2016 Christmas Wish for Evangelicals: Drop the War on the War on Christmas

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In your Christmas clearance shopping I suggest stocking up on a gift we evangelicals could give the world next Christmas: Drop the war on “the war on Christmas.” Lets stop trying to out-Grinch the Grinches.

In the children’s Christmas classic, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the Grinch was a grouchy, cave-dwelling monster with a heart “two sizes too small.” From his lair on icy Mount Crumpit, the Grinch could hear the merry Who’s preparing for their Christmas festivities in Whoville below. Annoyed, the Grinch decides to stop Christmas from coming. He crudely disguises himself as Santa, and forces Max, his loyal but unloved dog, to drag his sleigh to Whoville, where he steals all of the Who’s Christmas presents, trees, and, as he disappears up the chimneys, even the log for their fires.

Yes, American culture does seem to be taking a hard turn from our Christian Christmas cultural assumptions

With the “Starbucks war on Christmas” hoax, you might have missed the less spectacular but actual cultural squeeze:

-Brunei mandated jail time for Muslims celebrating Christmas but generously deciding that Christians could celebrate, as long as the decorations were not visible from the street.

–Australian schools outlawed carols. So did VA hospitals in the U.S.

–New Hampshire was added to the list of states whose public schools do not allow the word “Christmas” on printed material or in classrooms.

–A Brooklyn principal outlawed all references to Christmas, stars, and Santa because they might “represent a religious system.”  (Santa is religious?)

And how have Christians responded? Grumpiness, lawsuits, and economic boycotts.

Imagine how different the Grinch that Stole Christmas might have been if Whoville had been populated by American evangelicals…

The people of Whoville were in quite a tizzy.

Nativities and carols gone awol, we’d better get busy.

Boycotting and arguing on the news shows,

expressing our outrage until our face glows.

Organizing alternate candidates to run.

And filing our lawsuits, crowdsourcing its’ fund.

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The negativity and desperation are not very attractive. But, if we cannot remember the Bible’s encouragement to return good for evil, perhaps we can remember how the inhabitants of Whoville actually responded…

As dawn breaks on Mt. Crumpit, the Grinch is preparing to dump the town’s presents into the abyss. Listening for the Who’s bitter and sorrowful cries, the Grinch is puzzled to hear them, not lamenting, but singing joyful Christmas melodies. It dawns on him that, “maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more” than just presents and feasting. The Grinch’s shrunken heart suddenly grows three sizes larger, and the converted Grinch returns the Who’s presents and is warmly invited to the Who-feast, where he has the honor of carving the Roast Beast.

If only that were the strategy we would adopt!

We cannot fix internal spiritual issues with external political solutions.

Broken systems are the result of broken people. Our political and educational systems are merely windows into who we are as a people. In Phoenix we lived on a corner. And because of how our house was angled, our front window was a magnet that drew the eyes of everyone who drove down Northview Ave. One Advent season, after our impressive Christmas tree had been up several days, I was outside and noticed that I hadn’t put any ornaments on the back side of said tree. How embarrassing – our beautiful tree was grotesquely bare to the street. Now I could’ve painted the window to fake a well-decorated tree or I could pull the decoration boxes back out of the attic and stretch around and fix the tree. Friends, attempts at political solutions to the passing of Christmas from the public sphere is nothing more than painting a phony picture on the front window. The problem isn’t the window. It’s what’s inside. Americans are not celebrating Jesus on the inside. Looking “Christmas” on the outside does not fix that.

People fear the baby because they don’t know the baby.

Church attendance tells us that most Americans simply don’t know the baby as the king of the universe. That he existed before all things. That he was both God and human. That he is the one “by whose stripes we were healed.” That he would die in our stead, to forgive not just our grinchiness but all of our other sins. That Christ alone has the power to bring us peace with God. They don’t know that he left us His Spirit to live within us, his church to support us, and promised us eternity in his grace-filled presence. You need to know that story. You need to let it soak deep so deeply into your bones, to marinade in it so deeply, that God’s love leaks out of you every time you open your mouth…to become a walking song from Whoville wafting into the ears of the Grinches.

