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Monday, November 27, 2017

Navigating the Holidays - Keeping Our Focus

The turkey has been carved and every morsel of meat stripped from its carcass. We have dined on left over dressing, turkey sandwiches, and I guess we are destined for turkey soup.  The Black Friday lines are gone leaving behind happy shoppers who braved the wee hour crowds and got the good deals.  Bleary-eyed workers at Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy are trying to catch up on their sleep. Across America, shoppers turned to the blue glow of computer screens searching for the best deals on Cyber-Monday.

This weekend, a blast of fall blew copper colored leaves across the yard. Families scrambled outside their houses with giggling children. Mothers gave advice and helped as fathers struggled to untangle strings of lights to adorn the roof and, in some cases, stretch across the yard. Rooftops began to glow with red, green, yellow and blue lights. This week we will set up the Christmas tree in our window.  I will have to tinker with the lights to get them all lit, but it is a start. In a matter of hours, the season shifted from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

In some ways, Christmas is a unique American cultural holiday.  Over the last two centuries our forefathers developed traditions that define the season: the Christmas tree, Christmas cards, eggnog, fruitcake, and, again, turkey and dressing. We have added electric lights that twinkle in the night; fairy tales, Santa and Rudolph; A Christmas Story with Ralphie’s Red Ryder BB gun and his dad’s leg lamp; Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street and It’s A Wonderful Life.  We adopted A Christmas Carol from England and The Nutcracker from Russia.

Next Sunday many churches will light their first candle for Advent. The Advent, of course, refers to birth of Jesus Christ. He came in much different circumstances, with none of the traditions we have added.  And He came for all nations.  As Zechariah predicted, ““Many nations will join themselves to the Lord in that day and will become My people. Then I will dwell in your midst, and you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you.” (Zech. 2:11).

Today, there are more Christians in South America, Africa and Asia than there are in the United States and Europe. Many of the traditions we enjoy at this season are unknown to them.  But we share one thing in common, the “Advent” of God’s only begotten Son who has saved us from our sins. 

I think I enjoy the American Christmas traditions as much as anyone.  But, as the seasons turn, I hope I will not be distracted from concentrating on the single most important event in human history, God’s unspeakable gift in Jesus of Nazareth. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving and Black Friday

I like Thanksgiving, partly because it resists being hijacked by commercialism. I like the sounds of family and friends laughing around the table. I like the fall leaves scattered about the lawn, the crisp mornings and the smell of turkey baking in the oven. I like what goes with it: cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad and pie (any kind of pie).  And, most of all, I like dressing, the one thing that still divides the north from the south. Those from the north prepare bread dressing.  Those with southern roots cook corn bread dressing.  Turkeys come and turkeys go, but my wife’s corn bread dressing is to die for.  She learned the recipe from her mother: corn bread, celery, onions, chopped boiled eggs, broth, butter and other ingredients I will never figure out.   With giblet gravy, it is a meal in itself.

By Friday the tryptophan and carbohydrates have worn off. After missing the third quarter of the Thanksgiving ball game we regained consciousness enough to stumble into the kitchen for leftovers.  Loaded up again, and slept the sound sleep of a thankful soul.  And now we are ready to get on with the real business of the American holiday season: shopping.

Of course Black Friday isn’t what it was. Online shopping, Amazon and some stores opening their doors late on Thursday have taken some of the zap out of it.  At its peak,
lines would form in front of Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Target long before the first gray light of day.   A few spent the night camped out in tents on concrete sidewalks.  Our pilgrim fathers knew nothing of this.  They hunted and harvested and cleaned and cooked, but they never stood in lines in front of glass doors waiting for the opening bell. They never rushed through aisles searching for treasures that were sure to disappear.  They never stood in check out lines that stretched to the back of the store.  They had it easy.

Fifty years ago we eased into Christmas.  No one had heard of Black Friday.  We used Friday to digest the Thanksgiving feast.  It was a quiet day, the day after we gathered at grandma’s with cousins and kin.  Christmas decorations were not yet up.  We savored the season.  But today, we are jolted from Thanksgiving into Christmas.  

Black Friday seems to symbolize our rush through life, our efforts to get the best deal, to be first in line.  It seems to represent the commercialization of Christmas and threatens to turn Thanksgiving into a season of “thanks getting.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I like a good deal and deep discounts.  I want the American economy to thrive.  But, along the way, I hope we cultivate a thankful heart and grateful spirit that is not measured by the sum of what we can get at the cheapest price. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Our Sexual Crisis

Every day we are bombarded with new allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by celebrities, corporate executives and politicians. The list is long.  Perhaps it started with Bill Cosby, then Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes and others.  The list is growing by the day.

How did we get into the mess?  How did we sink so low? 

It seems to be a “frog in the kettle thing.”  You know, if you place a frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out and save itself.  But if you place a frog in room-temperature water, it will rest there as you gradually raise the heat until the frog eventually cooks and dies.  It is unaware of the danger and does not jump out.

Maybe it was the mid-1950s that our sexual mores began to gradually change. Our commitment to marriage started to slip. Divorce and remarriage, multiple times, became acceptable.  Consensual sex began to replace the covenant monogamous relationship that had guided sexual standards. 

