Saturday, December 31, 2005

Ending the Year With a Challenge

What better way to end the year than with a song which challenged me:

My Jesus
Which Jesus do you follow?
Which Jesus do you serve?
If Ephesians says to imitate Christ,
Then why do you look so much like the world?


Cause my Jesus bled and died
He spent His time with thieves and liars
He loved the poor and accosted the arrogant
So which one do you want to be?

Blessed are the poor in spirit
Or do we pray to be bless me with the wealth of this land
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness
Or do we ache for another taste of this world of shifting sands

Cause my Jesus bled and died for my sins
He spent His time with thieves and sluts and liars
He loved the poor and accosted the rich
So which one do you want to be?

Who is this that You follow
This picture of the American dream
If Jesus was here would you walk right by on the other side
Or fall down and worship at His holy feet

Pretty blue eyes and curly brown hair and a clear complexion
Is how you see Him as He dies for Your sins
But the Word says He was battered and scarred
Or did you miss that part
Sometimes I doubt we’d recognize Him
Cause my Jesus bled and died

He spent His time with thieves and the least of these
He loved the poor and accosted the comfortable
So which one do you want to be?

Cause my Jesus would never be accepted in my church
The blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet
But He reaches for the hurting and despises the proud
I think He’d prefer Beale St. to the stained glass crowd
And I know that He can hear me if I cry out loud
I want to be like my Jesus

Not a posterchild for American prosperity, but like my Jesus
You see I’m tired of living for success and popularity
I want to be like my Jesus but I’m not sure what that means to be like You Jesus
Cause You said to live like You, love like You but then You died for me

Can I be like You Jesus?
I want to be like My Jesus


"My Jesus" by Todd Agnew.

May we be more like Jesus in 2006.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

So, if YOU were "Dear Abby"...

In many circles, the advice columns of Ann Landers and Dear Abby are still very popular. I have never figured out why. Maybe it's an anonymity thing, I don't know. Anyway, Abby is gone and her daughter Jeanne has replaced her. I think Ann has been replaced as well, but none of the local papers run her column. Maybe I could petition for the job. I found this rather intriguing Dear Abby letter just after Christmas. Here is the question. What would you have to say?


DEAR ABBY: This is difficult, but I have no one here I can confide in. I'm ashamed, confused and unsure. Any advice would be greatly appreciated, as I am finding it more difficult every Sunday. Without going into specific beliefs and asking questions that can only be answered by faith, I will simplify: Is it better to go to church for the wrong reasons than not to go at all? I don't think I am fooling "Him" -- and I know I'm not fooling myself. The others, including my wife, are, if not wise to me, suspicious. I don't like my hypocrisy, but I'm afraid of the reactions -- and repercussions -- should I "out" myself and stay home. I'm uncomfortable masquerading every Sunday, being the loyal husband and worshipper while being untrue to myself. Help. (Or am I beyond it?) -- BETWEEN A ROCK AND A CLOSET

I have a hunch there are plenty of people in this same predicament. With that in mind, I'll do my best Abby impression and take on the issue.

DEAR BETWEEN (Or possibly Mr. Closet): You seem to be looking for a very simple answer to a very complex problem. You want a "yes" or "no" but the "why" is where your answer will be found. You're asking about which is the lesser of two evils, and frankly I'm not sure it matters so far as your soul is concerned.

Your church attendance counts for nothing if you don't do any worshipping. The only positive aspect I can see is that you are supporting your wife (you don't mention kids) in her spiritual life by attending. That is admirable. But if you are as transparent as you let on, you may be an added burden for her. However, you sleeping in on Sunday morning is no help either. If you do have kids, it only shows them how little you think of religion and/or God. You say you are afraid of the reactions and repercussions from others, but you seem to have no fear of God. That's interesting in itself.

Frankly, you may as well be honest with your wife and everyone else you've been trying to fool. That may be the best first step toward dealing with the "why" question you keep ignoring. You see, "church" is not the only way to worship God, but if you are uncomfortable in such a setting then you have some issues which need to be resolved. Often the people at church can cause discomfort -- whether from an old incident or from current personality conflicts. But a church is made up of sinners. You certainly can't expect a parishoner or even a clergyman to be perfect. What's important is that everyone is working toward becoming better; more like Christ. Allow those who hurt to become more mature in their faith. We all mess things up. Don't hold it against God. Yes, we want to be good and often fail. We are too proud to admit just how filthy we are. But that has nothing to do with you. Your concern is your own relationship with God.

It could be that you have a particular doctrinal question with which you need clarification. Research and study are your answers here. Don't be afraid to talk about these issues. Everybody has a tough time comprehending the Creator of the universe. Why should you be any different?

Perhaps the service itself is too boring or too slick or too phony. Why not try another church? There are plenty of churches with different worship styles to choose from. How about finding one which "speaks" to you?

Perhaps the biggest complaint about church is that many people don't feel worthy to be there. We know our sins and realize that God deserves a whole lot better than us. Of course Jesus' disciple Simon Peter felt the same way at the beginning. He told Jesus to get away because he felt so dirty being around Him. Peter managed to get over it. You can too.

There are many possibilities to answer the "why" but your choice to go or stay home is inconsequential.

SIGNED,
THE IMITATION ABBY

Yes, my answer is too long, but feel free to cut it after the first sentence of the third paragraph. As a preacher, I naturally preach too long... By the way, Abby's actual answer:


DEAR BETWEEN: I have always believed that husbands and wives are members of the same "team" and should be able to level with each other, so I'm having trouble understanding why you are masquerading and hiding the way you feel. I also believe that people can communicate with God in their own way, wherever they are, because God is everywhere -- not just confined to church property. Because you are left feeling empty and unfulfilled by the Sunday sermons, you may need to look elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. However, until you find the courage to express your feelings and stand by them, you will remain forever between a rock and a closet.

Sorry, Abby (actually Jeanne). While technically correct about finding God outside of church, this isn't an issue of what to do on Sunday morning. As with most things religious, it's a heart issue.

"How to Get Here" - December '05 edition

These searches brought people to Attention Span during December:

lawn tractor tire chain alternatives - Hmmm... if you need chains on your tires to mow your grass, I'm guessing your lawn isn't exactly "manicured".

native wear of honduran - It's like Attention Span has become a cross between Fashion Weekly and National Geographic!

everything I do turns into a disaster - OK, I can understand how this searcher got here!

fooling playing - Absolutely no clue what this one is all about. I do know that many small children (including some in my own family) use the word "fooling" or "playing" when they get caught "lying" but I'm not sure that's what this searcher is looking for.

nicky in garter belt and stockings - I am not now, nor have I ever been called, "Nicky."

does dress code affect grades - If I had to wear a garter belt and stockings it would certainly affect my grades... for the worse!

inigo montoya - This one came up twice in two weeks. Apparently someone is on a quest...

image children coffee picker - The child labor laws must not be being enforced, huh?

don't miss me proverbs - An apocryphal Old Testament book featuring chapters written by Culture Club ("Miss Me Blind"), Klymaxx ("I Miss You"), John Denver ("Leaving on a Jet Plane"), John Waite ("Missing You"), and Daryl Hall and John Oates ("Everytime You Go Away" and "She's Gone").

However you got here, welcome. I'm glad you're here. Be careful not to trip over my garter belt.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Good Reads - 12/28/05

Headed into the new year with nothing good to stimulate your thinking? Well, don't be discouraged! Here's a dose of great posts culled from the blogosphere to keep you up until midnight, December 31st:

I originally missed this post "Penteparanoia" and it's follow up reponses at Totem to Temple. It's a great read about the attitude of legalism which still affects so many who are "free in Christ Jesus."

At Amy's Humble Musings, our lovely host is right on target with "The Day After Christmas," a post concerning the way we lose the celebration of Christ in the celebration of Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas, Stephen from Doggie's Breakfast (Full of Meaty Chunks!) is mulling over his own "Mixed Feelings Over Christmas." My favorite part:
I find it strange that some groups of Christians want to go to the barricades to defend its observance with nativity scenes, special services and "Merry Christmas"-ing. Yet those same groups of people feel little concern to care about the weekly observance of the resurrection on the Lord's Day and of the new creation of which they are part.


Feeling cynical? Catch up with Dan's thoughts on "To the Pure, All Things Are Pure," as he kicks off a series of posts about developing the mind of Christ at Cerulean Sanctum.

Rich church - poor church. If you get uncomfortable with the luxuries and opulence of some churches, read Steve Dennie's "Christmas Eve 2005 on the Rich Side of Town," over at whatever.