It is only the Gospel that makes the bitter joyful, that heals burned over hearts. That reminds us that from God’s forgiveness we offer others forgiveness. Our neighbors will never really see love in the crèche at city hall. They can only see it in you and I. It is God’s forgiveness that gets inside the windows. And the last thing anyone needs, especially today, is a painted on faith.

I had an old youth group kid once who was a pk. And as preacher’s kids go, he was a pretty good one. But he had a bizarre desire to “look more Christian.” He was obsessed with his external “testimony.” I told him, “Quit worrying about looking like a Christian. Just draw close to Jesus and others will see him.” Jesus always shines through the windows.

My encouragement for next Christmas: Return being grouchy and seeking political “wins” today. In your day after Christmas bargain hunting, stock up on the joy of introducing people to Jesus   the great miracle of God with us. Christmas is for giving because, after all, “God so loved the world that he gave…”

 

What is truth?

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Our cultural “believies” and the war against fundamentalism.

Unless you have spent the last two weeks living under a rock you have been stunned by the violence in the name of religion. This is not the first time the news has been bad. And not the first time religion was involved.

In the Christian calendar last Sunday was Christ the King – the one modern day in our liturgical year. Christ the King Sunday was given to us by pope Pius XI at the end of WWI. As hard as it is to imagine, the carnage then was far worse: 18 million died as machine guns, planes, tanks, chemical warfare brought our ability to kill into the modern era.  And an ugly truth: the leaders on both sides claimed to follow Christ.

Pius XI called it, “a failure to remember God.” He thought, “the people need to remember that this world does indeed have a king, but that king is not us. The pope set aside the last Sunday of the Christian year as an acknowledgement of the gracious rule of the King of Peace…and to grieve and groan our failure to walk in the way of peace. It is a day to remember and return – sort of a societal Ash Wednesday.

Christ the King is a powerful idea. But there was another response to the Great War: Rather than deepen religious commitment, some philosophers and politicians sought to eliminate it. The results of the attempt to eliminate religion were staggering. The next 70 years saw the atheistic states of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Amin and the Kmer Rouge kill more people than every religious war in history. Somewhere between 110 and 260 million people died at the hands of those seeking to eradicate religion.

Religion proved far more resilient than they imagined, though. 20% of America was still in church last Sunday. China and Africa are in the midst of the fastest extension of Christianity in history. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are also growing. Social science has acquiesced to a persistent truth: Humans are religious.  Maybe you have noticed that the narrative has changed from “God is dead” to “there are too darn many gods.” But a question remains: What do we do when people behave badly and use religion to justify that behavior? Since eradicating religion didn’t work, today another solution is being tried: To relativize and privatize religion.

You may not know it, but this isn’t the first relevatizing’s first rodeo. Pontius Pilate attempted the same strategy 2000 years ago. (John 18:33-38) Hours before being crucified Jesus was delivered to Pilate’s doorstep by religious leaders begging for his execution. Pilate, of the Roman knight class, was governor – the ancient version of being on a military “remote.” Do well and he would retire to a cushy life. Blow it and he would return home in disgrace. The last thing Pilate wanted was a religious squabble getting out of hand. Going inside he asked Jesus,  “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v.33) Jesus replied,  “My kingdom is not of this world, that’s why my soldiers aren’t fighting.” (v.36) In other words, Jesus wasn’t breaking Roman laws.

Pilate pressed him, “So you are a king?” (v.37) Pilate wants to worm his way out of the sticky political mess outside. Jesus wants to get into the mess that is Pilate’s interior: “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Even on trial, Jesus is inviting Pilate to himself. Pilate shrugs,  and utters the expression forever linked to his name, “What is truth?” (v.38) Then, knowing he is going to condemn an innocent man, Pilate walks out without waiting for an answer.

We all have times when we, like Pilate. don’t want to hear it…times when we want what we want and don’t want others intruding on those wants. Quite the opposite of Christ the King, this is me the king. Comedian Charles CK calls these, “my little believies.” He says, “I have things I believe. I don’t follow them. They just make me feel good about who I am. They are my believies.” “Believies” aren’t new, they’ve been with us since Adam and Eve did what they wanted in the garden. It’s always easier to walk away from truth than to confront where our beliefs lead.

