Everyone’s a Critic!

Social Media can be a wonderful thing– it connects us, and helps us share good news, prayer requests, events, photos, and more. It can help us make new friends, get re-acquainted with old friends, learn new skills, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, social media can also bring out the absolute worst in us. Social media is immediate– we see or hear something, react to it emotionally, and respond without taking time to think. But social media is not really social. It is social only in the “virtual” sense. And that creates problems. There is nothing like being anonymous behind a computer screen to turn us into the biggest bullies, critics, and self-indulgent know-it-alls. Worse, we find it easy to spread vicious gossip, misinformation, and negativity by pressing a single “share” button…we didn’t even say it!

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But we DID send it out. And others saw it, heard it, felt it– for better or worse. Even the “good” responses– followers, “likes”, smiling emojis, and such–can feel impersonal or even forced. But what about the comments that reveal contempt, anger, sarcasm, or hatred? Critical, biting, self-righteous, self-gratifying, smug comments and posts.

“Oh, but I would never do that…” Really? I have been guilty of passing along posts (or even creating posts) that drip with sarcasm, or gleefully correct people or groups I feel have said something “wrong”. I’ve even passed along Bible verses with smug captions.

“Well, everyone is a critic.”
“I’m only saying what is true.”
“Doesn’t the Bible tell us to warn others and speak out against sin?”

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There are many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit–teaching, preaching, healing, even prophecy– but nowhere in the Bible does it say we are “gifted” to be critics, nags, or to speak out in contempt, anger, and malice. In fact, the Bible contains several warning against such behavior:

Judging Others
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A1-5&version=NIV

Galatians 5:15Verse Concepts
But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Philippians 2:14-16
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
James 4:11-12
Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Criticism,-Amongst-Believers

For more, visit: https://deeptruths.com/bible-topics/criticism.html

This does not mean that we are to stay quiet about evil, or excuse sin. But we are to do so in love, not with contempt for others, or pride in our own understanding.

Moreover, God, who has the right to be critical and pass His perfect, Holy judgment on us, is the very one who offers us Grace and Mercy, encouragement, and hope!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NIV)
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8&version=NIV

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God is NOT our critic– He is our Savior, our advocate, our Father.

Lord, may I honor You by my words and deeds today–including my activity on Social Media! May I demonstrate Your love, encouragement, mercy, and goodness today.
Amen

St. Francis Visits a Contemporary University…

St. Francis was allowed to visit a 21st century university, which housed a chapel bearing his name. He was both honored and confused by the opportunity. Walking about the campus, he was amazed at the number and variety of students rushing to and fro; they were not looking at the grounds or the sidewalks or at each other– they were focused on their devices. It was a noisy campus, full of the sounds of buses and other traffic, music and podcasts playing, people arguing… Finally, St. Francis arrived at “his” chapel. It was a beautiful building, quiet and simple in its design. It was empty, except for a single student, saying her prayers. At the entrance, there was a plaque with a well-known prayer:

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Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
And where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console; 
To be understood, as to understand; 
To be loved, as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive, 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. 
Amen.

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Francis took a seat, absorbing the peaceful stillness, yet wondering at his assignment. Why had he been sent here? Why this moment in time? Taking his cue from the student, he also spent some time in prayer. Then he walked back outside.

He was struck again by the students– they were everywhere, but they were isolated. No one noticed him or stopped to speak. He tried to talk to someone–anyone–but they were all busy and not inclined to pause or interact. He noticed a coffee house across the street. Carefully avoiding speeding buses and weaving bikes, he crossed and entered the shop. It was a little quieter than the commons, but most of the customers were sipping their drinks and staring at screens–personal devices or the huge screen above the counter, streaming the latest news. War, scandal, protests, mud-slinging politicians, all made their appearance, only to be replaced by a commercial break and the next headline. No one stopped in horror at the litany of injustice, death, greed, or duplicity. They simply sipped their lattes and went back to scrolling through their Instagram accounts.

