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 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:28

The other day I did something I do less and less these days. That is, I turned on the “talking heads” on radio and TV to find out what nasty volley of words was being lobbed back and forth in the latest skirmish in the “culture wars”. Of course, not much had changed. Gay rights, Michelle Bachman’s latest verbal misstep, and various politicians and special interest groups claiming the moral high ground or insight into where we’ve “gone off course as a nation” dominated the conversation. Nothing new (or of interest to me)…

However, due in large part to some recent reading and studies I’ve been doing, the whole thing just struck me as fantastically odd. In my mind I can picture all of the pundits, politicians, and religious political activists, standing out in a field yelling back and forth at each other (none actually listening to one another) and in the distance on darkened skies is coming what demographers are describing as a “cyclone irresistibly sweeping south” (Van de Kaa, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 5 2001: 3487) whose winds will drown out all the arguing, bickering, and political power grabs, ultimately showing them as ineffective in winning these culture wars. Demographers will tell you that this battle was over decades ago, and, while certainly won in the realm of ideology, the decisive strategy that came from these ideologies was one no-one considered until relatively recently, when it was too late. This proverbial ship is too big to turn around.

Around the end of the 19th century French scholars and demographers began to take note of the drastic downturn in birthrates in their country. American scholars began to notice and examine the same phenomenon near the end of the second world war. Later, in the 1980’s, demographers noticed yet another downward shift in birth rates. These began to be labelled as the first and second “demographic transitions”. These transitions were easily measured and quantified in every western nation. The results?

“Fertility has dropped below the replacement level -sometimes by a substantial margin- in virtually every population that has moved through the demographic transition. If future fertility remains at these low levels, population will decline in size and age rapidly” (Bongaarts, J., 2001, Fertility and reproductive preferences in post-transitional societies. Pp. 260.)

So what is the cause of these falling birthrates among modern western nations? Demographers the world over are mostly in agreement that as countries transition into “Postmodern” societies where there is “complete control of fertility” combined with individualism and the ultimate goal of “upward mobility”, then “couples appear to lack the motivation to have more than one or two children” (Van de Kaa, D. J. 2001, Second Demographic Transition in Industrialized Countries, pg. 2). Crudely and simply put, once a nation attains “modernity” (specifically, including the “postponement of marriage, preference toward cohabiting over marriage, increase in judicial separation and divorce,  legislation permitting sterilization and abortion”, Van de Kaa, 2001, Pg. 9 ), they are able to give full vent to their personal desires for comfort and self-fulfillment, to which having children is a major inconvenience and obstacle. Inevitably, these countries slip below the cultural sustainable birthrate of 2.1 children per family and begin to age rapidly and die off as a people. At that point, immigration becomes the vehicle by which modern nations remain populated, a phenomenon also well documented in “modern” western nations.

I recently read several books and published studies in which an increased alarm is being expressed among the “non religiously affiliated” (atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, etc.) with regard to these global demographic trends. The reason there is an increasing alarm among these groups is that if you observe falling birthrates among some groups you have to ask yourself the question, “if these people are not having children, then who IS having children”?! The logical conclusion is that whatever group has the highest and sustained birthrates, that group will eventually dominate the society. The answer? Religious “fundamentalists” of all stripes the world over.

While reliable statistics are somewhat hard to come by, the general picture is that in North America and Europe “non-religious” groups have recently achieved the largest numerical gain in absolute numbers (American Religious Identification Survey, New York University, 2008) , but globally, both by conversion and birth rates, it is Christianity (particularly of the evangelical/pentecostal brand), Islam, Hinduism, and fundamentalist sections of other religions who maintain sustainable birthrates and dominant conversion rates (American Religious Identification Survey 2008, Encyclopædia Britannica 2005, Pew Forum Religious Demographic Profiles 2005, “The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions. Foreign Policy Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2007). Furthermore, we’re seeing that the opposite is true among atheists and other “non-religious groups”. According to reports from the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, 75% of Atheists in the U.S. are childless (Pew Forum U.S.Religious Landscape Survey, 2008). In countries, like Austria, where the religious affiliation of the parent is tracked this also holds true (In Austria the birth rate of atheists is around 0.85, way below the cultural sustainability level of 2.1.).  Add to this the fact that the #1 determinant of a child’s religious affiliation is the religious affiliation of the parents, and you have a pretty dim outlook for the future of the “non-religious” and their hopes of winning the “culture war”.

