Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year!

I’ll be taking a brief 2 week hiatus from the posts due to the busyness of the Christmas holiday and being out-of-town next week.  I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas and pray for your health and safety in the new year!  May the light of Christ blind you from the temporary struggles of this world.  Thanks for reading!

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She NEEDS to Know She’s Loved

Is rebellious behavior in famous teen girls like this "just being a teen", or do we have a generation of young women who simply don't understand what it means to truly be loved?

Last week another American darling got caught in “shockingly” rebellious behavior.  Miley Cyrus, who became famous for her lead role on Disney’s hit series Hannah Montana, was captured on video smoking from a bong 5 days after her 18th birthday.  This is perfectly in line with Cyrus’ recent campaign to shed her “good girl” Disney image, following on the heels of increasingly provocative videos and attire, obscenity-laced public talk, and several sexual picture scandals in recent years.

Although it’s easy to dismiss Cyrus as another Hollywood starlet gone nuts, or maybe even another teenager “just being a rebellious teen”, what often goes underestimated is the widespread effect that behavior like Cyrus’ has on those whom she is a natural role model to.  She is helping to adjust what millions of American girls deem “normal” behavior.  And if you don’t think these young starlets truly have an impact on the girls of this country, consider the ridiculously over-sized sunglasses you see on the next teenage girl and understand where the influence came from.

Look at the most influential young women in our country of the past decade: Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus.  What do they all have in common?  More fame and money than they know what to do with.  Yes.  All formerly employed by Disney, which although it doesn’t necessarily mean a ton, it does mean that they were employed by a company known for tv shows & movies that supposedly promoted “family values”.  Perhaps most telling though, all of them exist currently in broken homes.  To put it differently, these girls were all loved by the world for their beauty and talent, but they couldn’t find the love they really wanted (i.e. needed) at home – family love.  The end result was that they’ve all engaged in destructive behavior (either “acting out” or “acting in”) through drug/alcohol abuse, truancy, and overtly sexualizing themselves, which along with cutting and eating disorders are considered the telltale signs of severe mental health problems for females in this age bracket.

While we’re obviously not going to solve the problem of young Hollywood gone bad in this article, or even all the problems surrounding female teens in our country, one point becomes abundantly clear……according to God, the most primal need that a woman has is to be loved and understand that she is loved by those who matter most (Eph 5:25).  I believe that this truth has profound implications for another young woman, the Bride of Christ, i.e. the Church.  And to illustrate that, I’d like to share with you the story of a very self-destructive (even demon-possessed), overtly sexualized young woman who was desperate for true love.

(for the sake of this article, I am operating with the fairly conservative and traditional view that Mary Magdalene is indeed the unnamed woman described in the Luke 7:36-50 account)

Much has been made in recent years about a young woman who was one of Jesus’ closest human friends.  Controversy has surrounded the false Gnostic Gospels which suggest she may even have been Jesus’ girlfriend.  This was NOT the case though, and the claim is gross not only from a sacrilegious but also historical accuracy standpoint.  The woman we’re talking about here is the “other Mary”, Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ chief supporters in his life…..and death.  So loyal was she that even as a corpse, she was still taking care of him (Mark 16:1).  In fact, this woman becomes so beloved by Jesus, that she is the very first human to whom Jesus appears upon his resurrection from the dead.  “They (the angels) asked her (Mary Magdalene), ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’  At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there…” (John 20:13-14).

So who was Mary of Magdala?  Magdala was a city along the Sea of Galilee that was known for its rampant prostitution.  Girls grew up in that town learning from an early age how to sin with their bodies.  Mary was likely no different.  On top of all that baggage, Mary was plagued by seven evil spirits (Luke 8:2).  Undoubtedly she would have consequently struggled with more modern-sounding conditions like depression and suicidal tendencies then as well.  She needed relief.  She needed help.  She needed to be the recipient of true love, not lust.

