Thursday, December 10, 2015

Have a Messy Christmas

My favorite Christmas movie is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” starring Chevy Chase. It’s a picture of a messy, sloppy, Christmas where nothing seems to go right. Chase’s character Clark Griswold simply wants to have the perfect, old-fashioned family Christmas, but everything goes wrong. There is family drama. He has problems with his boss. His massive effort to hang Christmas lights at his home instead turns into a disaster, and even when he finally gets them working, his father-in-law reminds him that, “The little lights aren’t twinkling, Clark.” His hopes for a perfect Christmas culminate with his redneck cousin Eddie kidnapping his boss and bringing a police SWAT team bursting into his home.
It’s not likely that any of you have ever had such a disastrous Christmas. But I think all of us can identify with Clark just a little bit. Who among us has not had high hopes for a Christmas celebration that were shot because of high drama in the family, or too many parties and not enough time, or too many gifts and not enough money? Christmas is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but unfortunately it rarely lives up the hype for many of us. The hustle and bustle, drama, and stress, can simply become too much. That one uncle says something that starts a big argument in the entire family. A sister decides that the best time to air a lifetime worth of grievances is just before you all join hands to pray over dinner. Or maybe you, in the stress of everything, blow up on your kids when they asked if they can go see the Christmas lights down the road for the 100th time. Whatever it is, almost all of us have been there at one time or another. Christmas is not always all it’s cracked up to be.
But why should we be surprised by that? There was pretty high drama that first Christmas evening. A very pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph came to Bethlehem, because that’s where all their family lived. But not only did their family not have a place for them – the innkeeper didn’t either. Jesus, the God the universe, the Savior of the world, ended up being born in a manger. Mary and Joseph were surrounded by cows and sheep and dirt and manure and blood and afterbirth. This was certainly no "Silent Night." It was likely not how either of them expected the Messiah to be born. It was the kind of Christmas that Clark Griswold could identify with. It’s probably the kind of Christmas you can identify with.
And this is exactly what we should have expected – it is the point of the incarnation. It’s the reason God became man. God stepped into our mess, and he was not shy about going in knee-deep. Jesus’ inglorious birth was simply a microcosm of what the rest of his life would be like. He had family issues. He had friends betray him. He lived in the middle of all kinds of drama. And he did it for us. Because God became a man, he can now identify with us. There is nothing that happens to us – no indignity too humbling, no problem too big, no issue to “issuey,” that Jesus cannot say with 100% confidence that he completely understands. He understands because he’s been there too. And that is one of the reasons that the good news of the gospel is truly good news.
Here’s the even better news though. Jesus is not content simply to step into our mess. He plans to fix our mess – completely, fully, and finally. The promise of the first Advent of Jesus is a Second Advent – when he will finally fix it all forever. His first coming was enough to save us, and because of that we can have peace in the midst of these storms we often see at Christmas. But his second coming promises that those storms will finally be destroyed. For the rest of eternity, we will celebrate the coming of Jesus, and it will be drama free, trouble free – sin free. And that is reason enough to bear whatever difficulty your crazy uncle or drama king sister might throw at you this Christmas. So have a messy Christmas – and count on the fact that one day it will all be worth it.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Why I Am a Christian

I am a Christian. No one who knows me will be surprised by that confession. What might surprise some people is the path that brought me to faith. Though I grew up in the church, the son of a Presbyterian elder, the grandson of a pastor, faith in Jesus did not come easy for me. My years in college, and the years immediately following, were full of questions about what was real. It wasn’t obvious sin that kept me from Jesus – it was the question of whether there was actually a Jesus to turn to.

My path to the faith ran through the crucible of doubt. My doubts were intellectual and emotional. I questioned whether God existed, whether Jesus was truly divine, whether the Bible could really be trusted; I also questioned whether, if God did exist, he would actually care about me, whether he would be willing to forgive me, whether I even wanted forgiveness. My doubts were as comprehensive as they were unyielding.

Some people will tell you that doubt is evil, and that God is not interested in your questions. They say that you should simply believe, and everything else will take care of itself. That kind of certainty without evidence has always eluded me. Doubts were a constant companion in my young adult years. But I’m certain that even in my doubts, God was there, patiently helping, guiding and answering, even when I didn’t even realize it.

