A Jolly Conspiracy

In one of those awful Disney movies about dogs who talk, there is a scene where a sleigh pulled by puppies is trying to get back to the North Pole. Yet these puppies had never pulled a sleigh before, and they didn’t fully believe in the North Pole anyway, so they had to ask how to get there. The driver of the sleigh, another puppy, said, “Just follow the North Star!”

My family watched that scene, just last night, and after the sleigh puppies were told to follow the North Star, one of my daughters said, “That’s not how you get to the North Pole. That’s how you get to Jesus!”

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Saint Nicholas is everywhere. His image is on boxes of cereal and band aids and chocolate goodies. He is featured in countless commercials, seated on firetrucks in local parades, and is embroidered on those really bad Christmas sweaters. He’s mostly caucasian, with a white beard and a red suit. And he’s always smiling.

It struck me as odd, though, that for an annual season, an entire culture (the entire world?) promotes a belief in a supernatural benefactor that requires an inherent goodness from people before gifts are given — and his name isn’t God. And mostly, we are fine with that, until we realize that we are the ones giving gifts in the name of the patron saint of both thieves and children.

We spend money so gifts can be given in the name of someone who really isn’t even alive. Inordinate amounts of money, by the way — amounts that are probably disproportional to our income. We spend gobs just to make sure that this jolly conspiracy is perpetuated.

I wouldn’t call it lying.

But I would call it a masterful deception.

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One day a year, children awake with sleepy eyes and generous dreams, with the hope that Saint Nicholas has visited their home. They soon hold in their hands the gifts and presents that were given to them in the name of Saint Nicholas. (“We don’t need no stinkin’ parents!”)

Parents smile, and create Instagram shots of their kids. Grandmothers call and say sweet things like, “Santa was good to you this year, wasn’t he?”

And then, a few days later, when the tree becomes a nuisance, parents receive the credit card statements, and wonder why they spent so much money on gifts that are already forgotten.

So the budget-shuffling to pay those bills begins, because the minimum monthly payment has just grown by more than moms and dads had expected.

(“We just wanted them to have a good Christmas!”)

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We are slaves to something that, in the end, does more damage to our family than does it good.

This jolly conspiracy is built around debt, over-consumption, and excess, and it enslaves us. Moreover, it becomes difficult to find the mission of Jesus in the midst of soaring credit card bills. Yet we continue to be a part of it, even when it hurts.

When it’s put that way, it sounds almost diabolic, doesn’t it?

Or, like an addiction that needs some serious therapy.

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It’s hard — really hard — to not look at this jolly conspiracy as it is filtered through a gospel lens. Read no farther than Luke 4, and Jesus’ own mission statement, where he believed his divine mission was to feed the poor, to give sight to the blind, to give freedom to prisoners and to give freedom to the oppressed.

Freedom.

Freedom!

Jesus’ mission was to give freedom, yet our national spending habits from November 25 through December 25 rob us of freedom.

We willingly make decisions that teach our children about the gross excess of Americanism, at the expense of the very freedom Jesus offers.

And, by default, our kids will continue the cycle of ignoring the the most profound blessing of Jesus on the biggest gift-giving day of the year.

I’m not sure that’s exactly what we want to teach our kids, especially if we believe in Jesus, and believe in his message of freedom.

(An iPad mini just doesn’t seem to compare to that kind of freedom, does it?)

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Isn’t it interesting that we are partial to such a conspiracy, though? To underscore the point, consider this question:

What would Christmas morning look like if our children received gifts from their parents in the name of Jesus, instead of the name of Santa?

I think gift-giving, and gift-receiving would change. I know, because I speak from experience.

My family ended this jolly conspiracy a few years ago, telling our own children that the gifts they would receive, meager though they may be in the eyes of some, and extravagant in the eyes of others, would be because we were blessed by God to give those gifts. These gifts would no longer come in the name of a man in a red suit. And, we told them,  there may come a day when the Lord gives us trials, and gifts would be sparse. I am not a pessimist, but no one is spared from times of desperation, and I didn’t want to find myself enslaved to something, and someone, that — if that day ever came — wasn’t even real.

