Friday, December 18, 2009

The Two Christmases




As I walked through the front door of the Post Office to make my stamp purchase, I was faced with a choice. On my left was a vending machine, and to my right was the customer service desk, where I could make the purchase from actual human beings. Because there was no line at the moment, I chose the human interaction. I strolled up to the middle-aged, slightly balding postal employee, read that his name was "Rex", and I asked for two books of stamps.

As it was mid-December, Rex asked me "would you like Christmas stamps, or...". Once I realized he wasn't about to complete the sentence, I looked down and saw that he was holding some very un-Christmas-like stamps bearing images of the Liberty Bell and the word "Forever." Knowing that my wife had planned to mail several Christmas cards, I told him "One of each."

To my surprise, the decision-making did not stop there. Rex hit me with a follow-up: he held up two types of stamps: one had a picture of Mary and Baby Jesus, while the other had various non-sectarian Christmas symbols like snowflakes, Frosty, and Santa. As he held these two up for my perusal, he asked me "religious or irreligious?" I am not making this up.

I began to process the word “irreligious”, which I had never heard before. But as a long line was forming behind me, I quickly told Rex I'd like the "religious" ones. It turns out the image contained on these stamps is by a 17th-century Italian painter named Sassoferrato. It’s a nice picture.

Still, the fact that I had to choose between two alternatives, and do it twice, is very telling. The Postal Service, in an effort to not offend anyone, has recognized the dichotomies that exist, and has chosen to offer something for everyone. The second choice I had to make—between Mary holding the Christ child and the snowman—makes it clear: in 21st-Century America, there are two Christmases to choose from.

The two Christmases are separate and distinct. For the sake of discussion, let's call them Christmas #1 and Christmas #2.

Christmas #1 is the so-called religious way to celebrate the holiday. It emphasizes the entrance of Jesus into a sinful world, an event to rejoice in, as He came to rescue mankind, who had sinned and become separated from a holy God. A Savior was necessary, and His birth is the event celebrated.

Christmas #2 invokes sentiment, nostalgia, and feel-good moments. It urges Americans of all faiths to enjoy family and friends, to shop for loved ones, to give to charities, to eat, to party, to take some time off of work. It’s about chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and silver bells. It results in timeless stories and movies like Clement Moore's "A Visit From St Nicholas", and "Christmas Vacation".

Each of the two Christmases manifests itself in parallel ways. The perennial TV event for Christmas #1 is “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, with Linus’ stirring recital of the 2nd chapter of Luke. Christmas #2 is about "Elf", or, for older viewers, "A Miracle on 34th Street."

Christmas #2 has songs like "Silver Bells", "Winter Wonderland", and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus". Christmas #1 gives us "O Holy Night", "Silent Night", and that "in exelsis deo" song.

Both Christmases are prone to nostalgia. Those who prefer Christmas #1 get the warm fuzzies when they think about baby Jesus, the manger, and the Wise Men. Mention Christmas to #2 folks and they smile as they remember Ralphie and the quest to acquire that BB Gun.

Of course, this dichotomy needn’t exist. It doesn’t need to be an either/or thing. But each of the two Christmases has adherents, a small minority of which are very vocal, a bit snobbish, and suspicious of the motives of the other Christmas.

Some of those in the Christmas #1 camp are offended that the clerk at Target says “Happy Holidays”. It is seen as not just an affront, but part of a greater conspiracy to rid America of its Christian roots. A few who hold this view see a hidden agenda in every component of Christmas #2. They can’t just sit back and enjoy “Elf.” While wearing their "reason for the season" t-shirts, they complain that characters in that film are willing go all out to say they believe in Santa, but will not be so bold in saying they believe in God. They shake their head when they see Hanukkah or Kwanzaa greeting cards at Wal-Mart.

The Christmas #2 folks have some conspiracy theorists, as well, and a few of them arrive at conclusions just as irrational as their counterparts. They protest the inclusion of nativity scenes on public property. They insist that songs like "Silent Night" have no business being in the school program.

Both Christmases have folks who go overboard. On the Christmas #1 side, there’s this from the American Family Association: http://action.afa.net/christmaslist

It’s a list of which retailers won’t let their ads contain the word “Christmas”, the implication being that real Christians should spend their money elsewhere. Lost on the AFA folks is the fact that the stores in the "good" list have their ads full of Santa, elves, etc. There's not a baby Savior to be seen anywhere. Ah, the irony.

(One well-known Christian leader allegedly said that Christians who celebrate Christmas are being “persecuted”. If we could ask 2nd-century Christians who were torn apart by lions what they think of that statement, I wonder what they’d say.)

Christmas #2 people can be just as silly. Some retailers, thinking they are walking on PC eggshells, have renamed Christmas trees to “holiday trees”, a ludicrous over-reaction. Has anyone ever walked out of a store and refused to do business with them because they still call it a “Christmas” tree? I doubt it. Renaming a very traditional item to appease non-existent protesters qualifies as going overboard.

To be fair, most people, while preferring one Christmas or another, are reasonable. They realize that the two Christmases need not divide us as bitterly as the divisions like that between Republicans and Democrats, dog and cat lovers, the Ginger/Mary Ann debate, or the one where the sparks really fly: PC vs. Mac.

This is the state of Christmas in 2009. It's very different from 30 years ago as I was growing up. What does the future hold? What will Christmas in America look like 30 years from now? Will the two Christmases grow further apart, creating a huge chasm? Will the two Christmases converge? One thing’s for sure: if we ever stop allowing ourselves to be divided over Christmas, we'll find something else. We Americans always do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sports vs. the Front Page

I don't post a lot about parenting here. I remember when I didn't have kids yet, thinking to myself that parents seem to be obsessed with the topic of parenting, and I didn't want to join that crowd. I haven't changed my mind. Don't get me wrong: I love being a dad. I love Abby, Jacob, and Zachary with all my heart, and I also know that I have a lot to learn about my role as a father. But I don't want to be one of those people who talks about my kids, or about parenting, all the time.

Having issued that disclaimer, I must say, as a dad, i am saddened at what I see on ESPN.com today. See, my 8-yr-old son Jacob, while not being allowed to surf the entire internet yet, is free to go to the ESPN website. He also gets to read the sports section of the local paper. He likes sports, and I've seen some good things in his life as a result of his role as both a spectator and a participant. Thanks to baseball cards and the stats and standings listed in the paper, he has learned a lot of math that I didn't get till I was at least 4 years older. He embraces good role models like Josh Hamilton and Michael Young. He gets the concept of teamwork and trying hard to accomplish a goal. He sees what's wrong with being a selfish team member.