If you were watching television last week, you may have stumbled across a couple of shows about religion. One was on ABC and featured Barbara Walters giving us the low down on heaven. Since her theological expertise is somewhat limited, she brought in Richard Gere to help sort things out, along with countless other people. I think she might have even talked to a Christian, although I must have missed that part. Meanwhile at the same time on CBS, 48 Hours was running a program about the historicity of Jesus' birth and the reliability of the Gospel accounts. The first half of the show featured scholars like John Dominic Crossan, mostly telling the audience that you can't believe anything in Scripture. At the halfway point, skipping between both shows, I was about to give up. Two network programs trashing Christianity at the same time? Then I caught the teaser for what the CBS program was going to do in the second half-hour. They promised an interview with Ben Witherington, who would show us that the Bible accounts are actually true! Knowing Witherington's writing from book and his blog, I figured it would be worth sticking around for. I was right. Read Witherington's version of the how fair the production was at "The CBS Special--- The Mystery of Christmas."

And the Christian Carnival is NOT on holiday, thank you very much. The latest edition (#102) is posted at The Secret Life of Gary.

I Surrender

You Are French Food

Snobby yet ubiquitous.
People act like they understand you more than they actually do.
(A tip of the ol' ballcap to Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength)
I'm not sure about the snobby part, but I've always had the feeling that people are just nodding their heads in agreement...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Public Displays of Affection

I was sitting at the stoplight in the left turn lane, waiting for the green turn arrow so my family and I could visit the big Christmas light show. The street to the display isn't a major thoroughfare, so the wait for the arrow was turning into a long one. My wife was turned toward the rear seats of the van, tending to the kids and some minor dispute back there. Meanwhile I was watching the car just ahead of me in the left turn lane. It was a white mid-size sedan. Nothing special. But inside was what appeared to be a teenage boy in the driver's seat and a teenage girl sitting next to him. Right next to him. Almost on top of him. He was keeping an eye on the stoplight while she was almost bouncing up and down in the seat beside him, kissing his ear and stoking his hair. I mentioned to my wife that perhaps the white sedan really only needed to be a single-seater at this point.

Finally the green arrow appeared and the teens made the left, then almost immediately made another left, pulling the car behind the storefronts of a small strip mall. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were planning to do next. I managed to fight off the urge to circle back and sneak up on them with a spotlight and an airhorn to give them a little scare, so we continued on to see the lights. But I remembered being a teenager in love. I still remember that "can't keep our hands to ourselves" feeling and how hard it was to not act upon it. After all, it was frowned upon to have any PDA -- public displays of affection -- unless there was a compelling reason like being declared man and wife or a world war ending.


Posted by Picasa

I'm not exactly sure why public displays of affection are discouraged. Well, sure I understand why some "affectionate acts" are not for public consumption! But is hand-holding or sharing a kiss an uncomfortable sight for others? Personally, I don't mind, provided the mouths don't open and the hands don't start wandering. Yet back in my day, even holding hands was frowned upon in many contexts. And when you're in love, or at least infatuated, it's tough not to display that affection.

So why could it be offensive to others? When I was single and extremely unattached, I always felt a bit lonelier seeing others paired up. Perhaps that has something to do with it. It could be that the couple could be getting a little carried away with their display. The couple in the white sedan were way past "a little carried away" and my wife's response was an immediate, "Oh, that's just ridiculous! Make them stop it!" Another explanation could be that standards of what is acceptable behavior seem to change so rapidly that what is alright today was taboo thirty years ago. Like the bathing suits which in eighty years went from covering everything but the feet and hands to covering nothing but the absolute essentials, so too cultural standards have become much more lenient. That leaves some of us wondering how people can be so free of shame today.

I think that many people are uncomfortable with a person showing public displays of affection toward his Creator and Savior also. The world likes its Christians to be as pious as they like in private, but in public to squelch that affection. A Christian's public display of affection is offensive to some who don't know God or have developed a grudge against Him. It's so infuriating to see a person in love with God, that some will consider that person ignorant or superstitious -- there has to be something wrong with a person like that! Even other Christians start to feel upset at a public display of affection for Christ from someone else. The person who enduring a tough time or who is experiencing a low spiritual point can be jealous of the person who so obviously loves his Savior.

"How come he feels love for God and from God and I don't feel anything?" We start to wonder if that person is becoming so heavenly-minded that he is no earthly good. But in truth, we can feel cheated because we don't have the same feelings toward our Master, and we'd rather not be reminded of that fact.

Still, our love for God is not to be tempered by the peering of jealous eyes or the gazes angry, hurting souls. While we're not to call attention to ourselves a la the Pharisees of Jesus' day, our expressions of love should be natural. We shouldn't have to be ashamed to mention Him to our friends or acquaintances. In short, we are to live with a love for God so strong that we feel like the teenagers in the white sedan; unable to imagine being apart. And if that is how our relationship is, then our life is going to reflect it. Our affection for our Creator, Provider, Sustainer, Redeemer and Friend will be apparent. We'll be different than the rest in the way that we serve and act. Our attitudes toward others will be more loving and forgiving than the world teaches us to be. Even in times of trouble, it will be obvious that our hope is not on earthly things, but on a Savior from out of this world. Unselfishness will mark our lives, and joy will fill our hearts. And that is how we are to stand out in the world -- by our public displays of affection for the One who walks beside us, strengthens us, guides us, and saves us.

Monday, December 26, 2005

On the day after Christmas...

A few observations about December 26, gleaned from many years of people-watching:

On the day after Christmas, people smell good. It's the chance to try out that new celebrity fragrance or the rugged new manly cologne unwrapped the previous day. So for at least one day, the new perfumes are dabbed on the pulse points or misted across the body. People seem to dress better also. If a person is wearing jeans, nine times out of ten they are brand new jeans -- even the distressed and beaten-senseless jeans which aren't supposed to look new, but they are. The new sweaters make their debut. Fresh hats, gloves and coats are being broken in and the fashion accessories are tried out. It's a little like a fashion show, with everyone showing off their favorite gifts.

On the day after Christmas, shoppers are not interesting in anything without a "SALE" tag attached. I could be selling real diamond rings for $29.95, but if the sign doesn't mention at least 50% off, the shoppers walk by unaffected. The value of most items is low on December 26. Most of us have been bombarded by presents -- useful and useless -- so that the thrill of getting something new is really non-existant. Give me bargains, or get out of my way!

On the day after Christmas, most people are tired. Let's face it, Christmas can really take it out of you -- especially if you have more than one family event to attend. And if it takes a couple of hours in the van to get there and another couple of hours to get back, the day gets shorter and harder. Wrapped presents are packed into the vehicle to go and unwrapped presents are packed into the vehicle for the return trip. Oh, and the food! Don't forget the food! Or the plates of leftover ham and turkey and pie and assorted deserts! Overeating doesn't really add to the ol' energy level.

On the day after Christmas, many people are already dreading going back to work. A holiday is nice, but the world keeps on turning and that desk full of paperwork is waiting for the return of the workday. We never really seem to escape for long.

On the day after Christmas, most are ready for some quiet time. I sure could use a little. With kids playing with new (noisy) toys and all the racket of the past few days, crawling off into a corner for a few hours sounds mighty appealing. Also, depending upon your feelings about your relatives, you may be sick to death of them by December 26. Or maybe the family has been the brightest spot of the holiday.

On the day after Christmas, most of us are unchanged in our faith. Those of us who know Christ as Savior are touched by the remembrance of Jesus' birth, but nothing really seems to change. In truth, we spend far more time celebrating the world's version of Christmas than we do the scene in the Bethlehem stable. Those who are on the fringes of faith are also seemingly unchanged by the remembrance of Christmas. Even a worship service on Christmas morning or a cantata on Christmas Eve brings only a rush of tradition or a short easing of the guilt of ignoring our Creator most every other day.

Why do we go to so much bother if it really doesn't affect us spiritually? Is it so we can look and smell better, overeat with the family and blow a wad of cash on presents for others so others will blow a wad of cash on presents for us? If Christmas doesn't bring us closer to Christ, then what's the point?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas Eve Eve!

That was the greeting around our house yesterday -- Merry Christmas Eve Eve. It's probably my wife's third favorite day of the year, right behind December 24 and 25. It's all about anticipation. Waiting is almost never fun, but waiting for something wonderful can be almost as satisfying as the event itself.

I rather doubt the Israelites felt that way about the coming Messiah. They envisioned an end to Roman rule in God's nation, but of course it didn't quite happen that way. The awaited a new King to rule tham, but many didn't like the One who was sent. And so He was rejected. The time of advent was much different than the years after Jesus left for heaven. Or was it? Many were still waiting and remain in a state of anticipation till this day.

Even the rest of us who accept that long-awaited Messiah have our share of anticipation as well. We await the time when He returns. And while I do look forward to that time, I've got to admit that I really, really enjoy what I have now -- even with all the hardships and heartache.

