I found myself shocked at the mention of Judah being given so much compassion and mercy by God that they would weep at what their hands had done in fighting off the nations around them and beg for God to spare those same nations that had threatened them.

I sat and meditated on that idea for a while. What kind of compassion would we need to have within us to weep for our enemies… as if they were our only child? What kind of compassion and forgiveness would we need to weep for a terrorist killed in action? Or an abuser, oppressor, or someone else who has harmed us? What kind of heart change is that?

We hear of stories where families forgive the murderer of their loved one. That family may go as far as to fight against the death penalty for a lighter (albeit still severe) sentencing. I wonder what that struggle to forgive looks like… Maybe God still has some work to do on me, but the idea of weeping over that person’s misfortune seems so far out as to seem absurd.

And yet, God’s compassion and mercy are so great that we celebrate His generosity every Christmas with the gift of Jesus. Unlike my Genghis Khan, God chose to inaugurate His Kingdom with a child, with a living testimony, with a sacrifice, and with a resurrection. As powerful as God is, the picture He gives to us is a King entering on the back of a donkey, a King coming to conquer with peace, humility, and liberation. As I look at my own daughter, with her beautiful blue eyes, I wonder how hard Joseph’s world was rocked holding Jesus for the first time. Joseph held a King, a Redeemer, the Messiah.  All the hopes, dreams, and prayers of the Jewish people leading to this. Was it what he expected?

And Mary… was her compassion big enough to weep for those who had crucified her son? Did Joseph have enough to forgive those who called his son crazy, or demon-possessed as Jesus began his ministry?

How is God molding you into a picture of His love and grace, compassion and forgiveness? How do you model compassion to your children?

Christmas Is Coming…

Advent has begun.

As I write this, it is mid-November, and I have been listening to Christmas music for half a month now. This year our church has decided to be a little more low-key about the Christmas season. Our huge Bethelehem Walk is on a break, so for this year I get to savor Christmas. I’ve also had two cups of coffee in quick succession this morning, so I’m pretty excited about life!

The original advent lasted hundreds of years, and not just a month before Christmas. The Jewish people were resting all of their hopes on God’s promises of freedom and an end to the exile. Sure, the physical exile was over, Jews once again lived in Judea and Galilee, and there was a Jewish king on the throne and a high priest in the Temple. But things weren’t right… all the way. The king wasn’t from David’s line. The high priests were a wealthy family who had a hand in politics. Oh, and Rome had its grubby little (well, not so little) paws all over the territory. Rome had a special interest in this region of the world because of Egypt and the surrounding area’s ability to grow wheat to feed a gigantic empire. There was peace on earth and goodwill toward men… so long as you stayed in line, were actually a man, not a slave, and had the coveted status of Roman citizen. So, maybe the Pax Romana had a few caveats…

The Jewish people languished under Roman rule. What did it even mean to be Jewish under Roman rule? How long would God wait to overthrow the Romans and reestablish His Kingdom on earth? Hadn’t the seventy sevens been completed? Hadn’t the time arrived for the anointed one to appear, who would lead Israel to freedom and power, and create a new world where the nations fell under God’s generous rule? Maybe if they followed the rules even more strictly, something would happen. Maybe if they created monastic, apocalyptic communities to purify themselves, something would happen. Maybe if they prayed enough, or sacrificed enough, or were faithful enough, something would happen. But all they could hear was the deafening silence…

One young lady, though, received a visit. She was told to not fear, to find joy in the favor God had given her. She was given an opportunity. And, unlike many of the men of Scripture, she asked one question, and accepted her mission. What was that mission? She was to carry the Son of God. She was to give birth and raise a child who would grow up to be both king and high priest, who would represent Israel in Himself, who would shoulder the burden of the curse of the Law in order to break its power. This child would be God with His people – a more concrete presence than Israel had ever experienced, a walking, talking Temple.

Last year at this time, I was waiting with broken heart to hear two words, “I’m pregnant.” I, too, was anticipating a child, but one who hadn’t been promised. I was heartbroken, feeling exiled myself. I wondered what I needed to do to get God’s attention. I knew where God was, though, present with me as He has always been with His people. He sat with me as I wept, angrily pleaded, and finally accepted my situation. He listened, and let me continue waiting. What are you waiting for? What has you feeling exiled, broken, oppressed?

This year, though, is full of joyful expectation as I look forward to celebrating my little girl’s first Christmas. Don’t read into this that God always grants our requests. Read into it that I had hope over three years of trying and waiting. And my hope did not disappoint. Hope and trust are our greatest gifts, our greatest tools for dealing with the difficult times of life.

We must, like the 1st Century Jewish people, continue to hope against despair. We must stare into the face of the oppressive forces of this world with hope and trust in God firmly in our hearts, minds and hands. We must work and carry on, and day, one hour, one step at a time.

I encourage you to find time this Advent to stop and rest in God’s peace. This time of year can be a struggle, but look for the peace. Look for the moments of quiet anticipation. Maintain hope. Maybe, like Mary, you too can carry Jesus with you through this season.