But there's a dark side to sports, too. When I look at the headlines, I see a bunch of stories he isn't ready for yet. Just today, for example, I see, on the front page of ESPN.com, stories about:

--a college football player's stabbing death after a party

--another college football player's suspension for lying to authorities

--an NFL running back referring to fans and reporters as "fags"

--a pro tennis player using crystal meth

and that's just today. In a few days, the list of disturbing, not-for-kids stories will be replaced by new ones.

Ideally, I'd like the sports page to be a place where my kid can read stories which have more to do with...I don't know, sports, maybe? I know that he will be exposed to the realities of life, and the failures of humans, in time. I'd just like to be able to put off that exposure a little longer, if possible. I would like to know there's one section of the newspaper I can plop in front of him and not have to worry that he might be reading something he's not ready for yet. But this is the world we live in, so I have to watch everything and assume nothing is safe. And that's a shame.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cleaning your own house

I recently heard a liberal who I like saying some things about how mean and ridiculous Glenn Beck is. I’m not defending Beck. I don’t have cable so have never heard him say anything, the sole exception being except a youtube clip where he misinformed about the cars.gov site. However, the comment about him, similar to what I have heard about Rush, O'Reilly, Coulter, and other commentators from the Right, all have one thing in common: they come from people on the Left.

It’s my view-–and this is a view I cannot support with Scripture or anything else–-that people should be more prone to cleaning their own house that the house of others. In other words, liberals should be slamming the rude people who are in line with them politically before they go off on conservatives who draw their ire. And conservatives should do the same.

It’s incumbent upon us on the Right to let Rush, Beck, Coulter, etc. know that their tactics are unacceptable, and it’s up to those of you on the Left to concentrate on communicating the same message to Al Franken, Jeanine Garafolo, Maureen Dowd, Bill Maher, and Jimmy Carter. All in that list have said things as uncalled-for as anything Beck has ever said.

For instance, why did I not hear anyone on the Left bashing Carter for his statement equating disagreement with Obama’s policies with racism? That accusation is revolting, extreme, inflammatory, and untrue. But it wouldn't surprise Carter or his supporters to hear any conservatives point this out. However, if a liberal, or several of them, said something, it would carry some weight. To his credit, Obama did publicly disagree with the statement somewhat. It would have been nice if other voices from the Left joined in.

It’s easy to slam the guy you don’t agree with; it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Be different. Do the brave thing. This world would be a better place if we concentrated our complaining to those those with whom we are more closely aligned politically.

Would Beck listen to his own party members if they spoke up about this? If enough people said something, the answer is yes. (Note: if the answer is no, then what good does it do for anyone, including the ones on the Left, to complain about him?)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Book Review: What Difference Do It Make?

"What Difference Do It Make", by Ron Hall, Denver Moore, and Lynn Vincent, is a follow-up to their best-seller "Same Kind of Different As Me". And when I say follow-up, that's exactly what I mean. It isn't a sequel; it's a continuation. It's a way to reveal the bountiful fruit yielded by the first book.

If you have not read the first book, I don't recommend this one. It might be understandable, but it won't pack a punch. That said, for those who have completed SKDAM, the new piece is a valuable read.

In summary, WDDIM is made up of vignettes; we get to hear Denver and Ron speak through chapters individually, in one or the other man's voice. While the book as a whole doesn't have a real defined structure, each chapter does, and each is filled with stories that tell us the effects of the first book on various readers. Some are heart-warming, some heart-tugging, and all are inspiring. In many cases, SKDAM served as a catalyst in the life of someone who needed a jump-start. Ministries were formed, lives were impacted, and hearts were turned to God.

It's a very good book, and I am glad I read it.

Disclosure: Thomas Nelson, the publisher of What Difference Do It Make, provided me a free copy of the book in exchange for my review. I am free to give a positive or negative review.

Friday, October 02, 2009

If you really want results....

I have to say, this is one of the most exciting passages I have ever seen. God answers people who have confronted Him because their prayers and fasts haven't impressed Him, and haven't yielded the kinds of results they have been looking for. He responds by saying that the problem is that they have been fasting according to their criteria, not His. Their idea of serving God kept them in their comfort zone. In contrast, here's what will please Him:

Isaiah 58
v.6 "Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed ones go free, and that you break every yoke?
v.7 Is it not to break your bread to the hungry, and that you should bring home the wandering poor? When will you see the naked and cover him; and you will not hide yourself from your own flesh?"

And check out the results!

v.8 "Then shall your light break out as the dawn, and your health shall spring out quickly; and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of Jehovah shall gather you.
v.9 Then you shall call, and Yahweh shall answer; you shall cry, and He shall say, Here I am. If you take the yoke away from among you, the pointing of the finger, and speaking vanity;
v.10 and if you draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.
v.11 And Yahweh shall always guide you and satisfy your soul in dry places, and make your bones fat; and you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters fail not.
v.12 And those who come of you shall build the old ruins; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in."

I want to let God do the speaking, so my only comment will be that the above passage doesn't just apply to helping the poor financially, although that certainly is included. It's broader than that. The afflicted and the oppressed mentioned above are people caught up in sin, or some sort of hurts resulting from sin that is present in this world. We are to be ready to bear the burdens of others who are going through something tough, and the list of possibilities is a long one.

Be ready, listen for His voice, in order to be there for someone; to allow God to use you as His relief agent.

2 Corinthians 1:4 "[God is] comforting us in all our trouble, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in every trouble, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

I could be easily convinced that the phrase "I just couldn't put it down" was coined with Donald Miller's "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" in mind. Whereas I typically require a month to read a book of this size (250 pages), I started this one on a Saturday and was done by Monday night. (My wife upstaged me: she read it in one day.) From the beginning, this book had its hooks in me and wasn't interested in letting go.

The premise is simple, but unique: some time ago, the author was approached about making a movie based on "Blue Like Jazz", his best-known work. "A Million Miles" is an account of the personal revelation that his own life could be more interesting, and that revelation's aftermath. The result was a number of valuable lessons learned by Miller as he explored the story-creation process, with the main lesson being the importance of making sure one's own life story is a meaningful one.

"A Million Miles" is filled with seemingly unrelated anecdotes, not only from Miller's life, but from the experiences of others, each determined to make sure that their life makes a difference. He weaves the varied stories together masterfully and seamlessly. The author's narrative style seems more focused this time, especially when compared to the free-for-all that was "Blue Like Jazz". Although the trademark Miller humor is there, the stories are more serious, and at least one is heartbreaking. All are instrumental in getting Miller's point across: make your life count.