Now the waiting period has reached a boil. Packages gather around the tree. The house is cleaned (well, mostly), food is being prepared and family will soon be arriving for the day. The church is being readied for a candlelight service and the kids are rehearsing their readings. We know that the time we've been anticipating is arriving.

Tomorrow night it will be over, mostly. Wrapping paper will be throw away and leftover food will be stored or scrapped. The tingly feeling of wondering what is coming next will be gone. Yet it will be replaced by the presence of new gifts -- clothes, toys and knick-knacks for us to enjoy. We will have the memories of a wonderful weekend, and likely will share pictures or videos of the occasion. The anticipation may be gone, but the reality will be with us.

The awaiting of Messiah is over, but the reality is that God is present. The path to His Throne has been opened by Christ and we've been given the gift of the Holy Spirit -- something much too big to wrap and put under a tree. Now let us enjoy His presence and await the time when He will return.

Merry Christmas to all who stop by here. May you and your family know the true joy of the season and the blessings of His presence.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Most Terrible Time of the Year

Christmas has morphed from a religious celebration into other things. To many it's all about renewing tradition -- the shopping, the baking, the songs, the decorations. To others it comes down to family and that gathering of brothers, sisters, cousins and grandparents. Still others think in terms of gifts. At this point, Christmas is at least as much secular as it is religious. So when many people's calendars work their way around to December, a whole different set of feelings come bubbling to the surface.

Tonight, Blanche is sitting at home alone. It would be her wedding anniversary if her husband had lived. For over fifty years they shared the same home. Now the old house seems almost huge. Kids and grandkids keep watch over her from time to time, but this year she celebrates a wedding anniversary alone. Three days later she'll spend her first Christmas without him. Pray for Blanche and all those like her.

Rob and Karen's kitchen is lined with cupboards, but they are empty. Fortunately they don't have children. It's just the two of them... and the baby who is due in February. A holiday layoff from Rob's employer has cut the meager amount the young pair have been living on, but it has enabled them to drive three hours to stay with family for two weeks. After that, their struggle will continue since Rob's parents can barely afford to take car of themselves. Pray for Rob and Karen and all those like them.

Yolanda is worried. For four years she has battled cancer, winning only temporary victories before the dreaded disease returns. Yesterday she had two more lumps removed. The surgery was minor, but the implications are major. She knows full well that the doctors will want her to go through chemotherapy again, but the last round of chemo almost killed her. Yolanda wonders if it's worth it to continue the fight. Her husband says he'll support her either way. Tonight she's wondering if this Christmas will be her last. Please pray for Yolanda and her husband and the many in similar situations.

Walter is becoming an old hand at spending the holidays alone. His wife passed away years ago. To some, she is but a distant memory. But in Walter's heart, her absence is just as large as it was right after the funeral. Of course no one understands. They assume that his wife is a treasured remembrance from the past, but hardly an open wound. They are wrong. Remember Walter and those like him in your prayers.

Andy and Michelle have questions, but few answers. Their daughter ended her life over the weekend. There were signs of trouble, but nobody expected this. A young life is over. A beautiful girl lost. And her parents are left this Christmas to comfort one another, and to grieve at a time when they should be welcoming their child home for the holidays.

Under the tree are but two presents. Martha is raising her kids alone and has received no help at all from the absent father. Working two jobs and depending upon the kindness of neighbors and friends has meant that the bills are almost caught up, but there has been no time spent with her precious children. Then, to top it all off, there is no money for Christmas presents. A local charity dropped off a present for each of the kids so at least they'll have something to open. But Martha is dejected at the thought of not even being able to provide just a small gift for her children. Pray for Martha and her kids, and for all the struggling single parent families.

My Christmas will be wonderful. My family will gather for food and gifts on Christmas Eve, then comes the Candlelight Service at church. Afterward we'll visit a local live nativity scene at another church. On Christmas Morning, the kids will open presents before we drive to my wife's family's for dinner and more presents. We'll eat until we're stuffed. We'll bring back so many presents that the van will barely handle the load. We'll spend time with loved family members and collapse on the bed, exhausted, on Sunday night. I hope that your Christmas will go something like mine. But in the meantime, don't forget about the people I've described. I've changed the names, but the situations are very real. And the grief, the uncertainty and the hardship they are feeling are real as well.

So I ask you to pray. And if all possible, find some way to help out those folks less fortunate over the next week. Because while it may be "the most wonderful time of the year" to many of us, to others it's too hard to bear.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Opinions On This One?

This was posted by Keith Drury about a denomination reinventing itself. Read the original post and the comments and let me know what you think.

Is this a good trend or a bad one?

OK, full disclosure now. The denomination being discussed is the one I belong to. I'm always interested in other's opinions on this because the opinions among us UB's have been so mixed. Even reading through the comments of that post, I saw the same cast of characters -- especially that "anonymous" commenter who could only offer speculation and the "Huntington Watcher" who must be watching from a distant galaxy.

If you've been too lazy to actually click the links and read, here's the synopsis. The United Brethren in Christ (UB) is a small denomination with a critical mass problem. We're not big enough to do much of what we would like. The financial situation is a strain as well. We currently collect around 10 percent of tithes and offerings (minus missions and building fund) and use that to fund the district and national offices. The major complaint is that the local church doesn't see any real benefit from that 10 percent.

So with all these issues running hot and heavy, the leadership sought out a drastic solution. They decided to pursue a merger with another denomination, but that group didn't want the baggage of a true merger. So the next idea was that the UB would simply join the other denomination. The UB name, which dates back 200 years, was to be lost. This was likely the major factor in the overall membership voting down this option.

The next suggestion came from a grassroots group which I had talked to a great deal. Essentially it is to dissolve the district level of bureaucracy and instead allow the local churches to form "clusters" of five to seven to work as accountability groups and as coaching tools to improve the local ministries. After the merger and the joining ideas failed, this cluster system idea was brought forward as the next idea. The former bishop (the highest church authority postition) stepped aside and a new bishop was elected along with a director of the cluster system. It actually kicks into gear in January, although it's certainly going to be a work in progress.

The other distinctives in this plan are (1) the local church ownership of property ( property until now has been held "in trust" for the denomination) and (2) the local church covenant. The first opens the door to a church bolting the denomination and the UB's losing "their" property. The second is a convenant which must be signed and renewed every two years. The covenant is basically the local church agreeing to be a part of the UB and to be governed by it's Discipline. If at any time, a church decides not to accept the covenant they decide in essence to leave the denomination. And if a church refuses to live up to the covenant, the denomination can reject that church and remove it from the denomination.

Pretty simple, right? No, of course not. Nobody -- not the leadership, the grassroots or the folks who thought this up -- knows exactly how it's going to work. We're basically making it up as we go along. That's the scary part.

The major objection I had was the lack of accountability for the local church. I saw the formation of renegade "clusters" who did as they wished regardless of what headquarters wanted. That fear was alleviated somewhat by having a cluster leader reporting to the cluster director and the bishop, but I'm still not sure that will be enough.

But pray for us poor UBs. It's going to be an interesting and scary time for a while.

.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas and Syncretism

Back in graduate school, my Apologetics professor had us spend an hour watching an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. I realize that seems like a pretty odd sentence to read. It especially raised a few eyebrows when he first had the idea and began asking the undergraduate students if anyone had taped one particular episode. But amidst the giggling and chortling, he found the program he was looking for.


Posted by Picasa

I don't remember many of the plot details, but I remember the main storyline. In it, our buxom, short-skirted hero happened upon a shepherd who was feeling unsure of himself. Somehow, Xena convinced the young man that he could accomplish the impossible. And so that shepherd went out in battle to take on the champion of the opposing army for the honor of his people. Sound familiar yet? Do I need to mention that the champion was very large? Yes, the names were not even changed -- David and Goliath!

The professor used this episode as the perfect example of syncretism. Dictionary.com defines syncretism as: "(T)he union (or attempted fusion) of different systems of thought or belief (especially in religion or philosophy)." So in other words, Xena took a biblical event and tries to merge it into this fantasy world of sword-wielding amazons and routine martial arts struggles. What an odd mix it was. In fact, we students (most of whom were already senior pastors) laughed, howled and shouted back at the screen, trying to guess the next bizarre bit of Scripture to pop from the mouth of the Warrior Princess.

But as funny as it was in that context, we realized that there were probably more than a few people who treated both Goliath and Xena as equally historical. To those folks, this syncretism makes perfect sense. All those stories about ancient times all sound the same anyway.

Over the past few weeks, I've read and written more about the idea of the commercialization and secularization of Christmas than I ever care to admit. But I can't resist tossing just one more (for now anyway) out into the blogosphere. That's because Christmas is the poster boy holiday for syncretism. I drive by many private Christmas displays in private yards where the Wise Men must navigate their way past Frosty the Snowman and assorted elves to get to the stable. Often there are reindeer and a sleigh parked near the manger scene. And I have actually seen Disney characters dressed as shepherds lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree and sitting in a snowdrift, just a stone's throw from the utility pole.