In his book The Reason for God Tim Keller looks at our cultural “believies.” The first “believie”: “There can’t be one true religion.” The claim to exclusivity, we are told, is wrongheaded and dangerous. “After all,” this line of thought goes, “religion is nothing more than a cultural construct – Syrians are Muslim and Americans are Christian because of the culture in which we were raised. The arrogance that arises from the conviction that one has the absolute truth is responsible for the evil in our world.” So, we are told, religion should be condemned and relegated to the purely private sphere of life.

Tim Keller points out, though, that condemning religion is only possible if one holds to some other, some alternate, belief system – and all belief systems require both a “leap of faith” and a perspective of superiority. For the secularist both of these are inherently inconsistent. Keller also argues that privatization is never possible as everyone, no matter what faith or creed, brings a value system into the public discussion.

Now we are hearing a new “believie”: “Religion isn’t the problem. Fundamentalism is.” But be honest, we all have fundamental beliefs. In a pluralistic world the issue isn’t how deeply we hold our beliefs, but where those beliefs lead. Rather than pretending differences do not exist between religions, what if we were honest about them and instead evaluated which set of beliefs lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive toward those with whom they differ? Which set of unavoidably exclusive beliefs lead to humble, peace-loving behavior? Using those criteria, I believe Christianity has much to offer a world in crisis…much more than the secularists solution of relative, culture bound, privatized religion.

How could you possibly trust someone holding the philosophy that truth is relative not to cheat you?

After all how could you possibly trust someone holding the philosophy that truth is relative not to cheat you in business? Not to cheat in your marriage? To finish the job of parenting your children? Oh, a relativist might do all of those things. But there is nothing in their belief system to encourage their dependability. Heck, you can’t even count on the relativist not to crucify the innocent son of God.

The problem with our culture’s believies, is that they leave us with bigger problems than they solve. In contrast to our culture’s “spiritual but not religious” view, the Christian world view teaches:

  1. Truth is Objective (Truth is what is.)

Atheist Bertrand Russell talked about proving a teapot orbiting between earth and Mars.” But my ability to argue the point is irrelevant to that object’s actual existence. Either a teapot is spinning out there or it isn’t. Contrary to the oft repeated myth that truth is relative, Truth is what is, regardless of what I would like it to be. 

  1. Truth is Revealed: Truth is difficult to discern. Luckily we were not left on our own at this point. Truth was revealed generally in nature, but specifically in Jesus Christ and God’s word, the scriptures. Truth is what God says it is…not what I or my culture would like it to be.
  2. Truth is Narrow: The only area in which we struggle with the idea that truth is “narrow” is religion. Think about it…

Do you want a chemist with a broad definition of chemistry? Imagine a “broad” chemist bringing you a glass of H2O2: “What is one little extra atom of oxygen among friends?” Unfortunately H2O2 isn’t water. It’s peroxide. Truth is narrow.

Do you want an accountant who has a broad definition of addition? “Who says 2+2 must = 4? Why can’t it equal 3 or 311?” I’m guessing the IRS auditor will not be sympathetic. Why? Because Truth is narrow.

Do you want a pilot with a broad definition of what constitutes a runway?  “That airport is really busy today, but the freeway is long and straight. How about we set this 737 down on the Interstate?” Truth is narrow.

Do you want a spouse with a broad definition of love? “This is great Janice. Our love is awesome. Why don’t we share it…You have four sisters. Let’s all get married!” The answer to all of these is, No way! Truth is narrow. And finally…

  1. Truth is not private, it’s Personal. For a Christian, truth is not a what, truth is a who. Christian faith is based in the who of Jesus Christ. God loved humanity so completely and so relentlessly, that having seen our rebellion from before creation, God had a plan in place to redeem our fallen world. It involved his son Jesus Christ personally coming to earth, demonstrating a life of peace and self-sacrifice…A life of love and intimacy with his Father. And a life in which our rebellion and God’s wrath would be satisfied by Jesus’ self-emptying love – his personal replacement for you and I on the cross. And we know it worked because three days later Jesus walked from the tomb, seen by scads of people, and was bodily assumed into the clouds before his stunned follower’s eyes. People, truth is personal – bound irretrievably and irrevocably to God’s love for you, personally, through his son, Jesus Christ.