While this book stands on its own, it continues a theme common to most of Donald Miller's work. In "To Own a Dragon", "Blue Like Jazz", and "Searching for God Knows What", Miller introduced us to several real-life characters who understand the importance of having an impact on our world; here, he adds to the list of stories of those remarkable people.

From the young woman who gets water wells built in poor African villages, to a man who restores his connection to his almost-lost daughter, to a family who starts a New Year's Day neighborhood parade, we see just how powerful the combination of gumption, a genuine love for people, and a good vision can be.

This is not only an enjoyable book; it's an important one. I highly recommend it.

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Aside: Although their writing styles are very dissimilar, the ideas of Donald Miller and John Eldredge echo similar themes. In this case, Miller seems to be inspired by Eldredge's exhortation to believers--contained in "Desire," "Waking the Dead", and especially "Epic"-- to make your life a great story. The result is an inspiring message, as well. Although their voices are very different, I would love to one day see a collaboration between the two.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Underappreciated voice

I love music. I love quality music; not fluff, not ear candy. Sadly, many music snobs who pride themselves on their musical taste fall into the trap of not liking most music which actually sells, and that's sad. There are a few vocalists who truly deserve to be described as "artists", whose music leans toward the commercial side, not by choice, but because that's who they are.

One such singer, who gets very little positive critical press, is Ronnie Milsap. Poll any group of pop or country music critics, and he doesn't make the top 20 for most of them. And that's sad, because he's actually quite incredible. I have spent some time this week reaching back into more obscure parts of my music collection, and have been reminded of how powerful this man's talent is.

I found his soul-era (before he became a country singer) rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" and am convinced it's as good as any version out there. I offer this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-MXj9o_RpI (start around the mid-point). I offer this as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFLHtGAkWE

I could offer more examples, but this isn't aimed at selling anyone on Ronnie's importance. That's not the point. And I acknowledge he has, like many artists, had moments of selling out which have resulted in some embarrassing stuff (there's a 1984 duet called "Night by Night" which is beyond bad). But his talent cannot be denied.

It's amazing that the likes of Vince Gill, Roy Clark, and Mel Tillis have been inducted in the Country Music Hall of fame, but Ronnie Milsap has not. Maybe it's not that amazing. Maybe it's just more evidence of how underappreciated this man is. No matter. There are a few of us who know.

If you want to hear a criminally underrated singer perform a criminally unknown song, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNo5CHlecYc and close your eyes and listen as he tells the story. Listen to the whole thing, and you'll wonder, like I do: where's the love for Ronnie Milsap?

Monday, September 07, 2009

Book Review: Max Lucado's "Fearless"

Max Lucado's "Fearless" comes along at an appropriate time for our nation and, I suspect, for many individuals. In his latest work, Lucado lays out Scripture after Scripture which demonstrate that fear of circumstances is ungodly, unwise, and harmful to us. In other words, when God tells us "do not fear", He is doing so not just to pat us on the back reassuringly; His command, when followed, will keep us from doing damage to our souls.

Lucado identifies various areas of our lives in which we commonly let fear have its way, (usually one per chapter). Some, such as death and change, are fairly obvious. Others, such as the fear of disappointing God, were off my radar. In each case, though, the author provides modern and scriptural examples.

As with most Lucado works, the illustrations are the thing. He is a gifted parable composer, and the analogies that he employs are masterful, especially when he personifies Worry in Chapter 4: Woe Be Gone--The Fear of Running Out.

The topic that Christians are not to fear is nothing new. Where "Fearless" sets itself apart is perhaps the most valuable contribution that this books makes to the discussion of the subject of fear. He methodically illustrates that fear is the root of many of our sins. We fear that we won't matter, so we follow fads and try to keep up with the Joneses. Fear of alienating our kids makes us into permissive parents, doing the kids more harm than good.

Lucado's most solid point, though, is that fear of anything except God is rooted in a lack of trust in God. I like the way he put it in Chapter 4:


"Seek first the kingdom of wealth, and you’ll worry over every dollar.
Seek first the kingdom of health, and you’ll sweat every blemish and bump.
Seek first the kingdom of popularity, and you’ll relive every conflict.
Seek first the kingdom of safety, and you’ll jump at every crack of the twig.
But seek first his kingdom, and you will find it. On that, we can depend and never worry."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The first half of that verse

" 'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.' "

For years, I have heard Jeremiah 29:11 repeatedly. I've got it memorized from hearing it, hearing about it, hearing sermons preached about it, and seeing it on plaques in people's bathrooms. And every time I hear someone start to refer to that verse, what I always think about is what the teachers always teach about: the 2nd half, about how God has plans to give us hope, and a future.

Yes, that's very important, but to focus on half a verse is to gain only half of the riches contained in it. The first part is just as worthy of noting: "For I know the plans that I have for you."

The Hebrew word for "plans" (it's H4284 if you are interested in looking it up in Strong's) can mean a lot of things. It can mean intentions, plans, imagination, purpose, or thought. In fact, many translations use the word "thought" for that verse. In the verse below, the word "thoughts" is the same Hebrew word:

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" --Isaiah 55:8,9

The reason God says what He says in the first part of the Jeremiah verse is to highlight a sin that many of us fall into all too often: we decide what God must think of us. He says that HE knows his thoughts toward us. We may think we know His thoughts, and if we try to guess without asking Him, we are likely to fall into a false belief of some kind. A wrong guess makes us susceptible to all sorts of problems.

James Ryle says it like this:
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Have you ever prayed something like this: "Lord, I know what you must be thinking about me right now," and then began to tell Him what you were actually thinking about yourself? We all do this. We condemn ourselves for the mistakes we have made and resolve within ourselves that it must be what the Lord thinks of us.

We must come to know the Lord as He is, and not as we assume Him to be. We must let Him put HIS words in our mouths.
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Let's read that Isaiah verse one more time:

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts" --Isaiah 55:8,9

So what are His thoughts towards us?

"How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand." Psalm 139:17-18a

"He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy." Zephaniah 3:17

Follow-through: Next time you are alone with Him, ask Him to tell you what He is thinking about you. Then listen. If a thought comes into your head that you know is not from Him, read the verses above, or ones like them, audibly. Then listen some more.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: Read and Share Toddler Bible

As a parent of 3 young kids, I am all-too-aware of the glut of toddler bibles available, and the sameness that plagues the majority of them. Happily, the Read and Share Toddler Bible, published by Thomas Nelson, stands out from the crowd.

At first glance, it would seem that this bible contains the usual toddler bible characteristics: (1) short (4-6 page) accounts of the most common bible stories, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, and Joseph's coat of many colors; (2) colorful pictures which portray the "good guys" and "bad guys" accordingly (i.e. Jesus looks friendly, Goliath does not); (3) age-appropriate wording for the stories being told (we are told that Joseph is in jail due to a lie told by Potopher's wife, for example, but the book doesn't go into detail about what that lie is).