I don’t think there is any single source to blame.  TV sitcoms gradually adopted the consensual sex standard and portrayed it easily and somewhat attractively.  We went from Father Knows Best, The Nelson’s, I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver to Friends (with benefits) Seinfeld and The Big Bang Theory and a whole slew of day-time soap operas. Movies portraying casual sex are too numerous to list.   “Sleeping around” became entertaining and acceptable.   

Fifty Shades of Grey was originally self-published as an e-book in 2011. The book includes erotic scenes of bondage/discipline, dominance/submission and sadism/masochism. It became a best-seller around the world with 125 million copies sold by 2015,  the fastest selling paperback of all time in the U.K.

Pornography, once only available in seedy newsstands, became a click away on laptops, PCs, iPads and tablets.  Email inboxes were bombarded by invitations to smut. 

Repeated moral failure on the part of national leaders undermined our moral standards further. Bill Clinton’s sexual tryst in the oval office, chief among them. Of course, President Trump’s recorded “locker room language” didn’t help. The world and our culture will likely continue down this path.  But God calls followers of Christ to a different path, a different standard, a healthier way of life. 

The standard set by Jesus has always been the same. David P. Gushee, noted Christian ethicist stated it best: “What is the sexual ethics standard that applies to followers of Christ? Celibacy outside of life-time covenantal marriage, monogamous fidelity within life-time covenantal marriage. That norm applies to all Christians.  It is demanding, countercultural, and essential to the well-being of adults and children.”

Jesus was clear in setting the bar high when it came to sexual standards.  “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you, he who looks on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  (Matthew 5:27-28).

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Special Edition - Sutherand Springs - When Violence Strikes

I was preaching in a little Baptist church in Estes Park, CO when Devin Kelly blasted his way into the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.  We all know the statistics.  We have all heard the stories. The pastor’s 14 year old daughter dying on the floor, the Associate Pastor, Brian Holcombe, struck down as he stood up to preach, a 1 year old baby, 14 children, a 77 year old and others, massacred in a matter of minutes.

It left me deeply disturbed.

I have been disturbed before and grieved these last few weeks by the senseless slaughter of innocents on a bike path in New York, dozens gunned down in Las Vegas, a random shooting at a local Walmart on the outskirts of Denver. 

I have been disturbed and grieved over a life-time of senseless violence. The first I remember was a sniper atop the University of Texas tower in 1966, killing 13.  Others stand out: the gunman that opened fire at First Baptist Daingerfield in 1980 with and left 5 dead, including a 7 year old girl; The Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 including 19 children; West Paducah KY High School where a 14 year-old opened fire on a group of praying students; Columbine High School; The Twin Towers on 9/11 in 2001; the Amish school in Pennsylvania where a deranged gunman opened fire on innocent girls;” the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, CO; the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut where 20 children ages 6 and 7 were murdered;   the gay nightclub shooting in Orlando that left 49 dead. These are just the horrific events that I remember. There are others along with senseless killings every day reported in local news across the country.

Perhaps I am especially disturbed and grieved by what happened in Sunderland Springs because I have spent a lifetime preaching in little Baptist churches across the country.  I know the smell of church, the feel of the “sanctuary” where people meet to worship, pray and encourage one other.  I know the fellowship of those who love God, love each other, and want to bless the world.

Like everyone else, it leaves me reeling with questions.  Why does God allow innocent people to die?  Why does evil and violence strike at such random and senseless moments?  How can people be so deranged and cruel? 

To remove all violence from our world, God would have to remove our human capacity for good and evil.  Instead, God chose the Cross. The Cross is the ultimate expression of innocent suffering and torture. When Jesus endured the Cross, He took our violence upon Himself. He embraced our broken and lost world with His love. 

The Cross is not an afterthought.  It is not a footnote.  The Cross on which Jesus died is the focal point of history. It is the place where God’s love meets our agony, our grief and confusion in a violent world.  He took our violence upon Himself and conquered it in the resurrection.  

According to the theologian N.T Wright, the day Jesus was crucified is “the day the revolution began.”  This is the reason crosses are raised above the rooftops, erected on hillsides, planted as grave markers and worn around our necks.  Violence will not prevail. Evil has been conquered. The revolution has begun. Another Kingdom is coming. (Romans 8:31-39).

Monday, November 6, 2017

When We Die

This week millions of customers are waiting for their iPhone X, the latest product from Apple, the company Steve Jobs launched forty years ago in 1977. His user-friendly computing innovations including the iPod, iPhone and iPad transformed the way we live.

Steve Jobs died at the age of 56. He had resigned just six weeks earlier as CEO of Apple. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eight years earlier, he addressed his own mortality in a commencement speech at Stanford:

“No one wants to die,” he said. “Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”

Death is inevitable. But what happens after we die? The book of Job asked the question we all ask sooner or later: “If a man die, shall he live again?” After years of suffering and serious arguments with his friends and with God, Job emerged with a powerful conclusion. “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. and after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me! “ (Job 19:25-27).

The issue of life after death is central to the Christian faith. While most people believe that some kind of life exists after we die, Jesus provides the only verifiable evidence of life beyond the grave. Each of the Gospels gives an eyewitness account of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Luke says, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3).

The Apostle Paul wrote, “The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 The Message).

Jesus promised something far better for us when we are “cleared away” by death’s inevitability. He said, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3).