Friday, December 20, 2013

Room at the Manger

"Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2)


starSo in case you were wondering, an astrophysicist at Notre Dame University is pretty sure he can tell you what the star that Matthew says announced Jesus’ birth to the Magi really was.
     After years of consulting NASA databases to look for supernovas, novas, comets, planetary alignments, and other astronomical events that seem to have occurred between 8 and 4 BC, Grant Matthews is pretty sure that he knows what the “star” was. It wasn’t actually a star at all, he says, but an alignment of the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon in the constellation Aries. 
     If you accept the assumption that the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers from what is now Iran, Matthews says, then they would have believed that the alignment of the planets in Aries was a sign that a powerful leader had been born. "In fact it would have even meant that he was destined to die at an appointed time,” Matthews explains, “which…may have been why they brought myrrh, which was an embalming fluid.” 
     Matthews can even tell you the date of the event: April 17th, 6 BC. 
     What, you were really expecting December 25th?
     Based on my extensive knowledge of astrophysics – I can spell the word without using my spell checker – Grant Matthews’ observations sound pretty valid. He’s done his research, that much is certain. I like that he seems to be operating from a perspective of faith and taking the Gospel accounts seriously as history. And I like the bit about the Zoroastrian beliefs and how they connect to the story of Jesus. I have to admit, I was interested to read about Matthews’ work. But I came away with a couple of questions.
     The first is this: If Matthews had found no record of any astronomical phenomena that had occurred within the correct time window, what would have his conclusion been? That’s the double edge of reading the Bible with a scientific eye. Sure, it’s cool when the science supports the text, as it does in this case. But what do you do when it doesn’t? Do you dismiss the text, or do you recognize the limits of human understanding?
     And the other question I have is related to the first one, though maybe even more relevant. As I said, I was interested in Matthews’ research. Still, after reading it the question came unbidden into my mind. 
     So what?
     Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have no quarrel with Dr. Matthews. He’s a man of intellect and faith who as far as I know has more of either than I ever will. So when I ask “So what?” I’m not disparaging his work. Maybe it’s just me, but when I read the Gospel of Matthew my first thought isn’t to wonder what that star really was. It’s to wonder at the power of God to set such a sign in the heavens in the first place. And it’s to wonder at the event that it signified, and at the love and grace in the gift.
     Maybe it’s because I’m not a scientist, but I’m less interested in the nature of the astronomical phenomena in the skies over Bethlehem that night, and more interested in the person to whom the star pointed. Come to think of it, though, the wise men don’t seem to have been that interested either in whether the “star” was a comet or a planetary alignment or a supernova or actually a star that wasn’t there the night before. Matthew doesn’t tell us that they holed up in a lab or observatory to debate the nature of the event. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” What that star was didn’t seem to matter to them nearly as much as their response to it. 
     The same, I think, is true for us. Again, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong about Dr. Matthews’ work. It’s interesting and fun (for a theoretical astrophysicist, anyway) and ought to make a good paper. Surely Dr. Matthews won’t make the mistake of getting so wrapped up in data about the precise nature of the event that he forgets the meaning of it, or what his response to it should be. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Surely in this age of computerized databases and scientific breakthrough there’s still room at the manger for people who know when to leave their scientific instruments and come to worship.
     We can’t forget that we’re talking about a story in which a virgin gives birth to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit in order to deliver people from the power of sin and death. We can’t forget that the chief player in all this is the God who created the stars. Is it so difficult to believe that the God of creation who incarnated his very nature in a baby carried by a young virgin couldn’t have put anything he wanted – comet, supernova, or star – in an empty corner of space to direct people of faith who wanted to come and worship in the place where it was all happening? Listen to Matthew again: 
     “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:9-11)

     In the end, at least for me, it comes down to this: Dr. Matthews’ research doesn’t fill me with joy or make me want to worship and open my treasures in tribute to Jesus. As interesting as it may be, it seems to me to be ultimately very much beside the point. Even a distraction. The wise men didn’t come to explain the star, but to worship the Lord. That should be our order of priorities as well, I think.
     So no thanks. I don’t think I want to explain the star that shone in the sky over Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Instead I’d rather just follow its lead and bow before the Lord who made the stars, lying in his manger. 
     There are some things that don’t need explanation. 