But a closer look reveals features which go beyond the norm for this type of book. For one thing, there is a DVD included, and it contains most of the stories that are in the book; some of them are a little more fleshed out in the DVD. The video version of the stories are told in a very simple way: this animation won't be confused with anything put out by Pixar. But it kept my 5-year-old's attention, and ultimately, that's what matters.

Another nice feature of the book is the suggestion included at the end of each chapter. Some are simply designed to help the parent ask the child some leading questions after reading the story, for the purpose of initiating a conversation so that the Scriptural truths contained in the story can be elaborated on. But many of the suggestions go beyond questions. Simple crafts and activities to reinforce the story are offered.

As for the stories themselves, most are worded at a higher level than 2-3 year-olds are likely to embrace. I found the "toddler" in the book title a bit confusing. The words used to tell the stories are probably best suited for an audience which is a little older than the common definition of "toddler".

At $14.99 (SRP), this bible is a great bargain, as it contains the normal toddler bible features in addition to the DVD and crafts/activities.

Movies that matter

The following 9 movies comprise my all-time Top Five. Yes, the math doesn't work, but these movies are absolutely essential to me:

The Fisher King
Man on Fire
Cinderella Man
Lord of the Rings trilogy
Schindler's List
The Princess Bride
Gladiator
Saving Private Ryan
The Kid


Other movies I find very moving. These aren't quite as essential, but I was profoundly affected by them:
The Pursuit of Happyness
Big Fish
Mr Holland's Opus
The Passion of the Christ
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Secondhand Lions
Casablanca
The Cowboys



This has nothing to do with what I think are the greatest movies ever made. But they are the ones which grab me and bore down into me and do their work at the soul level. I still recognize the grandness of, say, The Godfather, and am entertained by a good comedy. But the movies listed above are the ones that matter the most to me.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Review: The Noticer

Earlier this week, I finished reading The Noticer, by Andy Andrews. It tells the story of a man named Jones who had a special gift of speaking truth into the lives of people whose lives intersected with his. Although the publisher is Thomas Nelson, the content was not needlessly churchy. The message was delivered in such a way that non-Christians could find value in it, despite the fact that biblical truths and principles manage to weave themselves throughout the narrative from start to finish.

At first glance, the story contained elements that seemed to be lifted directly from several other well known books which have been popular in American Christian culture over the last two decades, including Gary Chapman's "The Five Love Languages" and Rick Warren's "The Purpose-Driven Life", with a similarity in presentation, not content, to Young's "The Shack".

The story starts out describing young Andy, an aimless man with no discernible talents, ambition, or purpose. He's homeless, living on the beach, getting food and showers where he can, and sleeping under a pier. Into his life pops a man named JOnes, who, from the Christian viewpoint, possesses the gift of discernment. He starts off gentle, then challenges Andy when he needs to. He loans the young man some books to read, books which push all the right buttons in Andy's soul. A chain of events leads Andy to get more respectable work as a stand-up comedian, then public speaking, and author. Along the way he gets a real home, a family: the elements of life that make him want to have success. Jones didn't live this life for him; he only provided the spark, and it all started with Jones' uncanny ability to notice (thus the title) things about Andy, and discern truths about him in order to see how he got to where he is, and what it will take to change his direction.

It soon becomes apparent that the Andy in the opening chapter is the author, and the story is a true one. The remaining chapters consist of accounts of similar encounters between Jones and other people in the community, all of whom eventually share their stories with Andy. In each case, he comes in during a pivotal time, when a decision must be made. Jones never makes the decision for anyone; he simply provides perspective by telling them how he sees things, usually from a different angle than their own. It isn't the perspective that changes things; it's their decisions upon having it presented to them.

It is likely that each reader will come away with a favorite story. For me, it was the chapter about Willow, a 76-year-old widow waiting to die, convinced she had nothing left to offer.

The book was an easy read, and an enjoyable one. It accomplishes the purpose of making the reader think, and providing a little spark in that direction as well. It also leaves us with questions that go unanswered: Who was Jones? An angel or a man? How did he know what he knew, often telling people things that were on their heart and which they had not shared with anyone? What was his race (a more relevant question that you might think)? What finally happened to him? Sadly, we may never know. But I'm comfortable with that. Some things are better left a mystery.

The Noticer is a remarkable book, and I highly recommend it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Painful to watch

Occasionally, we talk about how hard it is to watch someone we love destroy him/herself. We watch our little brother choose the wrong friends. We watch a friend engage in substance abuse. We see our daughter dating that loser. Our neighbor ending a salvageable marriage because he thinks it will make his life easier and end the hurt and teach her a lesson (it won't).

It's hard to watch. It's like watching someone run in front of an 18-wheeler and refusing your pleas to return to the side of the road, out of danger.

Here's what I have just realized: just having one person in your life like that is heartbreaking. But imagine what it's like for God. He loves each of us more than you or I has ever loved anyone. He watches most of us engage in self-destructive behavior over and over again.

One soul at a time, He implores us to take a path which will lead to life. Some listen, but so many times, He sees us go down another path, one which won't bring us joy, which will only kill us, little by little.

He sends people into our life to speak truth. He practically begs us to choose life. He sends the 2nd person of the Trinity to die in our place, to rescue us. He provides the 3rd person of the Trinity to help us and guide us. Yet He watches, heartbroken, as we choose some other path. It's like watching your favorite child run into the street in front of the aforementioned 18-wheeler. That thought is painful enough, but then multiply that by a few billion.

I cannot imagine what that must feel like, but it seems immeasurably painful. This is what God feels when I sin, especially certain destructive, addictive sins that press certain buttons in me. I feel like crap as I write this, despite the fact that I haven't lately engaged in such sins. But it is bringing up within me a new kind of sorrow about my past sin, a sorrow that I don't remember feeling before. Not that it makes me feel condemned, but I am just so much more sorry for my sin, because it has been so heartbreaking to Him. At the same time, I am all the more thankful that He has somehow rescued me and allowed me to be on the side of the road, out of danger, in His safe arms.

It occurs to me that the analogy of watching someone you love play in the middle of the street in front of an oncoming truck isn't the best analogy. Perhaps an even more appropriate one is to see someone in the middle of a hot desert, someone you love very much. And they are dying of thirst, and you have a cool glass of sparkling, life-giving water that you are trying to hand to them. And they don't take it. They continue to suffer, even as the water is within arm's reach. Instead, they scoop up some sand and try to drink it, sapping even more life from them.

