Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hollow Days

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. (Matthew 23.25-26)

Red-and-Green Scare

In what’s become a “Daily Show” holiday tradition, Jon Stewart—the mock newscast’s corrosively irreverent, acutely perceptive anchor—has delighted in lampooning this year’s dispatches from the so-called “War on Christmas.” Stewart’s gripe, echoed by millions from every creed and persuasion, takes aim at far-right extremists who blindly equate Americanism with Christianity. Year after year, they scour the landscape for examples of jurists, officials, and merchandisers deleting “Christ” from “Christmas.” This just in: the Littleburg city council has banned the Nativity crèche from the firehouse lawn. This just in: a judge has enjoined Gopher Gulch Elementary from dramatizing Luke 2 at its year-end assembly. This just in: a new Big Store policy prohibits employees from wishing their customers a merry Christmas. This just in: Godless hoodlums who hate Jesus are trying to destroy everything He and America stand for!

This media-spun, 50s-style Red-and-Green Scare reached a new low several days ago, when Bill O’Reilly—FOX News’s über-“American” and self-professed “Christian” pundit—fired back in a commentary capped with this statement: “Jon Stewart is going to Hell.” O’Reilly’s freedom to disagree with, even to disparage, Stewart is a sacrosanct American right. Yet, as a Christian, surely he’s aware no Scripture authorizes him to sentence Stewart or anyone else to eternal damnation. Has he forgot—or does he not care—that the Babe he’s so consumed with enshrining will become the Rabbi Who preaches, “With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get”? (Matthew 7.2) Is he more concerned with winning arguments than compromising his witness and endangering his soul? Is not deigning to speak for God the height of what he decries—godlessness? There lies the hypocrisy of Red-and-Green Scare tactics. Leveraging condemnation to force Christ down non-believers’ throats is patently unchristian. It’s the antithesis of perfect love that, according to 1 John 4.18, “casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” In threatening Stewart with Hell, it is O’Reilly who should be afraid.

All Show, No Substance

Need it be said that Red-and-Green Scare perpetrators run afoul of cherished American principles like inclusiveness, religious diversity, and separation of Church and State? Americanism cannot—and must never—be equated with Christianity for reasons any seventh grader can understand. Saying we’re a “Christian” nation implies non-Christian citizens are un-American. That’s just ridiculous—especially since they’re not exempt from taxes, military service, regulatory compliance, and other civic duties. (Were that so, no doubt many advancing the far right’s “Christian” agenda would flock to alternative beliefs.) The Founders’ resistance to mixing faith and politics was born of a uniquely American desire to safeguard religious liberty. The Pilgrims settled our nation on conviction that freedom to live by one’s beliefs is immune to government mandate and interference. They were so committed to protecting privacy of faith that they outlawed any public religious expression whatsoever—to the point that decorating the exterior of one’s home for Christmas or saying “Merry Christmas” on the street resulted in stiff fines. If the Red-and-Green Scare muckrakers actually lived in the colonial days they mythologize as our nation’s halcyon Christian era, they’d be tossed in jail, never to be seen or heard again.

As an informed citizen, the “War on Christmas” charade strikes me as preposterously anti-American. As an informed believer, it appalls me. It exploits the Prince of Peace’s birth to excuse bloodthirsty partisan attacks. It perverts the season centered on Christianity’s holiest day into a run of hollow days that defile the Christ Child by refuting His message. It astounds me that Christmas’s uncalled-for defenders can say, “Peace on Earth, goodwill to all people” and “Go to Hell” in one breath. I tremble to think how many confuse their phony tantrums with Christ’s true ways. And before my anger rises up, my heart sinks in dismay that otherwise intelligent people have no clue their self-righteous façade exposes their corruption and bigotry. Their devout rhetoric can’t quell one’s sense they’re to our time what many Pharisees were to Jesus’s: all show and no substance.

A Humbug

In Matthew 23, Jesus gears up to describe the times preceding the Second Coming by pronouncing seven woes on leaders who poison the faith climate of His day. His list of complaints reads like a modern op-ed diatribe that pulls down the “Christian” extremist platform plank-by-plank. He charges them with: religious exclusion; breeding hatred; placing trust in riches; neglecting justice, mercy and faith; whitewashing rotten ideas; and revising history to enhance their image. Dead-center of His furious rampage against their recklessness, Jesus unleashes His fourth outrage: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.” (v25-26)

In one fell swoop Jesus crushes the presentation-is-everything myth that media mavens, spin doctors, politicians, and religious pretenders swear by. Just as pinning a flag to our lapels doesn’t make us patriots, defending public Nativity scenes and saying “Merry Christmas” don’t make us Christians. If our motives are impure, our faith is a figment of imagination. Our words ring as hollow as our souls. This isn’t one man’s opinion, a bone of left-right contention, or open for debate. It’s a matter of record, spoken 2000 years ago by the One we claim to serve. If we disagree, we might consider stepping away from the pulpit and off the air long enough to get on our knees and discuss the issue with Him.