Friday, December 13, 2013


He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
-Luke 1:51-53

You might have seen the story this week of the North Texas teenager who avoided jail because his family is wealthy.
     That accusation is made pretty much anytime someone of means avoids punishment for a crime. Usually, you can’t tell for sure that it’s true. In this case, you can say it unequivocally: he got off because his family is rich.
     That was part of the defense, after all.
     The teen’s defense attorney argued that his client is the victim of a psychological disturbance called “affluenza.” According to his attorney and a psychologist called to the stand as an expert witness, the young man was incapable of taking responsibility for or understanding the consequences of his actions because he grew up in a privileged, entitled environment where he got whatever he wanted and his bad behavior was cushioned by his parents’ wealth. 
     His bad behavior, in this case, being the theft of two cases of beer, driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit (with seven passengers in his pickup) and, finally, slamming into and killed four pedestrians.
     “Affluenza” is not a recognized disease, disorder, or syndrome. It’s a term coined to explain the way children from affluent families sometimes act, but it’s not intended to justify their behavior (or to be used as a defense in a criminal trial). In short, it’s just a slightly nicer way of saying “spoiled brat.” But, based on his defense, the judge sentenced him to 10 years probation and a $450,000 rehab center in California. 
    I wouldn’t want to have to, well, defend that defense. I certainly don’t think that a person’s wealth should make him less responsible for a crime, any more than I think a person’s poverty should excuse him. It feels like a wrist slap, based on the fact that the poor child is, well, rich. “Since he’s wealthy, he doesn’t know any better,” is the message the disposition of the case seems to send.
     There are explanations, and then there are justifications. The teen’s wealth, in this case, seems to fit solidly in the first category. It might partially serve to explain why he acted as he did, with no regard as to how his actions affected others, but it doesn’t justify it.
     That said, I do think affluenza is a real thing. 
     When I use my relative wealth to build a nice little cocoon around me and my family that leaves no room for helping the poor, I may have affluenza.
     When I resent how immigrants move into “our” country and take “our” jobs, I may have affluenza.
     When I feel frustration over the way kids from “bad” neighborhoods in my city get some degree of preference over kids from “good” neighborhoods for seats in the best high schools, that may be a symptom of affluenza. 
     When I turn up my nose at the way someone is dressed on Sunday in my church, I may be suffering from affluenza.
     When I feel just ever-so-slightly superior to someone who has a menial job, or who’s chronically unemployed, it suggests a diagnosis of affluenza.
     When I explain away my unwillingness to help the poor, justifying myself with judgment on their motives or character, I may be dealing with a bad case of affluenza. 
     And when I preoccupy myself with increasing my holdings, upgrading my portfolio, and acquiring the latest and greatest of everything, it may be because affluenza has taken over my system.
     Ironically, at this time of year affluenza seems to peak as an epidemic. Retailers depend on the fact that their customers, and those for whom they’re buying, have galloping cases that have progressed to the point where shoppers would rather go deeply into debt than skimp on presents. This time of year brings the acquisitiveness and materialism that are the symptoms of affluenza into stark relief with what we know Christmas should be about, the one it should be about. 
     The Magi, the Wise Men, came to Bethlehem with gifts. Reminds us of us, doesn’t it, stuffing the SUV full of kids and presents and heading to Grandma’s? But, before the Magi, the shepherds, before the angels singing and the manger and no room in the house for the tired young, expectant mother and her husband, that girl sang a song. Better to call it a prophecy. She talked about the meaning of the baby growing in her womb in terms of power and weakness, privilege and humility, wealth and poverty. “(God) has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble,” she said. “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
     From the beginning, almost from the moment the angel told Mary what part she would play in God’s great work of redemption, she knew that it was about reversal. From the beginning, Christmas has been about God upsetting the social order, lifting up the marginalized and bringing down the movers and shakers of the world. He didn’t call it Christmas, of course; that was our idea, centuries later. The trees, the decorations, Santa Claus, the feasts and the gifts - that was all us. Mary knew what it was: it was reversal. Redemption. It was God forgiving the sins of his people and then raising them from their humble condition to take the places of wealth and power held by those who oppressed them and failed to obey him.
     The problem, of course, is for those of us afflicted with affluenza. Mary figured out what the disease is. It’s about power. Security. Who’s in charge. And when you’re in charge for any length of time, even if you’re a Christian in name, you have to watch out for the signs of affluenza: the lack of compassion for the poor, the anxiety that someone might take away what I’ve earned, and the erosion of trust in God’s goodness and mercy that trust in wealth and power - at least buying power - brings. 
     The good news is that there’s a treatment path, a way to beat affluenza.
     One word: Give.
     Give sacrificially. Give radically. Give indiscriminately. Give to your friends and family, but also give to those you don’t know and even those you don’t like. Give without a thought as to what you’ll get in return. Give of your money, your time, your prayer, your store of emotional energy. 
     The only way to stop affluenza, once and for all, is to take part with those for whom God cares in particular: the humble, the poor, the marginalized. To align ourselves with those whom his Son came to serve. And no better way to align ourselves with them than to take their burdens as our own and to see our wealth as ordained by God to help them.