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The door opened to admit the student he had seen earlier in the chapel. She glanced up at the big screen, shook her head, and ordered a coffee. She found a table, and sat down. The coffee house was busy; it was the last empty table. She smiled as another student came in. She invited the other student to sit with her. She started a conversation. At first, the other student was jumpy and disinclined to talk. But soon, the two students were chatting. The sound of it attracted attention. Some customers were bothered by the new noise; others were intrigued by the sound of real conversation– even laughter! Two other students brought their chairs and drinks over and joined the conversation. They spoke of missing their families, of struggling with certain classes, and enjoying others. They spoke of future plans, and the obstacles that stood in the way. They spoke of fears for the future, as well. Francis noticed that one student listened from a distance, but did not join the others. He seemed weary and despondent. Francis walked over and asked if he could just sit at his table for awhile. The young man was startled, but said, “Suit yourself.”

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Francis sat in silence, his head bowed. Finally, the young man spoke quietly. “I saw you watching that girl. Just a word of warning– she’s a nut job. She comes in here about once a week, talking nonsense. She’s not even a student here.”

“And yet, I saw you were also watching her. She intrigues you.”

“I don’t know how she does it. She comes in here, talking about love and joy and faith, and people listen to her. They eat that stuff up. Don’t they know it’s all garbage? Look at the news! But she comes in, all smiling and happy– she’s crazy.”

“But she still intrigues you. Could it be that she is at peace, and you are not?”

“Peace?! Peace is nothing but an illusion. Power is what counts. Action. Look at her– she’s not doing anything to make the world better, and yet she acts like she’s got all the answers. It’s sickening!”

“Why do you keep watching her?”

“I don’t even know. She’s so stupid. She’s all wrong, and she acts like everything is fine.”

“Have you spoken to her? How do you know what she thinks and feels?”

“I’ve told you. She’s crazy. I don’t want to talk to someone like that.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Afraid of what?”

“That she’s not as crazy as you think. That she might laugh at your thoughts, the way you laugh at hers. That she won’t talk to you, like she talks to the others… Maybe you’re afraid of what you would say.”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you say to her if she spoke to you? Would you listen, or would you argue? Would you wipe the smile off her face and take away her joy and faith? Would you make the world a better place by winning your argument with her?”

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The young man was at a loss for words. He suddenly noticed that other conversation had stopped. People were looking at him– even the young woman he had been talking about. His face turned red, and he jumped out of his seat and dashed out of the coffee house. The group dispersed, and Francis was left alone with the young woman.

“He may be right, you know,” she said with a wry smile. I don’t think I do enough to make the world a better place. I just sit and talk with people, and listen, and pray. It’s not much. Not enough to make a real difference.”

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Francis put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head. “It is enough in God’s economy to be available. To be humble and willing and faithful. Keep up the good work. And may God bless you.”

God Is Not Dead, Nor Doth He Sleep..

It was almost 160 years ago, during the darkest days of America’s Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem “Christmas Bells” that would become the Christmas Hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His son had been badly wounded in battle; his wife had died just a few years earlier, and the nation was in ruins and chaos. No one knew how much longer the war would continue or what the final outcome would be; Longfellow did not know if his son would live, or if he would be paralyzed for life. As he listened to the bells of Christmas ringing from church towers, he poured out all his doubts and fears in verse. Yet he concluded, “The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas is not just a celebration of “comfort and joy” that comes from tinsel and lights, cozy fires, or gifts under brightly lit trees. Christmas is about Hope in times of darkness. It is about promises kept; prophesies fulfilled, victory assured, even when it looks as though the Enemy has the upper hand.

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It is horribly tempting in troubled times to wonder and question God’s ways– does He hear? Does He see? Is He asleep? Does He exist? How can a “good” God allow such suffering and pain? And like Longfellow, we listen to our circumstances, and they seem to drown out the message of Christmas– “For Hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.” The cannons of yesteryear may have been replaced with 24-hour news cycles or Facebook news feeds, with protests and lock-downs, COVID counts and contested elections, but the noise is still the same. There is hatred, deceit, destruction, and doubt in our world–it was present during the Civil War; it was present during the Roman occupation at the time of Christ’s birth. But that birth brought a singular hope– one that has become so familiar, and so casual as to be almost forgotten amidst the immediate urgent noises of the day.

