Thursday, December 24, 2009

Waiting for a Miracle

Faith is hard, and I don’t think there is a way to make it easier. Truth be told, I’m not sure it is supposed to be easy; nothing worthwhile ever is. People who are in over their heads in debt, for instance, convince themselves that if there was just more money coming in, the financial problems would solve themselves, but we know this is not always true. It’s the same thing with school work and grades. A’s are nice to have, but getting an A without doing the work only dilutes the true value of the A. In either case, what is given (money or A’s) does not solve the real problem.

Everything we do and everything we endure is a journey, a means to an end. There are all kinds of means by which we accomplish certain incremental goals, but the end will not be until “The End”. So until that Day of the Lord comes, we have a journey to endure. And the journey is made more difficult and challenging for us not only because far too many choose to go it alone outside of the Body of Christ, apart from the Church, but also because we are primarily stimulated and guided by our physical senses. Faith issues can arise when we depend too heavily on these physical senses. Obviously we cannot ignore them; in fact, we’ve been given these senses to serve useful Kingdom purposes. But the journey itself often becomes more cumbersome to us when it seems apparent that all we can hear and see and feel is, quite literally, all there seems to be even as it seems equally clear that something much greater is missing.

We serve and worship a God whose ideals, whose principles, whose purposes, whose senses are much higher than our own. And these things of God cannot be attained or even accessed by physical means, which would help to explain why faith can sometimes seem so elusive, perhaps especially because we are so physically inclined.

The Church exists for this very thing, to serve as a sanctuary from the world, where the means of grace must be readily available and eagerly pursued for those who have faith issues as well as for those whose faith may need only a “topping off” after a long week so they can face the coming week. The high purpose of the Church is to “re-juice” those spiritual batteries so that when things get tough and our physical senses become overwhelmed to the point of overload, we have that enduring faith that will carry us long after we’ve reached the point of exhaustion.

That faith, however, that enduring faith, does not come easily, and I think it is because of a lack of higher expectation. And this is because church attendance itself has become more of an end itself rather than a means to an end, a much higher end. Too often folks go to church with little more than a mind toward what songs will be sung, what friends may be seen, and what the preacher may or may not say. These things require little or no spiritual preparation because these things will be primarily directed toward our physical senses.

We come with little, if any, anticipation because our “faith juice” has run dangerously low, but the internal spiritual gauge that warns us does not always work like it should. Maybe because faith is a divine gift, we simply expect it to come to us – on our own terms. We come into the sanctuary of the Lord, His House, but we don’t really expect to “see” Him, certainly not physically but, sadder still, not spiritually, either. We don’t prepare ourselves for worship because our expectations are so low. And our expectations are so low because faith is so lacking.

That very first Christmas so long ago had to have come at such a low point in the expectations of God’s people, in spite of the prophecies. They were overrun by Romans, and their religion was more often geared toward physical lawful obedience rather than spiritual fulfillment. And as it so often is expressed, the Messiah they likely expected was a physical warrior who would ultimately drive out the pagans and reestablish the Lord’s “physical” Kingdom. Everything they expected – actually, perhaps demanded – was geared toward their own immediate physical needs. So the answers to whatever problems they thought they had would have to be physical because that was the level of their expectations.

We gather for worship with every reason to expect a miracle, but do we really expect it? It’s easy to know of a physical healing or surviving a car crash or any number of physical examples and we would attribute such things to divine intervention, but do we really believe that? Or do we hope it to be so? Or do we cast it off as such because we are at a loss for any other rational, physical expectation? And if we do genuinely attribute it to divine intervention, do we evaluate that divine intervention to determine whether perhaps the Lord was speaking directly to us for something much greater than the moment?