     So watch out for the signs of affluenza this holiday season. And remember to inoculate yourself by giving.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Extra Gifts

    “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
    “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
-Matthew 7:7-11 (NIV)

My grandfather remarried after my grandmother died, so I had the rather unusual experience of having a step-grandmother. (How many people can actually say they were a groomsman at their grandfather’s wedding?) Though it took some adjustment, we were happy that he remarried; he would have been lonely had he not. And had he not, I wouldn’t have one of my favorite memories of my him.
    On birthdays and at Christmas, my grandfather and his wife, Mary, usually gave my sister and me money. Not knowing what to get two hard-to-please teenagers, they would write out checks and tuck them into cards so we could buy what we really wanted. Mom coached us, of course; we were to read the cards and comment on them before going right to the checks, and most of the time I think we managed to do that. But, sooner or later, we’d put the checks in a pocket or whatever and go on to the next gift. Then we’d wait for the rest of the gift.
    I don’t know about my sister, but I really did come to expect it. It usually happened in the garage. Granddaddy would motion for me to walk him out through the garage. (Come to think of it, it seems like it was usually just me. I imagine he handled the rest of my sister’s gift some other way.) Anyway, de’d hang back a little, on some pretense, and let Mary get a little farther ahead. As soon as she’d get out the door, while my grandfather and I were still in the garage, he’d stop and put a hand on my shoulder. The other hand would go to his pocket.
    “Here,” he’d say as he handed me the folded cash. “You don’t have to say anything to Mary about this.”
    I always liked that line, “You don’t have to say anything to Mary about this.” Made it seem more conspiratorial, more cloak-and-dagger. But, see, Mary had grandchildren of her own. To her, they were dividing their gift-giving between four kids. I appreciate the fact that she considered us her grandchildren, too, in some way, though I imagine she did a little extra for her biological grandkids, too. Certainly, to Granddaddy Hoyt, there weren’t four grandchildren. There were only two. Hence the extra cash when Mary wasn’t looking. (I wonder if she ever found out.)
    Granddaddy’s been gone for sixteen years now. It’s been twenty-five years, I guess, since we played a scene like that. Yet the memory’s still vivid, almost like it happened yesterday. It’s one of my favorite memories, because it tells me how much he loved me. It wasn’t the money; the original checks were always generous. It’s the fact that one gift couldn’t express how he felt about my sister and me.
    There no doubt have been times in your life when God seemed silent and the doors to Heaven barred. You’ve probably had the experience of praying and hearing only your own voice. You will probably have the same experience again. If you’ve lived this life for any length of time at all, you have likely felt that God was very far away. Maybe you’ve even doubted that he’s there at all.
    If so, then Jesus has a word or two for you. “Keep asking,” he says. “Keep looking. If you ask, you’ll receive, and if you look, you’ll find. If you pound on the gates of Heaven, soon enough someone will hear and come to see what all the commotion’s about.”
    And that can be encouraging in itself. But what about the times when you can’t ask, seek, and knock indefinitely? What about the times when you only have enough strength for one hoarse plea, or one feeble tap? What about the times when your faith won’t survive a prolonged search?
    For those times, Jesus turns to his favorite image for God - Father. Fathers (and grandfathers) know how to give to their children. A father doesn’t hand his daughter a live rattlesnake when what she wants is a frozen fish stick. He doesn’t give his son a lump of limestone when he needs a couple of slices of Wonder bread and some peanut butter. Even human parents know how to give to their children.
    “How much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.”
    The God we call Father through Jesus is a God who loves to bless his children. You don’t have to convince him. You don’t have to prove anything to him. If you ask for something that’s good for you, your Father in heaven will happily give it. If you ask for something that’s bad for you, he will give you what’s better. I know, it doesn’t always seem that way, but what parent gives a child everything they want, right when they want it? Look back over your life when you get to the end. You won’t find a time when God wasn’t aching to be generous to you.
    He’s given us all so many blessings. And just when it seems that he’s finished giving, he reaches into a pocket and pulls out something more. He could have stopped with life, but he’s given you family and friends. He could have stopped with a meal for today, but he’s given you choices and quantities most of the world never sees. He could have stopped with shelter, but he’s given you luxury. He could have stopped with a job, but he’s given you a career.
    He could have stopped with his word, but he sent the Word made flesh.
    He could have stopped with a law, but he gave you a cross. He could have stopped with a cross, but he gave you an empty tomb. He could have stopped with salvation, but he gave you the church. He could have left you with his promise, but he sealed it with his Spirit.
    That is the God you serve. That is how much he loves you. Will you remember that? Will you be reassured today of his love for you and of his desire to bless you, in spite of what life’s random ugliness might tell you? And will you live your life in gratitude, always looking for the gift he’s holding out to you and always thankful for the ones you’ve already stashed away?
    The gifts tell you he loves you. His generosity reminds you how much.

Friday, November 29, 2013

"I Have a Disease..."