Posted by Picasa

Syncretism is the name of the game. Newsday columnist James Pinkerton wrote this opinion piece in which he hails syncretism as the answer. However his definition of syncretism isn't so much a blending, but more of a "union of communities." He writes:

Kind of a sweet thought, fitting for the season... In the future, there will be more out-and-out Christmas displays across America, but there also will be more visible elements of other beliefs, too, from Kwanzaa to Hanukkah to the Muslims' Eid ul-Fitr to New Age-y "Harry Potter"-type folderol. That's the commercial, political, mostly peaceful American way, and it sure beats the alternative.


Pinkerton's alternative is what he calls a "culture war" for control of the holiday. Bizarre language for a Christian celebration to be sure, but let's face it, in a culture where no minority view is to be ignored, it is much more likely to see a separate but equal representation for anything billing itself as a religion. But I don't have a problem with that. Because that's not really syncretism. It's more of a cafeteria, actually.

Syncretism is a danger for Christians. It's not that we can't celebrate family or tradition at Christmastime. It's not that we must boycott the singing of Jingle Bells and Sleigh Ride, although Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer should be avoided at all costs! But the problem lies with forgetting what Christmas is all about. It isn't a celebration of the nuclear or even the extended family, but a celebration of the gift given to God's adopted family -- a family which is ever expanding and looking for new members.

The nativity sets show three wise men despite scriptural specifics on the number of maji. Shepherds and maji stand near one another even though it's pretty clear they didn't visit near the same time. The whole scene is usually a little stand-alone barn, not a cave or part of a larger structure as was more probable. We've let images fill in the mental picture of the birth of Christ for us, and while that's probably not that big of a deal, we can see just how easy it is for us to lean on our own preferences instead of the written Word given to us. That's one of the steps on the way to true syncretism. As Christians we are to keep truth in our heart and in our mind. Mixing it with all kinds of other information can be harmless so long as we understand where the line between truth and embellishment is drawn. We stand for truth. We aren't to waste our time defending all the other additions. In fact, we must be able to separate truth from nonsense, fact from frills, and explain the difference.

Despite all the debate about how the December 25th celebration began and where the traditions originated, there is a true and pure message of Christmas -- salvation through the Baby sent as a gift from heaven. And all the red-nosed reindeer, mistletoe, family dinners and tinsel are simply wrapped around that simple message. The "union of communities" idea of adding celebrations of other faiths make up more wrapping and the pure capitalistic, selfish materialism continues to wrap that message so tight that we almost need Xena's broadsword to hack through it all.

But in dealing with syncretism, the trick is discerning the truth and holding onto it with all our might. The Truth was laid there about 2000 years ago and I pray that we can keep our hands and our minds and our hearts gripping at His feet as we play out the traditions and trappings of the modern Western Christmas. Or better still, make sure that all we do points toward the Gift of Bethlehem -- not just giving gifts because Jesus was our gift, but honestly seeking Him and pointing others toward Him by the way we speak and act and think. Don't let the "extras" pull you away from approaching the manger in adoration and thanksgiving this Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Deep Reads - 12/18/05

Usually at Christmas and Easter, major news magazines get their kicks from running articles attacking Christianity. This time around, Time has a nice article on Joseph, the forgotten man at the Nativity. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to Jennifer and her Idle Rambling Thoughts.) And while you're at it, there's a good post about Joseph at Coffee Swirls.

How 'bout some good, old-fashioned Protestant vs. Catholic theology arguments? I had missed this one last month at Team Hammer's Musings.

And if you don't want deep, just some examples of the ridiculous, try George Will's column on 2005's Kind of Progress. (A tip of the ol' ballcap to runalong with pastor mark.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

Monkee-ing Around With Your Faith

The only station my truck radio can pull in around home is the local small town oldies station. (This is why I usually have my satellite radio with me. This time I didn't.) But as I drove with my kids, the speakers blared out, "Cheer up, sleepy Jean! Oh, what can it mean to a daydream believer and a homecoming queen..."

My oldest boy who turns 14 this weekend looked quizically at the radio dial. "Who is this? The Beatles or somebody?" He may have been misled by the English accent and guessed the name of the only band from Britain he could think of.

"Nope. The Monkees," I replied in my used-to-be-a-DJ-so-I-know-it-all voice. "They were actually a TV show that sort of made fun of the Beatles, but then the music started getting popular..." I could tell that he'd checked out of the conversation at this point, so I stopped.


Posted by Picasa

He didn't want to hear the story behind The Monkees. The television show was simply a group of actors assembled make a show based on the Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night. Four musicians act crazy and play some pop songs. Quick, easy, exploitative television. That was the recipe. The fact that the actors weren't really playing the instruments or singing for the first couple of years betrayed the intent of the production. What they sought to achieve was a cheaper, easier-produced show for Beatle fans which would promote music with music rights not paid to another company. What they eventually got was a catalog of music which suddenly became very popular, thanks to the exposure of the television series. Instead of using the original, a similar version was made to suit the likes and profits of the show creators. Take out what you don't like and add in what you do. Pretty simple. Of course, my son didn't care about all that. But there's always a story behind the scenes. And in this case the story reminds me of a problem in Christianity today.

I ran across this great post entitled, Authentic Spirituality at Every Thought Captive. In it, Phil muses about the current trend in spirituality of picking and choosing the attributes of God we can accept and ditching the rest. He cites an interview with an expert on Wicca where it is mentioned that:
...its tenants tend to be very person-specific and fairly malleable. Wicca, along with so much American spirituality, gives its believers the chance to make religion in their own image.
That seems to be the trend for so many people -- not a conversion to Wicca, but a personalization of God. This cafeteria approach to faith allows the worshipper to form God in his own image. Toss aside all that stuff about salvation by faith alone. Get rid of the whole concept of hell. Don't let God make you feel, well, uncomfortable! That's akin to getting a good workout at the gym without breaking a sweat.

How many times have you heard people say something like, "The God I believe in isn't like that," or "I think of God as being all about love, not judgment." Personally, I hear it a lot. The determining factor in that person's view of God is not Scripture, but human feeling. No intellect is wasted on paltry things like theology. Take what you like, leave the rest, and don't worry about the consequences. Or as Paul put it, "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie..."

I see this type of thinking in individuals and I am not surprised. After all, we crave individual freedom. We don't like rules which infringe upon our preferences. We dislike being told that our feelings are wrong. This is all a natural reaction from our human sinfulness. (Or call it selfishness if you'd like.) But where I continue to be appalled is when I see this same reaction from churches.

Sure, local churches are simply groups of these selfish individuals, but being in a group should foster a bit of accountability. Someone should be watching doctrine, but too often it becomes a matter of groupthink. You get a bunch of people think that the Monkees are just as good as the Beatles and settle for an imitation because it benefits them to do so. They don't like the idea that a God of love could ever pass judgment, so they simply cross that off the menu. Oftentimes it takes a bit of creative isogesis to do it, but they'll come up with a proof text or two and proclaim that their imitation created by human feeling is just as good as what we find in Scripture.

Of course I shouldn't be so surprised. This is the same warning given to Timothy more than a couple of years ago.
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Well, maybe not many myths, but the one myth that our feeling equals truth. It doesn't, my friends. If it were, there would be more money in my bank accounts because I'm so blessed that I feel rich! A woman who feels that God doesn't judge doesn't change the Bible-confirmed reality that He does. Our feelings do not change reality. And we'd best get that message through the thick skulls of those in the church who bank on feelings over truth. Because the more I see churches who neglect the preaching and teaching of Scripture, the more I see churches who keep an "open mind" even where the Bible says otherwise, the more I see churches who promote an unscriptural idea of prosperity, the more I wish the congregation was at home watching The Monkees reruns on television. It wouldn't do near the spiritual damage.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Obstacle Course

It was a far-too-quick, but interesting discussion on the radio. Tuesday afternoon, talk-show host Tammy Bruce was talking about belief in God. If you've never heard or even heard of Bruce, she's not a typical talk show host. She is a conservative. She is also a lesbian. It's an odd combination, I realize, but that's what made this discussion a bit more intersting.

I only hear Tammy Bruce occasionally and usually for only 20 minutes, if that much, but I think I have a grasp on many of her key beliefs. One is that she believes in God. As she talked about that on the air Tuesday, you could hear the conviction in her voice. She is definitely a theist. And she quoted a new Gallup poll which reported again that by far most Americans believe in God. That poll also even showed that of the four percent who say they there is no God, most of those folks say they aren't really sure about it.