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The trappings of Christmas sometimes hide the very Glory of Christ’s Advent. God CAME. He LIVED AMONG US. He was humble. He felt the cold and heat of long days and nights; his feet got dirty from walking. He laughed and cried. And, He DIED. He felt agony and shame and fear as he gasped for breath, naked and bloody and facing sneers and anger from the crowd. But God IS NOT DEAD–He conquered death; He rose again victorious. And He did it so that our suffering is not in vain– our suffering is not the end of our story.

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GOD IS NOT DEAD. Hope is not in vain. Nor does He sleep–even in the silence of our lonely nights, even in the noisy chaos of life in 2020–God has not stepped off His throne; He has not turned His back on mankind. “The Wrong shall fail–” though it may seem strong and strut arrogantly through the streets, shouting and threatening–God is the final authority. Nothing is hidden from Him. He sees every injustice, every secret sin; He hears every lie, every twisted truth, every deceit. And He has no favorites– there is no excuse, no “religious” exemption– ALL have sinned, and all will be held to account.

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EXCEPT– because of that one birth and death and resurrection–the debt is already paid. “The Right (shall) prevail with peace on earth, good-will to men.” For those who listen beyond the noise of battle, the bells of Christmas ring “more loud and deep” with the hope and joy and strength that overcome our pain and struggle. Longfellow found that truth– and I’m so glad he shared it. I hope his words will continue to remind us to listen through this season for the true message of Christmas.

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Praying in a Time of Protest

There is a sickness in our world. Call it racism, or bigotry, or prejudice. Call it power, or oppression, or tyranny. Trace its roots to fear, to greed, to a lust for power, to pride, to hatred… Expose it as government overreach, police brutality, white supremacy, corruption, indifference to the suffering of others. Protest it with signs, looting, rioting, tear gas, lines of police officers in riot gear, shouting, and anger. Lots of anger.

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There is not enough anger in the world to heal it.

Anger is a natural and even God-given emotion. God gets angry; even wrathful. It is right to be angry at injustice and hatred; division, greed, apathy, inequality, brutality, oppression, poverty, sickness, and death– they are unnatural, wrong, maddening.

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But anger, even justified anger, cannot heal. It cannot build up, bind wounds, create peace. Anger feels powerful. It is active, dynamic, it tears down and threatens some of the powers that have, in their time, threatened us or those we love. It draws mobs that seem to share our anger– it looks like solidarity, even unity. It makes headlines. It creates “buzz.” It feels righteous and “right.” And it creates change. In the short term, anger “works.” Surging anger forces the oppressor to be quiet, go into hiding, make some small concessions…for now. Maybe they will pass legislation. Maybe they will give lip service to certain ideals. For now.

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God understands anger– he even shares anger. Jesus even got angry. But God does not sanction letting our anger spill into vengeance, violence, and retaliation of sin for sin. Our anger does not give us the right to judge others, oppress others, steal destroy, or condemn.

The New Life
17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,[f] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Ephesians 4:17-32 ESV via http://www.Biblegateway.com (emphasis added)

If you have read this far, some of you will say that I am being unfair– speaking out against protesters, but not against the evil they are protesting. And if I have never spoken out against injustice, if I have never called upon people to seek peace, never lifted my hand to help my neighbors, never encouraged, never offered help, never shared in others’ grief, then I am the worst of hypocrites. Stop reading.

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Anger asks us to act NOW– it asks us to abandon patience, prayer, and the promises of God, and take matters into our own hands–in our own power, in the moment, for the moment. And it tells us that we can and should act in the place of God to achieve what we believe to be His ends. Often, it asks us to act with little information, no time to reflect, and at the behest of others, who wish to use our anger to further their ends. Anger tells us that we can force evil people to surrender their power without being corrupted by it. And anger tells us that it has the only solution– the only action– that can bring peace.

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Does this mean that no one should be angry? That we should do nothing active in the face of evil? ABSOLUTELY NOT! We should speak truth to our neighbors– not just the truth of our anger, but the truth of our hope for justice, our dependence on God, our love for our brothers and sisters, and our need for Mercy. We must not turn a blind eye to injustice, but we must work toward justice– not just vengeance. We must not sit silent in the face of bigotry, but we must love extravagantly– even those who seem unlovable and unwilling to love us in return. We must not silence those who are angry and hurt, but listen with respect and compassion–as we would wish to be heard.