In his recent and significant book, “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth” (and to save you the trouble of reading the book, his conclusion is “yes, they will”), Professor of Politics at the University of London Eric Kauffman notes:

“In an analysis of European data from ten west European countries in the period 1981-2004 I found that next to age and marital status, a woman’s religiosity was the strongest predictor of her number of offspring. Many other studies have found a similar relationship, and a whole school of thought in demography — second demographic transition theory — suggests that fertility differences in developed countries are underpinned by value differences, with secular men and women unwilling to sacrifice career and lifestyle aspirations to have children and have them early.” …”According to the World Bank, the nations with the largest proportions of unbelievers had an average annual population growth rate of just 0.7% in the period 1975-97, while the populations of the most religious countries grew three times as fast” – Erik Kauffman, “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth”

Author Casper Melville paints the picture even more plainly:

“…the assumption that modernity leads inexorably to a lessening of religious belief and a day when we are all rational humanists, is wrong – there is something about our current form of liberal secularism that contains the seeds of its own destruction. Since the birth rate of individualistic secular people the world over is way below replacement level (2.1%), and the birth rate of religious fundamentalists is way above (between 5 and 7.5 depending on sect), then through the sheer force of demography religious fundamentalism is going to become a much bigger force in the world and gain considerable political muscle. Literalist religious conservatism is being reborn and we secular liberals are the midwives.”  – Casper Melville, “Battle of the Babies”

What we’re seeing in the world today is not really a completely new phenomenon. In fact, in many ways it is a recapitulation of the dominance Christianity eventually experienced in the first few centuries A.D. I am currently in the process of reading a fantastic book, “The Rise of Christianity”, in which noted sociologist Rodney Stark successfully (IMHO) challenges some of the popular assumptions among theologians about how Christianity gained such widespread acceptance in the Roman Empire. Previously quoted author Eric Kauffman also picked up on this:

“In his remarkable book The Rise of Christianity, the American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark explains how an obscure sect with just 40 converts in the year 30AD became the official religion of the Roman empire by 300. The standard answer to this question is that the emperor Constantine had a vision which led to his conversion and an embrace of Christianity. Stark demonstrates the flaws in this “great man” portrait of history. Christianity, he says, expanded at the dramatic rate of 40 per cent a decade for over two centuries, and this upsurge was only partly the result of its appeal to the wider population of Hellenistic pagans. Christian demography was just as important. Unlike the pagans, Christians cared for their sick during plagues rather than abandoning them, which sharply lowered mortality. In contrast to the “macho” ethos of pagans, Christians emphasised male fidelity and marriage, which attracted a higher percentage of female converts, who in turn raised more Christian children. Moreover, adds Stark, Christians had a higher fertility rate than pagans, yielding even greater demographic advantage” – Erik Kauffman, “Breeding For God”

So at the end of the day, the talking heads are free to yell at each other all day long. Words and the exchange of ideas are certainly not unimportant, but they are not what will “win the day”. Atheists, secular humanists, and liberal idealogues have “sealed their fate” by being really good at adhering to their doctrines of self-fulfillment.  Their downfall will not be in failing to “pass on a better world to the next generation”. Rather, their downfall we be in failing to produce a next generation at all!