Here's the offer: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” John 7:37–38

This isn't just about salvation. It certainly includes His free gift of salvation which leads to an eternity with Him instead of Hell. But it's much, much more than that. And it isn't just for the lost. It's for all of us, especially those of us who have chosen the wrong path, the one leading to death, at one time or another.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Up will make your marriage better

We all see movies we like from time to time, and occasionally we like one enough to recommend it to friends. I love movies, so I am careful not to recommend them to people because I would do it all the time. Today I am making an exception. I am imploring all married men to take their wives to see Up. It's supposed to be a kid's movie, but the message is about marriage, keeping promises, and noticing the normally unnoticed blessings of God that are all around you.

Please note that when I say it's animated but more for adults, I'm not comparing it to movies like Shrek or Aladdin which are kid's movies where some jokes are thrown in that only adults will get. I'm saying this is a story for married people, and there are some things in there that make it digestible for kids, too.

That said, when it got to the turning point, the place in the movie which emphasized the blessing that this man's wife had been to him, I looked over and Jacob (my 7-yr-old) was welling up with tears. So he got it. Not as good as he would get it if he were a married adult, but he got it. That said, I came out of the theater wishing I had seen it with Beth. Our anniversary is this Friday, and I'm hoping she will be up for seeing it that night rather than waiting for the DVD.

If you feel weird going to a kids movie without any kids, don't worry about it. Before we had kids, Beth and I went to Toy Story and Aladdin, and a couple of others. It was no big deal. Go at night if you don't want to be surrounded by other people's kids.

By the way, some of you never go to the movies anymore. I understand that. We are the same. We average one movie a year at the theater. Even if you fall into this category, I recommend you make an exception here. I would be surprised if you come out of it without a changed (for the better) outlook on marriage, and a renewed intentional focus on making your marriage an adventure.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Being that close, then blowing it

If you've been a Christian for even a short time, you are probably familiar with the following sequence of events:
1. Israelites are rescued by God, led by Moses out of Egypt.
2. Israelites spend 40 years in the desert.
3. Israelites have a chance to go into the Promised land, but 10 of the 12 spies they sent were afraid of the existing inhabitants.


As with many of the most familiar stories, there is much more to this one. Upon a recent re-reading, I encountered some troubling items; troubling because they have highlighted many of my own shortcomings. Let's look at just one.

In Numbers 13, we see God instruct Moses to send out twelves spies to check out the promised land. To be clear: this was God's idea. There was nothing wrong with sending out spies, and by inference, we can say that this is nothing wrong with taking note of the giants, the armies, the challenges which awaited the Israelites. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with strategizing to meet the obstacles that might be in our way as we carry out what we believe to be His plans for us today. Still, God had promised them this land, and they should have kept that in mind when giving their report after 40 days of of spying. Instead, all except Caleb and Joshua said "no dice". The giants are too big, and the job too tough.

Numbers 13:31 But the men who had gone up with him said, "We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us."

and here was the result:

Numbers 14:1 "Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night."

So this is no longer about meeting the challenges. It's about a disbelief in God's ability to fulfill a promise. As these 10 men spread their discouraging message, the masses exhibited their own lack of faith in God's character by lamenting the fact that the Promised Land was not meant to be.

Now, here's what many do not realize: At this point, the Israelites were only 2 years into their release from Egyptian bondage. Not 40. Two. God gave them the chance to forgo the 40 years of aimless wandering that turned out to be their fate, and only their unbelief stood in their way. This early in their voyage, after 400 years of slavery, and they were right on the edge of the Promised land! And they blew it!

God told them He wouldn't allow them entry in the land of milk and honey until the faithless died off:

Numbers 14:22-23 "Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it."


then, although they are right there, on the edge, God sends them packing:

Numbers 14:25 "turn tomorrow and set out to the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea."


This makes me wonder, and shudder at the thought: how many times have I missed out on something God has good for me, because I have reject Him, misunderstood Him, lost faith in His promises, or otherwise blown it? I'm afraid that if I ever found out the number, I'd be in shock, then cry for days. As it is, I know I want all that He has for me, and I pray that from this point forward, when I hear His voice, I take it seriously, and I obey the first time, in order to glorify Him, to do His work, and to enjoy His blessings.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fear-mongering

I'm getting a lot of emails these days which fit into the rather broad category of Christian fear-mongering. They consist of somewhat alarming messages and warnings of various events--some factual, some dubious--about impending events which have the loosely common thread of somehow being about eroding of freedoms for Christians, with the eventual result of a total lack of freedom to be a follower of Jesus. As I said, some of the events described in the email are based on fact. But it's not the whole story.

The Mavericks basketball season ended last night, but last week, I watched a little bit of one of their playoff games. The camera, of course, follows both teams, but more importantly, it follows the ball.

Imagine, however, you are watching a game, rooting for your favorite team, and the camera only focuses on the other half of the court. For a couple of hours, you only see when the other team scores, and you never see your team make a single basket. If that's all you saw, you couldn't possibly come out of that game happy. You'd think that your team lost, because all you saw was what the other team's success. And you'd very possibly be wrong.

Read about the beginning of the Church, in the book of Acts. In the first few chapters, you see that there are several negative incidents which get the thing off to an interesting start: people getting thrown in jail, Stephen getting murdered. But there were also healings, and thousands of conversions, and countless acts of selflessness. The truth is that the kingdom of Christ was taking foothold and was beginning to spread throughout the Middle East, then the world. Then, as now, the Church was winning!

When we listen to Christian radio shows, and read websites, that bombard us all the time with news about what the Trilateral Commission or Democrats or Republicans are up to, or what kinds of laws are being passed which make it harder to be a Christian in the US or in other nations, we fill our minds with negative ideas that are only going to steal our joy.

I don't see how we can immerse ourselves in the fear-mongering that is present in alarmist emails and still adhere to this verse:

"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." Colossians 3:1


The fact is, God's kingdom is advancing faster than ever. People are getting saved, and hurting people are finding healing (emotional as well as physical), marriages are getting restored, prodigal children are returning home. This is the good news that's going on right now, and it's why I really don't give a flip about the evils of Democrats, rock music, or any of the stuff that I wasted my time worrying about for 20 years. God is so much bigger than that stuff. If someone takes "under God" out of the pledge, or some TV show has a gay character, God is not affected. He still gets to be God.

One more thing: part of the alarmist mindset is related to complaints of eroding morality. We Christians are wasting our time trying to get the unbelievers in the world to get moral. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul recognized this, and specifically told the letter's readers not to judge the unbelievers, but to feel free to correct the actions of Christians. He was unhappy that someone in the church was sleeping with his father's wife, but the church was allowing it. But right after that, he said for us to reserve our judgment for believers, not unbelievers.