What is truth?

Jesus told Pilate, “I came to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus Christ said, “The truth will set you free.” And Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Looking at Jesus, his friend John wrote, “To all who receive him. Even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” For Jesus, this is personal. It is about you and I becoming family with God.

What do we do with Truth?

The great need for truth in our day is not to win the argument for absolute truth’s existence, but to walk in humility as children of the True One. What part of the truth of Christ’s kingship over your life bugs you? What do you not want to wait around and hear? Where are you passing the buck or fearing another’s agenda in your life? When you see the news do you fear? Or do you see God’s opportunity to share the love and light of Christ? The world cannot afford for you and I to privatize our faith. If you are the follower of a King whose kingdom is not of this world, despair not – light shines brightest in the darkness. The world most needs light when it is dark outside.

(An adaptation of a sermon. To watch that sermon click the graphic. Sermon starts 17 minutes in.)

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Larry Bird and the power of repetition (pt. 2)

Part 2 of a series on the Daily Office

How is one “remolded” from within? How are people “transformed”? It helps to know a bit about the word we translate “remold” or “transformed.” The original Greek word is “metamorpho.” We get “metamorphosis” from it. “Morphing” entered the public consciousness in the 1990’s in the children’s show, “The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers,” in which teenagers had the power to transform, accessing super powers to save the world from alien invasion. There is also a DC Comics superhero by the named Metamorpho who is so transformed that, unlike most superheroes, he cannot return to his pre-changed state.

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The problem with “morphin’” as a pop-culture phenomenon is that the Power Rangers gave us the silly idea that morphing is something that we could do ourselves and do in an instant…and a change that could be undone just as easily. Scripture paints a different picture. In the New Testament “Metamorpho” is only used three times: Once of Jesus who is “morphed” at the transfiguration. The second is in Romans 12:2. The third is in 2 Corinthians 3:18 “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.


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In both places Paul uses “metamorpho” to refer to followers of Jesus the word is in the passive voice – the action of transformation does not happen by us rather it happens to us. In both places it is in the second person plural, “y’all” – In other words the “transformation” is for the whole church as a community, rather than merely for the rare super-hero or super-saint. In both places being “remolded” presumes a life-time of faithfulness rather than the instantaneous appearance of transformation, such as Jesus’ transfiguration or the Power Rangers. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, “metamorpho” is the process of becoming like Jesus: “being transformed(by the Holy Spirit) “into the same image (Jesus), from one degree of glory to another” (we become progressively more like Him). These two usages of “morphing” leave us with three principles: 1) Transformation is a work of God’s grace that happen to us rather than by us, 2) it is for the whole community, 3) it occurs over a lifetime…in other words, through repetition.

Interestingly enough, the power of repetition to change us is exactly the idea the Anglicanism was founded on. The concern driving Archbishop Cranmer, assembler of the first Book of Common Prayer, was how to make disciples of Jesus in a nation in which the king had just dissolved the monasteries and their communal life of prayer. Archbishop Cranmer, in the Preface to his first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549) set forth the following goals to course-adjust the worship of the English church, freeing it from medieval papal innovations:

  1. Combine the seven books necessary for communion, daily prayer services, and scripture readings into one book for use by all Christians (rather than just the clergy). That way the church would “need no other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible.” Worship, thereby, would be “by the book” – a book of shared prayers. That book would be…
  2. Understandable – rather than the “holy language” of Latin, the bible and the prayer book would be read in the language of the people so that “…they might understand and have profit by hearing.”
  3. Common: Everyone in the community would be united by this set of scripturally constructed prayers prayed together that “…the whole realm shall have but one use.”
  4. Scriptural: “The whole Bible (or the greatest pare thereof) should be read over once in the year.

