Four Christmas Gifts that Change Everything

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Photo credit: Google Store – Fake Call from Santa app.

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I first realized the Santa story had holes in 1977. I was in the 6th grade, an embarrassing age not to be in on the gag. My friends, realizing my innocence, enlightened me with the subtlety one expects from 6th graders.

I would not let Santa go down without a fight, though. Pitying the skeptics, I would bring them back into the fold with facts. We gathered around our homeroom teacher’s shoebox sized desk calculator as I confidently pressed buttons. “The world’s population x the 20% who are kids (the machined hummed), divided by 10 hours of darkness (wheels whirled), divided by 60 minutes in an hour (gears spun). Equals.

Confident of victory, I tore the tape from the still cranking calculator…and gasped as the disappointing truth sank in: Santa was delivering 1.3 million presents per minute.

My friends howled. Our teacher, Mr. Fishleder, bit his lip in a passable attempt at maintaining a merciful decorum.

Although I learned what Christmas was not that year, it would be the better part of a decade before I learned of import of the infinitely more remarkable Christmas gift giver:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

-Isaiah 9:6, NRSV

Peel back for a moment our familiarity with the story…

A child whose names include “Mighty God”? Just to make sure we don’t miss the implications, in the next verse Isaiah circles back and tells us the predicted child would be a king whose rule would have “no end,” lasting “forevermore.” Yet kings don’t rule forevermore. Kings die. “Forevermore” and “no end” are code, code for God himself.

Let Isaiah’s sense-surpassing dichotomous claim sink in: God. Born. Religions generally have the deity lecture from a safe distance. Like Santa. “Hey, you people, straighten up down there. I’m making a list. I’m checking it twice. I’m going to find out who’s naughty or nice.” Other religions seem to me to be about helping people piously work their way to God. But God’s plan is shockingly intimate: “Immanuel.” Which St. Matthew tells us means, “God with us.” Christmas is nothing less than God. Born. The gift of God himself.

Our human inclination is to shrink Christmas to manageable proportions by making it an inspiring fable about being nicer. But if Christmas is only a warm fiction it isn’t inspiring at all. It’s desperately bleak – Our problem, after all, is not that we don’t know how we should live, but that we don’t live how we know we should. Given the havoc we have made of earth, is it possible to let us loose, as we are, in the cosmos for eternity? Let’s be real: Moral perfection for you and I is as likely as jumping the Grand Canyon on a bike “Santa” brought you for Christmas as a kid.

God’s answer, however, is much more heartening: A son is “given.” “Given,” not just “to us,” but “for us.” He was born for us, and he would die for us. Christmas is the beginning of God doing for us, out of love for you and I, what we cannot do for ourselves – forgive us and change us. God himself; born, living, dying, rising…both the perfect life we should live and the perfect sacrifice we cannot give. Jesus the king would pay our ransom and become our victor. In Christ, God made a way across that Canyon. Those two simple words, “For us” make Christmas the gift that fixes the mess humanity has made of things… a way has been made through the wall of our reality, clean across the chasm of our fallen-ness.

Christmas is God’s gift of Jesus.

Like any gift, though, God’s gift only blesses us when we receive it. And let’s be honest, receiving gifts is tricky. Anytime we receive a gift we wonder what accepting it will mean. When someone gives you a wedding ring, for example, accepting it has ramifications…

So what does receiving the gift of Jesus bring? I see four Christmas blessings in the names given the Christ child in Isaiah 9:6. Four gifts that have the potential to change everything:

First, in receiving Jesus, we receive the Wonderful Counselor. Why do people see a counselor? For help with relationships – healing in marriages, friendships, and families. The Wonderful Counselor, reminds us of our value. In light of our value, we are freed from emotionally over-investing in others because we need to be needed, or conversely, underinvesting out of fear of commitment. Jesus desires to fill us on the inside regardless of what is happening outside.

Second: He is Mighty God. Are you ever in over your head? In Christ, Mighty God himself is on your side. Jesus Christ does not peddle empty promises – You can count on him when the chips are down.