Now, it is certain that doubt is never seen as a virtue in the Bible, but neither are doubters cast into utter darkness with no chance to have their questions answered. God is gracious to us in our doubts. If you have doubts, you are not alone. We don’t like to talk about it in the church, but I’m convinced our numbers are legion – people with questions, who don’t know where to turn for answers. The great news is that there are answers available.

What finally broke through the gridlock of doubt for me? My doubt turned to faith on a simple premise – Jesus rose from the dead. Something happened on that first Easter morning roughly 2,000 years ago. After Jesus’ death, his disciples had all scattered. They were afraid they would be next on the cross. We find them, even after hearing reports of his resurrection, hidden in a room, afraid they’d be found. But then Jesus shows up. And that’s when things start changing.

History tells us all of the original disciples (except Judas, who killed himself after Jesus’ death) went to their graves proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the grave. And there was no benefit to them to lie about it. 10 of them died martyrs’ deaths. The 11th, John, was exiled to the island of Patmos to live his final days. None of them gained anything from proclaiming a lie. But there they were – until the day died, saying that Jesus, the Jesus who was publicly killed on a cross in front of thousands of people, had risen from the grave.

This realization was just what I needed – I went from wanting to believe, to truly believing. I went from hoping it was true, to being certain it was. Now, there are still days when I wonder about it all – but those days are few and far between – my worst days. The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of my faith. If someone could prove to me it wasn’t true, I would walk away from the faith immediately. And I think the apostle Paul would be right behind (or in front) of me. After all, he said “If Christ is not raised, our preaching is in vein, and your faith is in vein.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)

The bottom line is this – if you have doubts you are not alone. If you have questions, there are answers. If you want answers, you can find them. Your doubts are not something to be ashamed of - and they might be the very thing that lead you into real faith.  You might also find that in your doubts, Jesus was there all along, patiently pointing you in the right direction – faithfully pointing you to himself.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Race and the Gospel and My Mississippi

I am a son of the South – a son of Mississippi no less – born, raised, educated, and employed here for most of my life. I love Mississippi so much I moved back after moving away, choosing to raise my family here, choosing to plant my life here among some of the best people in the world.

But I am not immune to understanding our flaws, historically and currently. The issue of race has always been a big one. I grew up in an era where it was still socially acceptable to use the n-word in polite (i.e. white) society. People knew better than to say it in front of black people, but they used it with regularity when they weren’t around. The worst thing a white girl in my high school could be branded as was an “n-word lover,” and they could get that brand for something as simple as turning down a white guy for a date. My best friend once had a black friend at his home playing basketball with him in the yard. An older white man literally stopped in the middle of the road and just stared at them for about a minute, not saying a word. He didn’t have to say anything. They both got the message – this was not acceptable. Let me be clear - not everyone thought and acted this way, but a large number did. Whites and blacks could go to school together, they could play sports together, but having a friend over of a different race, or dating someone of a different race, were simply bridges too far. These attitudes were prevalent when I was a kid 20-30 years ago. That’s one generation. And I have no reason to believe they were isolated to the small town in which I grew up. It was a town full of really good people – still is. This is just how it was then.

I’d like to say I was completely immune to this kind of racist environment, but I was not. I said and did things growing up that I am ashamed of, made jokes that would mortify me if I heard them now, and more than anything, didn’t stand up when I saw things I knew were wrong. One thing I did learn early on though – this kind of racism that I was growing up around was completely at odds with what I was learning about Jesus in church. My granddad and pastor, an imperfect but honest man, preached a Gospel that simply couldn’t live for long with racism, even if he didn’t perfectly understand that truth. The Gospel he preached, the Gospel the Bible taught, simply wouldn’t allow one group of people to believe they were superior to another group of people in any way. So once I became a believer, I began to understand that. It was a lesson that was reinforced by the African-American friends I was making at my school – good guys who I played sports with, went to class with, and shared a lot in common with. Guys like Tyrone, Calvin, Daniel, Dale and Edgar – they taught me by example that we were simply not that different. Living my life with them showed me experientially what the Gospel taught me theoretically.

Now, let me be clear – much has changed in the last 25 years. There have always been many good Christians in Mississippi, but race has often been a blind spot. Many of them have come to see what Jesus demands of them over the years on this issue. Just like me, the Gospel has taught them much, including how racism and Christianity cannot co-exist. They were not convinced of this by rejecting the truths of the Gospel – understanding those truths better is what convinced them. Just like slavery and Jim Crow before it, white Christians realized the error of their ways by better grasping what Jesus demanded of them if they followed Him.

