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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!


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Lukewarm & Lovin’ It

Have you ever been at church when the pastor started to launch into Luke 18 (the rich young ruler) and you had the sensation of feeling your stomach start to drop? I have. It’s because I know what’s coming, and I’m really hoping the preacher is going to let me off the hook when we get to those hard, hard words Jesus speaks at the end of the conversation.

We all know it. A rich young ruler comes to Jesus and wants to know how he can “inherit eternal life”. He has been a faithful keeper of the law, keeping all of commandments “since he was a boy”. Jesus responds with those words that always give me a slight cringe:

“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…How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:22 & 24)

Why do I dread those words? Probably the same reason many of you do too. I love my “stuff”. I like being comfortable, I like being upwardly mobile, I like toys, I like pleasure & leisure, I love the American way of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (emphasis on the latter), I like having 600 square feet of space for every occupant of my home.  Certainly Jesus doesn’t mean this for me too…does He? I mean, it seems like pretty plain speak, but this can’t be universally applied to believers, right?

Well, have no fear. Without fail, every sermon or teaching that ever broaches this touchy topic will likely end up as a velvet tipped sword.  The conclusion of the matter will invariably land on 1 Timothy 6:10. You know the one, it’s the LOVE of money that is “the root of all kinds of evil”. Not to fear, dear congregant, you can keep all your “stuff”. It’s only if you “love” money and “stuff”, that these words of Jesus apply to you. So sleep easy, no need to worry that you’re too wealthy or have too much while the majority of the world starves, just make sure you don’t fall in love with your possessions (because we all know how easy it is to have money and stuff and not be controlled by it…right?!). Whew, that was close… Saved again.

I always feel much better by the conclusion of the sermon. But in my heart, I always know the truth. But as long as no-one’s willing to say it, then I’m OK. In my heart I know I really love my “stuff” (for proof of this, just try coming over and taking some of my “stuff”, and see what reaction you get!) But I look around me and no-one else seems to be bothered, or seemed to be taking any steps to live radically sacrificial in order to serve the poor and follow Jesus with abandonment, so all is still right in my world.

You know, if we were really going to be honest, it’s not 1 Timothy 6:10 we should turn to after we read the account of the rich young ruler. No, we should just keep reading in Luke. After he meets this young man, there is an account of a healing, and then the very next interaction is another meeting, with another rich man, Zacchaeus. I don’t think this is any accident that these two stories get set one beside the other in scripture. Rather, I think the juxtaposition is supposed to startle us and  “drive the knife” in deeper.

Zacchaeus does not make any claims to have kept the law. No, he is an admitted sinner; a fact acknowledged in the passage itself. Zacchaeus has something far better, a heart that is liberated from the love of earthly treasure in desire for God. He says to Jesus:

“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”(Luke 19:8)

And Jesus response?

And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9)

This hits me with the full weight of the proverbial ton of bricks. Two stories side by side. Two rich men. Two completely different responses. One of Jesus’ wealthy would-be disciples says “I have kept the law”, and one says “I’ve given away my wealth generously”. To the first, Jesus says “sell all you have and give to the poor”. To the second he says “today salvation has come to this house”. Could it be any more plain?

It’s not about salvation by works, but clearly one man really “gets it”, and demonstrates the level of revelation in his heart, and his desire for God above all else, through his generosity. Jesus sees right through to the heart and knows full well the powerful grip of possessions on the souls of humanity.

Just to be sure, the sermon should end with Luke 12:

“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”… Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:17-21, 33-34)

The proverbs and parables of Jesus can be piled up on this subject. Unfortunately, It doesn’t really matter how plain He’s made it, we (westerners particularly) continue to struggle endlessly and dance around the words of Jesus in a self-deceiving hermeneutic game of self-justification. We live in fear that if we really get “radical for God” He’s going to require everything of us: body, soul, heart, mind, life, and possessions. I know, I’ve been there.

For me, I think it’s time I stop soft-selling the matter and begin to echo and live what Jesus says quite plainly – He does require it all of us! The deal is this – all we are, and all we have in this age, in exchange for all He is and all He will give us in the age to come. Take it or leave it. Anything else would be to position ourselves like the wealthy believers of Laodicea, to whom Jesus says:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” (Rev 3:16-19)

Some of these thoughts come from a sermon my wife and I heard this week (video below), probably the most forthright (and offensive…buyer beware) I’ve heard on the topic. Francis Chan preached a message called “Lukewarm and Lovin’ It” that confronts us with what I have to agree are two undeniable truths:

1. We are rich (The wealthiest in the history of the world. Even if you consider yourself broke – if you live in America, have clothes, food, a roof, and a little spending money you’re among the wealthiest people in the world today)

2. Your wealth puts you at a serious spiritual disadvantage and it will be very difficult for you to inherit the kingdom of God.

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He’s Coming For Me

Front Gates at the Home of Hope

We’ve been in contact or followed the accounts of several people who visit the Home of Hope Orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda where our daughter, most certainly, now resides. At the end of this post is an account of one of these women who has been to visit recently.