Third: When you receive Jesus, he becomes your Everlasting Father. Why father? Because through his Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost, God offers intimacy and acceptance, like a great father to his beloved children, by living within you. God came to us, so that we can come to him.

Fourth, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Peace in Hebrew is the word shalom. More than internal contentment, shalom is society-wide flourishing. Shalom means that poverty, disease, brokenness, and death are replaced with prosperity, health, reconciliation, and life. Individual new birth and inner peace, are your blessings when you receive Christ, but so is systemic shalom – expressed in the here and now by connecting with one another, serving others in Jesus’ name, and confidence against the worst this world can throw at you. The world’s brokenness matters to God, and God has promised the ultimate renewal of the whole earth.

My friends, Christmas is the gift that can change everything. But much more than the Christmas bike of childhood now rusting in a landfill, Christmas is the lasting gift of Jesus Christ, God with us. And in receiving him, God’s offers four gifts: Healing in our relationships, his strength and sure defense, intimacy and acceptance with God, and reconciliation now and peace in the future. And so, I urge you, whether for the first or the thousand and first time, receive God’s gift of love: Jesus. When we receive him, we find we receive, with him, the four Christmas gifts that change everything.

 

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Big Papa.

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In a world of unique individuals my father might have been the uniquiest. He was a high roller who hit it big. Twice. He also hit rock bottom. Twice. Unfortunately that last hit was a doozy. After that, Phoenix’s highest-flying realtor mostly “worked” from home. First it was online gaming. Later the stock market. Which, come to think of it, might be the same thing.

We all have our own unique vantage point on other’s lives. Many knew my dad as “Marty the realtor”or “Marty the campaign manager ” or “Marty the original Suns season ticket holder” or “Marty the scratch golfer.” Some knew him as “Marty the card player” who, when he felt hot became, “Marty the high roller” on a comped flight to Vegas. His grandchildren knew him as “papa.” But everyone, everyone knew him as “Marty the forwarder of factually dubious spam.”

My dad was a paradox: An extroverted recluse. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold, a man who wore his vices on his sleeve, but hid his virtues under a Grumpy Cat exterior. My father was a virtuoso reaction provoker. You could not spend more than 5 minutes with my father without both loving him or hating him.

Usually at the same time.

When I was a child we would vacation at Pajaro Dunes, a lovely semi-private beach. But as my dad aged, he reverted to the NY kid who longed for the hubbub of the boardwalk. He began to holiday on Mission Beach, the West coast’s answer to Coney Island. He rented on the promenade. Always with a second story balcony to watch girls and talk smack to the fellas. Men in their 70’s don’t talk smack with the young boardwalk Turks. But no one told my dad that. They didn’t dare.

In the mornings on the boardwalk he would greet the world with vocal renditions of Sinatra, Bennett, and Hoagie Carmichael. Picture the boardwalk at 8 am on a midweek July morning: A few fit joggers & bikers power by. Locals kibitz over coffee. Hung over college kids stumble home. But mostly families that stayed up too late are trying to grab a few more moments of shut-eye. And there, on the balcony above it all, is my retirement-aged, 260 pound, shirtless, chain-smoking Italian father belting out “Fly me to the moon,” overpowering Sinatra on his massive boom box.

No, it wasn’t good.

And of course he knew it.

In my 49 years I cannot recall a single incident in which my dad was not the center of attention. I’m not sure he intentionally sought attention. He was just a smidge larger than life.

Ideas were important to my dad. He had them. Articulated them. Argued them. He won every argument. Usually because his idea was persuasive. When it was not, he reverted to a technique of oratory I call “vocal Darwinism” – survival of the loudest.

Words were important to my dad as well. He used them often – either in the declarative or the exclamatory. If you used a word wrongly you would receive a lesson on its Latin etymology, delivered in the declarative exclamatory.