But as Bruce talked about her own beliefs, she talked about what really held her back from being a Christian, or from being involved in a church, was being burned by "church people" in the past. She wasn't specific about any incidents, except to say that people representing the church had "lied to us" and hadn't acted like Christians toward others. There are tons of examples of this behavior and frankly, this is an obstacle which many people can't seem to jump.

The first obstacle to faith in Christ is the existance of God Himself. The vast majority of those hitting this barrier balk at the idea of the supernatural. Naturalistic explanations are sought for things which are beyond our knowledge. They believe that physical laws are in place and nothing can violate those laws, unless it is explainable by Science. If a person refuses to even consider that there is more to the universe than can be possibly shown by Natural processes, then the idea of God is out of the question.

The next obstacle is God's nature. Is God more than simply an impersonal force or the culmination of supernatural power? Can a God be merely a force? It would seem that a creator who is nothing more than energy is little better than another naturalistic explanation for creation. But if there is truly some kind of personality in God, then the next obstacle is the belief in not just a God, but a personal God. A God who actually cares about His creation. Deists, like Benjamin Franklin, profess a belief in God, but not in a God who is active in today's world. Perhaps this obstacle is a bit easier to overcome than most, as I can't say that I've ever met a deist. A God who offers us no hope isn't much of God after all.

The big hurdle then, is dealing with the nature of that hope. Once one has accepted the personal nature of God, one must then deal with the dueling religions which have formed around differing ideas of how God deals with us. Which of all of these constructs of man is the true way to God and that hope? What must we do to earn heaven? All of the world's faiths -- Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Mormonism and various other cults -- each call for man to earn perfection or salvation of some kind. The only exception is Christianity. Only Christians believe that we are saved solely by God's grace. Only Christians could buy that a mass murderer like Ted Bundy could repent, accept Christ and be saved. The "salvation by faith, not by works" obstacle is the biggest hurdle toward Christianity. If someone is saved by God, shouldn't it be obvious by their actions?

This brings us back to Tammy Bruce. Her objection was that oftentimes Christians don't act "good." All of us Christians are slapping our foreheads and exclaiming, "Duh!" at this point! We fully realize that we're not perfect. That's the point. We cannot be perfect. We don't always look like what the world thinks we should resemble. We know that. But sometimes we forget how big an obstacle this can be to people considering the claims of Jesus Christ. Paul warns us not to be a stumbling block to other believers, but the natural extension of this teaching is that our actions must also not cause those running the obstacle course to slip and fall before ever reaching Christ.

But the message which isn't reaching people like Tammy Bruce is that putting our faith for salvation in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ doesn't instantly make us better people. The theological term, sanctification, describes the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. It's not like fast food or instant pudding. The process takes time and unless we submit to Christ's will for us, then we won't look any different than the garden variety pagan. We'll be just as fallible, just as dishonest, just as selfish, just as materialistic. But if we are truly committed to maturing in our faith, then there will be fewer and fewer errors shining like a neon sign in the wee hours of the morning. But there will still be some.

The existance of sin in the life of the Christian does not make Christ any less God. The fact that priests and pastors have sexually abused people and that Christians have cheated on their taxes and that believers have been hateful toward others and that teachers have deceived people for their own benefit -- all these things do not diminish the claims of the Bible or the Church of Christ Universal. The bumper sticker, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," is true, yet it only makes us sound like we think we're better than others.

The only ladder to help people over this obstacle is constructed from humility and honesty. We cannot afford to come across as thinking we're superior to unbelievers because we're not. We cannot pretend we aren't tempted and never take the temptation because we are and we do. And we cannot present Christ to others for any reason other than the fact that we love Jesus and we love those who don't know Him. The rebellious, the drunks, the addicts, the proud, the rich, the intellectual, the lonely, the rejected, guy just trying to make it through the week... these are the people we are to love, the same way God loves us.

Once we overcome this obstacle, perhaps others will clear the final hurdle and come to know Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

CCC Up

That's Christian Carnival C (100 to you non-Romans out there) is up at the host of CCI (1. Maybe you should take a class in Roman numerals...), Nick Queen.

Early personal favorites include Parableman on Christians and the Sabbath, Where Would Jesus Shop at The Business of America is Business, and Diane of Crossroads discussing The Emerging Church and Dr. Tim Keller.

The Dreaded Christmas Letter

I finished it last night, the same day I heard the first complaint of the year about them. I'm not sure why but Christmas letters really seem to set some people off. Personally, I rather enjoy them -- especially from those people I never get to see and rarely get to hear from. Since my wife and I have lived in many places and our friends are scattered hither and yon, we started including a Christmas letter around the time when our kids were born. Nobody's ever complained directly to us, so they continue every year!

Yesterday, a friend mentioned that he hates getting Christmas letters in cards. My question was, "Do you mind getting the card?" Apparently receiving a card was no problem, it was the contents of the letter inside. So I asked, "Does that mean that you don't mind waving at people, but you'd rather not hear them talk?" Sure I was having a little fun with him, but the questions were rooted in my own genuine lack of understanding. Why is a card OK, but a letter isn't?

Tossing this whole idea around in my brain, I've come up with a couple of reasons why some find Christmas letters so deplorable. First is the impersonal tone of a mass produced, generic-enough-to-send-to-everyone letter. Form letters read like junk mail much of the time, I'll admit. But then again, the sentiment inside a Christmas card is rarely, um, inspiring.

Then there is the letter from people who seem to be digging for a little sympathy. I've never received one of these, but I know people who have. It tells of battles with diseases and financial problems and other stuff which seems to personal to broadcast to everyone on the Christmas card list. I'd have no problem with those, myself. I would think those people probably could use a little sympathy and attention -- especially in prayer -- so I'd be thankful for the heads up.

Sometimes Christmas letters are written from the perspective of a new baby or the family pet. It can be cute, but it might also get a little tiresome. Some letters go on and on for pages, or worse yet for someone whose vision is diminishing, they are typed using a small font to cram it all on one page, but it's too small to be readable. I've also heard of letters which dwell on things that even a best friend would find boring. One friend said that every year while growing up, his family received a Christmas letter from a relative which always mentioned her bowling average score for the year. Still, it was important to her, so who am I to say that nobody cares?

However the most common complaint about Christmas letters is that they read like brag sheets. The original complainer wrote:
The letters I get read something like this: We moved this year into a house that cost more than yours. Our kids are smarter than yours and better in sports. We vacation in better places than you do. Our pets can do more tricks than you. blah blah blah...
I'm sure there are plenty of people who write things to impress others, especially distant relatives. However, I've never read one written like my friend's example. He likely gets letters from people who like to talk about their accomplishments over the past twelve months. But regardless of the motivation of the author, the reader doesn't have to see it as a competition. If I got a letter from a long lost friend who talked about having a baby, winning the lottery and spending his year in exotic vacation spots, I'd be happy for him. Hey, I'd be tempted to brag about knowing him! I'm not sure why we begrudge others their good times, even if that Christmas letter is written purely to gloat. Perhaps it's a matter of learning to be satisfied in Christ and not looking to validate our existance with our accomplishments. It's not supposed to be a competition after all.

Still after all this, I'm grateful that a person has thought enough to include a summary of what is happening with their family in their annual greeting. Pictures are even better, even if I will never see these folks this side of heaven. I'm grateful that they thought enough of me to include me on the list, even if there is no information intended just for me included. And for those of you who still hate Christmas letters, just slip it out of the card and toss it in the trash without reading it. It'll be better for your blood pressure!

I hope that each Christmas letter you get reminds you that the sender is a blessing from God just for you. He or she might not be someone you'd love to spend a week with or even someone you could spend five minutes on the phone talking to, but that person is a pale reflection of God's love for you. And I pray that even in the too boring, too long, too cute and too braggadocious, we can all see the too loving, too forgiving, too merciful and too awesome God.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tookie

There was A lot of talk today about executed murderer Tookie Williams. The right-wing talk show hosts were quick to celebrate the execution, which was a bit crass for my liking. Yet it came after so many people protested the death sentence because Williams was said to have been a changed person. He wrote childrens' books, he turned his life around -- why, they asked, can't people just forget about what happened in the past?

The answer seemed pretty obvious to me. After all there were four people whose lives ended almost a quarter of a century ago because of this gang leader's actions. This was a matter of justice. And whether you agree with the use of the death penalty or not, you must admit that a man who killed four people in cold blood should be a prime candidate for the harshest penalty available. Yet wasn't Willimas rehabilitated? Wasn't he reformed?

As I heard all this discussion on the radio today, my mind drifted back a few years when the person awaiting execution was Carla Faye Tucker. You remember Tucker. Icepick killer in Texas. But what really gave her some noteriety was that she had accepted Jesus as Savior while on Death Row. Because of that, some Christian groups were appealing for the governor to spare Tucker. They claimed her changed life was not only verifiable, but also a great moral lesson for those contemplating serious crime. Here was a killer, but she was truly reformed. She had repented and had renounced her actions.

