Friday, December 20, 2019

Sorry, atheists. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

I know that I recently resolved to not let the weight of society dilute the joy of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany seasons upon us, and it's not.  But something still needs to be said, however, in defense of just that:  the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany seasons.

Of course, for society, it is largely Christmas, with the other two all blurred into one.  And of course it begins December 1 or thereabouts, and ends December 25, which shows a lot of ignorance toward the actual season of Christmas (which actually runs December 25-Jan 5), along with the other two.  But also for society, people largely avoid using the "C" word (Christmas), for the bland, vaguely celebratory, largely non-descript "Happy Holidays."  As a kid, I recall it being used on occasion, and as society has pushed back more and more against the religious nature of Christmas, it has become mainstream.

Recently, however, I was somewhat surprised to find that there are pastors who advocate using that bland, vanilla greeting if and when a person's religious views are unknown.  I could not disagree more.  In fact, the more I pondered it, the closer I came to breaking my resolve on keeping the joy in the Advent-Christmas cycle!  Quite simply, there is nothing at all - NOTHING - that should diminish or cover the Christian's celebration AND pronouncements of the Christmas season.  As the angel said, "it is good news of great joy..."  And honestly, those who would be offended by the word Christmas, quite simply need to be offended.  I look at it this way:  in a society that has largely purged the religious nature of the holiday itself (and it is a religious holiday - without Christ there is absolutely NO Christmas), hearing the words "Merry Christmas" could be the only exposure a person gets to the good news of Christ.    Without that, there is nothing to celebrate.  Considering part of my job is to make Christ known, I will do so whenever and wherever I can, which includes pointing to "Jesus as the reason for the season."  When someone wishes me "happy holidays," I answer right back, "and a very merry Christmas to you!"

There are a lot of theories about how the "date" of Christmas came about.  Based on the information from the Bible itself, it is likely more springtime or summer, based on the shepherds in the fields by night.  Some have claimed that the date was set to counter the pagan "winter solstice."  Others claim that the pagans co-opted a celebration from the Christian date of Christmas.  The history of Christmas is wild and varied.  In fact, for the first few centuries, the church didn't even observe it.  Regardless of it's origins, it is a date set aside to commemorate the birth of the Messiah, or the Christ (hence the name itself, Christ-Mass).  It is equally true that the "traditions" of Christmas have developed over the centuries as well.  Things we assume as "tradition" may not have been so for as long as we think.  Take the Christmas tree, for example:  It is generally assumed that it's origins go back to Martin Luther, the German reformer in the 16th century.  That means that the Christmas tree has only been a symbol of the season for approximately 1/4 of the time that Christians have had opportunity to celebrate it!  There are those who would also claim the use of greens as a part of those origins that would date back to even the time before Christ.  Or take "jolly old St. Nick:"  A real saint and friend of children but also a very religious figure.  (see this older entry on St. Nicholas).  The modern day "Santa Claus" is really a product of mid-20th century Coca Cola advertising, and has been morphed into much that doesn't fit the original icon - that of St. Nicholas.   But sadly, one other such "modern tradition" is the purging of Christ himself from Christmas in today's society.

That's an absolute travesty.  No Christ?  No Christmas.  Period.  The non-religious need to hear about Christ more than ever, considering that the numbers of those claiming no particular religious affiliation is growing, placing them largely in the category of either agnostic or atheist.  To remove Christ from Christmas is to eradicate the holiday itself.  And for me, to eradicate Christ would not make for a very happy holiday.  In fact, it would destroy the holiday and this time of year, no matter that this is not the likely time of year for the birth of the Messiah.  So that said, for us and for our household, we say "Merry Christmas."  No.  Matter.  What.  If you don't like it you had better have a good reason.  And if you have a good reason, it likely will not be good enough to change the habit here.  And if you have a good reason, you'd better also be prepared to hear my reasons for why you can't have Christmas without Christ.  So sorry, you pagans and non-religious types.  You can celebrate many things on your own, but don't you dare - you who don't believe in Christ - celebrate the day in which we commemorate his birth, that is, unless you actually want to believe.  And if you want to believe, you can join us or any church to learn more about the reasons why it is important that we say "Merry Christmas."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Tale of Two Church Buildings

First Lutheran Church of Paxton Illinois

It was a chilly Saturday evening in October of 2003.  I was in my second call for just over two months, and was picking up supplies for a youth event the following Sunday afternoon.  At about 9 pm I was dropping the supplies off in the First Lutheran Church facility, and when I walked through the door, I instantly heard an alarm going off.  Putting things down, I began to search for the source of the alarm.  In the basement of the then nearly 100 year old building (1907), at one end, there was a carbon monoxide alarm going off.  That in itself was not the most alarming thing, but rather that there was a strong odor of something hot and burning.  As I inspected further, I could see no visible evidence of a fire of any kind, not thinking at all that the boiler of the church building had fired and could be the culprit.  With no further discoveries made, the decision was eventually reached to call the fire department.  Upon arrival, they traced it immediately to the boiler room, where the blast of heat when the door opened nearly knocked them backwards.  The paint had burned from the sides of the nearly new boiler, the cast iron fittings were glowing red hot, and the papers hanging on the wooden wall of the boiler room had already charred to ash.