Do your Christmas plans make time for calm, stillness, and peace? How does your family’s holiday schedule form your child’s priorities?

Give the 9 Some Credit, and the 1 Even More (Luke 17:11-19)

I’m writing this the week before Thanksgiving, and we’ll be covering the story in Luke 17:11-19 where Jesus heals ten lepers and only the one Samaritan comes back to thank Jesus. There’s way more to this story than a simple lesson in politeness and a reminder that 90% of the population doesn’t show gratitude. (Wait… that number seems high.)

First, the story begins by noting that Jesus “continued his journey to Jerusalem.” Luke uses this phrase as a constant reminder, and tension builder that Jesus is on His way not just to Jerusalem, but also to the cross – which should be in the background of each and every story here. Remember, the cross is the moment when God took the curse of the law onto Himself to fulfill the Covenant He had made with Israel back in Exodus, and further back with Abram back in Genesis.

So ten lepers – and leper here is a word that boils down to “really ugly skin condition.” It could’ve been a rash, or it could have been actual leprosy. Regardless, if the skin condition was bad enough, the Mosaic law required that person to live outside the community to keep the community safe, and also to maintain the ritual purity of the people and the Temple.

Jesus responds to the cry for help from the ten men – who were risking quite a bit by coming close – by telling the men to go and see the priest. Now, this is where everyone gets tied up in this story. While on the way, the men realize they’ve been healed, and they hurry on to see the priest, all except one.

Let’s pause here. Jesus here is asking these men to trust, to have faith in God, in Himself. The nine Jewish men did just that – they went on their way, and followed through. Part of their cleansing involved sacrifice, and they probably would have offered fellowship and thanksgiving offerings in gratitude for being healed. These men were well on their way to showing gratitude – and in the proper way laid out by the Mosaic Law.

Now, what about that Samaritan? Sure, we give him marks for coming back and saying thanks directly, but he should get WAY more credit than just for saying “thank you.” See, the Samaritan saw something the Jewish men missed… God in the flesh. While the Jewish men went to praise God in the Temple, where they and their ancestors had met with God for generations, the Samaritan realized that God had met with him in-person in the form of Jesus. The Samaritan threw himself at Jesus’ feet – something normally reserved for kings or, in Jewish practice, God alone. Luke is showing us that the Samaritan noticed God in the midst of his people when the ones looking hardest missed it.

So this Thanksgiving, the most important lesson may be to ask ourselves: “Do we notice when God is present?” Do we realize when God is with us, in our midst, acting to bring His Kingdom here on earth as it is on heaven?

Where have you seen or felt God in your midst this past week? When do you have conversations with your kids about God’s nearness? Are we people who miss the relationship and meeting with God for the protocol? Are we the nine who missed it, or the one who realized what was really happening?

Thanksgiving is coming! Grab the flak jackets!

I’m weird.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way: I have about three news podcasts that I listen to on a daily basis – two American and one UK source for a worldwide perspective. I usually listen to these in the morning, and sometimes my little girl gets to listen along and we’ll have some discussions about what’s going on in the world. And by discussions I mean I try and simplify the topic at hand in such a way that a newborn can grasp. (For real, though, we all know she’s just getting language training at this point by learning speech patterns and the basics of English.) Anyway, one of these podcasts had an interview with a Senator I have a hard time understanding. (Nope, not gonna name names, or give that much info about it. Read into it what you like.) I looked down at the precious eyes of my baby girl and said, “And what we’re doing now is listening to someone we don’t completely agree with because that’s the kind of people we are.” And I sure do hope I model that behavior as much as I preach it.

That most American of holidays is approaching – Thanksgiving. We’re all already dreaming of turkey, ham, potatoes, sides, rolls, desserts, and the millions of pounds of butter that will be used over the course of that week. (What? You don’t celebrate for a whole week? Then I guess you aren’t very grateful, are you?) I also know that many people dread this holiday as a time when speech must be very guarded or arguments will explode. The only blessing I have for you is this: may your conversations have more civility than social media. I worry about how family gatherings or other physical social meetings may change in this culture of outrage, perpetual anger, and general frustration. I know I’ve found myself on more than one occasion keeping my trap shut to avoid any conflict. Instead, I listen. I try to hear what the other person is saying, to stop and really consider the words, their motivation, source, heart. Learning is one of my hobbies, and listening is the best way to learn, in my opinion.

I also enjoy having misconceptions busted. Sure, it’s jarring, but there’s a sense of fun and adventure when confronted by the truth. (And it bothers me that the word and concept of truth have become such a contentious issue.) I love the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. So I listen. I try hard to listen without judgment or creating my counter-argument. I may learn something and be able to better understand a topic, or at the very least the other side’s view.

This season throws us all into a lot of situations with people we may disagree with on a theological, political, philosophical, culinary, or some other basis. We should be willing to sit, break bread, and experience them. The experience may be joyful, or painful, but either way, be present – be welcoming.