So, no more conspiracy. No more strange men visiting our home in the middle of the night, while everyone sleeps.

(And no more strange rabbit delivering eggs, either.)

In fairness, it took us almost a year to reach this decision, in large part because our culture says to uphold this jolly conspiracy as long as we can. For the longest time we thought perpetuating the deception was the right thing to do.

In the end, though, I grew tired of my kids “praying” to Santa — in the form of a Christmas list — and asking him for the things that would make their lives complete. I found myself to blame for those strange moments, when I began to believe that this loved tradition ignored the God who had graciously provided for my family.

I wanted to praise God on Christmas morning, and I wanted my kids to do the same.

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I’m dreaming of a better Christmas — a Christmas that doesn’t mix a fictional character with the birth of the Messiah. Our world has very little against the man in the red suit, but is quick to disregard the baby in the manger. I, for one, am tired of that.

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So here I am, and here you are, together, on some strange corner of the Internet, talking about Christmas. We haven’t discussed children in foster care, who wish to be reconciled to their families. We haven’t discussed the poverty experienced by some children, and we certainly don’t want to discuss it when we gather around a table of plenty. We haven’t talked about those who sleep in their cars on Christmas eve, or those who wake up with a hangover on Christmas morning. I’m not sure we need to.

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If the reason for the season is Jesus, then let Jesus be that reason. Let the gifts we give be in his name. Let those in our circle, in our community, know we care because we become the hands that give the gift of freedom in the name of Jesus. Let our kids see Jesus throughout the season, not only in pedantic Christmas specials on television, but in the face of the hungry who are fed.

It’s time to end this jolly conspiracy.

I’m not trying to start a movement. I just want you to pray about it, and let the Lord show you what you should do next.

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Three Years Without Cable TV

I cancelled my cable service three years ago.

And it still has been one of the best decisions I, and my family, have ever made.

After our first year, without cable TV, I wrote four posts to describe the process. They were great journeys in writing for me. They are raw, I think, but were certainly written out of passion and intensity. They are a little bit funny, a little bit satirical, and a whole lot serious. And in 2011, I wrote one addendum on what I believe to have been a spiritual battle, and my subsequent failure of such.

Here they are, again, for you. May they inspire you a bit today to think about what you allow your eyes to see.

Part 1 :: Television and Life: The Beginning of the End of My Cable Subscription

Part 2 :: Television and Life: The Philosophical Reasons We Cancelled Our Television Subscription

Part 3 :: Television and Life: My TV, My Movies, and Jesus

Part 4 :: Television and Life: What I’ve Done Since Canceling My TV

Part 5 :: Name: The Name of God and My Mistake

Eight Things I Learned From Reading the New Testament

It’s been a cool eight weeks since I published my ninetieth straight blog in ninety days.

Through this past summer, I ventured into the readings of the New Testament, every day, and then, through prayer and some additional readings, would write something here that moved me.

I’ve blogged only once since then, writing (or really just quoting) something brief I was reading.

There has been little time since the end of August to write much. And also, the process was so exhausting that I needed a break from this format.

Yet, in the past week or so, this format has beckoned me. My creativity seems to be waning right now, in this season of life, and this is a shred of an outlet. So I’m back. At least for now.

I did want to share here, though, some of my perspectives on reading and writing through the New Testament. And since I keep reading that blog posts should be short, I’ll make this one brief.

Here’s what I figured out.

  • Reading the Word of God requires an investment. Once we relegate our reading to “something that has to be done,” we’ve lost the passion of the narrative, and the intensity of God’s story in our world. It should not be a burden, but it should cost us something.
  • Outside writings were very helpful. It’s no secret that reading a document written in a different millennium, and from a different culture, would have scores of nuances about that environment that are just lost to us. Even the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, isn’t readily known by most of us, and translation steers interpretation.
  • People get mad quickly. A few posts of mine generated some heat. I attribute that solely to people’s unmovable opinions, and a lack of biblical literacy. If we can’t read the Word of God and expect to be shaken, then we’ve sorely missed the point.
  • It is a relentless story. Morning after morning, day after day, three chapters at a time, the Word was a force in my life. It consumed every thought. I liked that. But it changed me, and my family. Our search for God’s purpose in our own lives, I think, has just begun.

