Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Culture War Misfires on Christmas

I have decided not to participate in the annual war on the "War on Christmas." I know as we get closer, and the decorations start going up, and the shopping gets going full swing, we'll begin to hear about it. You know what I'm talking about, those stores that refuse to acknowledge Christmas. Their web sites refer to Christmas trees as "Holiday Trees," and their greeter say "Happy Holidays," instead of "Merry Christmas." They've somehow become Public Enemy #1 over the last several years. But I'm going to completely honest with you: I really don't care.

I love the Charlie Brown Christmas special. You know the one where everyone is so caught up in the glitz and commercialism of Christmas, that they forget the real meaning, until Linus toats his blanket onto the stage and recites the story of Jesus' birth. It did a good job when I was a kid of reminding me of why we actually had Christmas, reminding me that new toys and Santa Claus and Christmas trees and jingle bells weren't the real "reason for the season."

While it stills does a good job reminding people about the birth of Jesus, it long ago lost the war to make sure people remembered that birth as the main reason for the Christmas season. Since that special first aired, Christmas has only become more commercial, and most Christians have bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Ask yourself this question: If Christians really thought Christmas was about the birth of Jesus, why would they care if the stores where they bought their presents acknowledged it or not? What does spending too much money on mainly useless gifts that usually don't last a month have to do with the birth of Jesus? Nothing, that's what.

I say that to say this: I like giving and getting gifts. I like the jingle bells and Santa Claus and all of that stuff that is associated with the holiday. I just don't think it has anything to do with Jesus, and I refuse to pretend otherwise. Don't get me wrong: I'm aware of some of the Christian origins of some of these Christmas related ideas and practices; I'm just saying they have long since lost those lost that meaning to most people.

So this is what I propose: We Christians need to understand that there are two very different holidays that take place on December 25th. One of them is remembering the birth of the God-man, Jesus, the savior of the world, who died for the sins of the world. We should spend time remembering that, and meditating on that, and thanking God for that during the Christmas season. But the other holiday that takes place December 25th is about Santa Claus and gift giving and jingle bells and mistletoe. It happens on the same day, but it has nothing to do with Jesus.

That doesn't mean there is something wrong with all of that stuff. It just means we should pretend it is related to the birth of Jesus. Celebrate them both. Have fun with it. I know I will. But don't confuse the two. When you go to the mall, or to Wal-Mart, or Target, or Home Depot, and spend hours looking for the right gift, you are not celebrating Jesus' birth, and you ought not need an acknowledgement from the people there that you are.

So I won't be boycotting any stores this year. As a matter of fact, I might, just for the heck of it, try to specifically patronize those that don't try to gain my business by selling me some false idea of Christmas. I think that might have it more right than they know when they tell me "Happy Holidays."

Friday, November 7, 2008

What does Obama's election say about Christians and race?

I'm about to dip my foot into murky waters here, and there's a good chance I'm going to get bitten for it. I guess that's okay. But as I've thought about this election for the last couple of days, my mind has gone off in a hundred different directions, and the one I'm about to talk about is one of them. Let me say first of all, I'm not promoting one candidate over the other, and though I have my political preferences, I will keep them to myself for the sake of this post. They're not really the point here.

Here's my concern. It's easy to see that the morals of our society are not the same as they were even 50 years ago. Sins like abortion and homosexuality are accepted practice, and though most Christians don't support those practices, they're pretty much losing ground in that fight. Our society has changed a lot over the last several decades, and on many things, that's not for the better. And despite everything Christians have said about those two particular issues, it's not really making a big difference. There might be a small victory or two here and there, but for the most part, our society is moving in a post-Christian direction, and many Christian values are being left behind. Frankly, Christian ideas about sin don't have much influence over much of society.

I say that to say this: there is one area where I think most can agree that our society has moved in the right direction morally, and that is on the issue of racism. The election of Barack Obama as President, whether you like him or not, says something significant about America. Fifty years ago, President-elect Obama wouldn't have been able to vote in many places in America, much less run for and win the Presidency. That is a major step forward. Though America hasn't overcome all of it's sins of racism, and though there are many who still hold strongly to the sin of racism, this week's election is a strong sign that those people are not going to win this particular moral fight. I don't want to sound as if I believe everyone who voted against Obama is a racist, far from it. I just want to make the point that his election is significant signpost in this nation's racial history.

Here is my problem: why is it, on the one moral problem that there seems to progress on in this country, Christians, especially Southern evangelical Christians, seem to be following rather than leading? As a Christian here in the South, it feels like many Christians have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into trying to bridge the racial divide. It's not that Christians I know want a return to the 50's on this issue. It's just that they don't seem to see it as that big of a deal, or a top priority. Christians, black and white, seem, for the most part, content to worship to themselves, content to trail the rest of society on this issue. That's not to say that Christians aren't making progress on racial issues, it's just to say that they seem to be behind the curve. I think that's especially true for my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. We talk about racial equality, we talk about the sin of racism, sometimes. But our efforts are doing little more than staying about two steps behind the rest of society on this issue. If a reporter wants a comment on drinking or gambling or abortion or homosexuality, the local Southern Baptist preacher will be at the top of his list. But on racial issues, there are about a hundred other people they're going to go to first before they go to that Baptist preacher.

