Season’s Greetings

’Tis the season!  You can tell, because Black Friday has come and gone and now they’re advertising doorbuster sales for Christmas day.  Black Friday was the wonderful invention of some civic-minded committee determined to help burnt-out Americans celebrate their glorious day off by giving thanks for alarm clocks and lines that stretch around the block.  You can tell it’s a really sweet family celebration by its cheerful name, “Black Friday.”  It does sound like a stock market crash, but actually it’s all that stands between us and another stock market crash, so never fear.  In case you missed it (I confess, I slept through the frenzy and spent the day eating leftovers) there is another opportunity just. around. the. corner.  You, too, can snap awake hours before dawn and celebrate the holidays in just a couple weeks.  No, not on Christmas morning, eager for Santa and presents and cinnamon buns, but the day after Christmas, when you can conveniently return all of your presents and get a discount on what you really wanted.  That’s the stuff.

Another tell-tale marker of December is the clever work of your local Christmas tree “light installation services.”  That’s a real thing.  Not got your lights up yet?  Losing your neighborhood decoration contest?  No problem.  You can actually pay somebody else to come fish out the boxes from the basement, test all of the bulbs, and spend hours jazzing up the place.  It might seem like you’d miss out on the memory-making smell of chestnuts roasting and bells jingling and what-not, but think of all the extra time you’ll have to plan your day-after shopping strategy!  On the other hand, you could save money by not hiring that guy and, you know, light a few candles.  Just a suggestion.

Our crew decided to buy a non-traditional tree this year; we got a baby pine tree that we can plant in the yard when all is said and done.  There was a lot of vociferous debate about which tree looked Christmassy enough but would also grow to a lofty (and shady) stature some day.  Charlie Brown won.  Yeah, we’re classy.

Dave Barry had it right.  ’Tis the “deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”  We wouldn’t want to say Merry Christmas, however.  “These days, people say ‘Season’s Greetings,’ which, when you think about it, means nothing. It’s like walking up to somebody and saying ‘Appropriate Remark’ in a loud, cheerful voice.”

So, Appropriate Remark to you all!  And have a holly jolly shopping spree.  🙂

The Radical Questions of Christ

So Jesus had a knack for asking questions that threw people a little off-balance.  Questions that provoke anger, exposing his enemies, questions that stick in a person’s head and poke, like irritants introduced to an oyster.  Eventually, over time, maybe that irritant will produce a pearl.

As many smart people have observed, Jesus asked way more questions (over 300) than he specifically answered (fewer than a dozen), often, in fact, answering a question with a question.  Yeah, annoying.  But I can just imagine Him grinning as His disciples sputtered, unperturbed as He flummoxed folks.  Jesus had a knack for leaving people dumbfounded.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ questions this week, questions that I brush past to give a Sunday school answer, but could, if I let them, do a number on me.  Among many others, He asked:

  • Why are you so afraid? (Matthew 8:26)
  • What are you seeking? (John 1:38)
  • Do you want to get well? (John 5:6)
  • Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)

Wow, right to the point, Jesus.  Couldn’t you be a little more, well, tactful?  But He’s never one for the Hallmark card.  And by grilling us so thoroughly, He gives us plenty of food for thought.

Do you ever wish God spoke to you more directly?  Perhaps He is more inclined now, as He was then, to ask questions rather than give answers.  What if we let Him ask?  What if we put some thought into our answers?  I’m thinking for a season I’m going to ponder the question marks He left behind, let them speak to me today.  I’m guessing I’m not going to like them all, but maybe they have the power to change me, bit by bit.

Here’s a sample.  Which ones speak to you?