Before we Christians get too smug about our demographic dominance we would do well to consider that in the U.S. the birthrates among Christians is not significantly better than that of the non-religious. Why? Because we too have bought into the prevailing cultural winds of comfort, self-fulfillment, and upward mobility. We have stopped filling our homes with children in order to make more room for our idols. We have only our Mexican immigrant population to thank for the fact that Christians barely cling to a culturally sustainable birthrate in the U.S. (not to mention the fact that in the U.S. Christians are well behind Muslims, Mormons, and others in birth and conversion rates!).

It’s not a coincidence that’s God’s first instruction to humanity was “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…”.

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Very funny and very true! A moment of clarity for sports fans.

“We want to pay you millions of dollars to distract us from our problems. Why are you trying to mess that up, Lebron!?!”.   Love it.

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“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Crucifixion of Peter

There are some passages in the bible that make me more nervous than others. Here’s a few examples:

– Gen 22:2:  God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

– 1Ch 17:4:  “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: It is not you who will build me a house to dwell in.

– Luk 18:22:  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

– Act 9:15:  (speaking of Paul)… the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles…  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

– Joh 21:18-19:  (speaking to Peter) Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

God asks Abraham to sacrifice the child of promise, tells King David he can’t fulfill his dream, tells the rich man to sell all he has, sends Paul (the Hebrew of Hebrews) to suffer for the gentiles, and lets Peter know that what he fears most will surely come to pass.

There is one thing abundantly clear in the bible. When Jesus asks us to give up everything, he really means everything. Think of that thing you fear will come to pass, or that you’ll have to give up, if you really give yourself fully to Jesus. Well, that is the very thing he will eventually put his finger on and say “I want that”. There’s just no way around it.

The interaction Jesus has with Peter is really striking in this regard. Peter vehemently denied he knew Jesus because he feared that they would put him on trial and nail him up on two by fours right there next to Jesus. Now, we know Peter believed Jesus was the Son of God, and with that in mind, I’m not sure we really appreciate what level of controlling fear one must have in their life  in order to literally and physically turn their back on God in the flesh.  And yet, a mere few days later when they’re having their reconciliation session, Jesus goes right at that fear. He says “that thing that you’re so afraid of, Peter? Well, that’s exactly what is going to happen to you. You too will be crucified.” Wow, ease up Jesus…

As far as I can tell, the problems we have in embracing this truth about life in Christ are three-fold.

First, it’s downright un-American. The path to the American dream is upward mobility. The path into the kingdom of heaven is downward mobility. The American mantra is “give me liberty or give me death”. The Mantra of the kingdom of heaven is “embrace death, and experience liberty”. The American way of life is marked by self-preservation, democracy, and defending your rights. The life of Jesus is marked by laying down your life, submission to the will of the Father, and giving up your rights.

Second, and somewhat related to the first, is that we don’t trust God. Our democratic sensibilities and experiences with power hungry men have trained us to fear anyone who asks for obedience or submission. Our paradigm of leadership has no room for a God who would only direct us to do what is in our own best interest, and who above all else loves us completely and sacrificially; willing to give up all His power and glory to meet our deepest need.

Third, our culture of instant-everything has no appreciation of process. We think that when God says “you must overcome that fear”, “you must give up that other love”, or “you must lay down your life”, He means “right now“! In reality, all that God requires of us is a “yes” in our spirit, nothing more. No great abilities, or fearlessness, just a willingness to let Him work. It starts with being honest before Him and saying, “I’m terrified, but I’m willing to follow”. He will lead us on the journey and do the work in our hearts that gets us to the place where there is great joy and love in sacrifice. I love what Russell Moore says:

“God does not measure our cranium for cognitive ability. He measures our frame for crucifiability”.

But don’t get me wrong, there will definitely be fear and pain along the way. Many of us have misinterpreted  1 Cor 10:13 to mean God will never “give us more than we can handle”. Of course, it doesn’t say that at all. It says we will not be “tempted” beyond what we can handle. It certainly isn’t saying we will not be stressed or pushed beyond our limitations. In fact, if God is not routinely challenging me beyond what I think I can handle, then I question what relationship I have with Him at all. For it would mean he’s abandoned me to my fears, weaknesses, and failures.