If society can look at this particular moral issue, one that seems so clear to most of it, and see how far behind many Christians are, then why should we expect them to listen to us on moral issues that aren't as clear to them? I think this is one of the reasons I'm so turned off by the "culture war," and why I believe Christians should try instead to be a "counter-culture" that reflects Biblical values in such a way that others are drawn to them. Maybe that's a topic for another day.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Guidelines for Thelogical Discussion in the SBC

I spent some time talking via e-mail with a friend today about theological discussions. So often, those discussions, even among friends and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, turn ugly, and nothing is ever accomplished. I think this is, in many ways, the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention. We've forgotten how to disagree in a Christlike way. I wrote a few things down for my friend about what I think the ground rules of theological discussions with friends should be, and reproduce them, with a few alterations, below.

Let me say before I go any further, that these are guidelines only for fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and specifically fellow Southern Baptists. I think they can be used on any issue, from Calvinism, to tongues, to millennial views. I don't think all of them would apply well to discussions with people outside our own SBC circle, though some of them certainly would. And I don't think they would apply well to people outside the framework of orthodox Christianity, though again, I believe some of them would. Either way, here they are.

1 - Rally around things you can agree on. Remember, there are more things that you do agree on than that you don't. In most theological arguments, the lines between the two camps are not as great as we often imagine them. We have more in common than we have different. In most of those arguments, fellow Christians have too much in common to spend a great deal of time dwelling on what you disagree on.

2 - Leave open room for the fact that you might be wrong and they might be right. Don't get me wrong: hold on to your convictions, but do so with the kind of humility that understands the depth of your depravity. Neither you, nor I, nor Al Mohler, nor Paige Patterson, nor Johnny Hunt, nor Jerry Vines, have all the answers. We can learn a great deal from those we disagree with.

3 - Choose to rather be wronged by your friends than have your voice heard. This is a hard one, but if your friends want to give their opinions on a particular matter, but don't want to hear yours, so be it. You don't have a right to be heard. Choose to love rather than demand your rights. That's the Jesus way.

4 - Show lots of grace. Sometimes in these arguments, it easy to forget that Christianity drips with the grace of God. God takes sinful people who don't love him, don't desire to be his friend, and are openly in rebellion against them, and gives them so much grace that they come to his side. We ought to be able to do the same, forgiving wrongs against us because God did the same for us. You might also want to think about how much grace the other person is having to give you just to put up with you.

5 - Remember that God changes hearts, and you don't. We can argue with someone until they're blue in the face, but as my pastor is known to say, "Anything you can talk someone into, someone else can talk him out of it."

6 - Pray. Pray that God will open their hearts to discuss the issue with charity, and pray that He might show you where you don't quite understand things. I've found my study of theology to be a journey, and I've continued to refine my beliefs as I've studied it. There are some ways where I've probably moved back more closely to what I believed at the beginning of the journey. Just remember God might change your mind on something one day.

7 - Remember that one day we'll laugh at how wrong we all were. We see through a glass darkly now, but one day we will see face to face, and our understanding of God will dwarf anything the greatest theologians in history have ever known. When we see that, I think we'll find rather silly some of our arguments now.

If you can think of any other ground rules, please feel free to leave them below. I'm sure I'm leaving out some good ones. But maybe, just maybe, these might be a good start toward charitable discussion within our circle.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Hard Stuff #3

Drill sergeants really like to scream. A lot. No, really, I mean it. Now, that may sound like a self-evident truth to you, and it did to me before Saturday. But on Saturday I found out just how true it is. They scream really loud, and do it really often. It's their thing, I guess.

I went to Montgomery Saturday with a group of local Marine Corps recruits, many of whom will soon be going to boot camp. I'll be running a series on it later this month. The recruits were getting a little sneak peak at what boot camp will be like, by coming together with recruits from other cities in the Southeast, for a day of competition. The different cities competed to see who could run the fastest, do the most pull ups and crunches, push a Humvee the fastest, and the always exciting tug of war. But I really think the main reason they were there was to learn what it's like to get yelled at by a drill sergeant. And boy, did they get yelled at. I played high school sports and I have a mom, so I've been yelled at before. But this was yelling on steroids. I've truly never seen anything like it.

The purpose of all the yelling is to break the recruits down. They're really trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. They want to know, and they want the recruits to know, if they can really do boot camp or not. They yell at them while they run them, they yell at them while they make them to do push-ups and sit-ups, they yell at them while go to the bathroom (no, not really). Sometimes it doesn't make sense; the yelling just seems kind of random and without purpose and a little bit sadistic.

But the yelling does have a purpose. It's preparation for boot camp, and it's preparation for possible combat one day. The testing of their bodies and wills will come in handy one day when these recruits are actually Marines, and take their place in what's widely considered one of the greatest fighting forces in the history of the world.

The Marines have a phrase they repeat over and over while they're going through their workouts: "Through pain comes discipline." Now on the face of that, I don't particular care for it. Sometimes, I thought, "through pain comes major injury." But they repeated that phrase so many times Saturday, something finally sunk in for me. "Through pain comes discipline." That almost sounds Biblical.

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4)

Frankly, "through pain comes discipline" almost seems like a paraphrase of James 1. There are times in our lives that are hard; I've talked about some of those times in my life lately. Sometimes, those difficulties seem random, without purpose, and frankly a little bit sadistic on God's part. But he always has a purpose. I can't say I always know what said purpose is, any more than those Marines Saturday completely understood what their drill sergeants' purposes were. But the longer I live, the more certain I am that there is a purpose in the pain, a reason for the difficulty.

I guess the proper Biblical re-phrasing of the Marine phrase would be "through pain comes God-dependence," or maybe "through pain comes stronger faith." Either way, the pain is there for a reason. If drill sergeants, who don't even know their recruits, can have a purpose in the pain, why wouldn't a God, who knows the number of hairs on our head, also have a purpose? I'm going to try to remember that.