Tucker was executed above the protests of those who wanted to spare her life. Williams was executed early this morning above the protests of those wanting to spare his life. Was there a difference? Yes. While Williams was said to be rehabilitated and reformed, Tucker was repentant. However, both death sentences were carried out, and rightfully so in my opinion. After all the punishment is not for the actions since the trial, but for the actions which were the reason for the trial. I am very glad that Tucker found Christ before her death. I wish Williams had done the same. But from where I sit, neither deserved to have his or her punishment reduced.

In all of this, I'm reminded once again about the temporary nature of this life. Tucker won the prize, while but all accounts I've heard, Williams did not. The nearly twenty-five years on Death Row may have brought Tookie a different mindset, but not an eternal one.

But beyond that, it's incredible that a murderer can change so drastically. A life which was lived for selfishness can become a life lived for the glory of God. But is that any more incredible than the fact that He can bring me out of sin, or you out of sin? Even when it seems our life path is destined to be evil, God can grab us by the lapels and wake us out of a daze of selfishness. He does it when we finally understand that we are sinners in need of a Savior.

Years ago, one of the bishops of my denomination visited a convicted killer in prison and had his picture taken with the man. The murderer was astonished that such an important religious man would be photographed with a lowly criminal. The bishop turned to him and said, "Sir, we're both sinners. You may be a big sinner and I may be a small sinner, but in the eyes of God we're both sinners in need of a Savior." A simple truth which tends to escape our notice at times.

"Lord, thank You that although I deserve a horrible punishment, You have taken the penalty for me. Help me not to see others as worse than me. Help me to see us all with Your eyes. And help me to be able to share that simple truth with those who do not understand it."

Monday, December 12, 2005

"I'll Be Closed For Christmas..."

There are stories and debates which tend to flow through the various nooks and crannies of the blogosphere until they seem to ooze from every blog. The current conniption is the decision of various churches to keep the doors closed on Sunday morning, December 25, 2005. Because most of those churches getting public mention are of the megachurch variety, people seem ready to rush the doors with torches and pitchforks. After all, it doesn't take much to get some people ready to take on the local megachurch.

I could provide links to a couple dozen blogs commenting on the subject from one view or another. Well, I take that back. Most blogs tend to take one view -- condemning churches who are closed on Sunday. Here's a post at Church Marketing Stinks/Sucks giving a kind of overview. Anyway, I've entered into debate on a few of those sites and most people have been at least open-minded enough to discuss the situation without hysterics. For instance, Matt Jones and I had a nice discussion last week. But instead of trying to go through this on 700 individual blogs, I figured I'd get my offensive two cents worth in here at Attention Span.

I'll lead with my admission: I pastor a church which will not have a worship service on Christmas Day this year, and it was my final decision to schedule the weekend. Now before you grab the pitchforks and light the torches, let me tell you about my reasoning.

We started a traditional Christmas Eve Candlelight service about six years ago. Previously the church had never done that. It's a family church, meaning we have a couple of large families of many generations which make up a good chunk of our membership. One of these families always has family Christmas activities that night, so it's rare that they make the 8:00 p.m. service. I can live with that, although I will always offer the option and not stop the service because they won't be there. I want to have a service during the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day time period where we come together to remember why we are celebrating in the first place. I think it's important to do so, either privately or corporately.

So with the schedule this year, instead of having a service Saturday night at 8:00 then again Sunday morning at 10:00 for the same people, I simply combined the two services and scheduled the one service for 8:00 Christmas Eve. For those who consider The Lord's Day as the Christian Sabbath, it falls between sundown Saturday and sundown Sunday so calm down a bit! Not everyone likes the decision and that's alright. No decision would please everyone. But in considering all the options, I thought of a few things.

At my church, keeping the service on Sunday morning would be done to appeal to two groups of people: (1) the regular attenders who are there whenever the church doors are open, and (2) those wanting to "get right with God" by attending services on Christmas and Easter.

The first group are important people. They commit themselves to the worship of Almighty God, mostly through the ministries of the local church. I agree that we need to gather together to celebrate our common faith and to lift up the Lord in corporate worship, but where do we get the instructions on frequency. The early church used to gather every day! Think of how many complaints would be registered if a pastor expected to see you at services every night! We've settled on Sundays to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but gathering to worship is the important part of the equation.

The second group are interesting folks. The "C & E goers" are usually nominal Christians -- meaning they use the name (when it's convenient), but don't walk the walk. A visit to church on the holiest days eases the guilt and quiets the conscience, enabling them to go back to their regular lives come Monday. I'll admit there are probably a few actual Christians who don't attend a traditional church except for a holiday service, but I can honestly say I've never met one in person. So the vast majority of "C & E goers" are in church not for worship, but because they've been dragged there by family or a guilty conscience. We don't have them at our church, for better or worse. But if we did, I would agree that we need to be able to present Christ to people like this, but these people aren't truly searching for God. I just don't think that a church should help support the delusions of these people simply for their sake. So I wouldn't work a schedule around to suit those who don't seem to care.

Now there is a third group -- those who suddenly receive an epiphany and want to accept Christ and come to church right away. How many would find such a message in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning I don't know, but again I can't schedule to accomodate such a remote possibility.

When it comes to a megachurch there could be other issues involved, I realize. But the key seems to be understanding what God wants from us. And I truly believe that there should be a time for corporate worship on Christmas weekend. I just don't think it has to be on Sunday morning. Even Sunday night would be a good alternative. But churches who have no services at any time Christmas weekend are missing out on a great opportunity to worship the newborn King. Make it a no-frills service if there aren't enough volunteers. Scrap the worship band and sing a capella. Forget the video presentations. Don't offer Sunday School or small groups. Close the bookstore and the coffee shop. Cut from four services to one. Make it special. But get together and worship somehow. It's too great an opportunity to miss.

Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth -- defending the cancelation of Sunday services while calling for churches to meet? No. My point is simply that corporate worship is a priviledge we should enjoy, especially on a weekend celebrating Christ's birth. But using a church's decision as an excuse to hammer away at a church is uncalled for. Sure, we should urge each church to offer a time of celebrating the birth of our Lord, but restricting the celebration to Sunday morning is more than Scripture demands. Hey, Scripture doesn't demand anything in regards to celebrating His birth. Perhaps we all need to be slower to anger and quicker to encourage.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

What Have I Done?

I ran across this quote from author Gene Hill today:
"I can't think of anything that brings me close to tears than when my old dog -- completely exhausted after a hard day in the field -- limps away from her nice spot by the fire and limps over to where I'm sitting, puts her head in my lap, a paw over my knee, and closes her eyes and goes back to sleep. I don't know what I've done to deserve that kind of friend."

I feel the same way whenever I really, really look at a cross.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Good Reads 12/9/05

Ah, the interesting things I run into when I wander aimlessly in the blogosphere...

Here's an interesting post from an evolutionist who talks about how he has faith in science like a creationist has faith in God. Interesting discussion in the comments section too.

Rey from The Bible Archive describes how his life changed last week with a seizure.

Ever been to a wedding where the bride was a real dog? And so was the groom? Todd of Monday Morning Insight has the story of a pastor who officiated at the $1200 wedding of two dogs. That money probably would have built a church in Central America...

With the cries of, "I want that for Christmas" from the mouth of my four year old ringing in my ears, it did me good to read this post on contentment at Amy's Humble Musings.

Faking tongues? Hearing reports myself of repeating, "Tie my bowtie," over and over to coax tongues out of a person, this post at Heart, Mind, Soul, and Strength was interesting. I'd love to see more comment and reaction to it.

And finally, John MacArthur pinch-hits for the Pyromaniac with this great post about the importance of doctrine. I found it on the heels of reading this from Marla at Always Thirsty. She notes that a recent Christian blog contest was won by a Mormon and called Christians to better discernment regarding the Latter Day Saints. Marla was attacked in the comments by two LDS ladies who obviously missed the point of the post. They chastised her for not being loving toward Mormons -- interesting since the post only mentioned truth, not hatred. Truth in love is what we strive for as Christians, right? Why do some twist this to mean we are never to disagree or to take a stand for doctrine? Congratulations to Marla for her stand for doctrine. She also follows up the whole confrontation here.

Why Attend a Megachurch?

I found this paragraph in the midst of a post on a completely different subject at Ales Rarus:

Obviously megachurches are popular, or otherwise they couldn't very well be megachurches, could they? But I have to wonder what do these churches provide that so gosh darn attractive? Anonymity? Unbridled consumer choice? Unmitigated noninterference with one's chosen way of life? Perhaps it is a sense of spirituality (not, of course, that which might be misconstrued with objective norms of faithfulness or obedience), which is now more popular than the Beatles ever were.
Since it's been asked, why do people go to megachurches? I think the poster has nailed down four good reasons.