  1. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47)
  2. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:25)
  3. Why do you worry about clothes? (Matthew 6:28)
  4. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
  5. Why are you so afraid? (Matthew 8:26)
  6. Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? (Matthew 9:4)  Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? (Luke 5:22)
  7. Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matthew 9:28)
  8. To what can I compare this generation? (Matthew 11:16)
  9. Why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
  10. Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)
  11. Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Matthew 16:13)  Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15)  What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he? (Matthew 22:42)
  12. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
  13. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matthew 17:17)
  14. Why do you ask me about what is good? (Matthew 19:17)  Why do you call me good? (Mark 10:18)
  15. What is it you want? (Matthew 20:21)  What do you want me to do for you? (Matthew 20:32, Mark 10:51)
  16. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink? (Matthew 20:22) Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11)
  17. How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
  18. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
  19. Why are you thinking these things? (Mark 2:8)
  20. Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? (Mark 4:21)
  21. Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4:40)  Where is your faith? (Luke 8:25)  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)
  22. What is your name? (Mark 5:9, Luke 8:30)
  23. Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? (Mark 7:18)
  24. Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? Do you still not understand? (Mark 8:17-21)
  25. [To a blind man] Do you see anything? (Mark 8:23)
  26. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? (Mark 9:12)  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? (Luke 24:26)
  27. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? (Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34)
  28. Are you asleep?  Could you not keep watch for one hour? (Mark 14:37)  Why are you sleeping?  (Luke 22:46)
  29. Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46)
  30. Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? (Luke 10:36)
  31. Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? (Luke 11:40)
  32. Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:57)
  33. Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? (Luke 14:31)
  34. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4, Matthew 18:12)
  35. Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? (Luke 15:8)
  36. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? (Luke 16:11)
  37. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? (Luke 18:7)
  38. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27)
  39. Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? (Luke 24:38)
  40. What are you seeking? (John 1:38)
  41. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:12)
  42. Do you want to get well? (John 5:6)
  43. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:44)
  44. If you do not believe Moses’ writings how will you believe me? (John 5:47)
  45. Does this offend you? (John 6:61)
  46. You do not want to leave too, do you? (John 6:67)
  47. Have I not chosen you? (John 6:70)
  48. Why is my language not clear to you? (John 8:43)
  49. Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8:46)
  50. Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:36)
  51. Do you believe this? (John 11:26)
  52. Do you understand what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
  53. Don’t you know me, even after I have been among you such a long time? (John 14:9)
  54. Who is it you want? (John 18:4,7)
  55. Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me? (John 18:34)
  56. Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? (John 20:15)
  57. Do you love me? (John 21:17)
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Let’s take a whack at sin.

This week, Matt Lauer was the most recent cultural icon to tumble at the revelation that he had offensively coerced women into sexual situations against their will.  Lauer, unlike some of the politicians, musicians, and comedians who’ve been accused of similar sins in recent days, was widely perceived as a good guy — upstanding, smart, and friendly.  Not the kind of sleaze ball you’d expect to grope a gal in the back room.

The headline has people reeling.  What is going on with our culture when one after another of our idols falls?  When #MeToo has been retweeted half a million times?  Women, so long powerless against this kind of abuse, have linked arms.  Revolution is brewing.

A quick scan of the Yahoo news feed reads like a chapter of Judges.  Among the first 15 headlines today, there are reports of a 10-year-old’s suicide, a grown man sucker-punching a guy with cerebral palsy, a missing teen who’s run off with her gym coach, and two gruesome murders.  That’s not to mention the sex assault stories.

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Photo by steam_rocket on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

We have a problem.  Yes, it’s a sin problem.  But it’s also a vocabulary problem.  We have no words for this.

Here it is in a nutshell:  modern folks can’t abide the idea of sin, and to a point they are quite logical.  We’ve discarded the old-fashioned notion along with the (laughable) authority of sacred texts and the (naïve) concept of God.  How could an ancient document, written in another culture and handicapped by its uninformed viewpoint, possibly speak to the choices of free-spirited, diverse people today?  Absurd!  How could any one group’s religious worldview be allowed to dictate morality for everyone else?  How could we ever know which perspective is “correct” in a competing marketplace of ideas, especially when all cultures and people are equally worthy of dignity, and each viewpoint, it’s assumed, equally valid?

If there is no morality, there must be no God, at least not a good, or potent, or opinionated one.  Those who cling to their deity but dismiss His jurisdiction in our lives play a dangerous game.  A God who bows to the sensibilities of human foibles isn’t much of a god by any stretch.