Inside of my father’s home, where the lion spent the lion’s share of the last 25 years, the most common words addressed to him began, “O Papa.” The “O” could be pronounced with shock, joy, fear, dismay, gratitude, or exasperation. As in “O, Papa!” when he went out of his way to help one of us, or when you caught him, a man in end-stage congestive heart failure, sneaking an entire box of sodium enhanced prepackaged spareribs for breakfast. Most of my father’s favorite words cannot be said in church.

My dad was an Italian. A genuine New York, swarthy, swag-wearing, chain-smoking, looked like a mafia Don and sounded like one too, Italian. In case you would like to be an Italian, there are 3 essential words you need to know. My dad made sure we knew them: Capish (understand), Stai Zitto (shut up), and Luie Monjagovol, an untranslatable expression useful for all occasions…mostly for those rare times when you could not use any of the words my dad really preferred using…the ones you cannot use in church.

My father was extremely funny. And sarcastic. Unfortunately, sarcasm often goes over one’s children’s heads…and when it does it often carries decades long consequences. For example, when I was seven and writing the obligatory post-Christmas “Thank you” notes, I made the mistake of telling my dad that envelopes “taste bad.” He said, “That’s because the glue is carcinogenic.” I was always learning important things from my father, like how to pronounce “carcinogenic,” and that envelope glue was a dangerous yet unregulated substance. I didn’t lick envelopes until I was a high school junior. I was working as a Suns’ ballboy when one night Ron Lee, a highly personable Suns guard, half-licked a ticket envelope and handed it to me to finish. I licked my finger and used that to complete the wetting of the envelope glue. I looked up and the entire team was staring at me. I had no idea that they were wondering if I was a racist for not licking an envelope after a Black man. With full conviction I informed them, “Licking envelopes is stupid. Y’all are going to die of tongue cancer!”

My dad’s name was Martin Ubaldo Marino. I once asked him why he always wrote “Marty.” He told me “Martin Ubaldo” was long and WOPy sounding so he had it legally changed. I saw him write “Martin U. Marino” on something last year and asked him when he changed his name back. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I live in fear of what other great fictions await my discovery.

My dad was the strongest man I knew. As a kid I would hold onto his neck as he swam underwater tw0 complete lengths of our 1970s era swimming pool. I could barely hang on due to the water resistance. It must have taken tremendous strength to propel his large body and with my drag through the water. I would let go on the first leg to come up for air, dive down again, and catch him again on his way back.

My dad broke racial barriers long before it was fashionable. In the late 1960s, Phoenix was a very Anglo city. The first time I laid eyes on an African American was in my house. Asleep. Connie Hawkins had flown into town to look at homes and was tired. So my dad, who sold the early Suns players their homes, brought him over for a nap. Back then professional sports were divided not by management and labor (they all made about the same money), but by color. My dad and trainer Joe Proski socialized with White and Black alike. It took me years to realize that they were the only ones doing that. He never mentioned “justice” or “reconciliation.” He just lived it.

If we did something hard-working or noble my dad said, “You’re a good man, Gunga Din.” I lived to hear those words.

Here is an event which summarized neatly my father as a dad and grandpa: He beat us to the hospital for our daughter’s birth. Then he entertained himself and the hospital staff by loudly and extensively hazing us up and down the maternity ward for being, “late to our own child’s delivery!”

Boys always learn the important things in life from their fathers. Here are the…

Top 10 life-lessons I Learned from my dad:

1. Tools are something you buy…but you hire someone else to actually use.

2. Do stuff you don’t like because you love your kids: Bouncing a Lincoln Continental all over Northern Arizona forest roads to take two teenagers fishing comes to mind. I cannot imagine anyone more out of place in a forest than Marty Marino.

3. Everyone gets to win in a deal. My dad was a very upright businessman. When some friends hatched a get-rich quick scheme that would leave a someone with a loss, he shook his head disapprovingly and barked, “The job of a salesman is to make sure NO ONE gets screwed, Matt.”

4. Care for people. One Christmas he was ordered to “tone it down” by the Salvation Army. When he drove up to the house and saw how poor the family was, he loaded the whole tribe into his Fleetwood Brougham and took them on a shopping spree at a warehouse store.