Like most everyone in Galilee at that time, Mary had heard of a miracle-worker in the region named Jesus.  Maybe, on a long-shot, he had some help to offer, she thought.  Having heard that this man even had powers to raise the dead (Luke 7:11-17), Mary decided to seek him out in a Galilean town called Nain.  There she found a large crowd gathered around Jesus and she heard him speak.  Jesus spoke unlike any man she’d ever heard before.  Somehow he spoke with authority and gentle humility at the same time.  Somehow, in a sinful world, he expressed complete purity and yet did so without coming across as “better than thou”, but with genuine interest in the benefit of others.  As Jesus began to express concern for the sick who were swarming around him, Mary Magdalene found her way to Christ.  He placed his hands upon her and cast out the demons that had troubled her for so long.  She was cleansed and probably experienced a feeling of purity that she had not known since childhood, since before she began dabbling in the flesh trade.  For the first time in her life, a man had now loved her for a something other than her body and the pleasure it could bring him.  He had loved her and helped her simply because he chose to do so, because he’s simply just that good of a man.  And Mary was enamored with him.

Jesus had been invited to the home of Simon the Pharisee for the evening.  This Simon character clearly had no good intent, but was merely seeking to trip up this man who was promoting a message contrary to the self-righteous agenda of the Pharisee party.  You see, these Pharisees viewed themselves as above sin itself and condemned all whom they labeled as “sinners”.

Although Jesus was a guest at Simon’s house, no hospitality was shown towards him.  There was no greeting with a kiss, no anointing of his head with oil, no washing of his feet – somewhat common expressions of friendliness and warmth shown in ancient Eastern culture.  But Jesus didn’t complain.

Through the open door, in walked Mary Magdalene, who had found her way to Simon’s house.  Understand that ancient culture didn’t have access to front door padlocks.  Privacy in general (as evidenced by the public bathing habits of the Roman Empire) was not our 21st century concept.  So it wasn’t too uncommon for someone to just walk into the house off the street.  As Mary entered, crying, she positioned herself at Jesus’ feet.  She began kissing Jesus’ feet.  She poured on his feet the expensive perfume that she’d been carrying around her neck in a vial (probably her life savings).  She even unbound her hair to wipe off Jesus’ feet.  This unbinding of hair would have been considered scandalous and inappropriate for a woman at this time to do in public.  It was considered too “revealing”.  And on top of it all, this woman’s clothes clearly indicated that she was a prostitute.

The Pharisees were mortified that Jesus would allow this to go on, because they didn’t understand who he was or what was happening here.  They were too spiritually smug, self-righteous, and judgmental to deem themselves needing of forgiveness.  They felt they had earned God’s love and they felt this awful, sinful woman didn’t have God’s love.  They didn’t appreciate or desire God’s grace (undeserved love), so they are shut out from God’s grace, and therefore God’s kingdom.

Mary Magdalene, however, was a believer.  She was part of the Bride of Christ.  As such, she was doing exactly what the Bride of Christ is supposed to do: she was loving Jesus shamelessly, passionately, and extravagantly.  Mary was simply returning the love that this great man had shown to her earlier.  She was loved.  She knew she was loved.  And so she joyfully expressed that love to God – the thing we call “worship”.

If you’re wondering how the story ends, the Gospel writer Luke records Jesus saying to Mary, Your sins are forgiven…..Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:48,50).  And for my money, this is one of the most beautiful stories in all of Scripture.

Mary chose to accept Jesus’ opinion of her rather than her own opinion of herself.  She valued herself because she understood that she was truly loved by someone who truly mattered.  His love saved her.

And if you haven’t figured it out yet, Mary Magdalene really is you and me too.  We are so deeply flawed and defiled by sin that it’s often tough to look in the mirror and see anything of value.  But part of the mystery of Christianity is understanding that it doesn’t really matter what we see in ourselves.  What matters, what dictates whether or not we have value, is how God sees us.  And Galatians 3:27 helps us understand this: “And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” Imagine if you took a homeless woman off the street, gave her a makeover from the world’s top stylists and put her in a designer wedding dress.  This is what Christ has done for dirty sinners.  He has cleaned us of sin.  He has clothed us with his own righteousness.  He has made a Bride for himself – the Church.  At the same time he has also made a home, built with people, for his Father to live in – again, the Church.