But after watching the events that happened at a Charleston, South Carolina church last week, the brutal murders of nine African Americans at the hands of a white racist, I’m reminded that the type of racism I grew up with – actually even worse than what I grew up with – is still around. It has not died yet. And many of the people spouting it are also claiming to be Christians. But real believers, white and black, can easily look at those ideas and quickly reject them as completely out of step with the Gospel.

But there is another sin to which white Christians who rightly reject this kind of racism sometimes fall prey – it’s the sin of, “Haven’t I done enough already?” This is an attitude that rejects racism, tries to look at all people as equals, and is possibly even sorry about their past racist actions, thoughts and words. But Christianity demands that we go further than simply saying, “I won’t do that anymore.” Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be peacemakers, to put the needs and concerns of others above our own. Here is what Christianity demands of repentant racists – that they seek to be agents of reconciliation with the people for whom their attitudes have changed toward.

So the question for people like me, and for people like those good people I grew up with, is this – what are we doing to be God’s agents for racial reconciliation? It’s not enough to stop having racist attitudes and actions. We must actively seek to cross lines and mend fences. We must seek to see our thoughts and actions through the eyes of those who are different than us. And we must realize that because of what Jesus has done, through his perfect life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, that we have more in common with our other-race brothers and sisters in Christ than we do with our same-race friends and family who don’t believe. We have a common bloodline now, one that is deeper and more important than the one that determines our skin color.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Are You Practicing Christianity or Witchcraft?

Christians don’t think much about witchcraft or magic these days. The idea conjures up images of ladies who come out at Halloween with crooked noses, warts and black hats. When we think of magic, it’s more likely to be along the lines of what a Disney princess can do than anything the Bible talks about. There are times when the idea of witchcraft as dangerous rears its head – as with controversies over the Harry Potter books (which my son is reading right now) several years ago. The main idea we get when we think of witchcraft is that it is make-believe, maybe even a fun escape from the real world we live in right now.
But as Christians, we know there is much more to the universe than what we can simply see; we know there has been a God who is constantly acting to keep the world together, and who has in times past acted in miraculous ways to bring about his ultimate purposes. This was most perfectly seen when God himself became man, lived among us, died and was resurrected from the grave. A Christianity without a God who sometimes miraculously intervenes is no Christianity at all. Now, this doesn’t mean a Christian must buy all claims of the miraculous that people, even fellow Christians make. It simply means that we know God has acted miraculously in the past, and that he has the ability to do so again if he so desires.
But we need to be careful how we understand this, because if we’re not we will conflate the miraculous work of God with little more than witchcraft. If you have a wrong conception of who God is, then you may very well be practicing sorcery instead of Christianity. Let me give you an example that has shown up in my Facebook feed a couple of times in the last couple of days.

Say this slow … you are not practicing Christianity if you do this, you are practicing witchcraft. When we turn God into the kind of God who can be manipulated by our simple word choices, and who must act in particular ways if we do particular things, then we are treated him like nothing more than a magic spell. Say the incantation right, and it will work every time! The problem with this kind of thinking – at least one of the problems - is that it treats God not like a real person, but like a supernatural entity, a “genie in a bottle,” waiting on just the right words said in just the right order at just the right time with just the right sincerity, so that it may act in a particular way. This is garbage, and it must be rejected by every person who calls himself a believer in Christ.
One of the ways I think we have come up with this idea is by reading actual things that Jesus said, and completely misunderstanding them or intentionally misrepresenting them. When Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” that was not a command to ask for what you want, tack “in Jesus’ name,” on the end, and then wait for your reward. Jesus is telling his disciples to ask for the things they want, so long as they are in accord with his character, in line with his will, and will ultimately bring glory to the Father. It’s a dangerous thing to take God’s name in vein, you know. That command is about more than cussing. Your request for a new Mercedes may very well fall into this category. And the reason you haven’t gotten it is much likely because you don’t need it than it is because you haven’t said the right words in the right way and really, really meant them.
Now, you may not actually think like this, but that doesn't mean you are beyond danger. You need to ask yourself - Do I treat God as a means to an end, or the end in himself? Your chief job as a Christian is to glorify and enjoy God forever, not just enjoy his gifts. It's the difference in a man loving his wife because of the person she is, or because she cooks him dinner every night. It's the difference between loving God, and loving the perceived benefits that God has given you for following him. 