Thomas Cranmer also articulated the idea that scripturally-immersive “common prayer” is the ancient and original method God had used to form the people of God and was “…agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old fathers”  

To the surprise of many Episcopalians, Archbishop Cranmer’s vision for the church and Christian life was not the weekly Eucharist, but the Daily Office: The services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Cranmer, imagined a life in which Christians would meet daily to read and pray the Word of God together as a community in order to live as God’s Word in the community. In the services of Morning and Evening Prayer we read the Bible every day, each year, for the rest of our lives with the result that we would live story-formed lives. As old record albums had grooves cut in them for the needle to follow, Christians lives deeply cut in the scriptures have grooves in our souls that make our lives sing Jesus to the world. The scriptures and the ancient prayers based upon those scriptures form a daily routine grooving the patterns of Jesus into our lives, transforming us into the image of Christ through a pattern that we surrender ourselves to – an immersion in the scriptures deeply permeates our souls s0 that when tough times come we go into layup mode-automatically channeling the stories, cadences, and rhythms of the presence of God.

What might we be like if Christians were so formed and immersed in the scriptures that we had the time in the scriptures that Larry Bird had in shooting jump shots? I have a feeling that we might be like Metamorpho-the super hero so transformed he could never return to his former state.

We are, each of us, being shaped by something…always being conformed into the image of something. What is it you are being formed into? What if we were shaped by daily immersion in the Bible? What if we read it, prayed it, and did it together, as a group? My guess is that we would be, as Paul described,transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” A daily ritual such as the Daily Office is a chance to have a “warmup routine,” a familiar pattern that conforms us to Christ by immersing us in the scriptures. When embraced over time it gives us the ability to, like Larry Bird with a basketball, get to places spiritually we could never get another way.

Larry Bird and the Power of Repetition

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How the Daily Office will change your life (Part 1)

Like most American Christians I have spent significant time looking for “fresh” Jesus experiences. Several years ago I decided that looking for “new” things was an unhelpful exercise in missing the point. That conviction struck me as I reflected on an experience I had years ago with Larry Bird…

My part-time job teenage job was Phoenix Suns ball-boy. While my friends worked the usual food service and retail gigs, I worked the visitor’s team bench and locker room. I wasn’t just paid better than my friends, I watched games from the floor and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with NBA Hall of Fame greats like Kareem, Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. Well, maybe “rub shoulders” is overstating it. I tossed them towels and put their jerseys on their shoulders when they came out of the game. During those years I noticed something: The very best players, the really great ones, all had a consistent warm-up routine they followed identically, even superstitiously, before each game.

Game nights for me involved arriving three and a half hours before tipoff to set up the visitor’s locker room with towels and soda before the team bus pulled up an hour later. One afternoon in February of 1980 I entered the bowels of Veterans Memorial Coliseum to hear the echo of a basketball being dribbled. I craned my head toward the court and saw the arena lights already on through the tunnel.  The security guard, seeing my confused look informed, “Some Celtics rookie showed up early.” I set up the locker room and walked into to the court to see this curiosity for myself. Larry Bird had finished his layup cycle and was shooting his way “around the world.” I guess Larry had paid for a cab to arrive early and go through his routine. Seeing my ball boy jersey, he asked if I would shag balls as he shot his way farther and farther away from the basket. Fans of professional basketball may know that 1979-80 was not only Bird’s rookie season, it was also the first year of the three-point line, which at 23’9’’ is quite a distance to hurl a basketball with either form or accuracy. Larry continued to shoot his way further from the basket until he was at the 3-point line. Larry Bird was a forward. I had not seen a forward shoot from the still new and rarely used three-point line. What Larry did next I had never seen any player do: He continued to move beyond the arc until he was shooting a full 10’ behind it. I grew impatient chasing balls shot from a distance one could not possibly use in a game. I asked him why he was wasting his time. Larry responded in his Indiana drawl, “You never know,” he said winding up a shot from 12’ past the line on the right side of the arc near the scorer’s table sideline, “when I might need this shot to win a game.” I almost laughed out loud – an NBA coach was not going to give a game-winning shot to a rookie.

Five hours later, with time running out and the Suns holding a two-point lead, the Celtics broke their huddle and inbounded the ball to Larry Bird. The rookie dribbled into the front court where he launched a 30’ shot from within three feet of the spot he had told me he might need to shoot from in warmups. His shot caromed off the backboard and dropped through the net giving the Celtics a one-point lead over the Suns with half a minute left. How did Larry make impossible shots look easy? The answer: repetition – the thousands of shots Larry had launched in his practice routine.