Here are my bothers, though:

  • Jesus attacked the good folk. While we’ve tried to vilify Jesus’ opponents, they weren’t bad people — at least before they began to plot his death. They tithed, preached against adultery, had an extreme desire for holiness, went to communal worship, read the Scriptures, and raised their kids together. They had good behavior. Until Jesus’ advent, the Pharisees weren’t the villains. Their lifestyle was, in fact, aspirational. In every sense, they were good, “church-going” people. Yet their obstinacy, and their inability to be moved by the very presence of God in their lives exposed their blackened hearts. I wonder if the good folk in our world, the good, church-going folk, would be the ones Jesus would expose.
  • My experience with Western Christianity has been to ignore the things that are troubling. Where did women actually fit in the story of the New Testament? What about Mark 4, when the Word was sown, but was never given a chance to grow — and not to the fault of the people (or the soil) — where does God fit in that? What about the three stories of baptism in Acts 8, 9, and 10, when the Spirit was received by people before, during, or after their water baptism? Or Revelation 17, when God is the one controlling the evil in the vision? Is our ignorance the right response to the story of God?
  • We know, and teach, very little of the culture of Paul’s travels. How quickly our perspective of each of his letters would change, if we only knew what life was like to the recipients! How many temples of various gods did he see? What was the celebratory culture in each of those temples like? Why did he say so much about eating together?
  • Discipleship, to Jesus, was a mobile lifestyle. Very little, in the New Testament, is said about people staying put. Now, to be fair, letters and gospel stories were written to people who were static. But the idea of discipleship is mobile. Even if you are settled, aren’t there scores of people in need? Why do those people, today, remain largely untouched by the gospel message?

I promised brevity, and I’ll keep that promise. It’s no surprise that my 90-day journey is still being referenced. I’ve gravitated now, though, to a through study of the gospel of Mark, and am writing a few things for our leaders and teachers of our small groups. I hope, one day, to make those accessible.

And, by the way, you can find all 90 posts right here.

A Divine Investment

And so we come to the final day in reading the New Testament.

It ends with an amazing vision.

The Lamb of God, the Living Word, erupts from heaven in glory. It’s a passage that gives me pause, and makes me tremble, every time I read it.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.

With justice he judges and makes war.

His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.

He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.

He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.

Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”

He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16; NIV84)

With images from the Old Testament, the Word comes forth in John’s vision, with a sword from his mouth (Isaiah 11:4), with the iron rod of rule (Psalm 2:9), treading the winepress of judgement (Isaiah 63:3).

The beast, Satan, is then held captive, for only one given reason – to keep him from deceiving the nations of the world, for what the text calls 1,000 years. Understand this, though. However these verses have been interpreted, the simplest interpretation is the most clear: the force and seduction of evil is not so strong that entire nations of people will see it as their only choice. It’s power is limited, because God has limited it.

So be careful about how you see this amount of time, because if this number is taken literally, then you have no choice but to take every number in the entire book literally.

The martyrs, then, those who gave their very lives for the Lamb, were brought back to life, to reign with Jesus. Staying within what John saw in this vision, again, is the simplest and clearest alternative. This reign, of a “thousand years” is only for those who have been martyred.

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

They were killed, then, in the presence of Christ, they were brought back to life, in the presence of Christ. The price they paid, for their “testimony,” was worth it.

Yet these “thousand years” come to an end, and Satan is released to fight a losing battle. His release cannot defeat the infinite plan of God, nor can it impede upon God’s holy and perfect city. There are people, in this city, who have accepted God’s forgiveness. And there are people, outside this city, who have refused it. No amount of time can change this.

The forces, too, that aid Satan in this battle, have not changed, which, again, highlights the constant and complete and total miracle of grace – only God can change a heart and offer freedom, while evil can only enslave and struggle.