As I think about my life in recent years, one thing I can testify to is that God is a kind and loving Father who leads us patiently where He wants us to go. It all starts with one simple “yes”, followed by another, and then another. Simple steps, that while difficult, are doable with Jesus as our strength. As long as we remain willing, He will take us farther and deeper than we thought we could go. Before you know it, you look down and realize you’ve halfway conquered the mountains of fear, bondage, and unfulfilled dreams of faith that once seemed indomitable.

This was true for Peter. While Jesus may have laid all the cards on the table right at the outset, there were many years yet to come in which Jesus worked in and through Peter until he was ready to finally be asked to lay down his own life in a way that once paralyzed him with fear.

Likewise, when we say “yes” to Jesus, we can know with certainty that we are saying “yes” to our own eventual death. That is His “end game”. He wants it all. But oh the glory and the joy of entering into that journey where we will be liberated from all fear, doubt, bondage, and even death itself!

To say “no” to this journey with Jesus is to embrace a life that is very much a subhuman existence in light of the intentions of God for us and the great reward that awaits the willing.

Luke 17:33 – “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”

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A starving little girl, trying to make her way to an emergency feeding station, collapses. Photographer Kevin Carter, waiting for his military transport plane to take him away from this awful place, hears “the sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering” as he is taking a look around. He discovers the source of the noises when he happens upon this scene, right as a vulture lands and waits for the inevitable. Kevin takes this photograph that brings the suffering in the (formerly unheard of) “Sudan” to the world’s attention, and wins him the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1994.

I woke early this morning and lay on the couch letting my mind wander where ever it would. As has often been the case these days, I began thinking and praying for all the orphaned and suffering children of the world; allowing the sorrow in the heart of God to wash over my own. The famous photo of this desperate little girl came into my mind and wouldn’t leave. I pulled it up on the internet and allowed the power of the pain and suffering to impact my heart and aid my intercession.

In looking up the photo I also discovered the name of the photographer (Kevin Carter), and the ultimate fate of the Sudanese girl (unknown). Lastly, I saw that Kevin Carter was a member of an unfortunate fraternity of photographers famous for their extensive work in photographing such suffering and devastation, and that it eventually overwhelmed him. Kevin killed himself only months after winning the Pulitzer, the highest accolade in his profession.

“My first instinct was to make the picture….I felt completely devastated”

“I am depressed … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”  – Kevin Carter

As I prayed in the darkness of the early morning, images such as these broke my heart once again for the lost and suffering, the 147 million orphans in the earth with little or no hope. The weight of the pain is heavy even on me who has only seen photos. I can’t image the weight on the heart of Kevin who was witness to even far worse evil and suffering and who had no outlet for his anguish; no ultimate justice to hope for in the form of a righteous God who will one day call every evil to account. Moreover, I can only imagine the pain in the heart of a Father God, perfect in love for all these His suffering children, feeling every pang of their torment.

It is in these moments that a deep and godly sorrow comes over me. I have an abiding fear in my heart that in a few short years, when I stand before Jesus, He will not even need to say a thing. As I look in His eyes my mind will flood with all these images of destruction and suffering, knowing I did precious little to come to the aid of His children that He loves with a terrifying passion and jealousy. I fear having lived a life where I toiled, begged, borrowed, and stole so I could gain more consumer electronics, better vacations, and a more comfortable life, while every day all over the world the vultures fed themselves from the corpses of the children of God.

God, save me from that fate.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” Luke 6:20-25

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When the issue of believers & wealth gets raised, there are a number of questions that come up immediately.  One of the first is: Is being wealthy evil?

The answer, of course, is “no”. Money and possessions have no intrinsic good or evil characteristics. However, if we stop there then we’re dodging the heart of the issue. As Greg Boyd once said, while “stuff” may be benign in and of itself, “everything has a hidden spiritual price tag”.