By the time a basketball player reaches the NBA they have practiced tens of thousands of shots, but they still start their warmups with layups. Why do men who can dunk still practice layups? They know how to do a layup. Layups are boring. The truth is that greatness in both sports and the Christian walk is not about information, it is about formation. There is a difference. Information is knowledge. A good Jr. high player knows the mechanics of a proper jump shot. But it was the two decades of repetitive discipline, honed on an outdoor court in Indiana winters, shooting until his hands bled, that gave Larry Bird the freedom to do things others could not on a basketball court. The principle Larry Bird knew is that Repetition leads to transformation. We see this at work in scripture: Romans 12 opens with, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God….” Then Paul explains how to present our bodies to God, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The Phillips translation phrases it like this, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into it’s mold, but let God remold you from within.”

(Next Up: Part 2 How does God “remold us” spiritually, and the basis of Anglican spirituality.)

 

Halloween is awesome

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I am an unrepentant fan of Halloween. Oh, I know it is the devil’s day. I know about its pagan roots. I too learned as a new Christian that I am supposed to bring kids to the church for Harvest Festival: the Christian imitation of Halloween.

But every one of my non-Christian neighbors will be in our cul de sac thirty minutes from now, enjoying one another’s company, hanging out, their children laughing and showing off their costumes and drinking hot chocolate together. People drive from miles around to come to my neighborhood because it is a safe place to bring inner-city kids. How unevangelical would it be to pack ourselves into a minivan and drive away on the one night of the year that my unchurched neighbors want to connect? I remember being a twenty-three year old at my first Harvest Festival and saying to my then fiancé Kari, “Here are nearly three hundred terrific people who could be light and salt in their neighborhoods and we are all here instead.”

Frankly, it is a blast to be in my neighborhood, handing out candy to the families who will come to my door, sitting around the fire-pit, bringing young adults from church to my front yard with guitars and djimbes to sing and generally make our yard the center of all the festivities. We will hand out fliers to our church’s Fall Round Up tomorrow afternoon after church – a “Harvest Festival” of sorts, but one specifically not on Halloween. After all, why should the devil have all the fun!

Excuse me, I have to go grab my cassock and sunglasses. I’m going as Neo from the Matrix. Oh, and if you are reading this on your way to the Harvest Festival, turn around. Your neighbors need you!

P.S. Feel free to critique participation in Halloween if you are also not participating in that other pagan holiday, Christmas, with its germanic tribal fertility symbol, the tree.

The True Cross

Church of the Holy Sepulcher at sunrise.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher at sunrise.

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Is the cross a sign of your life?

You probably missed it. It didn’t show up in most calendars and you would have to have been born under a lucky star to have heard it mentioned in the media. Monday marked the observation of the Feast of the Holy Cross. On September 14, 335 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was dedicated. On that day the “True cross,” discovered by Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, was brought into the church she had commissioned over the sites of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. But the Feast of the Holy Cross is much more than the celebration of a historically unverifiable artifact. Commemorating the instrument of Christ’s death is appropriate because the central focus of the Christian life is the Cross. The Cross is more than an event in history. It is the event in history.

The Cross is an eternally present reality for those allowing their lives to be hummed in the key of Jesus. The Cross is the unveiling of God in the world. It defines the proper shape of human existence. But what does a cross-shaped life look like?

Mainly it means that a truly meaningful life can’t be found in the self-centered life. We simply were not created to be self-fulfilled. We were not designed to be drinking bird contraptions, endlessly and mindlessly bouncing up and down after whatever fluid the world says we should peck at. Our lives, especially in the midst of trials, find our purpose as we give ourselves away. The way of the Cross, is the way of the other. And God is the ultimate “Other.” St. Paul says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3). The great truth of the Christian life is that we only find ourselves outside of ourselves. Orthodox priest, Fr. Stephen Freeman, offers helpful advice for living the cruciform life:

 Pray. Prayer is directing our hearts outside of ourselves towards God.

 Be kind. Kindness puts others ahead of ourselves.