Keeping “Christ” in “Christmas” means nothing if we don’t keep Christmas holy. Declaring, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” is futile if our reasons for saying so contradict the purpose of His birth. It’s silly of us to sing, “Peace on Earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled,” while creating disharmony, bullying people, and preaching favoritism. O’Reilly’s impudence was foolish—and disheartening—twice over. First, as a Jew, Stewart subscribes to a faith that doesn’t believe in Hell; it was a hollow threat. But second, O’Reilly took a hammer to his own piety and revealed the hollowness it masks. The “War on Christmas” is a humbug. It proves, once again, there’s nothing to the myth that presentation is everything.

We adore You, O Christ—Prince of Peace, Joy of our desiring, and Mediator between God and humanity. May we not pass this holiest of seasons without searching our hearts. Give us grace to purify ourselves through and through. Make us holy vessels for Your glory and honor. Amen.

The Red-and-Green Scare’s “War on Christmas” is a humbug that contradicts the purpose of Jesus’s birth and everything He represents.

Postscript: “Instruments”

The “War on Christmas” malarkey hastens us to renew the vow St. Francis of Assisi immortalized in his prayer. As Sarah McLachlan’s haunting rendition reminds us, we are instruments of God’s peace, love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy. We are called to bear Christmas’s vitally needed gifts to the world, not to stomp them to bits in a phony war to defend its public expression.

Monday, December 19, 2011


This will be a sign for you: you will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. (Luke 2.12)


Advent’s journey of long, still, and sober nights is winding down. Three days from now, Earth will tilt on its axis—a prized event for those who’ve endured six months of waning daylight. North, south, east, and west, Advent pilgrims have Bethlehem in full view. We who are given to flights of imagination envision millions of faithful believers converging on a country road that snakes across broad meadowlands outlying the hilltop village known as “the City of David.” And right about here is when I (and I suspect many like me) really start to miss the King James Version’s Nativity accounts. Up to this point, newer, more accurate translations of the Advent texts are a godsend. Once we get to the birth, however, modern versions can’t compete with the KJV’s poetry.

Compare the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of the angel’s instruction to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a Child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2.12) Now listen to the KJV: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” I would guess the KJV’s use of “swaddling” is the first time most of us encounter the term. Since it sounds comfy, we assume “swaddling clothes” are akin to a receiving blanket—a downy wrap for a newborn. And we may be shocked to learn they're not. The NSRV’s tone-deaf “bands of cloth” is spot-on. Swaddling clothes are fabric strips that bind ancient newborns’ movement. After birth, they’re bathed and salted (to preserve their soft skin), and tightly wrapped below the neck to protect them from insect bites and straighten their limbs. Swaddling is anything but comfy. It’s hot, confining, and makes for very unhappy babies. The Baby Jesus we imagine nestled in a warm blanket is not Whom the shepherds find. They see a cranky, immobilized Infant Who looks more like a mummy than a Holy Child. So much for poetry.

A World That Restrains Him

Swaddling continued into the 1600s, well after artists began depicting the Nativity in paint and stone. Even among works dated before it went out of vogue, however, very few portray a tightly wrapped Child. (Those that do present Jesus as blissfully content to be bound neck-to-foot.) Personally, I can’t recall swaddling in any Sunday school and storybook illustrations from my childhood. Nor do I remember a Bible teacher or minister explaining it—ever. Without asking, the reason seems apparent. A corseted, bawling, miserable Baby Jesus is counterintuitive to all He represents. This is the Child Who brings freedom, peace, and joy to the world. Why would an artist, teacher, or minister present Him any other way but free, peaceful, and happy?

Yet peeking into a flea-infested manger to spy a trussed-up, squirmy, fretful Christ Child somehow appeals to me. I’m strangely moved by thought of Jesus coming into a world that instantly restrains Him and causes His parents great anguish. What frustration Mary must feel, as she fights every urge to loose Him and hold the flesh of her flesh to her bosom. How Joseph must ache to take Jesus’s tiny hand in his calloused palm and feel the touch of God. The agony they must experience, as the Baby wails to break free. And in that moment, they epitomize a profound conflict that burdens all of us who carve a birthplace for Christ in our hearts.