The brand new boiler had dry fired.  With no water inside, and no makeup water being added, it didn't take long for these conditions to develop.  Later we were told that the building itself was moments away from igniting under these conditions, and therefore likely would have burned to the ground.  There were some who were so thankful that I had decided to drop the supplies off that night, rather than wait until the following day, thus discovering the problem and "saving the building."

Now in the aftermath of all this, what became increasingly clear was that there were some, albeit not  all, who clearly worshiped the building more than the God to whom the building had been erected and to whose glory it was dedicated.  For years after, I believed that it might have actually been the best thing for the congregation itself if that beautiful building had indeed burned to the ground, despite what would have been a tragic loss of so much early 20th century architecture and stained glass. 

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Fast forward to this week.  I see the exact scenario playing out once again in Paris.  While I have no doubt that those parishioners who might regularly attend mass there are devout in their worship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what I have come to see is that a world in general, which is increasingly hostile toward the triune God that the cathedral was erected to worship. clearly loves the building more than God.  In fact too often people love the building but hate the God who is worshiped there.  It's sad that we lament the loss of such a grand cathedral, despite that it will indeed be rebuilt and repaired, while we give no thought at all to the loss of Christian value, virtue, morality, guidance, and worship in western society.

There were many signs in the aftermath of this fire to suggest that God is still in control, despite that western society in general rejects Him.  That so many holy relics survived, and even much of the interior, while scarred and damaged, can be repaired is itself a miracle.  It is a reminder to us that what Isaiah the prophet said long ago:  "the grass withers, the flowers fade.  But the Word of our God remains forever."  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that it would be appropriate, to paraphrase Grundvig's great hymn, to also say "steeples fall, and stained glass fades, but God's Word will endure forever."

I pray that this great cathedral is not rebuilt simply as a monument to the folly of humankind, but that it's glory once again points solely to the glory of the triune God, rather than the glorified self, which so often takes over in our world.  I fear the latter, but I pray for the former.  In all things, may God be glorified.  May we all not only see, but live out the salvation that comes to us through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord.  May the events we recall this Holy week be more than just words on a page, and may they be seen in all that we say and do.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ash Wednesday

Many years ago, as we approached Ash Wednesday, someone commented to a member about the day, "is that where you go to church and get that sh*t smeared on your forehead?"  It is truly sad that this is the sum total of the person-in-question's knowledge of what this day is.  Seems to me that if we had a better collective understanding of the day itself, it would go a long way toward helping to heal the divide among certain segments of our population.

The day itself:  a day of penitence and fasting, derives from the most ancient of practices in the Old Testament (thereby providing yet another direct link between the Old and New Testaments, making the Old VERY relevant today still).  Ashes were also a sign of humility and repentance out of the Old Testament, thereby providing the symbolic meaning for us today, which goes from symbolic to the reality of the individual penitent who has received the imposition of ashes.  Ash, or dust, drives home the reality for us that we are all mortal and finite.  As the first human parents are told in the garden, "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  (Genesis 3:19).   We all return to dust upon death, as the sum total of our physical existence breaks down, becomes food for other organisms, and returns to the dust from which it came.  in other words, the very foundation of Ash Wednesday is found in human existence:  birth, sin, and death itself.

Abraham's own view and humility before God includes him recounting, "I am nothing but dust and ashes."  (Genesis 18:27)  The placement of ashes upon the head of a person was associated with a sign of repentance and humility in the face of sin and suffering (cf. 2 Samuel 13:19).  Job, upon recognizing his own place before God (that God was God and he was not), replied, "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know....  ...Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."  (Job 42:3, 6)  The prophet Jeremiah, among others, calls for a return to God, in humility and repentance for having turned away from him, with the call to "put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn with bitter wailing as for an only son."  (Jeremiah 6:26).