 “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet,but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
-Luke 7:44-47 (NIV)

Katarina Lucardie just wanted to be herself. She wanted her friends to know who she was without artifice, without qualification. She was tired of pretending, and so the 11-year-old Colorado Springs middle-schooler decided to tell her secret.
     She started by sharing it in a letter to her school counselor. “I have a disease and it makes me lose my hair,” she wrote.
     Katarina was born with a disease called alopecia areata. At the age of 8, she started to notice clumps of hair in the shower or on her pillow. By the next year, she was completely bald. She started wearing a straight black wig to school, but after she graduated from elementary school she went to her mom and told her she didn’t want to wear the wig in middle school. 
     She just wanted to be herself around her friends and classmates.
     Katarina’s counselor, Jennica Mabe, and her teachers worked with her to create a documentary about Katarina’s illness, hoping to head off any possible misunderstanding, fear, or ridicule. After they screened the documentary for her classmates, Katarina stood in front of them and answered questions about her disease. She also explained that, starting the following week, she wouldn’t be wearing her wig any longer. 
     “She was just determined to do it,” her mom, Carmen Aranda, says. “She wanted to be herself and not cover up and mask who she was. She was very courageous.”
     “I want people to like me for me and not what I look like,” Katarina explains, “because that's how I can find my true friends.”
     There’s a lot of wisdom in those words, isn’t there? Don’t they describe what most of us want - to not feel the need to hide or mask our true selves with someone? When we meet someone who likes us for who we really are, we befriend them. We marry them. We trust them and entrust ourselves to them and open our hearts to them. 
      Having someone, just one person in our lives, to whom we can entrust our true selves is priceless.
     For a lot of people, though, the church isn’t a place to find those with whom we can take off our disguises and be ourselves. Sometimes even for regular church attenders, even church leaders, church isn’t a place to be honest about weakness, vulnerability, or fragility. In some churches, that kind of thing is rewarded with judgment - the kind of scorn and dismissal that writes a person off as hopeless, irredeemable, an object of God’s wrath. That’s not true in all churches, thankfully. In some, it’s less judgment than discomfort - “I was more comfortable when I didn’t know so much about you.” It’s less that someone says or does the wrong thing, more that no one knows just what to say or do.  
     This idea that the church isn’t a safe place for people to reveal their secrets comes, I think, from a couple of places. For one thing, churches rightly want to take seriously the mandate of Scripture that believers live ethical, moral lives that reflect the character of God and the nature of the gospel. We preach about it, pray about it, sing about it. And so it’s probably no wonder that folks feel like it might not be a good idea to strip away whatever hides the sin and struggle in their lives in front of the church. And it’s probably no wonder that a good percentage of those folks fade away, often with promises to be back once they have their lives in order so that they’ll fit in better.
     You know, doctors talk a lot about what a healthy life looks like. A good doctor will talk to her patients about eating well, about getting exercise, about managing stress. A good doctor isn’t shy about describing what she wants her patients’ lives to look like. This is because she wants what’s best for her patients’ health. But she also welcomes those who come to her sick.
     We might remember in the church that Jesus came for the sick, not for the healthy. While we’re right to describe what a spiritually healthy life looks like and encourage one another to live that kind of life, we must never do so in a way that gives the impression that we only want healthy people among us. If Jesus came for the sick, then we’re not really living a life like his if there aren’t some struggling people around us and among us. 
     That woman at Simon’s house didn’t interrupt that dinner party and break all kinds of social taboos because Jesus made her afraid to reveal who she really was. She came in and poured out her love to him because he knew exactly who she was, and loved her in spite of it. “Her many sins have been forgiven - as her great love has shown.”  
     Maybe some of us in the church need to re-learn that. Nothing motivates love like someone who knows you best, with all your unlovable features, looking at you with love in their eyes. Speaking to you with love in their words. Doing for you with love in their actions. And if we want people to trust us and be a part of us, we need to learn how to act when their lives don’t match up to the Lord’s expectations. 
     Here’s a thought: let’s act like he did.
     Beyond that, though, a lot of polite church people need to be personally convinced that it’s OK to show our weaknesses. We need to believe that when God looks at us, he loves us as we are. That nothing we can do will make him love us more or less. We need to believe that Jesus gave his life because he loves us as we are, and not the idea of how we might be. The corollary of the woman’s experience is also true: “whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” For some of us, it’s been too long since we’ve stood before God honest about who we are, and received his forgiveness and love in the name of Jesus.
     Perhaps that’s the most important thing that the church can do for one another, then: reassure each other of God’s forgiveness, in Jesus’ name.

     So may our sermons about living good Christian lives never fail to speak words of hope and love and grace to those who are struggling. May we brave enough to share our own failings, and our own gratitude for the Lord’s forgiveness. May we trust that the Lord loves us for who we are, and that his people will too. And may we find among them our true friends.    