When do you model acceptance of others, even without agreeing with them, to your kids? How do your family gatherings look: are they places of peace and active love, or are they places of anger and dissension? What steps could you take to prepare yourself to be better able to listen and welcome?

So I Guess the Church Needs to Talk About Sexual Assault?

There are so many times in my life when I ask the question, “Do we really have to say this out loud?” I ask this when I have to remind a child that poking their injury will indeed continue to cause pain and they should probably stop. And now we apparently have to say, to grown men of all people, that sexual assault, rape, and pedophilia are not ok and have never been ok. I would say I have no words, but you all know that’d be a lie.

The news has really been dealing with the concept of sexual harassment and assault lately. The sad fact is that generations of women have grown up receiving warnings of the “big bad wolves” of the world, being told “it’s just the way things are” and “boys will be boys.” It’s a shame, really. As a man, my parents raised me to treat women with respect, as human beings, not as something to be handled with kid gloves. Sure, I was taught to hold open a door and do what I can to make them comfortable, but that also applied to how I was to treat men as well. I was taught the Philippians 2 method – consider others better than myself.

I have heard that many of these allegations are politically motivated. I would disagree and say that this is the first time that women have felt safe enough and believed enough to actually come forward with these things. Going through sexual assault brings with it a lot of shame and self-doubt, which makes talking about the experience difficult. And, previous to now, most women were told to sit down and be quiet and not  mess up some guy’s career or life. This year, however, from sheer number of allegations alone, several high-profile men’s actions were brought to light: Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and more. Women finally have a society/culture they feel safer sharing their stories.

I would love to say that now that the process of outing these men has begun we can finally put all of this to rest and proclaim throughout the land that women will never have to deal with harassment and assault ever again; however, that would be naïve. It would also be naïve to think that there aren’t still men who will do whatever they want as long as they feel their power or cunning can shield them from repercussions. Women cannot be the only ones fighting this battle, defending themselves, decrying their persecutors with no one listening or taking them seriously until the overwhelming weight of multitudinous testimonies finally forces doubt aside by sheer volume.

The church should really stand up and treat sexual misconduct like this with the seriousness it deserves. We should follow Jesus’ example, who believed women, relied on women for material support during his ministry, and took their side in disputes. (See John 8, the story of the women caught in adultery. I have always found it telling that she was caught, but the man was nowhere to be found, which showed the religious people’s priorities.) Jesus’ message was one that each person was to be seen as having value, as being worth our time, as being a creation and child of God. Even the lopsided equality we have now is due to the inherent value placed on each human being in Judeo-Christian theology: from Exodus’s and Deuteronomy’s commands to look after the weak, powerless and foreigner as well as the many protections for women, to Jesus’ treatment of women and the role of women in the early church.

We, as the church, should not tolerate this kind of treatment of women – the crown jewel of creation. (Artist’s final creations are considered the master work, and women were created last, the finest part of creation.) We should take women at their word when they claim harassment. (I am well aware of the “crying wolf” that is often cited here to counter allegations. Those cases should be handled on an individual basis, and not used as a way to discredit half the population. And ask yourself, how many people would be willing to wreck their reputation, job prospects, and bring shame on their family on the slim chance that someone believes them and acts against a perpetrator?) We, as the church, should take the lead in educating men on consent, common decency, and that sexual misconduct of this nature is a zero-tolerance situation. We should remind women that they have a right to say “no” to any unwanted contact, that they have a right to speak up and be believed, and that their personhood is not threatened by having suffered. Women should expect to be sheltered and protected by the church after dealing with abuse, assault, or harassment. We should neither give men the benefit of the doubt just because they’re men, nor doubt women because they’re women. As a society, we’ve known about this stuff for far too long without doing a single thing about it. As a church, we should feel great shame about the lack of attention we have given to women who have suffered and persevered under abuse, assault, and harassment. We should repent, and begin the hard work of honestly evaluating the way we as a church and society handle these cases, and more importantly how we treat fellow human beings who have dealt with the pain and shame that comes from these situations.

And, sure, we can have guidelines like the Billy Graham rule and other fences around these situations, and can follow proper protocol, but it boils down to a heart issue – especially in men. Jesus said that if we think just following rules will prevent sin, go ahead and cut off every limb and cut out every sensory organ, making yourself physically incapable of breaking any rules… and become the most black-hearted, sin riddled torso that ever lived. The heart/attitude is the root of action. Change the hearts, change the minds, and change the culture.

How do you talk to your kids about consent, sex, and how to treat others? Have you discussed with your kids what to do in situations where sexual harassment or assault happen? Have you thought about how to respond if someone confides abuse, assault, or harassment to you? Have you thought about how to respond if your child confides abuse, assault, or harassment to you?

Remember, how you talk about those who have survived abuse, assault, and harassment (alleged or otherwise) will decide whether or not your child feels safe talking to you about their own experiences. Will your child feel safe to talk in your home?