 Give thanks always, in all things. Giving thanks acknowledges that our lives are not the products of our own efforts, but a gift from God.

 Forgive. Forgive everyone for everything. The refusal to forgive is the radical separation of ourselves from others.

– Give stuff away. The more, the better. We do not exist to consume. Satisfying our daily needs is enough. When our true life is found outside of ourselves, then sharing what we have with others is the most natural thing to do with our possessions.

 Do not lie. Do not participate in other’s lies. Lying is an act of selfishness – an attempt to create a false reality in order to duck the truth.

I would add: Receive God’s grace: In all of life, but especially in the Eucharist. We do not grab grace in the Eucharist. We make, as Cyprian said “A throne for God with our hands” and receive him.

The Cross is the way of life so, finally,

Embrace the practice of the Cross. Even Protestants can tangibly remind ourselves that we live in the shadow of the cross by making its’ sign frequently. In 250AD church Father Tertullian said that we Christians, “in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De corona, 30).

The Cross is the remembrance of Christ and points to the great truth that our lives are not our own. They belong to the Crucified One – A Savior who bids His friends to join Him an act of pure love: self-sacrifice.

Did you miss the Feast of the Cross this year? Did it slip past you unawares? Despair not. You need not wait for September 14th to come back around. Simply live a cruciform life.

Because the True Cross is…you.

*This is a riff on Father Stephen’s post for a midweek sermon. If you do not read Father Stephen, you should. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings And yes, I realize that the final sentence is narcissistic to the point of undoing the entire article. “You” just works so much better stylistically than “us”.  :-)

How I became an atheist. And why it didn’t work out for me.

 

atheists

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I have a friend who says he was raised an apathetic. “Apathetic” makes a pretty good description of me growing up as well. I was not an agnostic – someone convinced that God is unknowable. I had no idea if God was knowable. Maybe there was a God. Maybe not. I had never given it much thought. If there was some sort of a supreme being who spun up the world, well, we did a pretty good job of staying out of one another’s way. So I didn’t believe in God. But I didn’t disbelieve in him either.  Like I say, I was an apathetic. I just didn’t care.

At some point, though, one runs into life, or life runs into us, and we start to care.

Life ran into me one summer day after sixth grade. I came home and found my parents sitting on the edge of the bed in their darkened bedroom. My mom’s hands were over her face. I could hear muffled sobs. My dad motioned me in. “Your mom and I, we have decided to separate.” And just like that, with an obviously one-sided “we,” my Leave it to Beaver life childhood was gone. My world had been nice, quiet, predictable, moneyed. Divorce tends to unravel each of those. I was no exception. It turned out that most of my friends were going through their own pain: another divorce, a mom with cancer, a dad fired, an incurable disease. A lot was pressing in on our little group that summer as we sat on the cusp of the developmental mess that is adolescence. So, as sixth grade was about to begin, I looked at the world for the first time and wondered about the pain I felt and the pain I saw.

Broken people, broken families, broken neighborhoods, broken schools, broken cities, broken nations. The list of “broken” is disconcertingly long. How is it, if we are the product of a good and wise creator could the world be in such moral and physical squalor? I became an atheist for the reason many do: Pain. And just like that I was converted. I became a vocal and evangelistic atheist.

I was proud of my newfound disbelief. Make no mistake, it was much harder to be an atheist in the late 70’s. There were no Youtube videos. No Facebook memes. One had to find other atheists to talk to and go to the library and read Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Jean Paul Sarte. And atheism wasn’t cool the way it is now. To be an atheist was not avant garde. It was oddball. Things went well, though, in my newfound unbelief.

I relished helping my Christian friends, who were ill-equipped to defend their faith, out of their unreflected upon delusions. I might have left them alone if my Christian friends had seemed happier than the rest of us. Or if there were any evidence, even the slightest, that their faith gave them the strength to live a more moral or kinder life. Unfortunately, my Christian friends tended to be the biggest partiers, the most promiscuous, and oddly, the most judgmental people in my school. Naturally I asked questions about this. “How is it that I, someone who thinks that I answer to no one but myself, live a more moral life than you, someone who will supposedly answer to an all powerful deity who smites people that do the things you do?” Their answer was remarkably unsatisfying: “You just party on Friday and Saturday and ask God to forgive you on Sunday. Christianity is pretty awesome!”