Why not judge non-Christians? Simply put: if you're lost, you're lost. It doesn't matter that Ellen Degeneres is gay. It matters she is not a Christian. If Obama is not a Christian, he needs Jesus, period. If he is a Christian (as he claims), then we are to judge him because of certain political positions he holds to. But lots of Christians, and lots of Republican politicians, hold to some anti-biblical positions. Greed and adultery, just to name a couple, have been exhibited in abundant quantities in the Republican party leadership in my lifetime. Rather than demonize political leaders who don't see things our way, let's pray for them, and let our voice be heard in a non-divisive way when appropriate.

To be honest, I am a lot more concerned about certain preachers who present Jesus as a feel-good self-help program than I am about concentration camps, or whether Obama's birth certificate is valid. Let's focus on what we should focus on, folks.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Mark Driscoll's explanation

Mark Driscoll is the teaching pastor for Seattle's Mars Hill Church (not to be confused with Rob Bell's church of the same name in Michigan). A Google search of Driscoll's name makes it easy to find critics. Theological conservatives don't like his non-traditional methods, while liberals don't like his strict adherence to the bible as the final answer on everything.

ABC's Nightline did a special in which they invited Driscoll and 3 others to debate the question: "Does Satan exist?". View the entire episode (including parts that were cut from the broadcast) here: http://abcnews.go.com/nightline/faceoff

I learned about this event after the show had been broadcast. I read about it in a religion blog where the writer complained that the 4 panelists were not intellectual enough. I couldn't disagree with him more. Driscoll in particular laid out the basics of the Gospel very well in his introduction, and made it clear why the existence of Satan is an important part of the need for Jesus to do what He did.

To all those who complain that the discussion lacked true intellectuals, I'd remind you that those who Jesus spoke to most harshly were the intellectuals. The perceived need for someone with a pedigree or credentials comes from an undue and undeserved elevation of man's thinking above that of God. As if someone smart enough can decide whether or not Satan exists.

But putting aside that question, I love all that Driscoll said during this hour. He never berated those who disagreed with him. He let it be known that he loved them and wanted them to experience the Gospel on a personal level. Most important, he made sure that Jesus, not the devil, was the center of all that he said.

If you can't spare an hour to watch the entire thing, click the link to watch the opening clip. Driscoll's closing statement in the closing clip is special, too.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Putting God in His place

Psalm 7


v.1 O LORD my God, in You I have taken refuge; Save me from all those who pursue me, and deliver me,

--when he says “O Lord”, he is just acknowledging what’s true: the Lord really is the Lord. This is fact, and it applies to everyone. But then he follows it with “my God”. This is the first of two personal declarations of God’s authority over him. The second comes right after it: “in You I have taken refuge”. In both of these, he is making a stand about who he (David) belongs to.

It occurs to me that this attitude is very un-American. We don’t want to be “owned” by anyone. We have no problem asking God to help us, but we still want command of our lives, our bodies, and our life decisions. David is having none of that. Although he’s king and can certainly make decisions that stick, he’s choosing to identify himself as a subject of another, better, kingdom.

David’s not willing to play the “God is my co-pilot” game. One doesn’t go to a co-pilot and ask for refuge and protection. When we are truly yielded to God, we see through the lie that is co-pilot theology. We see ourselves as under His umbrella, and gladly accept all that comes with it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Great benefits package

The last two verses of Psalm 5:

v.11 "But let all who take refuge in You be glad, Let them ever sing for joy; And may You shelter them, That those who love Your name may exult in You."

v.12 "For it is You who blesses the righteous man, O LORD, You surround him with favor as with a shield."


After talking about the enemy for 3 verses, David returns to a more positive note. Those who are not God’s enemy are those who take refuge in Him, and they get not only protection, but joy. The word joy appears twice, as the word “exult” literally means to jump for joy.

The benefits to being with God, as listed in these two verses, include refuge, joy, shelter, more joy, blessing, righteousness, favor, and protection. Wow! Where do I sign up?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A memory I am not proud of

Have you ever had a memory pop up from long ago, something you had completely forgotten? It happens to me occasionally, and earlier today, I had a one of my worst-ever memories come to mind. I was actually shaking and almost choked up just thinking about it.

It was 1986, and I was in the Army. We had just gotten into formation. For those not familiar, I mean it was the beginning of the day. I had showered, eaten, and dressed, and we all lined up in a formation; that is, lined up according to platoons and squads. Our company captain (C.O.) spoke to the entire company. He announced that Rock Hudson, who had recently announced that he had AIDS, had died overnight. What happened next, in hindsight, is mind-bogglingly shocking. There was applause. Every soldier in the company, upon hearing of Hudson's death, burst into applause, and cheered loudly. I honestly don't remember if I joined in, but I probably did. Still, I remember that I was very bothered by the outburst.

Thinking about this reminds me of other things I had said and thought in regards to the onset of AIDS in the 80's. I had no sympathy towards anyone with the disease. They engaged in immorality, so they got what is coming to them, I said to myself and others. Not my problem. I sure wasn't concerned about ever getting it myself, being straight and Christian and all. Plus, I couldn't even get a date, so opportunities for sexual immorality weren't exactly beating down my door.

My behavior and words, in hindsight, mortify me, as does the eruption of applause that we all engaged in that morning. When I remembered it today, I was appalled at myself and my fellow soldiers. We were applauding the fact that a man led a miserable life, believed in some lies, had a sham marriage to cover up his lifestyle which was born out of those lies, led a secret life, and then spent his last years dying a slow, agonizing death. As far as we knew, he never knew Jesus, never had the opportunity to embrace the healing and life and liberty that Jesus offers, and now he's dead and will be separated from Jesus forever. And for this, we cheered.

I don't know how one goes about ranking his worst memories, but this one is in my Top Five.

1 John 4:7-11 "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Transparency

When greeting someone at church on a Sunday morning, it's inevitable that I will be asked "How are you, James?". I try to avoid saying "Fine. How are you?" (let's refer to that phrase as IFHAY for short).

Why do I avoid IFHAY? Some who know me will accuse me of bringing my non-conformism into these situations, and I must admit, there's something to that. But that's not the primary purpose for not using that tired phrase. My problem with IFHAY is that it's a little too safe. Someone can have this mini-conversation several times on a Sunday morning, and never get any closer to anyone by day's end. By relying on IFHAY, you convince yourself that you have checked in on people and let them check in on you, but you get to keep your shield up, and you have managed to avoid challenging others to let theirs down, as well. Ultimately, you have done nothing worthwhile in any of these conversations.