As we draw closer to the day when we will get our turn to go, see, and hold our new daughter for the first time it seems increasingly difficult emotionally to read these accounts. Perhaps my girl is one of these little ones running to the gate to meet the visitors, hoping that she will be chosen to get held, touched, and loved, even if it’s just for a little while?

I was thinking again today how much our human experience is so akin to that of the orphan child. So many of us are lonely and desperate for love. We may have lost many precious things in life. People, and the events of life, come and go. But they are all short lived comforts. We run from one person to another, or some new affection, hoping they will be the one to love us forever, or to satisfy the emptiness in our hearts. But they never stay, and their affection always runs dry.

Then one day we hear the good news. You have a father… There is someone who has chosen you, promised they will love you forever, and never leave you alone again. And one day soon, he will come to get you to take you home.

I can only imagine the hope that must spring to life in the heart of a orphaned child when the news that they have been adopted comes to them. Actually, I can imagine it, because I know that kind of hope myself. When I feel the weight of the deep sorrows of life, my heart never despairs. I know I have a Father who loves me forever, has adopted me as his own, and it’s certain that one day soon He’s coming.

I’m extremely grateful for the sisters, volunteers, and visitors who give all the love, effort, and prayer they can to serving these orphans at the Home of Hope. The children literally have no one else; all of them have no family that can be found. Even though the workers may be overwhelmed with the amount of work, the situation there is so much better than what it is for many orphans around the world.

Here is the account of “Amy”, who was a recent visitor to “our” orphanage. It may be she has given some of the precious little direct love and attention my daughter has ever known. I’m very grateful for her offering of love.

There are some moments in life where I feel so overwhelmed by an experience that I have a hard time putting it into words. I struggle to grasp all that it meant to me or all that I saw. Perhaps it’s due to my visual nature and the fact that I feel more content telling my story through pictures than I do with words. However, you’ll have to bare with me as I try to describe my experiences at the Home of Hope orphanage in Kigali, since I was unable to take any pictures inside the orphanage.

I thought I felt prepared before I entered the blue gates at the Home of Hope. Several families from my church have adopted children from the orphanage and they’ve described to me first hand the conditions these children live in. But it’s one thing to hear it and another to see it yourself. We came in the afternoon, when the orphanage allows visitors to come play with the children or rock the little babies. Jana and Keli go on a regular basis to give the littlest ones massages, since they are mostly lying flat on their backs in their cribs all day long and suffer from stiffness and weak muscles. They also just need to be held and feel the touch of an actual person. It’s not that the nurses do not hold them, but they are just overwhelmed. There are so many babies and only few workers to attend to their needs. It’s impossible for each baby to receive the love and attention that they truly need.

The first time we came, we were bombarded by dozens of toddlers when we entered the gate. They came rushing up to us, all wanting to be held or touched. It was both adorable and heartbreaking at the same time. Here were these beautiful, precious children, all just wanting to be loved and shown attention. How could we pass them by to go hold the infants? I felt so torn. I wanted to love on each little kid in the orphanage, but we only were allowed to visit for one hour. But I couldn’t resist their sweet, smiling faces so I picked up one child and more of them followed us inside. I eventually had to take the little guy back outside, because they were not allowed to come into the room with the infants. As I walked him back to the door, he started crying and my heart started ripping to shreds. I felt like the worst person in the world. But I knew that the babies were all in the other room needing just as much attention. There’s just so many needs to be met and I already felt overwhelmed by it after being there less than 10 minutes.

They took us to a room with many cribs all lined up side by side. The first thing you notice when you enter is the smell. It’s not quite like stepping into an outhouse but it’s pretty close. Most of the children have on cloth diapers but they’re not changed often enough. With 20 or so babies to a room, it’s going to leave a smell. At the time we entered they were feeding the older babies and had them all either on the floor or in 2 larger cribs to the side of the room. Dinner consisted of bananas mashed up with eggs. Not exactly appealing to me but the babies didn’t seem to care. They all just wanted to be fed. We waited for the nurses to bring us the littlest ones to have massages but held a few of the older ones until they did. I noticed that most all of them had flat heads and bald spots on the back of their heads. They are so accustomed to lying on their backs that their heads have conformed to that shape. Some of them had herniated belly buttons or distended stomachs due to malnourishment. The first little one they gave me was crying when they gave him to me. However, after just holding him close to me for a bit, he calmed down and became at ease with me. He wasn’t eager for me to put him down after that when I tried to lay him on the table to massage his arms and legs and such. So I picked him back up and just held him until he fell asleep in my arms. It was the most precious feeling ever to know that I calmed this little guy down and he felt content enough to fall asleep as I held him. It gave my heart some peace.