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And we MUST pray! Pray for the grieving; pray for our enemies; pray for justice; pray for peace. Pray even when we don’t have the answers– especially when we don’t have the answers. Pray–fervently, feverishly– pray on our knees and as we pace in frustration. Pray like we’ve never prayed before. Pray until we break a sweat; until we hunger and thirst for GOD’S presence on every street corner, and in every household, and at every riot, and every government office. Those who would silence our prayers and hold them in disdain are trying to silence the power of God Himself! They cannot win, but they can keep us from sharing in God’s ultimate victory by marching in a fake war, instead of defending the Kingdom. We must take our anger to God and let Him show us the path to justice, action, peace, and healing. He may ask us to step out in ways we never imagined–loving our enemy; sharing the gospel; standing in solidarity with those we used to fear; forgiving those who have hurt us; asking forgiveness from those we have hurt.

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There is not enough anger to heal the world. There is enough Love to save it!

Hearts, Hype, Hatred, and Hope

Today marks the celebration of St. Valentine– Valentine’s Day. It is a day of hearts and flowers, romantic dinners and gifts, all celebrating love and marriage. Many people choose to marry on Valentine’s day; many more choose this day to propose marriage (my dad did, in fact, and he and my mom were married just a few months later in 1963).

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Gifts have gotten more elaborate and expensive over the years, though there are many who choose simple, homemade gifts or cards, as well. Advertisers promote their products as being perfect expressions of romance and love–diamonds, lacy nightwear, expensive candle-lit dinners, vacations, deluxe tool boxes, cars, spa treatments–if a new broom or pair of socks can be made to look romantic, look for them to be advertised as “perfect” for this year’s gift.

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I have a long and difficult history with Valentine’s Day. I remember, as a school girl, being forced to choose, sign, and address valentine cards for every person in my class at school. Some were easy enough, but I had to send cards to classmates I didn’t like; classmates who teased or bullied me, or were just “icky.” I think most parents did the same, but I noticed that I rarely got cards back from everyone, and sometimes, the “icky” kids only got two or three cards, which they hid away in their desk or threw away. I never knew if they were glad to have gotten the few cards, or if they were embarrassed and hurt (especially if they had no cards to give to anyone).

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As a young woman, I disliked Valentine’s Day for its way of sorting out the “loved” from the “unloved.” I was loved by my parents, and liked by friends and colleagues, students and neighbors. But every 14th of February, I was reminded painfully that I was not considered “loveable” by the young men buying candy, flowers, or engagement rings. Year after year passed with no gifts, no dates, nothing to signify that I was worthy of romantic love or attention. As I write this, I know there are millions of young women who are facing pain and rejection today, where they might feel confident and happy on any other, normal, day.

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This year, Valentine’s Day seems like a bad joke– talk of love and romance rings very hollow when I see the amount of hatred being spread on social media. Should I feel “loved” if I receive a card from someone who spews hatred and death wishes for people they barely know because of something they said about politics or the environment? If I followed my parents’ rules and bought valentine cards for everyone at the office, would I be brave enough (or foolish enough) to send them?

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The original St. Valentine (though this is disputed and there may be more than one martyr with the same name from around the same time) is believed to be a young martyr who was beaten, stoned to death, and beheaded for marrying young Roman soldiers against the mandate of his emperor. It was felt that soldiers would fight better if they were unmarried and unencumbered by family ties, but soldiers who had converted to Christianity wanted to live pure lives, married to one woman, and faithful to their vows. St. Valentine was committed to helping these men and women live their new found faith and show love for each other, and for God. For that, he was jailed and sentenced to die a horrible death. There were no greeting cards, no diamonds, no spa treatments on that day. There was suffering, death, sacrifice, humiliation, and loss. And plenty of hatred.

But St. Valentine’s death had quite the opposite effect than the emperor intended. God’s love has a way of shining brighter for being targeted, tormented, and beaten down. Real love doesn’t show itself in new clothes, hothouse flowers, or candle-lit dinners. It shows itself in a pouring out of self, and being willing to suffer for others– even those who do not love us back.

