Four Christmas Gifts that Change Everything

unnamed

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

Snark Meter.005

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.

 

Advertisements

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

 

atheists

Snark Meter.005

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.

adults-with-imaginary-friends

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.

images-1

*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.

Gimme-gimme Golfball

Snark MeterMID.002

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Central Phoenix

The Central Phoenix neighborhood I grew up in had its fair share of characters. It would not be inaccurate to say that we were a virtual pantheon of the idiosyncratic. One of our eccentrics was an elderly gentleman we knew as “Gimme-gimme golfball.”  (I use “gentleman”  loosely as he may have been Phoenix’s most ill-tempered resident.)

Yesterday a few elementary school friends and I were catching up in the pizza joint of our childhood. Over thick slabs of Sicilian style, one friend, as old friends do, looked over and made the insider reference: “Gimme-gimme golfball.” At the mention of his name all four of us, middle-aged men decades removed from the old man’s maltreatment, groaned in unison. Anyone who grew up near Chris Town Golf Course can regale you with stories of the places on their anatomy that Gimme-gimme marked with his golf club, an ancient 2 iron. None of us seems to have escaped his withering stare, his snarling curses, or the wack of that 2 iron. At least not in our memories.

Gimme-gimme’s 2 iron might have been the inspiration for the multi-purpose tool. The well-worn club was used mostly as a cane. But it doubled as a retriever of errant golf balls, and, far too often for our tastes, was pressed into service as a device for the bludgeoning of the local preteen male population. Gimme-gimme used that old club for many things…unfortunately, none of them was golf.

2 iron

How is it, you ask, that an elderly man was attacking boys with a 2 iron in a perfectly nice middle-class neighborhood? We boys had ended up on the losing end of a vicious territorial rivalry over our community golf course and the fruit it produced, errant golf balls. The neighborhood nine-hole had been fashioned on the cheap from an old sheep farm. It was acres of open space with trees dividing the fairways, a small lake, a driving range, maintenance sheds beside the abandoned farmhouse, and a grain silo that begged to be climbed. It was next to the source of our most enduring form of entertainment, a large family owned citrus orchard separated from the eastern edge of the course by a long line of ancient and gnarled salt cedar trees. Can you imagine such a place not becoming the stomping-ground of boys for blocks around? Unfortunately, Gimme-gimme thought so too. We were there for mischief. He was there for money.

Chris Town Golf Course

Chris Town Golf Course

One morning in the summer after the fourth grade, I was perched in a salt cedar watching golfers and pretending to be a WWII radio operator defending a Pacific island from bagcart towing invaders. I heard a golf ball bounce off of a cedar trunk and lodge in the rusting iron mesh of the farm fence the cedars had spent five decades attempting to engulf. I scampered down from my hiding place. Reaching into the cedar needles just inside the fence for my newfound treasure, my fingers wrapped around a coveted Titleist ball when, WACK, a blazing pain erupted in my temple. I rolled on the ground, grabbing my head in agony. Through tears I saw the old man’s grizzled arm reach through the fence. “Gimme that ball, kid.” He said, as he pocketed the ball and ambled off, not bothering to look back and see if he had inflicted lasting damage on my now dented noggin.

One day I complained about the old man to a friend when we were in the clubhouse buying candy from the 10 cent vending machine. The golf course manager, within earshot behind a rack of collared shirts for players who showed up in inappropriate attire, barked, “That old man provides a service to the golfers…you should probably stay out of his way.”

Gimme would clean the balls he found in a washtub in the back of his old camper truck, carefully repaint them, and sell them for a dollar through the golf course’s north fence while seated on a 3-legged canvas camp stool on Maryland Avenue. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he was bolstering his retirement income. Maybe both.

Of course we didn’t tell our parents that the old man was marking us up with a 2 iron whenever we got too near his income source. We also didn’t tell them we swam in the lake after hours, or snuck over to the clubhouse and sampled bottles of warm soda from the cases stacked in the shed, or tried to get the night crew to chase us in their gas powered Cushman carts either. Kids didn’t give away their secrets in those days. And parents, well, they didn’t really want to know. But I did ask my dad about the old golf ball salesman once. His reaction was telling. “The old grouch works hard enough. He would make a decent living if he wasn’t such a joyless, angry old cuss. We would rather hike all the way back to the clubhouse and pay retail.” Which explained another mystery: Why the golf course manager was so fond of Gimme-gimme.

I learned an important lesson from Gimme-gimme golfball, lumpy temple and all: When you do a job, do it with smile on your face. After all, a joyless service is no service at all.