Most of these children will not be adopted. The girls might grow up and come back to work there as a nurse, like many of the women working in the orphanage now. The men will be given a small plot of land to tend to once they reach a certain age. They’ll have little education and little hope for a bright future. I felt this great desire to adopt 10 of them on the spot, but of course that was not possible, especially since right now adoptions are temporarily closed in Rwanda. I came back feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted from the first experience but I knew I had to go back again while I was there. I wish I could have gone back every day, but that wasn’t possible. The second experience felt even more overwhelming than the first, as there was one moment where about 5-10 of the babies were all crying and I just didn’t know who to hold and what to do. I can’t imagine how the workers must feel on a daily basis.

I know that now, as I’m back in the states, all I can really do for these children is pray for them. I pray that their physical and emotional needs will be met. I pray they will all find a home and a family who will love and care for them. I pray they will grow up strong and receive a good education. I’m thankful for people like Jana and Keli who go there on a regular basis and do what they can to help. I’m thankful for all the families I know who have opened their homes and their hearts to adopt children from orphanages all around the world. I have a great respect and admiration for all of you. In all of this, I have to believe that God is working. It only took me a fraction of a second to fall in love with these children, but I know that God loved them before anyone else and will always love them. I put my hope in His love.

I’ll never forget Home of Hope. I left a piece of my heart there.

The Prophetic Church

Some of the greatest prophets of our day are those from whose mouths we may never hear a word of “prophecy”.

The other day a young guy was asking me “what advice would you give to a young Christian who wanted to distinguish himself; to have a unique life for God”? Without a lot of thought, I just said “get continually in the presence of God through prayer,  and when He speaks direction to you, abandon all else and do it with all your heart and determination”.

I don’t know if this was “wisdom of the ages” or not, but my point to him was this – that there are millions of believers (myself included) who hear and know the word of the Lord, speak the word of the Lord, and wax poetic about the Spirit’s message of the hour to the people of God. But I’ve known very very few who’ve truly abandoned everything for the sake of the calling of God on their lives.

Much like in the life of the prophet Hosea, God is raising up those in these days who will hear “what the spirit is saying to the churches” and whose lives will personify the word of the Lord in this hour as a prophetic standard to the people.

What a multiplied impact men of God like Randy Alcorn, Rick Warren, Mike Bickle, or Francis Chan have had as they have not only spoken the word of the Lord but embodied it. They preach a message of living sacrificially, ministering to the poor, living free from the spirits or our culture, and prayer, and they have each made great sacrifices to stay faithful that message. Each one would be very wealthy through their book sales alone, but they’ve each chosen to live lifestyles of “unnecessary” modesty, and given their wealth away. They’ve each given up many opportunities, positions, and comforts. Even when it wasn’t popular with others or in their own self-interest, they denied themselves what was rightfully theirs because God had spoken clearly and they were willing to give up everything in order to stay faithful “to the heavenly vision” and to use whatever God gave them to further that cause. It is because of this radical, many times painful, life of abandonment that God has used them each in significant ways.

Just as God is calling individuals to live such prophetic lifestyles, He is calling, preparing, and purifying a church that will stand in this hour of history as a prophetic witness to the nations.

In a time when even believers are obsessed with their own comfort, wealth, and significance, God is raising up a church who will live sacrificially and humbly, preferring the needs of others over meeting their own. In a time when having obscenely busy schedules makes one “important” and “productive”, God is raising up a church who know that only time in His presence through prayer will produce any lasting fruit in our lives.  In these days when murdering your own unborn child is considered a “right” or even an “act of love”, and poverty, war, and disease leave the world’s landscape littered with orphans, God is calling a people out who will lay their lives down to “defend the cause of the fatherless” through adoption and orphan care. And in a world that idolizes men of temporal fame and power, God is fashioning for Himself a people who have their hearts fixed solely on His soon coming kingdom that will rule the nations in righteousness.

I’ll tell you what, it’s a whole lot easier to be a church that is filled with people speaking and receiving “prophetic words” than it is to be a people who will live as prophets. Doing that will cost us our lives.

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:34-38

Abortion Funding

Despite the best efforts of some, there was no way to stop some of the money from the new Health Care legislation from going to abortion funding. This video does a decent job of demonstrating how that happens. I benefited positively from a number of facets of this new legislation, in particular the extension and modifications to the adoption tax credit. But it makes no sense to spend a few million to help save a few thousand kids, all the while spending millions more to murder thousands of others every day.

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Halloween 2010

It was the best of holidays, it was the worst of holidays…

It was the best of holidays – After years of sore and messy arms, the idea of applying power tools to pumpkin carving finally dawned on daddy! So much easier…

It was the best of holidays – I hate digging out pumpkin guts. I finally have a child old enough to do it for themselves!

It was the worst of holidays – Two of our three trick or treaters contracted the flu on Halloween. On Halloween! What are the chances? Jude only made it to seven houses before having to retreat back to his position as a pathetic ball on the couch where he had spent the entire day.

It was the best of holidays – We got a fifth straight year of use out of a $10 costume. Eliza was our third generation purple dragon. She had no idea what was going on, but she figured out quickly that if she walked to a door she got candy. She probably thinks this will be the norm from here forward every time she visits someones home.