Friday, November 22, 2013


     One person considers one day more sacred than another;a another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 
-Romans 14:5-6 (NIV)

Black Friday approaches.
     We’re probably used to that part of Thanksgiving by now. (It’s interesting that I just called it a “part of Thanksgiving,” isn’t it?) We’re accustomed to retailers opening early on the Friday after Thanksgiving and having huge sales to kickstart the Holiday shopping season. Some shoppers line up before dawn to get the really great deals. Some stores have opened as early as midnight on Black Friday. And some of us who are, well, less shopping-inclined, wonder when they’ll just start opening on Thanksgiving.
     This year. That’s when.
     While it’s probably happened before, it seems that this year a large number of retailers have decided to kick off the Black Friday feeding frenzy on Thanksgiving. And, no doubt, when the doors open the shoppers will come. 
     For some people, though, shopping on Thanksgiving just feels wrong. Thanksgiving’s for being with family. Overeating. Sitting on the couch and watching football, and other high-minded pursuits like that. It’s not for shopping, is it? Should it be?
     Maybe not, but some of the backlash seems a bit overblown as well. Over at Huffington Post, for instance, Jason Linkins refers to retailers open on Thanksgiving as “History’s Greatest Monsters.” Really? To (even implicitly) equate Thanksgiving shopping with the Holocaust, or Stalin’s purges, or the Killing Fields? Might that be overstating the case just a tad? I won’t be shopping on Thanksgiving - though, to be honest, it’s not due to a more highly-developed sense of morality. (It’s due more to the fact that I don’t like shopping anytime.) I think retail workers who do have to work on Thanksgiving should be very well compensated. But I don’t think the retailers who open their doors on Thanksgiving, nor the shoppers who walk through them, are monsters simply for doing so. 
     Human motives are complicated and messy. You might wonder how a person who considers Thanksgiving shopping monstrous spends the day. In prayer, giving thanks? Affirming and strengthening family relationships? Helping the poor?  Or drinking too much, fighting with family, and yelling at football players on a TV screen? You might wonder about a person who shops on Thanksgiving. Have they lost the true meaning of the holiday? Are they too caught up in consumerism to be truly grateful for what they have? Or are they using the opportunity to be better stewards of their resources by trying to save some money? Are they enjoying the company of family and friends at the mall? Will they come home and thank God for blessing them with the means to buy gifts for the people they love? 
     Is it monstrous, or even just a little wrong, to shop on Thanksgiving? It might be a matter of gratitude, mightn’t it?
     Long before there was a Thanksgiving holiday, or a debate over whether the open-air market should be open on it, a diverse bunch of Christians in Rome had a similar set of questions. The particulars were different: should all Christians observe Jewish food laws and holy days? Or did worrying over those observances betray a lack of faith and freedom in Jesus? Not surprisingly, the answer to that question might rest heavily on your heritage and background. Jewish Christians might say the food laws and holy days came from God, and look down on Christians who didn’t observe them as pagans. Gentile Christians might claim food laws and holy days had been superseded by faith in Jesus, and that Christians who insisted on observing them were weak in their faith and in bondage to a law that Jesus had annulled.
     In his letter to the church at Rome, however, Paul doesn’t give a quick and easy answer. He suggests, instead, that they’ve missed the point. “Observe the law, or don’t,” Paul writes to them. “Whichever side of the fence you come down on, as long as you’re giving thanks to God you’re on the right side.”
       If we asked Paul about going to the mall on Thanksgiving, I think he’d say, “What’s a mall?” And if we explained the concept of a mall to him, then I think he’d say, “What’s Thanksgiving?” But then, after we explained all that, I think he’d say much the same thing he said to those Christians in Rome way back then. “Do what seems right to you, and give thanks to God while you do it. And you might find you aren’t on opposite sides after all.”
     That doesn’t work with every issue, all the time. That’s never how the Bible resolves doctrinal or ethical issues that cut to the heart of the gospel, for example. But for questions like food and holy days, it works pretty well. Or, maybe, for questions like whether or not to go shopping on Thanksgiving. Do what your conscience tells you is right, and give thanks to God while you do it. Oh, and try not to call someone who comes to a different conclusion a monster. 
     Hopefully, we’ll remember that when the issue isn’t whether or not to hit the mall on Turkey Day. Maybe we’ll remember it even when there’s no argument to be won, no idealogical ground to defend, when it’s just God and us. Maybe we’ll remember that sometimes the best way to decide what to do in life is to do what our consciences say is right, and give thanks to God while we do it. 
     For believers, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be just a holiday. It should be the attitude with which we approach everything in life. Thanksgiving “consecrates” what we do, Paul writes elsewhere. Our lives become holy ground when we develop the habit of giving thanks to God.
      So go to work on Monday, and consecrate your workplace to God by giving thanks. Give thanks for your colleagues, for the work you have to do, for the benefits you get from it. Go to school, and give thanks for your classmates, your opportunities to grow, your teachers who give of themselves to help you learn. Give thanks for your spouse, your kids, your parents, and consecrate your home and family to the Lord. Give thanks for your friendships, for your church…set them apart as holy ground, fit for God’s presence.
     And, yes, go to the mall on Thanksgiving, if you choose. Give thanks for the prosperity you enjoy, for the people who help you, for the people for whom you’re buying. Give thanks, and consecrate that mall for God.
     I’ll be home, consecrating my TV screen.

     Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Swap Meet Treasure

“On the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 
-Malachi 3:17 (NIV)

Matthew Carlson couldn’t believe his eyes. But there it was, mixed in with a bunch of costume jewelry on a table at the Glendale, Arizona swap meet he was checking out. He knew it immediately: the gold and purple, heart-shaped medal with the portrait of George Washington was unmistakable. When he turned it over, the inscription removed all doubt: “For Military Merit, Clarence M. Merriott.”
     Matthew had found a Purple Heart, the medal the United States armed forces award to those killed or wounded in action.
     The vendor wanted $40 for the medal. Matthew Carlson talked him down to $20, then took the medal home to keep it safe while he figured out what to do next. Who was Clarence Merriott? the Vietnam War veteran kept asking himself. What did he do to win the medal? And the question that maybe bugged him the most: How did his Purple Heart end up at  the Glendale Park ’N Swap?
     Matthew found the medal certificate folded in the bottom of the medal’s presentation box. The certificate said the PFC Clarence Merriott had been killed in action on June 19th, 1944. Because of privacy concerns, the Pentagon doesn’t release any information about the recipients of military awards or their families, so Matthew wouldn’t be able to track down any more information on Clarence Merriott’s family that way. A couple of months later, Matthew - who calls himself a “computer illiterate” - asked his son if he knew how to find things on the internet. 
     It just so happened that his son did, indeed, know how to do that.
     A quick Google search sent them to a website honoring the men of the 300th Engineer Combat Battalion, and told them that PFC Merriott was one of 90 men killed when their landing craft hit a mine just off Utah Beach at Normandy. They also found out that Merriott was from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Through connection after connection, including the couple who ran the website on the 300th Engineers, a US Congressman and his grandfather, and the Adair County Historical Society in Stillwater, they were finally able to track down a scrapbook of clippings about men from Stillwater who had gone to serve in World War II put together between 1943 and 1945 by a teenaged girl. It was fragile, and had been sealed in an archive box. In the scrapbook they found a yellowed newspaper photo of a smiling young man in a dress uniform, his hat cocked to the side of his head. The article reported that Clarence Merriott had been missing since June 19th, 1944.
     A few pages later, they found his death notice.
     With a genealogical search and few phone calls, the Historical Society staff were able to locate Clarence Merriott’s sister’s grandson. The medal had been given to Clarence’s sister, and then passed down to her son, but had been lost in a move.
     Last Monday, Veteran’s Day, it moved one more time to Stillwater, where it will reside in a case in the Historical Society’s museum.
     Matthew Carlson was there for the transfer ceremony.
     Strange, isn’t it, how over times treasures can be lost? One generation’s prized possession becomes in a subsequent generation one more thing to be moved. Valuable memories get lost. Works of art forgotten. Medals misplaced. It’s not that anyone means for something important to be lost. It just happens. People forget, and then they forget that what they forgot ever mattered. 
     Over and over again, the Bible calls Israel God’s “treasured possession.” Sometimes the world has forgotten that, even Christians, who of all people ought to know better. Sometimes Israel themselves forgot. They lost themselves, some of them - lost their special relationship to God, lost it in corruption and idolatry and eventually exile. But always there were people who remembered, who God raised up to remind them of who they were. They were God’s treasure, and even if they forgot God wouldn’t. A day would come when he would act to spare them and save them and make them again what they always were to him. He would restore them to the place of honor and glory that he always intended for them to have. 
     And then Jesus came, talking about a kingdom that was like treasure hidden in a field, something so valuable that you’d joyfully sell everything you have to own it. He talked about organizing life in a way that gained treasure in heaven instead of material wealth. He warned that we should seek God’s kingdom above anything else, and that whatever we value has a gravity that pulls our hearts to it. Jesus said that seeking this kingdom - God’s kingdom - would make all of us, Jew and non-Jew, the people who God intended always intended for us to be. And to open that kingdom to us, he went so far as to sacrifice his own life - an act God vindicated by raising him from the dead. One of those Jews who came to have faith in Jesus later wrote that the riches and mystery of God are hidden in him.
     Too easily, though, we get lost. We wind up in the swap meets of our world, mixed up with worthless things and selling ourselves for a fraction of our worth. We forget who we are and what we’re worth - God’s treasured possession, and of infinite value to him.
     Thankfully, God doesn’t forget. The price paid to redeem us speaks eloquently of how much we mean to him. And even though we sometimes forget even that, God isn’t content to leave us in the world’s bargain bins, sold out, cast aside, and forgotten. He has redeemed us in Jesus and won’t rest until we’re safe with him in the place of honor he’s arranged for us.
     This is God’s work. It’s because of his initiative, carried out by his grace, and motivated by his love. Our work is to receive it with joy and to remember it in the choices we make, the things we do and say, and the way we live our lives. Its to live like the valued, treasured people that we are, in gratitude for the One who made us his.
     One day, who we are will finally be made clear. We’ll come home, to the place God has prepared for us, and we’ll finally get to see for ourselves just how much we mean to him. 