5. It’s better to be kind than nice. My dad was not a nice man. But he was remarkably kind. He would come to your aid no matter how dumb a situation you had gotten yourself into. But, boy, would he ride you about it the whole time.

6. Your gifts can be a stepping-stone or a tombstone. The same pride that made my dad a legendary real estate agent also made him too proud to return to it. My father taught me not to be a victim of my gifts.

7. You can save a lot of money by making your own cigarettes…but money is all you are saving.

8. For a man for whom religion was a regular target of his sarcasm, I learned a great deal about faith:

-He taught me to read the Bible beginning in the Gospels. I had started the Bible twice and got bogged down in Leviticus both times. Who starts a book 2/3 of the way through? I thought. My dad taught me that it is really a collection of books, and that the New interprets the Old.

-I learned to stick with it. On three occasions I thought about quitting the ministry for something that would pay better. Each time my dad beelined to my house to talk me out of it. “Why would you do that?” He asked. “You were made for this.”

-I learned that what we say and what we mean aren’t always the same thing. Last month, my father, the vocal atheist, called me concerned about a lack of faith by my nephew. The conversation was both funny and profound…

Dad: What are you doing?

Me: At 6:30 A.M. on my day off?

Dad: You aren’t sleeping are you?

Me: Not any more.

Dad: Do you know that  ____ doesn’t believe a GD thing about Jesus Christ. Can you believe that? I mean… JC. Who doesn’t love Jesus, GDit. What the H! Everyone loves Jesus Christ. Even I love Jesus Christ! And I do, dammit, I love Jesus Christ. GDit. And who doesn’t believe anything? C. I mean really NOT believe anything? What the H!”

Me: Dad, Have you considered contacting Guinness? You might have set a new record for blasphemies in a conversation for Jesus.

Dad (after a most out of character apology for his word choice): You need to do something about that! You need to talk to him! (He was a master of the declarative exclamatory.)

Me: Dad, you have spent 30 years mocking faith. And you are surprised that he took you at your word? I have always known you had a secret thing for Jesus, you protested too much. You should really have that talk. Be honest. Let him know that, although you have big issues with the church, that you actually think quite highly of Jesus and it bothers you that he doesn’t.

I don’t know if that conversation ever happened.

9. Number nine takes a little setup: My father went to great lengths to avoid exercise. If he had a religion, it might have been named Exercise-avoidance-ism. This religion had at its theological core the doctrine that “every human is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth and that if you want to waste yours exercising, that is your business.”

So, #9, I learned that his theory on “the conservation of heartbeats” was flawed.

10. Speaking of flawed, the worst day of a kid’s life might be the day he finds out his dad is flawed. And my dad was quite flawed. However, one of the best days in a man’s life is the day he finds out that his flawed father is still quite human and, in many ways, quite holy. One day last summer he and my stepmother came over unannounced and told us that she had beaten cancer.  They had never told us that she had cancer-it might have been the only secret my father ever kept. That day, the only time in my life that I saw my father cry, he threw his arms around my stepmom, squeezed her hard enough that we feared for her safety, and blurted through his tears how much he loved her and how lost he would be if anything happened to her. I will never forget that day. It told me my dad was growing…becoming more alive, even as his body was obviously not.

As I thought about a memorial to my father I realized, “This will be the first time someone has ever gotten the last word on Marty Marino.” But as a Christian, I don’t actually believe that I have. So I will just say, see you later, dad. I love you and miss you already.

Martin Ubaldo “Marty” Marino

Nov. 11, 1934 ~ March 14, 2014

(Originally posted 4/7/14)

Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

 

 

Game Shows: The True Cross in a “like” culture.

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Have you noticed how fuzzy the idea of “truth” has become? Things are no longer “true” in any objective sense. They are, as Stephen Colbert said, “truthy” – true enough…ish. Sort of. Our social media usage illustrates this. We no longer live our lives. We curate them, packaging the bits we want others to see. We crop out the ugly for public attention. The “like” culture has blurred the line, not just between truth and “truthy,” but also the line between actual life and media. This blurring may have been started by Alan Funt on the old tv show, “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera played jokes on ordinary people, and when the joke was revealed, host Alan Funt would pull off his disguise and deliver his catchphrase, “Smile, your on Candid Camera!”