We do truly desire an encounter with our Holy Father. We need to be assured not only that He is present but that everything is ok. We need to know that the Kingdom of Heaven is worth the trials and tribulations of this life, the hardships, the doubts, the tears, the sorrow, the pain. And I do truly believe that the people of that blessed day so long ago, epitomized in the Christmas Story by the shepherds, the lowest of the low in that society, got exactly what they needed and right when they needed it most, perhaps when they were near the end of their spiritual “rope”. Or maybe they were the ones most likely to not only see but also appreciate the glorious message announced by the Heavenly Hosts.

And that’s the thing about miracles and the high purposes they serve. But these miracles are not possible to us if we cannot, or will not believe not only in “a” god but THE Living God, the Loving God, OUR Holy Father, being confident in that abiding love by which we understand that He is not going to spoil us by giving us things we cannot possibly appreciate, things we don’t really need and cannot really use. But that which endures to the very end, that which humanity needed most of all then – and now - is that which we must come to expect whenever we enter into the sanctuary of the Lord. To come to worship expecting a miracle – because it is His very nature, the essence of who He is.

It is the very essence and spirit of Christmas.

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's just Christmas

As usual I am contemplating what I preached yesterday and how it may have adversely affected some. I know there are the more mature Christians who can take it, but there are many who are struggling on one level or another and could be pushed one way or the other. And the struggle is often intensified during the Advent season when so many are running in too many different directions, young families struggling to have enough money to buy a lot of crap they don’t need for children who could not possibly appreciate it but will, instead, come to expect it.

All this came crashing down on me the other day as I was watching the US Senate on TV debating the health care bill. One senator called into question the “sustainability” of such massive government spending. Not trying to go off on a political diatribe but as I was listening to what he was saying, it occurred to me that where we are now in this economy and in this country and in this Christmas is “unsustainable”. That is to say, sooner or later limits will be hit; maybe we’ve already hit them. There is only so much money in the entire world without printing a lot of worthless paper, the government can only take so much from American taxpayers without actually cutting into bone and muscle (and they may already be doing so!), and parents can only spend so much on children and grandchildren before a limit is finally reached.

Back when I was growing up, my parents struggled often to make ends meet. At Christmas, though, you would have thought my parents had all the money in the world. My siblings and I got just about everything our little hearts could possibly desire – and yes, I was glad to get it but there was no way I could honestly appreciate any of it because it came to me without cost on my part. It was only years later when I would come to find out my parents likely took several months to pay off the credit card debt incurred from such a lavish Christmas. And each Christmas we expected more of the same. We would look through the giant JCPenney catalogue with eager anticipation AND expectation!

Fast forward a few years later when my wife and I had children and began our own tradition, borrowing from a tradition we once knew as children. We had been conditioned for Christmas to be a certain way, so we continued this lavish and very expensive Christmas. And like me, our children came to expect such extravagance each and every Christmas. Until one Christmas it was just no longer possible. So what happens? Christmas, as it is, is never the same. Someone always feels cheated or disappointed, and the spirit of Christmas is diminished.

And here is the thing. It cannot be that way. There is no such thing as a “bad” Christmas or a “good” Christmas because even though we define such by how much money we have to spend and how many presents are under the tree, it is still Christmas, the Christ Mass, the celebration of the birth of Messiah! How can this be “bad” on any level, and how can man possibly improve on that? Even with the best of intentions, Christians have become the ones who have removed “Christ” from Christmas. Watching us go at it, you might as well rename the holiday “Walmart-mas”. Or “Sears-mas”. Or “K-Mart-mas”. Know what I mean? It’s not the pagans or the agnostics or the atheists or the godless, pinko, liberals who are ruining Christmas … it is the CHRISTIANS who should know better who are ruining Christmas!

What is sadder still is that I get it, but I feel horrible every single year because of what I have allowed this Holy season, this Holy Day, to become to me and my family. Makes it very hard to preach and even harder still to be upbeat. It’s Christmas, a Holy Day in celebration of that incredible moment in human history when the Lord came to us in the flesh, in a way we could comprehend. The story of our rejection, of course, comes much later.