     Until then, may we live like we’ve already seen it. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Post-Halloween Spookiness

    “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
    “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
-Luke 12:4-7 (NIV)

     Every time I walk by the big bowl of candy sitting on my kitchen counter and eat a bite-sized Milky Way or Three Musketeers, I’m reminded that another Halloween has come and gone. The folks in my neighborhood will take the spooky graveyards and Grim Reapers out of their front lawns this weekend. Our decorations will be put away until next year. The candy’s still there, what the kids who came to our church’s “Trunk or Treat” and our door didn’t get, but eventually that will be gone, too.
    The name “Halloween” is an abbreviation of All Hallows Eve, of course – the night before All Saints’ Day. It also coincides with an ancient Gaelic festival, Samhain, in which the world of the dead was said for one night to sort of seep out into the world of the living. The dead could walk the earth, and caused all sorts of havoc if people didn’t wear scary costumes to mimic them and drive them off. Somewhere all that turned into kids going door-to-door in fun costumes, asking for candy.
    But Halloween always reminds me of the ways we deal with the things that scare us. I heard this year about a haunted house operating in the Chicago area that offered a monetary prize for people who made it all the way to the top floor. The catch is that you have to sign a release before you go in that allows the “spooks” to touch you. Some of us, at least, like the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping fright we get from people dressed up in scary costumes at an elaborate haunted house. We’ll pay for that. But the real frights, the things that really scare us: well, that kind of fear we don’t need. It’s one thing to be frightened by a pretend vampire jumping out of a dark corner at you. It’s another thing entirely to face, say, the loss of someone you love or your own mortality.
    At their heart, aren’t most of our fears connected to pain: the pain of illness or injury, the pain of grief, the pain of having something you value taken away, the pain of being laughed at? We fear the things that we perceive can make us suffer, in one way or another. And that’s normal, of course. Healthy, even. The problem with fear, though, is that it can drastically warp our perspective. Fear can easily become so overpowering, so strong, that everything we do becomes about avoiding the things we’re afraid of.      
    At first glance, what Jesus says about not being afraid doesn’t seem awfully comforting. “Afraid of a little persecution?” he asks his disciples. “Afraid of physical pain? Of death? Let me suggest to you guys that who you should really be afraid of isn’t so much the person who can kill you as it is God, who can throw you into hell after you’re dead.” I can imagine a lot of silence after that, a lot of shuffling feet and cleared throats and chewed fingernails. “Uuuummm, o-kay. Thanks, Jesus. That, uhhh….helps.”
    Something tells me that you don’t like to think of God in those terms, either. Hell just isn’t an idea we spend much time considering. Most of the time we avoid talking about it entirely in our church, and quite possibly that’s true in your church, too. Maybe there are some good reasons for that – hell has at times in church history probably been overused as a motivational tool.
    Still, Jesus is right. Fear can make you do crazy things, and fearing the wrong things can make you do crazy things for all the wrong reasons. Fear can lead you into addiction to whatever you think will ease your fear. It can lead to abuse and even violence. It can lead you to make some decisions out of self-interest that needed to be made self-sacrificially. By reminding us to be afraid of the God who can throw us into hell, he helps us to realign our priorities. There are worse things than difficulty, pain, loss -- worse things even than death. The worst that can happen to you, Jesus says, is not your worst fears coming true. The worst that can happen is that you might sidestep all your worst fears but find yourself estranged from God and recipient to his terrible justice.
    But as quick as he says that, Jesus reminds us that the God he’s talking about doesn’t make throwing people into hell his primary agenda. God takes care of the dime-a-dozen sparrows – surely Jesus said that with a smile. “Not one of them is forgotten by God.” God knows you intimately, right down to the number of hairs on your head. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “You’re worth more than many sparrows.
    So which is it, Jesus? Do we fear God as the One who can throw us into hell, or trust him as the one who knows how many hairs there are on our heads? The only answer, I think, is the one that’s inevitable: yes. Yes, God has the authority to throw us into hell. And yes, he chooses instead to come to us through Jesus, to remember us with love and grace and forgiveness.
    Most of what we fear is the equivalent of people dressed up in scary costumes; it can’t do any real damage. Especially not when there’s a God in heaven who keeps track of birds and hairs on human heads. Especially when Jesus Christ came into the world and faced his own fears.
    As Halloween comes to a close, I hope you’ll think about what you’re afraid of. What’s going to happen at work? How a medical test will go? That your children will be hurt? That you’ll hurt, or die? Instead of living scared, live in faith and trust and reverence. Fear God, as you’d fear anything or anyone that’s completely beyond you and above you. And love him as your Creator who knows every hair on your head and who loves you enough to carry a cross for you.