So within this framework of humility and repentance before God, dating back to the very beginning, we too mark the beginning of the season of Lent with this day:  Ash Wednesday.  It is the season that recalls our own unworthiness before God because of sin, culminating with God's solution as a part of His divine plan:  The coming of, the ministry of, the passion and death of, and the resurrection of the Messiah.  Tying us into this eternal reminder, the palms from the previous year's Holy Week are burned to create the ashes that remind us of our own mortality and unworthiness before God.

Whether you observe this day or not:  May you recall these things, for they are true of us all.  May we all recognize our own mortality and unworthiness before God, and may it inspire us to once again return to God, our maker and redeemer.   May we recognize the absolute and sovereign truth of God's Word, which includes the very essence of what human existence entails:  our mortality and unworthiness to be in God's presence.  May we recognize again the great gift of God in the mercy and grace extended to us in spite of our mortality and unworthiness, that comes to us through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Cultural Depravity

2019 has begun with a bang.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise, considering the direction this nation and the western world has been headed for 40 or more years, that we are now advocating for infanticide, killing babies up to the moment of birth, and even calling for gerontricide.  In addition, the ELCA darling, Nadia Bolz Weber is now leading thousands of young men and women astray with her complete lack of sexual morals, advocating for an "anything goes" sexuality, including the legitimate and proper viewing of pornography.  It all comes as no surprise.  It is also all completely wrong.  When it comes to the Christian worldview, it is heresy.  At least that is what it once was called.

I'm thankful that according to her own testimony, she only got 170 purity rings from across the country sent to her to create her now completed "golden calf:"  (a sculpture of a vagina - you cannot make this stuff up as to it's complete and utter depravity).  That's still 170 young men and women who have been led astray by her heresy.  It's not a golden calf in the traditional sense, however.  She doesn't see it as worshiping a false idol, but in fact, that is exactly what she and many like her are doing:  they are elevating sex above God.  Sex is the most important thing now.  The worst thing is that she cannot or will not see it.  She is guilty of the very thing she maintains the church has been guilty of:  being obsessed with sex.  Author and columnist Rod Dreher summarizes her in this fashion: "Still, Scripture and 2,000 years of tradition are a more solid basis upon which to construct one’s Christian sexual morality than the juvenile enthusiasm of a potty-mouthed pulpit-pounder who is staring at menopause bearing down on her like a freight train." To quote another pastor:  "She says what the world wants to hear and calls it 'Christian.'"  

These dreadful acts are bringing about the slow, asphyxiating destruction of yet another world culture:  our own.  While she is one of the lead voices in bringing about her so-called "sexual revolution," she's certainly not alone, nor are her ideas the only ones killing society.  (I haven't even touched on the horrendous and appalling liberal ideologies leading to the killing of the unborn - but a sermon on it can be found here).  The final act of an immoral society is tolerating and condoning immoral behavior and canonizing it as the “new normal,” and celebrating this new normal as a great moral victory and advancement.  This society champions its’ tolerance, but only for those who accept this new normal.  In fact, traditional morals and virtue are demonized as a result, showing just how intolerant the so-called champions of "tolerance" really are.  History is replete with examples of such societies collapsing soon thereafter.  You may recall the fall of the Roman Empire, and the old catchphrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned?"  Today, it is changed to "Nadia diddled while the world burned."

Here's the real rub:  Her claims that the church has been obsessed with sex throughout it's history AND that traditional Christian morality has done great harm simply doesn't bear out under scrutiny of history itself.  Yes, there have always been deviant and immoral behaviors among nations.  Rome is again an example.  But an examination of the orthodox Christian behaviors regarding sexual practice, accompanied by historic understandings of Biblical prohibitions against immorality did NOT lead to "great harm" being done throughout the centuries.  In fact, it, like the 90's "True Love Waits" campaigns among young adults, aided populations immensely in protecting them from the unwanted natural consequences of sex.  And while childbearing is the natural consequence, the simple fact is that deviancy and promiscuity leads to all manner of things that would be outside of the consequences:  such as moral, mental, physical and spiritual injury, as well as disease.  And the world has always been out to reject such morality, as the recent observation of "Valentine's day" should inform us (follow the link for a synopsis of how the REAL Valentine was killed for attempting to uphold traditional virtue and morality).  The Christian faith has always been about rejecting the ways of the world and the cultures around us and following a very different moral code found in the Bible, rather than following the world's.

In our Bible studies this past week, a couple of passages jumped out at me.  From 2 Peter 2:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.  And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. 
...They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you.  They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 
...For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error.  They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.  (excerpts)

She is exactly what this and many passages like it are referring to.  She has been enslaved and mastered by her sexual appetite and deviancy, as much of the world has.  As the pastor above was quoted as saying, "she tells the world what they want to hear, and calls it Christianity."  It is not.  And how exactly can we know that hers is a false teaching, making her a false teacher and prophet?  The council at Jerusalem is also one of many places which spells this out, when the new Gentile converts were still held to, among other things, abstention from sexual immorality, as clearly defined throughout the Bible (Acts 15:19-21).