Born to Be Free

Conventional wisdom says restricting Jesus’s movement in our lives is best for Him. If we truly love Him, we won’t expose Him to our diseases. His reach must be severely limited and His touch denied. For His health and safety, His cries to be loosed must be ignored. A freely moving Christ is an irresponsibly handled One, we’re told. This Sacred Child’s misfortune is being born into a world of clear and present dangers none so pure as He could possibly withstand. Sharp bites of infectious hatred and violence that barely faze us will destroy Him. Pressures that tie us in knots will bend and break His tender limbs. Swaddle Jesus, we’re told. Wrap Him up tightly to shield Him from evils and ugliness that plague our world. Be afraid for Him—and fear what people will think if you give Him free access in your life. Imagine their discomfort when they see the Christ born inside you held close to your bosom. Think of their alarm when touching the hand of God matters more to you than bowing to custom. Worry more about what will be said of you behind your back than the Christ Child’s cries to be loosed in your heart.

Perhaps painters and sculptors, teachers and ministers don’t present a swaddled Jesus because they’ve freed the Christ born in them. Perhaps they’ve come to grips with a truth that conventional wisdom doesn’t account for: the tiny Babe is indestructible. He’s the Eternal Word made flesh, God Incarnate, the Creator disguised as creation. We need neither be afraid for Him nor fear what people will think and say. The Baby born to free us is born to be free in us. Come to the stable. Look in the manger. But don’t stop there. Lift the Child from the hay. Unravel His restraints and let them fall away. Permit Him to move as He pleases. Permit yourself to hold Him close. Feel God’s touch. Discover the freedom from fear, peace of mind, and joy of living that Christ brings. Set Jesus free.

Most Holy and Indestructible Child, we confess bowing to conventional wisdom that urges us to restrict Your movement. We repent of our foolish fears and conformity. Be free in us. Move as You will. And free us to let You remain free, to hold You close and feel Your touch always. Amen.

See the Newborn trussed in swaddling and set Him free. (Georges de la Tour: Adoration of the Shepherds; c. 1644)

Postscript: “Move in Me”

Take this little song with you to the manger. Sing it quietly, as a prayer to the Infant. Set Him free, and find the freedom, peace, and joy He brings.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Now to God Who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles. (Romans 16.25-26)

Mechanics and Meaning

Though I find dogs endearing and admire the mutual loyalty that binds them and their masters, there’s no getting around it. I’m a cat lover through and through. And if I’m not careful, I can easily turn into the worst kind of cat lover—the insufferable kind that bores people blind with tedious testimonials of how clever and unique his felines are. But, as much as I resist saying so, our two are remarkably clever and unique. While Cody and Max get along splendidly, their interests couldn’t be less alike. Mechanics fascinate Cody. We catch him watching us use gizmos, and once he’s sure he’s got the process down, he’ll practice until he masters it. He turns on faucets, flips off light switches, awakens computers, and retrieves pages from the printer. Max doesn’t care how things work. He’s intrigued with what they’re for. He connects their function to the world around him. When suitcases come out, he knows we’re going away. When the microwave whirs, he knows we’re about to eat. When darkness begins to fade, he scurries to a window and doesn’t budge until the sun finds its place in the sky.

So much about Max and Cody reminds me of our responses to God’s promises. Sometimes we’re like Cody. A promise sets off an obsession with how it will work. We devote exorbitant time and energy to questions we can't possibly answer. Then, sometimes we’re like Max. Curiosity about what the promise is for—what it means—overtakes us and we won’t rest until we connect its function to the world around us. Neither is necessarily bad, except when God isn’t forthcoming about the promise’s mechanics and/or meaning. In those cases, our only choice is to let it play out, because obsessing about it is the way of madness.

Advent’s Big Lesson

What is Advent, if not a refresher course in the inscrutable mechanics and indecipherable meaning of God’s promises? It plunges us into the murky depths of Second Coming parables and prophecies, and challenges us to compare our befuddlement to the bewilderment surrounding Christ’s birth. Advent makes no pretense that we’ll solve either mystery. But when we do the hard work it assigns us, actively engaging its material—instead of trudging through the semester to get to the holiday—we come out with increased certainty that God’s great promises always include an intricately detailed strategy to back them up. And with that, we gain a richer understanding that the difference between our relationship with God and those we forge with one another rests in their opposing ideas of mutual trust.