One of the people to fall victim to Alan Funt’s blurring of real vs media was Alan Funt himself. In 1969 Alan Funt was on an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami when the flight was highjacked. The highjacker held the stewardess at knifepoint and demanded the plane fly to Havana. When passengers noticed Alan Funt seated near the highjacker, they began to applaud. When the man disappeared into the cockpit, Funt tried to explain that this was not television.  According to the Radio Lab October 15, 2015 podcast episode, “Smile My Ass,” when the passengers didn’t buy it, Funt attempted to enlist a priest sitting in first class to explain the situation. The priest didn’t believe him either. They took him seriously, though, when Cuban military boarded the plane. When we resort to packaging our own truth, how are we to know what we can actually believe in? This is where the Feast of the Holy Cross comes in…

The year was 326. Constantine, who became emperor in the wake of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution” (303-311),  was betting his empire on upstart Christianity. Unlike other religions, the Christian faith depends, not on creed or philosophy, but upon a historical event: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Christian message is that death has been conquered and humans reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus (2 Cor 5, Col 1:22, 1 Cor 15:1-8). But Constantine needed to know if the story was true. He sent the one person he could count on to go see the Holy Land and confirm or deny the historical reports: his 78 yr old mother, Helena. Helena arrived in Jerusalem and found no tomb. Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jesus’ burial place two centuries earlier and built a temple to Aphrodite on the location, inadvertently marking the place of Christ’s passion in perpetuity. When she asked whether or not the events in the New Testament actually happened, surely she would have met others her age who would say things like, “Well, my great-grandpa was healed by Jesus, does that count?”

Tradition tells us that Helena had Hadrian’s temple torn down. In the rubble they found three crosses left over from before the destruction of Jesus’ tomb in 130 CE. Consider that 130 date: a century after Jesus’ resurrection, a mere 3 decades after the death of John, the last living apostle. Legend has it that to identify “the true cross,” Helena had a sick woman approach the three artifacts. Upon touching the third she was healed. The “true” cross was left behind to adorn a church Helena commissioned to be built on the site. The Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, marks the bringing of that cross outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day after the church’s dedication (335 CE) so that the community could see it. The cross was removed when Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the crusades, and bits of it were distributed all over Europe. By the 1600s John Calvin would remark, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” Helena also saw the place of Jesus’ birth, the location of the feeding of the 5000, and many other sites of Jesus’ life, marking them with state sponsored Roman churches.

Was Helena’s cross the “true cross”? Who knows. Are the fragments distributed around the planet pieces of that cross? Probably not. But the Feast of the Holy Cross does tell us that the places Jesus walked are there – as described in the New Testament. There were worshippers, people whose lives were still being changed by the power of Jesus’ actions on the cross, still gathering where their great-grandparents had been gathering since the resurrection. And, especially in light of repeated persecutions, there is no reason for people to have begun gathering and commemorating in those places were the stories they told their children not true.

In this age when the line between truth and truthiness is blurred, there is another old game show that is a better model for us: Groucho Marx’s, You Bet Your Life. The truth is that you and I can bet our lives on Jesus Christ and his great acts of salvation on our behalf. And while we don’t have any kind of a sure claim to the “true cross” we have rock solid knowledge of a Gospel that is true. The places described in the Gospels are as described in those Gospels, because the Gospels are the narratives of dependable witnesses.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”   -‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Predestination for Dummies

Weighty theology made simple(r)

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If there is a $64,000 question in the Christian faith it is predestination. When it comes to God, who chooses whom?

To consider this age old question look at the passage in John chapter 10 (vs 22-30) in which Jesus delivers one of his “ouch” comments to the religious. Jesus has just finished a sermon in which he used the metaphors that he is both “the door” to the town corral, and “the good shepherd” working for the sheep’s benefit. The religious leaders, upset at the implication that they are profiteering off of and abusing the “sheep,” chase Jesus from the lecture hall and press him: “Stop beating around the bush, are you the messiah or not?