The church has been the beacon of moral restraint and virtue for nearly 2000 years.  Suddenly today, we have men and women who somehow think they are smarter than or know more than those who were the eyewitnesses of all that took place in and around Jerusalem then.  The church must, once again, stand over and against a culturally and morally depraved society and world, and most definitely NOT give her a pass on all of her deviancy (her own denomination has not once censured her for straying from even it's own policies, and in fact has voices applauding her). But until people return to the virtue and morality that has indeed made countries great throughout time, i.e.  they have a real change of heart and believe all this from within (and not just because of societal laws), the problem will only continue to get worse. It will also continue to embolden heretics like Nadia Bolz Weber in continuing to spew their hateful and worldly capitulation.  While her own synod will not speak against her, I am one going on record calling out her teachings for what they are:  heresy.  May we all work hard to stand against those like her, in not only believing what we proclaim, but living it through our actions as well.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The New Advent

Here it is:  only the second day of Christmas, and the Christmas music on Sirius XM is already over.  I cannot begin to say how horribly disappointed I am over this.  It makes me really wonder how much all of the signs and symbolism of the Christmas season affects most people in this largely pagan society we live in today, despite that so many love to celebrate Christmas, and in spite of the systematic efforts to purge this holiest of religious holidays from the public sphere by so many.

This systematic effort is actually quite interesting to observe.  As I mentioned, today's society is largely pagan:  we bow down and worship all the wrong things, including sex, drugs, alcohol, money, work, family, and all manner of objects.  And while we do not want the Christian message intruding on our daily lives, all of the signs of Christmas (old English from "Cristemass' - literally "Christ's Mass" or the birth of the Christ) - are still there.  You may not get the words to "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," and yet the meaning is still presented subconsciously in the music alone.

You see, no matter how much this systematic effort at purging Christ from Christmas is, it quite simply cannot be done.  Our society cannot celebrate the holiday of Christmas without the meaning behind it.  Even by eliminating the phrase "Christmas," and replacing it with "winter festival," "winter holiday," "the holidays," or some other such nonsense, does not remove the broad and long history associated with this time of year.  And yet society continues to try.  Society can force Christmas into the four walls of the church, but the meaning and purpose are eternal and will never disappear.  When the meaning is gone from the public sphere, there is nothing to celebrate, and the sentimentality and the symbolism in the season have no real purpose or impact any longer.

I for one would love when all the Christmas music is played throughout December, that the meaning behind it is not lost on the millions of listeners who love these songs this time of year.  It's serious business for sure.  One can't listen to the music for sentimentality only. 

Truthfully, it's high time that Christians recapture the season of Christmas, and stop following the pagan society's lead of celebrating Christmas in the WRONG season (Advent) and ending Christmas just when it is beginning:  on December 25.  This means light your trees until Epiphany (Jan 6), and keep the outdoor lights up and burning.  Let the birth of Christ be more than just a single day.  We build up to it for four weeks in December!  It's a shame that we should so quickly put an end to it once it begins!

The signs of the truth of the Gospel are there.  They are all around us.  May the truth and the meaning behind the day - and season - of Christmas stand in stark contrast to the pagan world that wants all of the emotion of the day without the meaning behind it.  May we as Christians never forget that Jesus is indeed the reason for the season.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Nostalgic Requiem

Memory eternal:  Daniel "Dano" Everett (April 23, 1957-July 13, 2018)

I honestly don't know why Dano's death has hit me so hard.  I had lost contact with him years ago, and efforts to reestablish contact 2 years ago were unsuccessful.  And truthfully, we only knew each other for a few weeks, albeit through the bond of long distance (through) hiking.

Perhaps it was because of those few weeks.  We saw eye to eye on a great many things.  We also disagreed on quite a few things.  We had many great  discussions "after hours" - that is, upon ending the day and setting up camp, eating, gathering water, etc.  in preparation for the next day of hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail.  We were both on it long before it became the "popular" thing to do.  And perhaps it is my nostalgia for hiking and the outdoors(something I'm not likely to be able to do much of these days) that is at the heart of why this hits me so hard, despite that I never knew him all that long.