As a member of the Christian Church, this is what you need to understand about yourself: God chose you, as he did Mary Magdalene, before the creation of this world.  He chose you despite knowing all of the mistakes you were going to make.  Jesus’ love would deal with them and cover them completely.  He did this because you are simply that valuable to your Lord.  Realize how loved you truly are.  Go in peace, and love your Lord like Mary did.

The Bride of Christ, God’s woman (the Church), needed to be loved and to know that she was loved in order to be saved.  I understand firsthand that it’s easy for local churches to get caught up in things like ministry programs, worship styles, budgetary concerns, and attempting to push the right buttons to program as much morality as possible in members’ lives.  First and foremost, what a local church needs to remind itself of though, is that as a visible extension of THE Church (capital “C”, communion of saints, etc.), that church is loved with an undying love from her groom, Jesus Christ.  If that beautiful bride recognizes how loved she is, the rest of the details, if they’re even that important, will fall into place as needed.

This Christmas, may our churches be filled not with Pharisees, but with former prostitutes who have come to celebrate the arrival of the One who delivered them from their demons and their sins, who have come to celebrate God’s grace.

X-Mas, Santa, and the Red-Herrings of Christmas

Although labeled as a time of peace, many spiritual battles go on this time of year. Christians will want to choose their battles wisely.

Often marked as a time of peace, this time of year, the Christmas season, can also generate some bitter debate.  If there is any question about this, one need only look to the entrance of the Lincoln tunnel in New York City this year.  Atheists and Catholic organizations alike have taken out billboard space promoting their beliefs.  The Atheist billboard reads, “You KNOW it’s a myth.  This season, celebrate reason.” The Catholic billboard reads, “You KNOW it’s real.  This season, celebrate Jesus.” This is the basic argument between all Christians and non-Christians., i.e. is this story real?

The debate doesn’t stop there though.  Seeking to promote Jesus as “the reason for the season,” many Christians fight diligently on different fronts.  Some Christians choose to align all of their troops and weapons on the “Happy Holidays” front and see it as their mission to make sure everyone says, “Merry CHRISTmas” as opposed to the more ambiguous seasonal greeting.  This war has been highlighted in recent years by the “X-Mas” controversy.

So how evil really is writing “X-Mas?”  Christians range from some thinking it’s not that bad since an “X” is a cross-like reminder of what Christ came to do, to some thinking this is undeniably the devil’s stamp on a godless culture.  I guess it all depends on your motives.

The “Happy Holidays” and “X-Mas” controversy isn’t for everyone though.  Many other Christians seek to fight on the Santa Claus front to preserve the holiday’s integrity.  Some will even argue that the word “Santa” is some sort of divine, metaphysical word scramble that is secretly telling us that “Santa” is from “SATAN,” just as the scrambled letters told us!

But let me ask you this: If I told you that “God” spelled backwards is “dog,” so therefore I believe all dogs are holy, you’d think I was crazy, right?  Please understand what well-intentioned arguments like “Santa means Satan” sound like to the rest of the world – nonsense.   And if these are the best arguments we’re presenting to warn against the dangers of materialism, then the world probably has a right to think that we are indeed crazy.

As to the issue of whether or not Christians should promote “Santa Claus” in their own homes to their own children…………this is a parental call.  And frankly, while I certainly want to think through potential dangers, like obsession with materialism, I really don’t have the right to draw a line here for others.

This is sort of like the Harry Potter debate of several years ago when the books first came out.  Many Christian parents were up in arms that these books were encouraging children to walk through the doors of witchcraft exploration.  Statistically, that hasn’t been the case, at least thus far.  But, if parents feel that reading Harry Potter novels present a very real danger to their child, they are entirely within their rights to refrain from it.  If I had a child that I knew struggled to separate reality from make-believe or if I had a child who was forever experimenting with anything that he could get his hands on, I might very well say that these books are off-limits.  However, if I have a different child, and I think books like this might help generate a passion for reading as well as generate good discussions about what is real and what is fiction or superstition, I might very well be open to it.  Both parents can glorify God in their decisions.