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This Valentine’s Day, I live in hope that Christians around the world will demonstrate the true love that comes from God– a love that practices Grace, Kindness, Forgiveness, Humility, Patience, and Joy, even in the face of Hatred and Evil. Hatred shouts and raises its fists. Let Love whisper and reach out hands of service. Let Love kneel and pray for our enemies, and bless those who curse us. Let love be ready to die rather than spread hatred and return evil for evil.

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Love One Another (1 John 3:11-24 ESV)

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers,[a] that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God,[b] and God[c] in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.

The Weary World Rejoices…

We live in a weary world– weary of war, weary of chaos, weary of worry, and weary of sin and its consequences. From the time the alarm rings to the time we finally lay down our weary heads, we are bombarded by stress, misunderstandings, distractions, disappointments, questions, harsh words, harsh images, demands, doubts– I’m tired just listing them…

Even so, we are surrounded by promises (mostly false) of peace and rest, satisfaction and success. “Buy this!” “Try that!” “New!” “Improved!” The voices call out, offering temporary bliss, or temporary escape from the weariness all around. “Jingle Bells!” “Happy Holidays!” “Tidings of Comfort and Joy!” It is tempting to let Christmas become just like all the other worldly distractions–shiny, loud, stressful and fleeting, full of promise, but leaving us empty and cold in the end.

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But Christmas IS different, because it doesn’t celebrate what the world has to offer. The celebration includes lights and bells, songs and gifts, food and friends and family– but at its heart, Christmas celebrates something “out of this world!” Jesus came to a weary world long ago, and no matter how weary the world was, or is, or will be, Jesus brought all the hope and healing of Heaven in the small package of a tiny infant child in a crowded town in a conquered land.

On that Holy Night, God crashed the party– He did more than watch from a distance, more than speak from the skies above or send angel messengers–He arrived, actively participating in the struggle, the bone-weariness, the hunger and thirst and chill and stress of living among His fallen and fractured creation.

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And the weary world rejoices–can you hear it? Above the bustling noise of people shouting, and car horns blaring, and advertising slogans, and piped-in Christmas songs…Can you feel it–beyond the comfort of a warm blanket and hot cocoa, beyond the hugs of friends or the smiles of strangers or gifts from loved ones? Can you see it–beyond the glare of city lights, undimmed by the darkness of hatred and greed?

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The lights and songs will fade away, but the Love, Joy, and Peace of God that came to the world that first Christmas is for all time!

“Fall on your knees!
Oh, hear the angel voices,
‘O Night Divine. O Night, when Christ was born.
O Holy Night!'”

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“Thoughts and Prayers”…Revisited

One of the reasons I began a blog about prayer over eighteen months ago was in reaction to a scathing op-ed article about prayer written in the wake of a mass shooting. Well, here we are again. Two highly publicized (and several “smaller”) mass shootings occurred over the last week in the U.S., and the outrage and anguish is overwhelming and completely understandable. The senseless violence and subsequent loss of life stops us in our tracks. Why? Why would anyone do this? How? How could this happen? In the wake of such evil, millions of people rush to distance themselves from such evil; many of them resort to angry protests and calls for action. Many point their fingers at this leader, that group of people, that philosophy, that industry–any entity (other than oneself) that can be held responsible and made to “pay.” Many offer earnest condolences for the families of the victims– often with the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”

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But what good are any of these responses? Nothing we say or do can turn back time and undo the events of the past week. No amount of protesting, legislating, avenging, or moralizing will guarantee that everyone lives in peace and safety as long as evil lurks in human hearts– whether by vigilante gun violence, war, terror attacks, economic and political unrest, rioting, looting, domestic violence, brutality, assault, murder, or suicide. “Banning” guns (or “assault weapons”, “military-style” weapons, etc.) sounds like a sensible action to take, but it is not practical in the face of evil people who will not follow the law, and corrupt governments who will not enforce the law, or worse, who use their power to oppress their own citizens.

Finding, and even punishing a scapegoat may make us feel morally superior and bring a false sense of closure, but it will not break the cycle of anger, hatred, injustice, or lack of respect that is at the root of violence.