We gauge confidence in human relationships by how we openly confide in each other. With God, comfort with not knowing indicates the extent of our faith that God knows everything about us and what’s best for us. For no reason besides pure love for us, God spares us the heartache—and headache—of wrestling with what we can’t possibly absorb by telling us only what we need to know. We never offend or anger God by asking for more information. Before we ask, though, we should prepare not to be offended or angry when God refuses. God loves us too much to burden us with more than we can digest. In return, God trusts us to wait patiently on God’s promises, knowing they’ll be honored in ways that ultimately make their mechanics and meaning transparent.

That’s the Big Lesson of Advent, isn’t it? While we’re perched in a tumultuous present, peering at impenetrable promises of future peace and deliverance, Advent teaches us to refresh our recall of how God’s promises come to fruition. The immense complexity of God’s covenant with Israel cripples the mind. It spans thousands of years, involves countless people and dozens of nations, accounts for each step in human progress, and acquires no end of finely nuanced implications that affect every aspect of our existence. Even though the Bible records its epic proportions in painstaking detail, synthesizing its mechanics and meaning would exceed our capabilities were it not for how they’re revealed.

The promise arrives wreathed in simplicity and haloed with wonder. It’s revealed through a maiden so far removed from the nexus of political, social, and religious power that the Child she bears irrevocably redefines power’s meaning and importance for all time. Every mortal expectation is subverted by something so impossible it never crossed the brightest minds. Sacrosanct prejudices are abolished, inequitable judgments overturned, and manmade traditions dismantled. And all of this transpires not by deafening pronouncements in vast arenas, but by the barely audible cry of an illegitimate Baby born in the seedy obscurity of a borrowed stable. The promise Israel struggled for generations to grasp becomes transparently evident in ways they never imagined.

What Thwarts Our Faith

As Paul ends his epistle to the Romans—by far his most thorough explanation of why patient trust in God’s promises serves our best interests—he encapsulates Advent’s Big Lesson. He prays God will strengthen the Romans “according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith.” (Romans 16.25-26) It’s likely this passage (Sunday’s New Testament reading) may feel the squeeze of the other texts: Luke’s rendering of The Annunciation and Mary’s song, and 2 Samuel’s account of another great promise, when God ordains David to build a magnificent temple. Yet the majesty foreshadowed in the more auspicious readings radiates its fullness in Paul’s three verses.

We have no doubt God’s promises are true. Obsessive curiosity about how they work and what they mean is what thwarts our faith. It sets us up for needless frustration and impatience. As Advent’s Big Lesson nears it close, it refreshes our memory and reminds us that full and transparent disclosure will arrive the moment God makes good on God’s promise. Without fail, we will be stunned by the extent of God’s plan and meanings it unfolds. Until then, we’re wise to trust God to perform as promised and honor God’s trust in us by waiting until the promise comes to pass. God keeps secrets in order to keep promises.

Giver and Keeper of great promises, we pray Your strength to trust Your love and wisdom in honoring Your vows to us. Increase our capacity to wait. May confidence in Your full and transparent disclosure well up within us as we defer to Your timing, plan, and purpose. Amen.

The makings and meanings of God’s promises exceed our understanding. All we need to know is when God makes good on a promise, everything about it is transparently clear.

Postscript: “All Things Are Working for Me”

What happens when we take Advent’s Big Lesson and scale it down to a personal size? At some point, our trust in God’s promises shrink in the face of looming despair and defeat. No singer/songwriter I know is more gifted than Fred Hammond at translating divine principles like trust and patience into candid responses. This song, which moves me no end, makes no mention of Christ’s birth or what it reveals. Yet few, if any, Advent hymns and Christmas carols express the struggle to wait for delivery of God’s promises—which is what Advent and Christmas are all about.


Falling apart and tearing at the seams

Tribulation lends a hand and squeezes your hopes and dreams

You say you retreat, you say you just can't win

Before you let your circumstance tell you how the story ends

God's Word says you can stand

He'll cover you with His grace

Everything you need is in your hand

So lift up your head and say

All things are working for me

Even things I can't see

Your ways are so beyond me

But You said that You would

Let it be for my good

So I'll rest and just believe

I know you say you've got it bad right now

Let me say I know that feeling well

To make good plans for life

And then you watch them take a downward spin

Let me encourage you while I encourage me

See the raging rain and wind

But He'll speak peace and it will end

All things are working for me...

Many days and night I cried because I felt let down

I won't always receive good

But a praise in my heart will remain

So with tears in your eyes

Know sometimes it might get rough

But say, Lord I love you more and that's enough to know...

All things are working for me...