When it comes to Santa, I don’t see anything that biblically prohibits it.  Are there potential dangers?  Of course.  If I think that Santa Claus presents a real danger to my child from understanding that Christmas is about celebrating my Savior’s arrival, I will not only do away with Santa, I will do away with Christmas gifts in general, big festive meals, Christmas trees, and everything else.  (Ask me some time for my opinion about giving young adults money for confirmation and you’ll get more than you ever wanted to hear concerning my spiel on confusing priorities at a critical moment :).)  Loving Christian parents will naturally eliminate ANYTHING in a child’s life that is clearly pulling a child away from the truth.

HOWEVER, if parents are already inclined to allow for some fantasy in their child’s life (Sesame Street, cartoons, etc.), and they see Santa as an occasion to teach about hope, kindness, generosity, and supernatural provision, as it is most beautifully expressed by our loving God, then yes, it would seem that would be an occasion of glorifying God as well.  I guess it all depends on your motives.

As a Christian, it’s easy to get frustrated this time of year.  We know what should be on people’s hearts and minds.  We know that it’s not always on people’s hearts and minds (including, most disappointingly, our own).  And this is all very frustrating to us.  So we end up picking pious-sounding battles that, in the end, don’t truly do a whole lot to change people’s hearts.

I’ve never heard of nor read of one study chronicling one single person falling from faith or refusing to come to faith as a result of the phrase “X-Mas” being used in place of “Christmas.”  I have, however, known individuals and seen statistics on those who fall away as a result of pluralism and universalism – failing to recognize Jesus Christ as the one path to salvation, what “X-Mas” could be a symptom of.

I’ve never heard of nor read of one study chronicling one single person falling from faith or refusing to come to faith as a result of the promoting of Santa Claus.  I have, however, known individuals and seen statics on those who fall away because the love of money and material things have crowded a love of Christ from their heart, what Santa nowadays could be a symptom of.

The battles that I’ve been mentioning all sort of fall into a category that I like to call “bumper sticker theology” – a pious-sounding spiritual fight that, even if won, probably won’t accomplish a whole lot.  So, for example, I may have a really great spiritual argument on a bumper-sticker, but due to its context, how many hearts is it realistically going to change?  It’s theoretically possible…….but not likely.  Now, let me make this very clear: there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with wearing a cross necklace or having a Jesus fish on your bumper or something else that may fall into this category.  I recognize that the motivation is generally to demonstrate that I’m not afraid to state that I’m a Christian and I’m proud of it – clearly a good thing.  Personally, my standing joke is always that the reason I don’t have the Jesus fish on my bumper is that my aggressive driving is probably not my best witnessing opportunity, i.e. I don’t want the last impression someone has of me accidentally cutting them off in traffic to be, “Oh, and that guy’s a Christian.”

Jokes aside, while there’s obviously nothing wrong with wearing a cross necklace or sporting a Jesus fish, I simply can’t let that be the extent of my Christian witnessing and believe that I’m making an impact, if for no other reason than the fact that I’ve never heard one legitimate account of a person coming to faith or being strengthened in faith as a result of a cross necklace, cross tie, or a Jesus fish.  And there could be something just a little strange about promoting the fact that I’m a Christian through some external action, without desiring for that promotion to be of direct spiritual benefit to others.  Historically, that sounds a little more Pharisaical than Christian.  That certainly doesn’t have to be the case, but it could be.  I’m sure we all have met someone who considers himself/herself a child of God, wears a cross necklace, and regularly conducts his/her life in a way that is contradictory to God’s will.