Like a professor on his way back to his office after a controversial lecture, Jesus stops to speak to these unreceptive students. “I have told you. And in case you missed the lecture, I hold healing labs every afternoon.”  The religious leaders are absolutely irate at his answer (in vs. 31 they pick up stones to kill him). Jesus response is, “I’m more than the promised deliverer, I am actually one with the God who sent the deliverer to you…but you can’t understand that because only the chosen here my voice, and you simply aren’t among the chosen.” (v. 25-30) It is an uncomfortable passage – a first century mic drop.

First century sheep in a community corral knew their shepherd’s voice and followed them out to pasture as they sang. Jesus is not so much making an accusation as a statement of fact – those who lack relationship with him are unable to hear his voice. They don’t believe so they don’t hear. And because they don’t hear, they won’t follow. They are apart from him. Therefore, no one is protecting them from being snatched in the end – they don’t have eternal life. The bad news in the Good News is that while all may be invited to the party, not all will show up to it (Matt. 22:1-14). But, hurt feelings aside, Jesus answer raises a theological question that has not gone quietly into the night after some 500 years: When it comes to God, who chooses whom?  

Jesus lobs up an idea here (and in many other places) that God is sovereign and chooses who will have faith. John 15:16 is the classic: “You did not choose me, but I chose you…“. But Jesus also offers up the opposite thought: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12) Which is it? Does God choose humans, or do humans choose God? Christians on both sides of the question agree that God created humanity and, in the fulness of time, redeemed wandering humans through Jesus’ cross, and now initiates relationship with humans. But when it comes to the human response, is our response caused by God, or do we initiate our response ourselves? When we ask, “Who does the choosing?” we have two apparently contradictory ideas held up in the Bible: “Whoever believes in him has eternal life” (John 3:16), yet, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him” (John 6:44). So, again I ask, who is choosing?  Jesus’ answers often raise more questions. He is a frustrating savior.

There is a tension between God’s initiative and human responsibility not resolved in the Bible. God draws, yet you and I are presumed to be responsible. God chooses. Yet we must choose. So is it our choice or God’s?

The theological terms for this question are monergism vs synergism. Is it God alone (monergism), or do humans play a role with God in salvation (synergism)? We’ve created entire theological systems around the question: Calvinists (who think it’s all God) have TULIP and Arminians (who think humans are “able”) have LILAC. Both systems are elegant in their internal consistency. Both bump up against the Bible at key points – all over are two seemingly inconsistent ideas: God is sovereign, in charge of the world and chooses you and I, and yet, you and I are accountable for our response to God. The very word “accountable” presumes that, since we are “able,” we are held to “account.” (Remember, the most basic Protestant tenant of biblical interpretation is to “assume the clear meaning of words.”)

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It is a classic conundrum: If God knows all, is all powerful, and sovereign over all, what kind of free will do we have? If God is really all loving and allows us to choose, have we not saved ourselves? And if we save ourselves, did we really ever need God to begin with? Yet the scriptures, both Old and New, hold up both premises: God is sovereign. We must respond. I know what you are starting to think: Matt, quit dodging the question! But if scripture rather than my system be the foundation of the Christian life, I simply cannot.

 

Yes, some preachers commit to one system and some to the other. But the truth is that honest preachers can’t give the question of who’s doing the choosing a neat bow that explains all the scriptures’ teaching on this point. The Gospel is so simple a child can understand it, yet so deep that the most brilliant folk to walk the earth have spent their lives plumbing its’ depths. We just cannot tie a neat bow around the issue of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. We are in mystery here, and it would be wise to tiptoe at this point. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” And we know that every page of the Bible implies that our choices count, or, as Joshua said, “Choose you this day whom you must serve.”

What I know is this: The bible tells us that God chooses. Full stop. And God tells us to choose him back. Full stop.

And that is, frustratingly, that.

 

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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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”.  🙂