But there is something equally repugnant about hearing the phrase “thoughts and prayers”, no matter how earnestly it may be expressed, in the wake of inhuman tragedy. The “thoughts and prayers” of strangers have no warmth, no solidity, no promise, and no strength. They are wisps and vapors of selfish and graceless bystanders, who want to ward off the evil that has befallen someone else. They are nothing more than a pseudo-spiritual appeasement offered to the nameless, faceless fates.

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And the greater tragedy is that such empty phrases, expressed as reactions to great evil, cheapen the very real power that should be found in the pursuits of thinking/meditating and praying.

Prayer is not a knee-jerk reaction to bad news. It is not a gesture meant to signal to others that you are beyond the touch of whatever forces have just hurt someone else, or that by your thirty second of piety you can alter the consequences of a catastrophe or change the course of the future.

Where were the “thoughts and prayers” of others two weeks ago? Where will they be tomorrow or next week? What quality of “thoughts and prayers” go out to the families of victims whose names we have not even bothered to learn? Such superficial public expressions, sent with seven teary-eyed and five or six high five/praying hands emojis, mean very little to anyone except the sender. They change nothing from the past, and offer nothing going forward.

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I am as guilty of this kind of meaningless virtue-signaling as anyone. I want to feel as though I can, by such empathetic expressions, encourage and strengthen those who have been touched by horror, tragedy, survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, etc. But I can’t. Nor can my anger, frantic attempts to “fix the world”, or brilliant analyses of all the root causes of violence prevent the next bombing, drive-by shooting, hijacking, arson, political uprising, or disappointing election result. I cannot change the hearts or minds of those with whom I disagree. I cannot “make” a better world.

But that is why I write this blog. It is through a lifestyle of prayer– real prayer, difficult and sometimes agonizing prayer, joyful and grateful prayer, pleading and gut-wrenching prayer, consistent and obedient prayer–that I engage with the only One who CAN bring hope, justice, change, renewal, and salvation to this world. And it is through a lifestyle pursuit of prayer–daily seeking God’s face, asking for His wisdom, accepting His mercy when I fail, reflecting on His character, acting in obedience–that He can change me. That power, that hope, and that renewal is available to ANYONE who will ask. It sustains us when tragedy strikes, and it empowers us to offer far more than empty “thoughts and prayers”– it causes us to pray, not just after a tragedy, but unceasingly– not just for our own comfort and safety going forward, but for the well-being of our enemies, not just for those who look like us or think like us, but for those who scream at us and tell us to stop already with the “thoughts and prayers!” That power causes us to seek peace where there is hatred, justice where we find corruption, and humility when we are surrounded by narcissism.

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And if we are not doing those things– if we are not tapping into that power– we should be taking a closer look at those “thoughts and prayers” we are hiding behind.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in violent times. His city was besieged by the Babylonians, and his king was a prisoner in his own palace. God had sent messages of judgment and punishment for the entire nation. Jeremiah prayed diligently, and spoke out against the injustice, pride, and idolatry all around him. In response, he was arrested, beaten, thrown into a pit, and abandoned. God even told him to stop praying for his countrymen, because they were unwilling to accept the truth about their condition, or prepare for the punishment to come. But in the middle of the violence and bad news, God offered hope and promises of restoration, justice, renewal, and peace. He also gave this warning to Jeremiah, that he should stand firm– he should, by his example of consistent obedience and hope– influence others, NOT let himself be influenced by the anger and arrogance of those around him.

Lord, I need to stop offering cheap thoughts and empty prayers that do nothing to honor You and little to help others. Give me the strength and grace to stop reacting to tragedy by reflecting the anger and self-righteousness around me. YOU are my hope, and the best hope I can offer to anyone else. Help me to serve others in truth and love, not judge them, dismiss them, or honor them above You. Help me to seek and stand for justice that is consistent with Your character and Your word, even if I stand alone.