It appears as though “Happy Holidays” and “X-Mas” and “Santa” could be more of Christmas red-herrings than anything – issues that distract us from the bigger issues at this time of year.  We live in a world so polluted by sin that people are gasping for the news of Christ and the love of Christ.  If forcing people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” isn’t reasonably going to help get one more person in heaven, then maybe my efforts are best concentrated elsewhere.  In fact, while I haven’t heard of one person being turned on to Christianity by someone squashing “Happy Holidays” or eradicating Santa, there are plenty of people who are turned off of the Christian faith by self-righteousness and hypocrisy of Christians.  The truth is that if I’d take all the time and energy that I do getting bent out of shape about the red-herrings of Christmas and transfer that energy into growing more obedient to God’s commands, i.e. loving God above all things and loving my neighbor like myself, I’d be a significantly better Christian witness.  If the world saw, in me, a better likeness of Jesus, they’d probably have no doubt that this incredible Jesus character is truly the reason for celebrating the holiday.  God forgive my shortcomings and my misguided battles.

But that’s really what this season is about, right?  It’s understanding that there is divine hope, kindness, generosity, and supernatural provision (Santa qualities, if you will), expressed to us all.  God has wrapped himself with the paper of human flesh and the ribbons of human ligaments, and he’s arrived to deliver himself to the tree that we often call a cross.  Forgiveness has arrived in our lives.  God loves us enough that not only does he give us good gifts, but he himself is the gift.  And there is no legislation, no political correctness, no fictional character on the planet that can stop Christians from celebrating that at Christmas.

“But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law.  God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children.” (Galatians 4:4-5 – New Living Translation)

I know these are issues that many get fired up about.  If you’d like to weigh in with your opinion, please feel free to comment below 🙂

God Doesn’t Drop the Ball

Who's to blame? Steve Johnson dropped the would-be winning touchdown pass on Sunday and took it out on God.

I’ve received a number of great topics so far to address in the upcoming weeks (please keep sending in the “Pastor I Always Wanted to Know” life questions), but I’m not ready to stop sifting through our culture’s craziness yet, not with stories like this one still floating around.

On Sunday the Buffalo Bills faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in an NFL contest with relatively little significance.  Nonetheless, both teams fought hard and the game went into overtime.  With what could have brought the game to an end, a pass was thrown to Buffalo wide receiver Steve Johnson in the end zone.  However, Johnson let a fairly routine, “easy” catch slip through his fingers.  Instead of Buffalo defeating the heavily favored Steelers, Pittsburgh got the ball back, drove down the field, and kicked a field goal for the overtime win.

After the game, Johnson was clearly distraught over his mistake, as anyone would be.  But hey, even professionals make honest mistakes.   Johnson’s next move is what is going to make this so memorable.  5:15pm that evening, the 24-year-old Johnson tweeted from his iPad:

“I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…”

As a pastor, you sometimes warn people about the temptation to blame God, but humans typically do it in subtle ways.  We complain about our circumstances.  We think we deserve better.  We wish things would have turned out differently.  But you don’t truly believe anyone is going to have the audacity to actually shake a finger at God.  And then here comes Steve Johnson, using the venue of the modern man’s stream-of-consciousness media: Twitter.  And all the world gets to see a great reminder of how spiritually backwards we humans can truly be.  And even though it was a fairly high-profile professional athlete like Steve Johnson who tweeted it, let’s be fair, we’ve all thought/felt it – “God, how could you let this happen to me?”

The arrogance behind Johnson’s rant runs as deep in humanity as the first sin, or what you perhaps might call the second sin.  As God came down to speak with Adam and Eve after their fall and asked them if they had eaten from the forbidden tree, he turns for explanation to the one he’d established to be a responsible spiritual leader – the man.  And what was Adam’s response?  “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Gen 3:12) Unbelievable, isn’t it?!  The same woman whom Adam had longed for in his inmost being.  The same woman who made him complete.  The same woman who shared Adam’s very own DNA as she was taken from him.  Adam blames her.  And not only that, he blames the God who was generous enough to give her to him.  We humans are straight up nuts.  