By the same token, if there is no God, there can be no right and wrong.  Right and wrong by definition flow from a concept of divinity; to sin is to sin against God.  You might protest that still we can sin against one another, but that’s problematic, as we’ll see.  The existence of good and evil depends on a transcendent, authoritative, and absolute set of values that could only exist if there were a transcendent, authoritative, and absolute Intelligence lurking behind the universe.  If not, the closest we can get to “right” is “right for me,” “right at the moment,” or “right on, man.”

So far, so good — the average American (picture a contestant on The Voice) would concur.  Twitter chirps about finding your own truth, and, admirably, living by it.  Whether truth is self-determined or imposed upon us, it would make sense to live according to it; to disregard truth is to live in delusion, to live a lie.  And that is a wrong worth fighting.

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Photo by MTSOfan on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

But the next logical leap is not so easily embraced — without an objective right, the closest we can get to “right” is sanctified selfishness.  If there is no absolute morality governing the universe, then the best we can do is seek personal fulfillment on our spin around the sun, a cause which tends to put us at odds with others’ ideas of a good time.  And so a husband, bored with marriage, has a fling with his secretary; a wife, finding love with her best friend, realizes that her truth requires a brave step from the closet and a new identity.  It’s complicated, the carnage that results from broken vows and mangled relationships, but it’s the costly logic of our modern morality.

And to a point, it’s a cohesive morality.  The problem with Facebook philosophers is not that they have abandoned ethics.  Your average secular American will gladly throw down for the right of total strangers to enjoy freedom and pursue happiness.  Attitudes that denigrate others (racism, sexism, homophobia) are the ultimate evils, because they impinge on others’ ability to pursue happiness.  The problem is that this modern morality is unmoored, and will logically self-implode.

When autonomous, liberated people, in pursuit of their personal ideal of happiness, and unencumbered by any external requirements for virtue, run smack up against the contrary opinions or desires of others, we reach an impasse.  Who wins?

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Photo by Martin Gommel on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

It’s husband versus wife.

Neighbor versus neighbor.

Citizen versus cop.

Politician versus media.

White versus black.

Pick a headline from today’s news, and it will invariably boil down to conflicting visions, the greed or inconsideration or power-grabbing or self-aggrandizement of happiness-seekers.  But lacking the vocabulary to call it sin, we run into difficulty.  It’s “inappropriate,” “a flaw,” “behaving badly.”  The same behaviors that have been tolerated, even laughingly encouraged, for decades, have been unmasked for what they really are — hurtful, even devastating, selfish, lustful, cruel.

And so we lambast the Matt Lauers and the Bill Cosbys, the rogue policemen and the chanting racists.  We shake our heads, “Thank you, Universe, that I am not as bad as that guy.”  But don’t you see?  We are.

The fact of the matter is, there is most emphatically a deep human consciousness of right and wrong, good and evil.  Rape and murder and manipulation and greed — these things are wicked, and have plagued us time immemorial.  We see the rise of liars to positions of power, see their oppression of the poor and weak, and we know, we know, it’s wrong.  And if we follow the logic, it leads us back, full-circle.

There is a right.  There is a wrong.  It is universal, timeless, and absolute.  It did not evolve in different directions on different continents, or ebb and flow with the centuries.  It must have come from somewhere, from someone.

And if there is such a thing as sin, then it might be smart to figure out what’s in that category.  Not according to whim, not based on my own (“flawed”) logic, but above and beyond me.  And then to track the big ones backwards, find the little pebbles that start the big old rock slide, root those out.  Little ones, acceptable ones, like pride and lust and laziness.  Because nobody sets out to be Harvey Weinstein or for that matter, Idi Amin.

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Photo by zemoko on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

As Trevin Wax so beautifully put it, “So, the offense of the Christian gospel is twofold. We will seem narrow and strict when we insist on calling out sins. And yet, we will seem too generous when we insist that anyone no matter their past can repent and be restored. Our stark vision of sin is grace to the victim; our call to repentance is grace to the offender.”

Sin, y’all.  Let’s call it what it is.

Photo by Gareth1953 All Right Now on VisualHunt.com / CC BY