We Hold These Truths…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness–Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (July 4, 1776)

Full text of the Declaration of Independence

We’re getting ready to celebrate our Independence Day in America.  There will be parades, cookouts, parties, fireworks, and a host of other celebrations.  There will be a lot of flag-waving and patriotic displays.  At some gatherings, there may be readings of our Declaration of Independence.  This document was drafted to outline, not just a list of reasons why they should rebel, but what they hoped to build as a result of their struggle for freedom.

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Over 240 years later, this document, and what it stands for, is still relevant and calls us to a high standard– one our nation has not fully achieved.  In spite of the great strides we have made and the example we have been to the rest of the world, in recent decades, we have left behind many of the very truths we aspired to hold.

First, there is a dangerous belief that “truth” is no longer self-evident, nor is it timeless.  We don’t hold beliefs and truths anymore.  We shift with the tide of public opinion and the shadowy promise of “being on the right side of history”– which just means being on the winning side of the current debate within our lifetime and hopefully into the next set of history books.

Second, we have spent countless hours, shedding blood, sweat, and tears over the phrase “ALL MEN”– struggling to reach the promise of equality for all humankind.  We have fallen short of this vision, and twisted it into a grotesque parody of itself.   Instead of working together in unity and inclusiveness, we have devolved into factions each fighting to be “more equal” than others.  Instead of looking at the equal value and humanity of all our people, we point fingers at all the people who are “less worthy”, “more privileged”, “entitled”, “marginalized”, “intolerant”, “judgmental”, who “need to be silenced”, or “need to be kept in their place”…how can neighbors and fellow citizens be so vicious?  One answer may be found in the very next phrase…

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ARE CREATED equal, and are endowed BY THEIR CREATOR…Usually, this phrase is emphasized in the exact opposite places– the emphasis is on EQUAL and ENDOWED.  We have lost the “truth” of being “UNDER GOD”.  We have lost the truth of being created.  We have lost the truth that our worth, our rights, our values, are not a product of our own opinions and observations.

It is easy to point to others and say, “They are ruining our country– They are not living out these truths.”

The harder lesson is to look at my own assumptions, actions, and beliefs.  Do I TRULY believe that all the people around me– of every creed, gender, race, political party, nationality, educational achievement, or economic level are created equal and endowed BY THEIR CREATOR with value, and inalienable rights?  If, at any point, I make assumptions about the worthiness of “those people”, assuming that God loves me more, or will have more mercy or grace toward me because of who I am or how I behave; because of the color of my skin, or where I live, or who I voted for; because of the things I know or the good deeds I have done–I am part of the problem.  Christians, if we bear the name of Christ who created all mankind, and we hate those whom Christ created, the love of Christ IS NOT in us.

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That doesn’t mean that we ignore sin and compromise our character, and pervert justice in the name of a comfortable facsimile of equality.  But it also means that we must stop whitewashing hatred and injustice in the name of morality.  Morality without love cannot heal our nation.  Nor can rewriting our history.  Nor can declaring our Independence.

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The Declaration of Independence is not a stand-alone document.  It had no authority on its own.  If our founders had lost the Revolutionary War; if they had abandoned their vision of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people”; if their descendants had failed to bring a divided nation back into unity; if our parents and grandparents had not struggled and fought to make our nation live up to its principles; and if our generations fail to come together and work toward that same vision– Independence will not be something to celebrate, but something to detest.

While it is called the Declaration of Independence, it is a spirit of dependence– on God, on His truth, and on the goodwill of our fellow Americans, that keeps this document alive and full of promise.

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We need to pray for our nation– and for our own revival– if we are to truly celebrate this Fourth of July.

Blinded By the Light

A few months ago, I went to the theater to see the movie “Paul, the Apostle of Christ.”  It was an excellent movie, not the least because I found so much of it relevant to what is happening in the world today.  The movie was centered around Paul’s time in prison in Rome; the upheaval and persecution facing the early church, and the looming certainty that Paul would be martyred and his words and leadership sorely missed.  The church in Rome was facing division– some were militantly opposed to the corruption in Rome under Nero, and wanted to form a rebellion.  Others wanted to flee Rome in hope of supporting outlying churches, starting new churches, or just finding a safer haven.  Still others were losing hope and wanted to give up or hide.