It’s just Christmas, and it’s all good all on its own merit. It is a Holy Day. You and I cannot make it better nor can we, thank God, make it worse except, of course, for ourselves and those we love by losing sight of what really matters. And whether one is in Baghdad, Kabul, or Magnolia, it will still be Christmas. And the Promise that came to all of mankind is the same Promise which today.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Rachel's Tears

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’” Matthew 2:16-18 NKJV

US Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, true to form, ignored the voice of Arkansas and the “tears of Rachel” by voting with her beloved party to kill an amendment to the Senate health care bill that would have further restricted any federal funds to be used to finance, or provide insurance coverage with federal funds for, abortions (Arkansas’ other senator, Mark Pryor, D-AR, voted to allow the amendment). Oddly, the amendment was sponsored by US Senator Ben Nelson, D-NEB, who has vowed now to filibuster the entire Democratic bill because the possibility still exists that in the Democrats’ efforts to overhaul health “care”, destruction of unborn children is strangely considered “care”.

It is still argued by the Democrats that the Hyde Amendment is still in force, which does restrict federal funding for abortion and seems to negate the need for additional legislation, but the whole health care debate seems to be going a little too far in providing for the poor more than they need and far more than many American Christians are willing to provide. And while we cannot argue as a “Christian nation”, we are no less a nation of Christians with a collective conscience.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, recently likened those who oppose his health care overhaul proposal – all 2000 pages of it! - namely Republicans and especially those opposed to the so-called public option, with the obstructionists from yesteryear who opposed “free states”. By such a lame proclamation, Mr. Reid has made it abundantly clear that he is all out of genuine, workable ideas or valid arguments and has now resorted to name-calling and baseless accusations. One cannot help but to wonder if Mr. Reid might like to have himself and his cohorts likened to the lynch mobs of yesteryear who destroyed innocent lives and were, if not legally sanctioned, certainly overlooked by the law enforcers of the Jim Crow era. Truth be told, such an accusation would hit a little too close to home in light of King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents as recorded in the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

Civil rights and abortion advocates are already up in arms because of the Stupak Amendment which was attached to the House version of health care “reform”, which severely restricts federal funds not only from direct payment to abortion providers but also prohibits subsidized payments for insurance coverage for abortion. Such pro-life moves are seen as threats to one’s “right” to destroy unborn children, going so far as to argue that even the poor have rights even if they cannot afford the procedure. And heaven help those who argue about which is “cheaper” or more humane: destroying the unborn child, or bringing an unwanted child into the world. Pity the nation that actually debates such unconscionable premises.

The tabling of this amendment (to “table”, which essentially kills the measure, is to require only a simple majority vote rather than the 60 votes required to pass or fail an amendment) will be called by those senators up for reelection a simple “procedural” vote rather than a straight vote for or against. It will be the Democrats’ argument, as seems to be usually the case, that we peasants are simply too ignorant or misinformed to understand the complexities of parliamentarian procedure and that their experience will be our only saving grace. Especially in rural farm country, Arkansas, having Sen. Lincoln as chair of the Agriculture Committee, might be too great a risk to lose, but this is pretty much the essence of what politics has become. The blessings of true liberty have become our curse. The reign of incumbency has created a nation our founders would not recognize.

Politics aside, we must stand for a national moral conscience. It is “a poverty”, says the late Mother Teresa, that any nation would kill its own young ostensibly for the good of another. Let the churches fight the true battle from the pulpit, but demand that the government stay absolutely neutral. This means that if women want to have abortions, they better have the means to pay for one. There is no “right” to expect me or other like-minded taxpayers to foot the bill. And no, I am not morally obligated to adopt the children you produce but do not want or cannot support.

Shame on you, Blanche Lincoln. Shame on you, US Senate. On the positive side, however, you all may have finally awakened an otherwise complacent electorate, and you are about to get bitten by the hands that have, quite literally, fed you for so long.