Furthermore, a point often brought up in the defense of being wealthy is the fact that “in scripture God often blesses people with wealth”. Indeed, even a casual walk through the Old Testament shows that God financially blessed many. The list is long and illustrious. A few examples: Abraham (Gen 13:1-7), Isaac (Gen 26:12-14), Jacob (Gen 30:43), Joseph (Gen 39:2-6), Solomon (1 kings 3:13), Job (Job 42:10-17), and even the entire nation of Israel (Deut 28:1-13).

However, for me to simply say, “there you have it, God gives wealth, and wealth is not evil. Therefore I should enjoy what God blesses me with”, would be unwise. In fact, it could be at the peril of my soul. There are a number of conjunctive points presented clearly in the Old and New Testaments that inform us as to God’s expectations on the wealthy.

First, with regard to God blessing people with wealth in the OT there are a few things we should note if we want to see the whole picture:

1. There are terrible curses for disobedience often attached to the same promises of blessing (Deut 28:14-68).

2. Prosperity is not a sure sign of the blessing of God. It is often the wicked who prosper over the righteous (Ps 37:35, 73: 3,12, Ecc 7:15, Jer 12:1). If prosperity is a sure sign of God’s blessing, then he is an evil God indeed as some of the most vile and despotic characters of history have been fantastically prosperous.

3. God rarely, if ever, blesses people with wealth whose desire is their own pleasure. If they do use the wealth improperly, God often takes it from them, or brings calamity. This is a bit of a longer argument that I can’t roll out for the sake of brevity. One example would be one of the wealthiest men in history, Solomon. God gave him wealth because it was not the desire of his heart:

And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word.  1 Ki 3:11

4. God commands his people to give generously and take care of the poor (Deut 15:7-11, Lev 19:10, 23:22, 25:35, Pro 31:8-9)

5. God closes his ears to the prayers of those who ignore the poor (Pro 21:13)

6. God’s anger burns, and he punishes, even those of his own people who hoard wealth for use on themselves to the neglect of the poor (Is 3: 14-26, Jer 5:23-29, Ez 16: 46-49, Amos 2:6-7, 4:1-3, 8:3-8). The passage in Ezekiel (in fact the whole chapter) is quite shocking. We often equate the sins of Sodom with gross sexual immorality (which was certainly also present). But, God says something quite different that should cause us much trembling. It also demonstrates what David Platt calls our “selective moral outrage”, where we exhibit great indignation at certain sins, but ignore others completely that are of deep concern to God:

Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. Ez 16-48-50)

Turning to the New Testament we get much harder pressed.  While there are a few scriptures that point to the possibility of God blessing with wealth (Luke 6:38 for example), most scriptures point to reward in the age to come (including, likely, Luke 6:38 since in verse 37 Jesus is talking about judgment in the age to come). Perhaps even moreso than the Old Testament, there are stern warnings to those who would hoard wealth to spend on their own pleasure.

A few noteworthy points from the NT:

1. Those who desire and love wealth are not likely to be found inheriting the kingdom of God (Matt 19:24, Mark 10:15-25, Luke 6:20, et al).

2. We cannot love God if we love wealth (Luke 16:13)

3. It is not prosperity, but suffering and persecution, that are the guaranteed mark that we are Jesus’ followers (Phil 1:29, 2 Tim 3:12, 2 Cor 4: 7-12, 2 Cor 6: 3-10, 2 Cor 11:23-29, John 15:18-20, John 16:33, Luke 14:33).

4. We are warned not to live for wealth in this age, but to “store up treasure” in the form of true riches in heaven as we will each be rewarded for how we lived in this age. (Matt 6:19-20, Matt 19:21, Luke 6:24-25, Luke 12:16-31, Luke 12:33, 1 Tim 6:18-19, Luke 6:35, Luke 16:11, 1 Tim 6:17, et al). If we live for reward and good things in this life, we diminish, or eliminate, our reward in the next and will “suffer loss”. In 1 Corinthians Paul tells us that even believers will be judged and each will receive a commensurate reward.

Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. 1 Cor 3:13-15

In Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable to the Pharisees who are described in verse 14 as “lovers of money”. They were “scoffing” at Jesus teaching concerning reward in the age to come and the love of money. Of all Jesus’ warnings and hard sayings to the wealthy, it is probably the most harrowing of the lot.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” Luke 16:19-25

This story is reminiscent of the words Jesus speaks in Luke 6 in the sermon on the mount:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Luke 6:24-25

We have a hard time seeing ourselves as the Pharisees. However, these were a people who had set up a religious system that allowed them to hoard wealth for themselves and ignore the needy. They took no heed, even scoffed, concerning Jesus teaching about those who live for wealth in this age. I would propose that we have developed a religious system that produces the same results in western Christianity. We teach of God’s prosperity and blessing, ignore the poor, and believe that we will suffer no ill effects when we stand before God.

So my conclusion on the question is this: While wealth may not be evil in and of itself, how we use it is one of the key litmus tests of our faith. If we love wealth we will not love God with our lives, nor earn ourselves an eternal reward. As demonstrated through Jesus interactions with the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus (see previous post) we see that, while not earning us salvation, our freedom from the love of wealth is essential evidence of our salvation. And what evidence will I provide?

God is abundantly clear throughout scripture in telling us that if we live for our own pleasure and wealth now, then that is all the reward we will receive from God.

God may bless us with wealth, but he has very high standards and requirements for those who possess it. Our use of it is the demonstration of the sincerity of our faith. God is zealous about provision for, and protection of, the poor and needy (1 Sam 2:8, Ps 12:5, 72:12, Pro 14:31, 19:17, Isa 11:4, 41:17, 58:7, Jer 22:15-16, Eze 16:49, Zec 7:10, Luk 14:13, Jas 2:5). In my own mind I can’t shake the reality that when Jesus returns, it is the use of our wealth and our actions towards the poor & needy that will be the evidence He uses to determine who among us are His people and who are not:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matt 25:32-46

I pray that Jesus finds me faithful to the task, not lacking in love towards those He jealously defends, or living for my own “foolish gain”, on the day of His appearing.

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I read a brilliant meditation on Thanksgiving by James Smith, a Professor at Calvin College today entitled “The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military”. Thought some others of you might enjoy these brief thoughts as well:

I have a deep ambivalence about Thanksgiving as a holiday. For example, it’s not properly part of the (transnational) church’s liturgical year, and it tends to be easily conflated with American civil religion–while also tending to paper over the history of colonialism. But while the “official” holiday is at least questionable, certainly gratitude and thanksgiving are central to the Christian life. Indeed, in the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism, the entirety of the Christian life is encompassed under the rubric of gratitude.

So, ambivalence aside, it doesn’t take much coaxing for me to take a day to enjoy a feast and football with family and friends (even if that means having to watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys). But my friend, Mark, and I both commented again this year on how puzzling it was to see the incessant military references and images on the Thanksgiving broadcasts. It was like the NFL was somehow broadcasting on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Why would Thanksgiving be so interconnected with the armed forces?

But I think I’ve discerned the logic to this. I know I’ve noted (complained!) about this before, but I think I’ve further crystallized the linkage. For some reason, broadcast television always feels compelled to secularize religious and quasi-religious holidays; this is, in some ways, part and parcel of other secularizing currents in commercial culture. But when Thanksgiving is secularized, what’s lost is precisely the Object to whom we would render gratitude. In other words, we end up being thankful for “gifts” without being able to recognize the Giver.

So we come up with a substitute Giver, which is something like the idea of “America”–the land of the free. And while there are alternative conceptual histories that would actually honor how much the United States was conceptually forged–that the U.S. is really the experimental product of ideas–our current anti-intellectual climate would rather think of “America” as the product of force and might (as the national anthem prefers). So if we are thankful for America, we’re thankful to the military who, proverbially, “protect our freedom, ” “keep us free,” “make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” etc. Soldiers are thus revered as the warrior-priests of freedom.