“Seriously?” I would answer. “Marx was right, faith in God is an opiate to justify whatever immoral thing you are in the mood for. More than that, it allows you to feel superior in some God-given right to stand in judgment of others. If I ever were to pick a religion, I can tell you it wouldn’t be something as lame as Christianity.”

Then there was the Bible. Picking that apart with people who don’t know it very well isn’t difficult. And don’t get me started on the weird and distasteful things the church has done (and continues to) through the centuries.

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All in all, atheism worked pretty well for me. At least until the end of sophomore year in biology class…

Sophomore biology is often where churched kids begin to doubt their Christian faith. For the first time they are confronted with Darwin’s theory that time and chance account for life in all of its diversity. As the scientist said at the launching of the Hubbell telescope, “We no longer need ancient myths and foolish speculations to explain our origins.” I didn’t have the slightest inkling biology class would work in reverse for me. But it did. It was the sheep eye dissection unit the last week of school that ruined me as an atheist. The football coach / biology teacher, Mr. Swerdfeger, would sit on the front of his desk with a clear plastic bag filled with sheep eyes in one hand, reach in and grab one, and toss it the queasy students at each lab table.

Biology class had two-person tables and metal stools whose screech on the linoleum made the sound of fingernails on the chalkboard endurable. Biology lab pairs pimply, barely pubescent boys with entrancing young ladies who smell of gardens in Spring. These creatures would turn their attention toward us and inform the boys, “I will NOT touch it.” To have been spoken to by one of these goddesses was a great honor. We would have grabbed the eyeballs anyway to impress, but to have been spoken to guaranteed our obedience.

Mr. Swerdfeger pulled an eyeball from the plastic bag, and threw it toward our table in the back right corner of the class. I snatched the eyeball from the air to place in the wax tray, blackened by thirty years of use and reeking of formaldehyde. As I stared at the mass of tissue in my hand an awareness crept across my mind…There are eight or nine tissue types present in an eyeball: pupil, iris, lens, cornea, retina, optic nerve, macula, fovea, vitreous fluid. Evolution, the unit immediately preceding the dissection unit, explained that biological complexity is the result of beneficial mutation. It is the mechanism of beneficial mutation that allows life to overcome the second law of thermodynamics, which says that in the closed system of the universe, life should be running down. It is beneficial mutation that Jeff Goldblum was talking about in Jurassic Park when he famously said, “Life will always find a way.”

As I held that sheep’s eye it occurred to me that those eight or nine tissue types all have to be present and working together for the eye to be useful. Beneficial mutations are only perpetuated if there is a benefit. There is no benefit to any of those tissues without all of them present together – which should be impossible…unless someone was messing with the recipe. And it dawned on me, something, or someone had interfered in the system.

I dropped the eyeball and stood up. My worldview crumbling as my body rose from my lab stool.

Mr. Swerdfeger was annoyed at the interruption. “What’s the matter, Marino? Are you grossed out?”

“No sir.” I said, “I’m freaked out. I have to leave.” I grabbed my backpack and walked out. worldviews don’t die easily. After wandering aimlessly through the breezeways, I found myself heading home.

I did not realize it, but I had been confronted by a classic God defense: design demands a designer. By the time I walked through our back gate I knew that there must be a God and that I needed to find a religion that explained it or him or her or whatever or whoever. I was not a Christian. I was not even contemplating considering becoming a Christian. I just knew that if someone had asked me that day, “How is atheism working out for you?” My answer would have been, “It isn’t.”

I simply had a hard time believing that what I can see is all there is.

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*By the way, Mr. Swerdfeger was a fantastic teacher. Once when I was in the midst of ditching two weeks of school he rode his bicycle a mile to my house with a pile of homework in his backpack and told me that if I didn’t do the hours of work to pass his class he wouldn’t just fail me, he would find me and hurt me. Mr. Swerdfeger was a large man. He finally retired when the school told him that his biology class was so difficult they were going to make it the AP course. He retired rather than dumb down his curriculum. If you ask me, every high school in the country could use a few Mr. Swerdfegers.