So this is a call for wisdom and self-examination – does your faith look like the kind of faith Jesus actually talks about and commends, or is bordering on witchcraft – using God as a cosmic power who grants all your wishes and desires if you really mean it? The first is Christianity. The second is witchcraft. And the Biblical denunciations of such practice apply to you.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Screwtape and Heaven

(Editor's note - this letter is written in the spirit of C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters," purported to be letters from a senior demon to his younger nephew, about how to tempt a particular subject. I make no claims of the same quality of Lewis.)

My Dearest Wormwood,

I understand your patient has had some kind of accident, and has fallen into a coma. You must realize how precarious a situation you find yourself in at this moment. He has stayed faithful thus far to our insipid enemy; I’m afraid if he doesn’t wake up, we will have lost him. Of course, the consequences for you will be quite terrible if this happens. So it is best for you, and for our side, that he wakes up. Now, there is no guarantee that his waking up will be of any benefit for us either. You would think that someone who goes through a terrible ordeal like what your patient has gone through, and then wakes up from it, only to face months of hardship and rehabilitation, would be ripe picking for our side. Unfortunately, what we very often find is that such a person actually grows in his trust of the enemy. This has been a terrible quandary for us as we have researched this phenomenon. Some of our most ingenious plots have been turned against us by the other side, and we have lost not a few patients for good, even as they struggled through serious health issues. The bottom line is this – whichever way this goes for the patient, you find yourself in grave peril. Extreme measures are in order.

But there is some new research we have developed that I believe may be helpful for you, if and when the patient wakes up. It’s really cutting-edge stuff, and has shown some great promise during these days when even those who call themselves followers of the enemy seem to have very little idea about what he really thinks or wants or is like. I would suggest that if he wakes up, you need to somehow convince him that he actually spent time in Heaven during his unconscious state. This move does not come without its risks, but the reward for it is ever so great.

 Let me explain to you how this works. You see, the enemy actually appears to genuinely care about these people. Of course, we know differently, but our best attempts to figure out what his ulterior motives are have thus far come up short. This “love” he has for the creatures has manifested itself in several ways, but one of them is that he has chosen to reveal himself to them. Through the course of several centuries, he showed particular people little pieces of him. And it all culminated in that dreadful attack that took place when he himself landed in territory that rightfully belonged to us. We repelled him, of course, but he has convinced them that he ultimately overcame it. And these revelations are his greatest weapon against us. When people here about what he did, something about them is changed. We’re quite sure he is brainwashing them; nevertheless, one of the most dreadful weapons he has used against us are these written revelations that they have collected in their scriptures. Nothing else has so much power against us as this evil collection of stories.

Though we haven’t been able to stop the stories from being told, we have been able to blunt their effectiveness, by undermining them. Some of that has come through people who have tried to poke holes in their truth, but our most ingenious attacks have come by using people who believe them to be true. What we’ve done is convince these people that though the Scriptures are true, they aren’t quite enough, that something else is needed. We have convinced people who are otherwise worthless to our cause that their experiences are as important as those stories found in their scriptures. And when this happens, they have fallen right into our hands.

Now, back to the plan. If your patient is one of these people who values his experience as much as he values those stories, then you have someone who is ripe for the picking. You'll want to make what he sees in "Heaven" as beautiful (in his eyes) as possible, and keep it as close to close to "orthodoxy" as possible. The more it looks like the way the enemy has described it, the more easily, you can fool him. If you can convince him that he went to Heaven during his hospitalization, then the next thing you must convince him is that he must tell other people about this experience. Never mind that those Scriptures specifically speak against such a trip to Heaven and back, and especially speaking of it. Many of the enemy’s people these days have no real idea what the scriptures really say. But what they do know is that they’re supposed to tell others about him.

So you can use the enemy’s plans to defeat us against him. The patient can do something completely contradictory to his holy scriptures, and believe he is doing it in the enemy’s name! This is one our most ingenious developments yet! This may very well be the brick we pull that causes the entire house to fall down! We can convince him to do something the enemy has forbidden in the enemy’s name, while at the same time undermining the authority of those evil scriptures! Who knows, he may get a best-selling book and influence thousands of people to become “Christians” without knowing a thing about the very scriptures the enemy has given them to reveal himself to them! I’m salivating as I consider their surprise as they find they’ve fallen into our hands!!!

Ravenously yours,

P.S. Please contact research and development ASAP by encrypted e-mail to find out the techniques for this particular temptation. We cannot risk the specifics of this new technique falling into the hands of the enemy by communicating by mail.