    Watch him unmask everything that’s ever frightened you as just another costumed pretender.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Setting the Lonely in Families

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families…”
-Psalm  68:5-6 (NIV) 

When Davion Only found out this summer that his mother had died, he was sitting alone in a public library, staring at a computer screen. She was only a name on a birth certificate for Davion. He was born while she was in jail, and he never knew her. But he cried when he saw her obituary online, along with her arrest record and her criminal background that included drug offenses and theft. He had come to find has family, and maybe himself. What he found instead was that the only family he knew anything about  had died just a few weeks earlier. 
     What he found was that he was, as he feared, alone.
     “When I found out she died, I was kind of angry,” Davion later said. He remembers thinking to himself at the time, “This is ridiculous. How did I not know?”
     Davion Only has been in foster care literally all his life. His fifteen years have played out over an endless succession of foster homes. He’s grateful for them, and recognizes that he hasn’t always been an easy kid to live with. But foster care isn’t family, and Davion went in to that library looking for family. When he saw his mother’s death notice he knew that dream was dead too.     
     But Davion also had faith, and while he sat there weeping over his lost family, he also found hope. 
     “I know God hasn't given up and I'm not either.”
     That’s what he told the assembled congregation at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church a couple of Sundays ago. And then he bravely told that church that he was looking for a family. “To love me forever,” he said. 
     “I'll take anyone,” he told the church that day. “Old or young, dad or mom, black, white, purple. I don't care. And I would be really appreciative. The best I could be.”
     “I just want people to love me for who I am and to grab me and keep me in their house and love me no matter what.”
     Well of course that’s what he wants. How do we so easily lose track of the fact that every human being wants the same things? We all want someone to grab us and love us for who we are and no matter what. Oh, some have buried it deep. They wall it off because they’ve been burned too often before. They do the things they do to replace it or ease the pain of its absence. They try not to think about it, but it comes out in anger and hostility and coldness that just pushes what they want farther away. But, at heart, they’re no different from a 15-year-old boy standing in front of a church begging to be loved.
     Praise God that, somehow, through a foster parent or a friend or a teacher or however, the Holy Spirit has kept Davion’s heart open and searching and ready to to receive love. 
     The psalmist wrote that God is “a father to the fatherless”, that he “sets the lonely in families.” He goes on in that same Psalm to call God “a God who saves,” and I suspect that we believers here the echoes of the gospel in that phrase. “A God who saves.” A God who forgives our sins and overcomes our death and promises us a home with him forever in heaven.
     We think about salvation in those terms because people who more or less have what they need in this life can afford to spiritualize the promises of the gospel and talk about them as if they only have to do with the next life. 
     And then there are people like Davion Only. For people like him, God’s promise to be a father to the fatherless and set the lonely in families isn’t just a metaphor. It doesn’t call to mind the fellowship of the church or human relationships in heaven untouched by sin and death. For Davion, and for a lot of people just like him, there’d be no salvation like a home inhabited by people who know him completely and love him as he is without reservation, qualification, or hedge. 
     At least 30 times, the Bible expresses God’s concern for the parentless. But that’s not just to tell us something interesting about God. It’s to call God’s people to action. Israel’s law demanded care for orphans. They weren’t to be taken advantage of. The community was to provide for them. The prophets often called the people to task for failing in their responsibility for vulnerable members of society like those without families. Because God shows partiality to the parentless, his people are to be partial to the parentless as well. And, in fact, God usually chooses to care for the parentless through his people. Isaiah told his hearers that they were to take up the cause of the fatherless. At the other end of the Bible, James tells his readers that any faith that doesn’t lead us to care for orphans isn’t worth much to God. 
     Davion’s plea generated 10,000 calls, according to his social worker. That’s 10,000 people who have enquired about adopting Davion. He’ll almost certainly find the family he’s looking for, and that’s such good news. But it’s also worth pointing out that if all 10,000 of those families adopted ten children each, there would still be over 1,000 kids looking for a family. And that’s just in America.
     Not everyone can, or should, adopt a child - though it might not be as overwhelming as it seems at first blush. But let’s be sure to be supportive of families in our churches that do choose to adopt. Let’s encourage them, pray with them, and help them in every way we can. 
     Let’s be sure to support organizations that help place orphans with families, or organizations that work with the foster system to try to reunite families, or organizations that try to be a family for orphaned children. Our money, our presence, our love will help to put hands and faces on God’s love for the parentless.
     And let’s not forget that there are plenty of adults who are alone. Their families have pushed them aside. They’re alone in nursing homes, in institutions, in prisons. Some of them are even all alone in nice houses in the suburbs. They would love to believe that they matter to someone, especially to God, but they see no reason to think so. 
     “It's not really cool not to have anybody,” says Davion. He would know. 

     In the name of Jesus, may we help to set the lonely in families.