Let's start with anonymity. Do people choose a megachurch in order to just get lost in the crowd? Undoubtedly there are many who do just that. Perhaps burned out on service at a smaller church, they seek out a place where they won't be asked to do anything for a year or two. I know of people who have fled to a megachurch because of scandalous situations at their former churches. Again, they found a place to stay connected while getting lost in the crowd.

A huge church offers more choices. Kristen at Walking Circumspectly featured a post about the various worship choices at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. The list is almost daunting to the reader. How would you decide which of the nine worship styles to choose? Well, the Hawaiian one I could probably rule out quickly. But a megachurch can offer so many things to please the church shopper. Not just a coffee house and a bookstore, but many different possibilities. Consumerism is placated with multiple choices.

The third reason was called by the poster "unmitigated noninterference with one's chosen way of life" but let's concentrate on the convenience factor. That's what much of it comes down to. How can you claim to be too busy for church when there are services offered at most any hour of the weekend? There are always nurseries available and Sunday School classes (whatever they call them). Much of what you need is on the campus somewhere, including snacks, fast food and entertainment.

Finally there is the popular sense of spirituality, which ties into the "noninterference with one's chosen way of life" factor. Not every megachurch fits the mold, but there are many people who choose a church because they can feel spiritual and never have their beliefs challenged. A feel-good message replaces a Biblical sermon and it doesn't offend. We'd be denying the truth if we claimed that some megachurches and some attenders aren't drawn by this.

But there are other reasons why megachurches are popular. For instance, there is an aspect of anonymity to attending a megachurch, but by the same token there is a feeling of belonging to something important. Sure a megachurch is a physically impressive facility, but it's also a large organization which is usually seen as an important group. Megachurches garner headlines, give much money and service to deserving causes, make a difference in more lives and impress more people. It makes a person feel good to be a part of a group who accomplishes things. That is a drawing card right there.

Bigger churches will often have better, or at least more charismatic pastors. Like it or not, many churches are pastor-driven. I wish it were not that way, but churches usually experience growth because of the face in the pulpit, not in spite of it. Sometimes the pastor is an excellent speaker, or a good story-teller, or even a speaker who can apply Bible truths to life in an easy-to-understand fashion. Unfortunately, sometimes the pastor is someone who ignores Romans 11:22 and preaches only the love of God and not the judgment of the Almighty. As I noted earlier, some churches leave the Bible out of the equation entirely. There may be a couple of megachurches who aren't pastor-driven, but I'm hard pressed to come up with them.

As part of a megachurch, often people don't have to be tied up with church politics and the power struggles which go on in smaller congregations. Discipling opportunities are more readily available. Resources are plentiful. Staff people are available. Attenders are not "guilted" into teaching a class or to volunteer for a service project. There isn't a feeling of, "If I don't do it, it won't get done" at a megachurch. And then there is the worship service itself.

With any musical service there will be some aspect of entertainment entering into the equation. In a megachurch, the attender can sit as a concert-goer or enter into some intense personal and corporate worship. I can't see anyway to keep a so-called worshipper from simply being a spectator during the service instead of a participant. That works in my small church as well. That decision is in the heart of the attender. Somehow I think it's a little easier to be in awe of a worship leader/performer with a more professional presentation than a small choir with piano and organ accompaniment. But maybe that's just me.

Some people, especially those in smaller churches, like to criticize megachurches. Sometimes the criticism is justified. A megachurch has a lot of problems which a smaller congregation doesn't have to deal with. Yet there are distinct advantages for some people to worship in a megachurch, just as others are more at home in a smaller church. Each side of the debate has it's own strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I couldn't be a long-term part of a megachurch -- I wouldn't feel comfortable -- but I would have no problem attending for a few weeks. Others develop a nervous twitch when visiting a church as small as mine. However, dismissing a church and it's ministry simply because of it's size is foolish as well as unbiblical. It shows a more worldly approach than we like to admit.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Nudity Rears It's Ugly...

So what's the deal with Christianity and nudity? Twice this week I've stumbled across stories linking the two. The first is the story from Germany about Christian teens posing for a racy calendar. Rahab is a garter belt and stockings, Delilah topless, Eve with a strategically placed fig leaf offering the viewer an apple (never mind that the leaves didn't get used until after the whole fruit incident). The other story is about a Christian nudist village to be built about 40 miles north of Tampa, Florida. According to this article, there are a whole bunch of Christian "naturalists" throughout the U. S. and Canada. The man putting up the project is reportedly the head of a Christian Nudist website with 19,000 registered users.

Now I'm not sure where these folks get their historical information, but they claim nudism and Christianity are really contradictory. One man stated, "Naturism was quite normal for the first few 100 years of Christianity." One of the teens exclaimed, “Anyway, it doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that you are forbidden to show yourself nude.”

But all that questionable research aside, I've always heard that the secret of being sexy is what isn't shown. If that's the case, then there is nothing sexy about nudism. Indeed, the stereotype of the typical nudist is not a very attractive, or even physically fit person. I've heard interviews with people who have visited nudist resorts who said that after the initial shock wore off, they didn't even notice that everyone around them was buck naked. It wasn't sexy. It wasn't erotic. It was just other people. A t-shirt I saw once read, "At my age, nudity is the best birth control!" There's wisdom there!

I really don't want to debate the compatibility of being a Christian and running around stitchless. But there's something about the idea that we imagine something to be much better than it really is. I know from experience that a sin always seems like a better idea before I commit it than after. A willful rebellion into greed or materialism or lust or hatefulness is appealing -- especially if I really feel the desire. If I really don't care to be around someone, the urge to say something nasty about that person is strong. Wanting something seems to make the method to get it seem acceptable, even when it's not.

Let's face it, if sin wouldn't seem appealing, we wouldn't do it.

So what do we do about that siren song of sin? We rely upon the strength of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and I think His secret weapon is to remind us that most sin doesn't live up to it's billing. A married woman considering an affair with another man has strength to reject the idea if she remembers the problems that adultery will cause in her life. The years of regret isn't worth the minutes of pleasure. That man who claims he'll respect her in the morning usually won't and the husband she has will be hurt beyond belief. Being reminded that it isn't worth it -- lust, desires, greed, hatefulness -- is our weapon in our struggles with temptation. Even the sight of many naked people loses it's sexual appeal.

Sin may seem like a good idea when it's being considered. There's a good chance it will be quite enjoyable at the time too. But afterward, we find ourselves facing a nasty naked caboose of guilt and regret. And if we feel no guilt it's not simply a matter of resisting temptation, but a need for a change in life direction.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christian Carnival 99 -- Famous 99's in History

Hello and welcome to Christian Carnival 99! It's an honor to host a collection of some of the best in Christian thought from around the blogosphere once again. We're on the precipice of a Christian Carnival milestone. But that comes next week when Carnival originator Nick Queen hosts the 100th edition next week at his site. Right now we're one edition short, but it's not short on good posts.

This time around, since it's the 99th edition of Christian Carnival, our theme of the week is "Famous 99's in History!" Now before you go wandering off convinced that this week's host is mostly insane, let me remind you that 99 is an important number throughout history and it remains so in contemporary thought. To prove my point, our entries this week will be grouped according to some of the most famous 99s in our culture. Some are recent. Others are ancient. But all share a respect for the largest two-digit number.

With all that contrived nonsense in mind, let us head straight to the posts in the 99th edition of the Christian Carnival.



#99 Wayne Gretsky Posted by Picasa

We'll start with the most famous wearer of the number 99, the Great One, Wayne Gretsky. Sure, we've seen Warren Sapp and George Mikan wear the number, but it's most associated with hockey's greatest scorer. In honor of the esteemed Mr. Gretsky, this section of the Carnival will deal with heroes, celebrities and quasi-celebrities.

At Notes in the Key of Life, Cindy Swanson posts her interview with Thunderstruck.org's Steve Beard. She describes Christian film critic Steve Beard's site as is kind of like a Drudge Report from a Christian world view.

Did you have a relative who really influenced you? Jim of Suldog-O-Rama writes a beautiful remembrance of his grandmother in "100 Years Old Today". (Mild bad language warning)



Nena's song, "99 Luftballoons" Posted by Picasa

99 Luftballoons is a protest song by German singer Nena which was a number one hit in Germany back in 1983. Unless you speak German, the lyrics sound like, well... someone singing in German! Forutunatly there was an English language version recorded and released as well, translated as 99 Red Balloons. Although the English version is not a literal translation of the German version, both songs tell a story of 99 balloons floating into the air, triggering an apocalyptic overreaction by the military. The point was that perpetual readiness for war becomes a dangerous "tinderbox" which even a trivial spark can ignite. My point in including the song in "Famous 99s in History!" is to lead off a group of posts dealing with political, military and academic struggles.