A child could listen to Steve Johnson’s comments from Sunday and say he must be insane.  Targeted with 15 passes on Sunday, Johnson only caught 7.  At least 3 of the incompletions were obvious drops – completely his own fault.  Call it an off day.  More accurately, call it not concentrating on looking the ball into your hands or any of a number of fundamental errors that Johnson was making that day.  But to pin this one on God is insanity.

Wait just a second though.  Just to humor him, let’s hypothetically say that God did cause Johnson to drop this ball – after all, he controls the wind and the waves – maybe he blew the football out of Johnson’s hands at the last millisecond.  But the week earlier, Johnson had caught 3 touchdown passes in an impressive win over Cincinnati.  Where was the Twitter rant about God’s grace and abundant blessing?  Instead, Johnson celebrated in disrespectful enough fashion that the NFL fined him for his touchdown celebration.

You see, this is what happens when someone who clearly has no desire for studying how God operates, questions how God operates.  And in the same way that one wonders why Hollywood actors and Top 40 musicians think we want their opinion on politics, it’s clearly silly to take any spiritual cues from an obnoxious professional athlete.

I feel sorry for him and I’m interested in seeing how he recovers from this, but plain and simple, Johnson is dead wrong here.  The case with 99% of the misfortunes in our lives is that we have no one to blame but ourselves.  In all likelihood, that’s what we’re looking at here with his bad day.  However, as mentioned, even if God chose to intervene in this game by “causing” Steve Johnson to have a bad day, Johnson makes the false assumption that God shouldn’t do that because, after all, “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!!” Not only is that inaccurate (publicly so after last week’s fined celebrations and this week’s Twitter debacle), but it’s also foolish – as though God, overwhelmed by our great love, is obligated to provide us with special favors. 

I just finished reading through the Old Testament book of Job again in my daily devotions.  I’ve often thought the middle 90% of the book to be a difficult read – chapter after chapter of extended dialogue.  This time I read it in a different version (i.e. not the NIV), and it became much clearer.  After losing virtually every good thing in his life, the arguments of Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, seem like good, conventional wisdom.  Although unable to identify the sin they believe he must have committed, the friends remain unwavering in their belief that Job’s misfortune is the result of some grievous sin.  Their theology assumes that God always rewards good and punishes evil.  And they refuse to allow for any divine discretion or mystery on God’s part – that maybe, just maybe, God may choose allow pain in order to accomplish a greater good.

After a visit from a younger, and more sensible friend named Elihu, God puts Job in his place.  He says: 1I am the LORD All-Powerful,2but you have argued that I am wrong. Now you must answer me. 3Job said to the LORD: 4Who am I to answer you?  5I did speak once or twice, but never again.  6Then out of the storm the LORD said to Job: 7Face me and answer the questions I ask!  8Are you trying to prove that you are innocent by accusing me of injustice?  9Do you have a powerful arm and a thundering voice that compare with mine?  10If so, then surround yourself with glory and majesty.  11Show your furious anger!  Throw down and crush 12all who are proud and evil.  13Wrap them in grave clothes and bury them together in the dusty soil.  14Do this, and I will agree that you have won this argument. (Job 40:1-14 CEV)

The lesson in all of this is that questioning an all-knowing God’s operation (and even blaming him for our problems!) is never the answer, nor a healthy outlet.  In the Old Testament, that kind of open rebellion to God often ended in lightning bolts and the earth swallowing the wicked and deadly diseases (cf. Lev 10:1-2, Num 16:1-50, Num 25:1-13).  With the New Covenant in our Savior Jesus, God reacts a little differently to our transgressions………what some might describe as more “patiently.”  So, I don’t expect God to reach a hand through Steve Johnson’s iPad and deliver a whooping.  However, there are still consequences to spiritual rebellion like questioning and blaming God.  It will invariably lead us into looking like fools.  It will make us feel smaller and more alone than ever.  And it will offend a God who loved us enough to redeem us from ever having to worry about the failed circumstances of life.

You will drop the ball at some point.  This isn’t God failing you.  It’s a reminder that you’re fragile and need a God that will NEVER fail you.  Your Bible and your Church will remind you that you indeed have that God.