And what are we free for? Well, to shop. And so the best expression of thanksgiving is precisely Black Friday, that Dionysian display of consumerist passion when people literally die in the frantic pursuit of consumer goods.

In sum, the secularization of thanksgiving leads to the sacralization of the military as the guardians of consumer freedom. Such secularization, then, is not a-religious but otherwise-religious. Thus a secularized thanksgiving yields a uniquely American idolatry.

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When I was a kid, one of the highlights of the holiday season was the annual excursion to the National Arts Center in Ottawa to hear the Canadian National Orchestra perform Handel’s “Messiah”. I’m not sure why I loved it so much because often I would fall asleep for a good chunk of the performance. There’s some pretty relaxing music sprinkled throughout Handel’s musical masterpiece!

However, it was always worth the trip just to hear two of the pieces in the performance. “For Unto Us”, and “The Hallelujah Chorus” were always a divine experience.

Handel broke “The Messiah” into three parts, dealing with three parts of the life of Christ; his birth, the passion & resurrection, and his return as described in the book of Revelation.

Particularly powerful for me was the Hallelujah Chorus which is taken directly from Revelation (Rev19:6, 11:15, 19:16). My hair would always stand on end as the orchestra played the opening notes and the entire audience would rise to their feet on cue, in commemoration of that moment in London when King George II stood at the beginning of the Hallelujah Chorus; which most people believe he did in recognition of the entrance of The King, Jesus, and His return.The tradition has carried on for the last two centuries.

Many of you may have seen the viral video going around of a surprise performance of the Hallelujah Chorus at Macy’s store in a mall in Philadelphia. My dad sent me a different one the other day that I enjoy a lot more. It’s a “flash mob” performance of the chorus at the food court in a small mall in a small town – Welland, Ontario (see below). I LOVE the chorus performed without an orchestra and primarily voice only. Such a powerful piece of music.

Whether it’s true or not, the story goes that as Handel was writing “The Messiah”, he was found in tears by his assistant and simply turned and said “I think I saw the face of God”.

This year I’ve been struck by the juxtaposition of our culture running up, and against, the grain of the music of Christmas. I’ve read some articles by atheists who have tried to detail how to celebrate “the holidays” without having any God in the mix. Quite a stretch… I think you’d be better off to abandon the holiday all together than try to extract all of the music, traditions, history, and stories, that are unalterably linked to the birth of Jesus.

As I was in a store the other day I heard the Hallelujah Chorus over the in-store music system and I just stopped and looked around for a minute. Was anyone hearing this? What do people think about as these songs are sung?

I had the same feeling as I watched this video. Do these people actually understand what they are singing or hearing? Especially in hyper-politically correct Canada, where standing up and declaring the return of Christ in a food court would be as likely to get you into prison as anything (thus I came up with what would be the more likely headline – “flash mob spends holidays in the pokey”). This is the outcome you might expect if you heard about a large group of people surrounding a group of unsuspecting shoppers and bellowing out stuff about Jesus’ return to earth, and the “kingdoms of this world” coming under His reign in omnipotent power. If it wasn’t for the fact that it was set to traditional music I would never hear that scenario and say,  “cool, people will really applaud for that”! Of course, it is Canada, so while they might arrest you, they would say “sorry” while they do it.

I love that through our traditional music it’s pretty much a guarantee that at least once a year in all the malls, homes, concerts, and churches, people hear the gospel of the return of the Messiah through the divine inspiration given by God to men like George Frideric Handel.

 

Hallelujah!
For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah!

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,

King of kings, forever and ever

Hallelujah!

And Lord of lords, forever and ever

Hallelujah!

And He shall reign forever and ever,

Hallelujah!


Vodpod videos no longer available.

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