The genuine Christian life includes transparency. Calling yourself a Christian while refusing to ask others to open up (or opening up yourself), is like a Toyota calling itself a car after its wheels have been removed. It's true by the strictest definition, but renders the car ineffective for both its owner and for anyone else.

When I was a home group leader, we ended each meeting with a prayer request time. One thing I learned was that transparency doesn't come easy, and I could gain insights into our closeness as a group by the types of requests that were brought up. It turns out there are 3 levels of transparency in that environment: (1) Requests to pray for someone else I know; (2) Pray for me for non-spiritual issues; (3) Pray for me for deeper issues.

When we first started meeting, the members, not knowing each other well, would offer up prayer requests for their aunt, their neighbor, or some story they read about in the news. When we knew each other better, some got a little braver and asked for prayer for their own situations: job, finances, kids' illness. At this point, there's still a shield up. Nobody dares to ask someone to pray for their marriage, any sin they are struggling with, their lack of prayer life, etc. I knew our group was where we should be when people started bringing these types of requests before the group. This doesn't happen unless there's a real connectedness. It goes beyond comfort. It's a complete trust that your friends will feel the things you feel about the thing you are requesting prayer for. It's knowing that they won't just throw unsolicited advice at you (again, that's a way of making yourself believe you have contributed to a fellow believer's well-being while still remaining in a "safe" place). It's knowing that they rejoice when you rejoice, and weep when you weep.

In my observation, when members are willing to take that brave step out of their comfort zone and go head-first into the deepest level, it's because one of the following events has occurred: (1) transparency has been modeled for them by someone else in the group; (2) desperation; (3) enough time has passed and the group has reached a comfort level with each other.

Going backward, the third on the list is the least desirable option. Why wait for years for closeness to occur to the point that members can share deep personal prayer needs? How much damage can the enemy do in the meantime?

The 2nd item is also something that you don't want to have to resort to. I know of one marriage that nobody knew was in trouble until great damage had been done by one of the spouses. We got together and prayed with both of them, but the breakup had essentially been set in motion already, and a heartbreaking divorce was the result. If only we had known about the factors which started the smaller cracks in the relationship! But prior to the exposure of the problems, all we heard was: "I'm fine. How are you?" Nobody saw through IFHAY. There was no transparency.

The first one is best: a Christian is going to feel they can be open when someone has gone before them. This is where the group leader can do his/her greatest work, by being the first to be truly transparent. The group I'm in now (not led by me) is headed by just such a leader. When you think about it, that's what a leader does: leads. Goes first.

I implore any Christian reading this to do two things: Be willing to open up with some other believer you can trust will pray for you. And when on the other side of that conversation, refuse to accept IFHAY. Don't be afraid to press in, and don't worry if you offend the person. The times we are living in demand it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The first 3 verses of Psalms

Psalm 1:1 How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
--This not saying to never interact with non-believers. Jesus did that, and instructed His followers to do so in a particular way. It says don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked. Don’t take on their mindset and attitudes. Keep thinking godly thoughts.

How can we do that? The next verse yields a strong clue:

Psalm 1:2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night.

--getting into God’s written word will change how we walk, and how we think. But notice it doesn’t say “he who reads the law (word)”; it says he who delights in the law. The word “delight” means just that: happiness. When we get to the point where the Word makes us happy, where it’s the central thing in our lives, we are on the right track. Note that this does not mean to become a scholar. You might or might not become one, but that’s not the goal here. Knowledge of the word without delight makes one a Pharisee.

The key is to see the Word as the source of happiness. The more we get into it, the more we need. It’s easy to see how drugs, video games, nicotine, porn, and many other substitutes gain their power in a person’s life. They emulate the very characteristics, only in a twisted, reverse way, of the Word of God. The more we indulge in the Word, the more we want. It becomes our delight.

Once we get “addicted”, we want to meditate on it day and night. The Hebrew word translated “meditate” in that verse is the same used to describe a cow’s digestive method. You will recall from biology class that a cow has 4 stomachs. The cow eats some food, and it goes into the first stomach, then returns to the cow’s mouth, where she chews it some more, then it goes into stomach #2, then returns to the mouth, so she can enjoy the taste again. This happens 4 times. Yum! The Psalmist’s choice of the word “meditate” is a very clever one.

Let us look at the progression so far: (1) We avoid taking on the thoughts of those who don't know the Lord; (2) we choose to indulge in the written Word. (3) it makes us happy; (4) we cannot get enough; we think about the word day and night.
Once a man has entrenched himself in the path described above, look at the result:

Psalm 1:3 He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, Which yields its fruit in its season And its leaf does not wither; And in whatever he does, he prospers.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Is U2 a Christian band?

Ephesians 2:10 "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them"

U2's new CD comes out this week, and it brings up that old discussion among Christians about whether u2 is a Christian band or not. Scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to the glory of God. Mainstream Christians have no problem acknowledging that mountains, flowers, and waterfalls glorify God without actually speaking His name. But we are mistaken if we forget that humans can do the same, simply by walking in their calling. If a country singer, for example, is truly walking in his calling, he can continue to sing about the pain caused by adultery, for example, and it glorifies God every bit as much as biblical tale of David and Bathsheba, which carries the same message about adultery.

If God has created you to be a story-teller (and singers are story-tellers), then be a story-teller, and you will glorify the one who created you. Let others fret about whether your lyrics fit their description of "Christian" or not. You only have to please God, not other people. By the only measure that matters, U2 is a Christian band.

I'm convinced that God has called U2 to speak His truth to an audience that otherwise isn't going to hear it. An analysis of their tunes will consistently lead to a discovery that most of them are about God or about godly truths.

What's sad to me is how many Christians will dismiss their work simply because it sounds secular. Nobody complains about a Christian computer programmer or plumber or fast-food cashier whose work seems, on the surface, to fail to include any Christian elements. But write a song, and it better mention Jesus, or else.

A similar mistake made by many Christians is the idea that if the audience doesn't get the Christian message out of a song whose meaning might be unclear, then the musician has failed. This mindset is based on some erroneous ideas, including (a) singing a song with a message that isn't clearly Christian is evidence that you are ashamed of your faith;, and (b) the unbelievers in the audience need to hear the Gospel from you (the singer), or else the effort is wasted.

The former view is wrong simply because if you are called to write and sing a particular kind of song to a particular audience, then you can do nothing better or more important that living in that calling. Not every one of us has been called to be Billy Graham.

The latter view is more troubling because it is founded in the idea that we must place the Great Commission ahead of the Great Commandment.