God’s kingdom, in this book, emerges as victorious, as a new city. In John’s vision, it is a cube, with each side being 1,400 miles in length, made of gold. Gilbert Bilezikian sees this city as God’s complete and perfect vision of a community of people consumed and radically changed by God’s grace. He writes:

… the lavish description of the city’s decorations, of its walls and foundations covered with all kinds of gems, and of the city itself made of a single block of pure gold, fourteen hundred miles high and wide, figuratively suggests an enormous divine investment in the making of the church. For God, the church is the centerpiece of history. He draws on all that is dear and durable from the world and from the passing generations to gather a pilgrim of people destined to be a showcase of his grace for eternity.

To this magnificent project, he devotes all that he as, including the gift of himself in the person of his Son.

A divine investment of grace. I like that.

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And so, we come to the end, which is filled with this divine investment, because the very last verse of the last chapter of the last book is all about that very grace.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (22:21)

We are reminded, as we close the pages, that all of God’s holy activity on our small and meager planet is an extension of who he is, of who he claims us to be.

It is this grace that rescues us from the mires and consequences of the evil in this world.

It is this grace that allows us to dream kingdom dreams, of a community of people consumed by the love and mercy of God.

It is this grace that shows our world that we are, truly, from a different realm, by the way we’ve been loved, and the way we, in turn, love.

It is this grace that redeems our hearts when they are broken and in pieces.

And it is this grace that confirms for us a place in God’s city as adopted children with full rights to his entire creation.

Grace. It is all about grace.

Thank you, God.

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Today is day 90, and the final day of our 90 days. Thank you for joining me. In a few days I’ll have some new thoughts here, about what this experience has been like for me. I want to let it settle, first, and pray over these things.

Blessings to you, dear reader, and I pray you experience the total experience of God’s grace and fullness in your life today.

Even the Devil is God’s Devil

There is no cosmic struggle against good and evil.

Movies make it their plot, but with God, there is no such thing.

Martin Luther may have said it best, when he wrote, “Even the devil is God’s devil.”

And that’s true. Here it is in our reading today:

For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled. (Revelation 17:17; NIV84)

There is no evil strong enough to even contend with God, because God, in his sovereignty, even controls what evil beings do.

Now that’s big, and that’s a pretty deep rabbit hole. Too big, probably, for this post.

Yet here, in the context of Revelation 16, God’s final judgment on all evil in the world begins. Seven bowls, filled with his wrath, are poured on the earth, and bring plagues that sound a lot (again) like the ten plagues given to Egypt.

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God has a special place in his heart for oppressed believers. Because when he frees them, in the words of Jesus, they are free indeed.

In Revelation 17, the prostitute of the world is punished. For John’s readers, there is little doubt that this woman is the city of Rome, and possibly even the Roman empire. But since Revelation has multiple applications, it’s entirely acceptable that we see this as the final judgment on the world, and on all of the nations and peoples and governments that have systematically oppressed the church, the very kingdom of God on this pale blue dot in space.

At the end of this chapter, though, God gives the authority to the beast to devour her. To eat her. And the beast, in Revelation, was evil – but God uses this evil beast to devour another evil prostitute.

God is most definitely in control.

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It’s interesting, though, that God wants people to turn to him. Even the bowls of judgment were meant to cause unbelievers to turn. Following the fifth angel, and the fifth bowl of God’s wrath, are these two verses, which say much:

The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (16:10, 11)

Even though it is the moment of God’s final justice, he still offers people a chance to believe in his name.

Astounding. And an amazing image. It’s not the first time, though. After each plague against Egypt, the Pharaoh was given an opportunity to release the Hebrew slaves. God is a God of amazing patience.

But when the judgement begins, it is not pretty. An angel from God’s presence fills the earth with glory from the throne room, and begins a praise for the destruction of this city.

It is with a sigh of relief, then, that today’s reading begins, and ends. The suspense of this judgment has filled the pages of Revelation, until it is delivered. The saints under the altar, have wondered how long they would need to wait for their vindication.

No evil can overtake you. Rest in the power and justice of God today, because nothing can stand against him. Read here, again, from the letter to the Romans, and be encouraged today!

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

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Today is day 89.