First is Future Man from Dignan's 75 Year Plan with an explanation of why he's not buying Intelligent Design in the post, "Intelligent Design, Roman Catholicism and the Supreme Court."

Meanwhile, cvw warrior from Christianity Is Jewish is on the other side of the ID debate. The post, "Why Intelligent Design Will Win" points the way to a Nancy Pearcey article about the importance of ID in a Christian worldview.

And back on the other side is John of /musing/struggling/dreaming who claims that in trying to find a place for God in science, ID throws away both God and science, and finds itself clutching an abstract Designer instead. Read "Flaws in Intelligent Design" for his reasoning.

Finally, a rather abrasive post at A Raving Conservative highlights Michael Newdow's efforts to have "In God We Trust" removed from American currency.



The 99 Sheep of Luke 15 Posted by Picasa

OK, time to get biblical. In Luke 15, Jesus talks about leaving 99 sheep in the open country while going to find the one who is lost. Those 99 would be the Church Universal -- those of us who know Christ as Savior and Shepherd. This flock is ushering in a series of posts about the Church and Christians in general.

Diane at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet, is taking a look at the emergent church. She begins by asking the important question, "What in the world IS the emergent church?" Read her answers in The Emgergent Church: What Is It?

Should a church cancel services on Christmas Sunday morning? "No Christmas For You" discusses one church's decision and an strongly dissenting opinion from Matt Jones' Random Acts of Verbiage.

"A Healthy Dose of Fear" is recommended by Brad of Happy Mills . He wonders why so many churches tend to neglect the value of fear in our relationship with God Almighty.

Looking for a highly-rated church? At Adam's Blog, our host stumbled across a website which rates churches for those looking for a church home. Read his opinion of such a system in "Who Needs the Holy Ghost? This Church Got Five Stars."

What kind of excellence should Christians be striving for, and how should this excellence be measured? "Another Way of Excellence" by Alex Jordan at Jordan's View, expounds on how the church often lets the desire to be excellent overshadow it's call to make disciples.



Ivory Soap - 99 and 44/100 % PurePosted by Picasa

It floats! Ivory soap is so pure it won't sink in a tubful of water. I can still remember the commercials from my childhood touting Ivory as being 99 and 44/100 % pure! I'm sure it was a sucessful slogan, but my warped mind always wondered what that other 56/100 of a percent was that was so impure! With that conundrum in mind, we'll look at entries concerning our ever present fight for purity and love.

We'll begin at Brain Cramps for God and the latest in the Back to Basics series. This one takes on the way we live our life. Read, "Back to Basics: Why Love Is the Great Command."

A pure heart. That's what David asked God for in his psalm of repentance. In "Recreating the Heart," David at all kinds of time examines the type of repentance King David was asking for in Psalm 51.

Over at Sharing Spirit, Kim relates an example of learning to trust God in her own life. She writes, "That’s how God is. He makes the control issue a simple one of trust. We trust Him and He gives us an automatic gain control over our lives meaning HE controls it for us." Read the rest in "Automatic Gain Control."

A mother of seven kids discusses her attempts and methods to bring up her children in a godly way in the post, "It's All Bible Time" from Life in a shoe.

A Penitent Blogger, Penitens reflects on the fragility of life and the message of advent in "Your _______ Is Grass."

"Foundations" explores the idea of God using our circumstances even when we are unaware. The Headmistress of The Common Room writes, "Sometimes what we think of as a transitional period is actually God building a foundation for us."



"99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall"Posted by Picasa

Is this annoying little ditty still standard fare on long bus rides? My memory is seared with the nightmarish recollections of hearing this traveling song repeated into infinity, driving many into insanity. We'll use this wall of bottles as the introduction to a section dealing with a sinful world. And before you jump me about equating beer and sin, let me say that I don't believe one beer is a sin. However if you're involved with passing around 99 bottles of the stuff...

Should the language of a Christian differ from someone who doesn't claim the name of Christ? Barbara from Tidbits and Treasures thinks so. In "Profanity: Language of the Weak?" she says that if we are 'truly cleansed' in our mind and body, profanity should not be escaping our lips; otherwise, our mouth isn't lining up with the Word of God.

"Lord, give me patience and give it to me now!" If you've ever found yourself praying that prayer, then these insights from Xyba on "Patience" at Once More Into the Breach may be just what you need to read.



Interstate 99 Posted by Picasa

Most of you are probably unaware of this short highway in Pennsylvania. A precious few know about the arguments and debates which surround Interstate 99. A short history of the highway can be found here. For those craving the short version, I-99 is seen by many as "pork barrel spending" and the result of a politician calling in favors to get something to bring to his voters, er, constituants. There are plans to extend the 59 mile highway northward into New York and southward through Maryland and into West Virginia, however debates and clashes and lawsuits litter the path. We'll let I-99 be the thruway into some posts about opinions, debate and disagreements.

Martin from Sun and Shield is up first with a suggestion for the Christian Carnival itself. He wants to cut the number of posts each week in half to make it a little less formidable when trying to find your favorites. See what you think in "The Christian Carnival: A Proposal"

At Northern 'burbs blog, Ron is back with the sixth installment of his "NBB Theology: God" series. This time he tackles the fact that God is completely just while also being perfectly loving. A conflict? I don't think so.

The recent decision of the Southern Baptist Convention has sparked a fair amount of debate on tongues and the right of a group to hire only missionaries who do not practice this gift. In "SBC Restriction on Tongues: Hypocrisy?" Jeremy of Parableman takes on the charge of hypocrisy leveled against the SBC.

Let's talk sola scriptura with Phil Thirteen. Continuing in his discussion on the authority of Scripture, PhilThreeten suggests a more balanced view of the roles and authority of
Scripture, the church and the Holy Spirit in "The Final Authority."



The 99 names of GodPosted by Picasa

The Koran claims that God has 99 names. While we might disagree on the exact number, the Bible lists quite a few. All debate aside, we'll allow the claim of Islam's holy book to introduce posts dealing with other religions and worldviews.

One doctor asks another, "Why do you pray before each surgery?" Dr. Bob answers that question and examines the nature of prayer as a conversation in "The Conversation" at The Doctor Is In.

Mark from Pseudo-Polymath submits this apologetic post which he prepared for the God or Not carnival on the subject of miracles. It's a great overview on the topic, "Amateur Apologetics: Miracle of Miracles."

Richard, of dokeo kago grapho soi kratistos Theophilos, who has been discussing repentance, now turns to the possible influence of Philo on Luke-Acts in his post, "Philo on Repentance."

Respond with confindence, not with fear. That's advice from Tom at Thinking Christian who reflects on the battle between secularism and Christianity at Christmas time In "Christmas and Holidays - Just a Reminder."



Agent 99 Posted by Picasa

Finally, we come to Agent 99 from the old TV series, Get Smart! Fighting the evil forces of C.H.A.O.S. was second nature for 99, portrayed by the lovely Barbara Feldon. She and Maxwell Smart had to be ready for anything, any topic, any location. So we'll lift the Cone of Silence and allow Agent 99 to lead us to the final group of carnival posts which could be about any topic in any location.

Micahgirl gets us started by giving some proverbial advice for her little son’s choice in a wife—even though he’s only five. You can’t start too young! "Proverbial advice to a son" is well worth a journey to Musings of Micahgirl.

Rev Bill blogs about a devotional from a person who had remained in his faith in spite of many hardships. "Advent: God Is Still With Us" is a reminder that God is faithful even in the most difficult times.

A beautiful picture captures a "Sea of Tranquility" at Points of Light. Standing at the shore of a glass-smooth lake early in the morning reminds the photographer of the crystal sea awaiting in heaven.

Funky Dung of Ales Rarus offers this repost of "Discovering a Season" where he recalls the experience which really brought home what the Advent Season is all about.

Put yourself in Gabriel's shoes... er, wings in "Gabriel: The Advent Question" posted by Doulos over at Random Responses.

At HODOS, Harambe adds a new marker on the path of Hodos with his discussion of the importance of social justice in the life of a follower of Jesus with "The Role of Social Justice in Hodos."

It's all in the attitude. At Pursuing Holiness, Laura shows an example of the sense of humor displayed by some New Orleans residents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in "Why I Will Always Love New Orleans."

Finally, Donna-Jean of Chapelccino recounts all that their church people were able to do to share in a Mississippi Christmas for Hurricane Katrina victims - in "What God's Love Looks Like."

Well, 99 down. Thanks to all the contributors this week for making Christian Carnival 99 a great way to expand your thoughts. Remember, Christian Carnival makes it's triumphant return to Nick Queen for the 100th edition next Wednesday, so get your entries ready for that celebration.