There was a movie called "Chariots of Fire" in which the main character, an Olympic athlete, was pressured by his family to be a missionary. Their Pharisaical mindsets wouldn't let them see that this man was created to run, but thankfully, he didn't fail to see it himself. In the film's most moving quote, he tells a family member, "When I run, I feel God's pleasure."

U2 is a Christian band, not because their lyrics are parallel to Sandy Patty's. They are Christians who live out their God-given assignment, and there is little doubt that they feel God's pleasure when doing so. How anyone else categorizes them is irrelevant.

Ephesians 2:10 "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them"

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Picking sides

When U2 performed in the Super Bowl in 2002, the nation was still hurting from the 9/11 attacks. If you take a few minutes to view the clip at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n13CU-NvPMU , you'll note that around the 1:20 mark, Bono says this, twice: "O Lord, open my lips, That my mouth may declare Your praise." This is from Psalm 51:15. The band then launches into "Where the Streets Have No Name."

As the story goes, the song gets its roots in the fact that in Ireland, the tension between Catholics and Protestants is so strong that they segregate themselves by neighborhoods. When you meet a person, you determine if you are going to like them or not when he tells you the name of the street he lives on. Bono, the son of a rare combination of Catholic/Protestant parentage, looks forward to a time and a place where street names -- representative of those things that divide us into opposing groups -- will no longer be important.

Although this message was certainly timely in the aftermath of 9/11, its importance stretches across time and into practically all aspects of life. It is apparently human nature which causes us to take sides, and to demonize those on the other side. In the IT world where I have spent the last several years of my working life, arguments about Linux vs. Windows can get pretty contentious. In the web design world, it's Mac vs. PC. I just read a story today that Bill Gates forbids his family to purchase an iPod or iPhone. It seems we are unable to acknowledge that "the other team" might have something worthwhile to offer. My friends who live in Albuquerque tell me that you are either a green chili person or a red chili person. You must choose.

Donald Miller recently pointed this out on his blog, www.donmilleris.com, using the Mac vs. PC commercials as a strong example of how an entire marketing campaign is based on this "us-vs.-them" mentality. Although I love Don's writing, I have found examples in his speaking and writing where he perpetuates the same divisiveness along political lines. I don't say this to slam Miller, but to point out that all of us are bound by this tendency, regardless of how hard we try to free ourselves from its grip.

Probably the most surprising example of this phenomenon in my life was when I was at a national gathering of Christian men in October of 1997. There were hundreds of thousands of us, praying, crying, sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit in a profound way. We were repenting of our sins, trying to get right with God. We were breaking down walls of race and denomination. But as I found out, not all walls go down as easily as others.

It was lunchtime, and I got in line at a fast-food place. I struck up a conversation with a man in front of me, and once he found out I was from the Dallas area, he informed me that he was from Philadelphia. While he wasn't rude, he did rib me a bit about how much the Philly fan hates the everything Cowboys-related. It was clear that something happened in the conversation once my affiliation became known. While the men gathered there that day did find themselves on the receiving end of protests from some women's groups, I was shocked that the division among the attendees themselves would be manifest, and would be based on sports, of all things. I could understand somewhat if the difference were, say Israel vs. PLO. But the atmosphere in the conversation changed based on the fact that I root for the team that that guy hates.

This thing has no limit. People draw lines based on so many dichotomies that I cannot possibly list them all.

Dogs vs. cats.
Union vs. non-union.
Once-saved-always-saved vs. those who believe otherwise. (I got into an argument with my uncle about this one evening in 1983, and it got intense, because I couldn't accept the fact that he saw this issue differently I did. Tragically, it was the last conversation we had, as he unexpectedly died before I saw him again.)
Calvinist vs. Armenian
Leno vs. Letterman

Why do we do this? Why do Republicans assume the worst about Democrats, and vice Versa? Why do we forgive those on "our side" for actions while blasting those from the other team for the same actions? Is this human nature? Is it something that will never go away until Jesus returns? Lord, I hope not.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Conservative Politics

It is true that I am an evangelical Christian. However, that's not the reason I lean to the political right. At least, it's not the primary reason. I'm not driven by topics like abortion and gay marriage, despite the efforts of many on the right and the left to elevate those two issues to the top of the priority list.

No, my reason for moving from a liberal in my younger years (my first presidential vote went to Dukakis in 1988; I also voted for Ann Richards for TX governor in 1990) to my current conservative status owes more to the fact that I took a few history and economics classes in college.

The more I understand economics, the more I understand that less government is better, on two levels: a practical level and a deeper level. By practical, I mean that one can easily demonstrate with numbers how an economy will benefit when the government stays out of it. You give a dollar to the government, and it stays there. You give a dollar to a business, and that dollar gets spent several times, and it gets taxed each time. Businesses gain money, families get fed, and the government still gets money from the fact that the dollar got spent and passed through so many hands, being taxed each time. (By the way, this is why I'm against the lottery; my religious ideas are not even involved). When getting my 2nd degree, I took a class with a boring name (something like "Economics of Public Policy") and explained it very well. The professor, Roger Meiners, is extremely knowledgeable in this area. He's worth googling.

But beyond the practical level is the question of how we are affected at the core. When we think it's OK to force the rich to support the poor, when we think it's OK to expect a handout from the government, I think it's bad for the soul. This past Fall, while the press piled on the guy known as Joe the Plumber, the real story was not him, but what Obama said to him. He said we need to "spread the wealth around." By which he meant having the government force you to spread your wealth to those who have less than you.

While we all should give to those less fortunate, such giving should be voluntary. Forced giving is wrong even when it's phrased in seemingly harmless ways, such as "spread the wealth around", or when we glorify such practices in stories like "Robin Hood", but the result is damaging.

Sadly, I think our nation has devolved into a mindset that forced giving and the expectations of government handouts is the norm now. That doesn't mean it's any less harmful to our soul, but it does mean it's probably irreversible.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Fun with double standards

I watched the Oscars last night. Sean Penn is a strong adherent to the value of double-standards. He admonished those who would, for religious reasons, vote their conscience, and specifically mentioned the word "shame". As in: they should be ashamed for voting the way they did. If I understand him correctly, he has no problem with practicing religious intolerance in his quest for tolerance of a non-traditional definition of marriage.

The double-double (double-squared?) standard comes in when one takes note of the fact that Penn made friends last year with the dictator of Venezuela, a country which denies many basic human rights to its citizens, including homosexuals. If memory serves correctly, Penn also spent some time in Iran not too long ago.

Sean, it's a lot more safe to be out of the closet in California than in Iran or Venezuela. I'm puzzled why you choose to spend time in two nations which offer much more oppression, and much less freedom, than we have here in the US, if freedom is so important to you. Like my socks in my bachelor days, your actions and words simply do not match.

First blog

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