Yet unlike today's society, I quickly learned that while we disagreed on some rather fundamental and serious things, he was not one who would simply abandon you merely because you and he disagreed on some particular point.  Oddly enough, I only remember those disagreements from my own trail log of those days.  He actually seemed to value dissenting opinion or contrary points of view.  Not knowing him since, I cannot comment on whether this trait continued, but from the few things I read, it sure seemed that it did.

And honestly, as I reflect on my trail log from those weeks in September of 1988, the positives far outweighed our "disagreements" anyhow.  I think of the layover at White Pass Washington, where we were sitting in a small cafe waiting out a minor storm, in order to head back onto the trail.  I recall our discussion there (see below), and how we eventually "saved" the store and Post Office when a blower unit on the back of the store caught fire and he and I ended up putting the fire out before it did any real damage.

I remember the day shortly after we first met, where he offered to take a photo of me with the northern peaks in the background (the lead photo here was of Dano, and the next on the roll from that day), and what eventually led to a couple of weeks of hiking and camping together, until the weather forced me to make a decision to end my hike (a decision I've regretted most of my life since).  I remember how outgoing he always was, and how he always found a reason to smile and laugh.

I remember how we disagreed on matters of religion and faith.  Granted, at that age, I was a spiritual infant, with he not far behind me in that arena.  I often found myself in the years since, wondering how his views may or may not have evolved or changed, and given that I am a pastor today, look at his death now from one standpoint:  Had he come to know who Jesus truly was?  Truthfully, having not stayed in contact these past 30 years means I know little to nothing about him, in reality, outside of his somewhat hermit-like existence in Alaska, that he made a conscious choice not to battle cancer a second time, and that he continued to love the outdoors, as I do. 

I know little else, but that he and I were quite alike in many ways.  In fact, much of what I remember comes straight from the trail log from that summer, which jars and stirs my memory back to those days.   Here is one such entry from our resupply and layover at White Pass, Washington:  "Dano was trying to write a letter to someone, but he had nothing to say.  He didn’t want to write pages on end of the “physical experiences,” and didn’t write of the other experiences because no one understands those.  Most people only want to hear about the physical side of it, like slide shows, etc...  I thought a lot about that and we talked about it too.  Most of this hike will remain forever unknown to most people.  I realized that the mental and spiritual experiences are by far the biggest..."   (PCT Journal, September 7/Day 136 1988)

It is that spiritual experience of seeing God's handiwork and creation that in part leads me to do what I do today.  So perhaps as I always do at the death of anyone and appeal to the mercy of Almighty God on their behalf, I say "good bye my old friend."  Rest eternal grant him, O LORD, and may perpetual light shine upon him.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Independence Day

No disrespect to Woodie Guthrie: he had no clue what he was talking about.  And he was flat out wrong.

This 4th of July began as they have for the past several years with our annual breakfast run:  The largest we've had with 14 bikes, 2 cars, and 22 people.  Today turned out to be a warm day.  An hour ride to Kearney, breakfast called ahead to accommodate the large number, and by 11 we were on our way north out of town to continue with a ride around the countryside.

It was that ride that stands out the most.  The sun was shining, and the sights and smells of the Nebraska Countryside rolled on by.  Cornfields, soybeans, hay, alfalfa, interspersed with the occasional farmstead, the rolling hills of prairie and forest, were remarkable.  A ride in the wide open rolling expanse of the sandhills culminated the after-breakfast ride, and it hit me like a thunderbolt:  This land is bigger than you or me.  It's high time we begin to recognize that it exists and will persist, despite our ingenuity or our flaws, of which we've had plenty of both throughout our brief history among the nations.

These days we want to make it all about us.  Often it's about us vs. them.  Yes, we are more divided than ever.  And yet the land itself - the very creation we are called to tend - dwarfs the problems and divisions, which are really nothing new.  This persistent error that the land was made for you and I is part of the attitude that lends itself to these divisions.  The sense of entitlement - or ownership - contributes to it.

Maybe America needs to to take a collective motorcycle ride across the vast expanses of this great nation, and see the beauty of it all.  Passing those out riding - none of whom I likely even had ever met before - and giving the hand down signal of the brotherhood of two wheeled riders, to me united us not because of what we rode, but because of what we were riding through.

Oddly enough it was the words to another song that kept playing through my head while riding today.  This song almost became the nation's anthem.  It acknowledges our flaws, all the while celebrating the good that ultimately can come from those who recognize the stewardship and care that God has given us over a land bigger than all of us, and a land that was never ours to begin with. 

Bates' lyrics really do lend itself to the blueprint of this country:  a blueprint we are rapidly forgetting.

O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet, Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

May we never forget the creator of all things, for as President Ronald Reagan once said, when we cease being one nation under God, we will be a nation gone under.