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The movie also covered (in a series of flashbacks) scenes of Paul’s earlier life.  I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but this part of Paul’s life is covered in the Bible, so I will stick to the facts presented there, rather than the drama from the screen…

Saul of Tarsus was both a Jew and a Roman citizen by birth.  He had studied God’s word intensely his whole life, and became a Pharisee.  He had studied under some of the greatest scholars of his age–in today’s world, he would have been one of the greatest legal minds of our time– a superstar in the arena of law, philosophy, and logic.  Of all the people in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world, Paul KNEW right from wrong.  He KNEW the words of God, the laws of God, the traditions of God’s people.  The result of all that knowledge was an obsession with wiping out those people (Jews, especially, but also Gentiles) who followed Jesus of Nazareth and “The Way.”  Saul was a man filled with righteous anger, and a zeal to have everyone conform to what was “right.”   He was a man of power and influence– a man to be feared and respected.  In his letters, we can still see some of that intensity and the way he has of arguing both sides to their logical ends.  But something happened to Saul..something that changed his entire future, including his name.

Paul, the Apostle of Christ, was still a Jew and a Roman citizen.  He was the same man who had studied vigorously and knew the laws of Moses and God’s words through the centuries written by prophets and historians and psalmists.  But the Paul we see in scripture, while still bearing the intensity of his youth, is a man of gratitude and peace.  Here is a man who works steadily with his hands for honest but meager wages compared to what he might have made as a Pharisee.  He is a man who boldly faces down even Peter and James in Jerusalem, but who nevertheless takes orders from a council made up of former fishermen and tradesmen.  Paul undergoes flogging, arrests, prison, cold, hardship, physical pain, poverty, and disgrace with the kind of stoic acceptance, and even joy, that makes him a great hero of the early church.  Never once does he return to the anger that drove him to persecute others who did not agree with him.  Instead, he is willing to be the victim of persecution at the hands of those he used to serve.

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I was scrolling through Facebook the other night, and I chanced upon posts from two women I know.  Both are about the same age, both mothers of five children, and both are practicing Christians.  The first woman was posting about two recent difficulties faced by her family, and how God had been faithful and gracious in spite of a huge loss and a tense situation that could have turned into another tragedy.  She spoke of God’s answers to prayer, and how their family was reminded of God’s goodness as people came alongside at just the right moment, and the loss was not as great as it might have been.  I was inspired and encouraged by the way she saw God’s love, and gave credit to all who had helped them.

The second woman spoke in vicious tones about how she would not associate with certain Christians who hold political and social views she sees as hateful.  She cursed fellow followers of Christ for being “anti-Jesus,” and condemned several of her early teachers and pastors.  I read her remarks with great sadness, because I remember her as a younger woman, eagerly memorizing scripture and being a loving and encouraging example to others.  I also read her remarks with pain, because I think she includes me in the “hateful” group based solely on the type of church I attend.

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It is not my place to say that one woman is a “better” Christian than the other– on another day, their FB posts might cause me to think very differently.  And God sees more than just what we post on FB or say in passing conversation–He knows our every thought and motive.  So I want to be careful–these women, though similar in some superficial ways, lead very different lives and have very different experiences of following God.  But I saw in their posts two ways of “seeing” Christ.

When Saul of Tarsus, in his anger and zeal, traveled toward Damascus intending to kill people he may have never met, he was already a crusader for Jehovah– ready to mete out justice against anyone who didn’t meet his standards.  He KNEW all about God.  He knew what it took to be righteous.

But when he actually encountered Christ– he was knocked off his horse, blinded and overwhelmed by a vision.  And when Christ spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Saul didn’t recognize the voice of the very God he so proudly served.  Saul remained blinded for three days, but his vision was never the same again.

As Paul, he became a man of prayer– his letters are filled with prayers for the well-being and spiritual growth of those he misses and longs to see.  They overflow with doxologies and prayers of worship for the Savior he loves and serves with gladness.  He can’t stop talking about God’s goodness– to him, to Israel throughout the centuries, and to the Gentiles who now have access to the throne of Grace.  He still has harsh things to say to some of the followers who “don’t get it.”   To those who want to compromise with sin or go back to legalism.  But he pleads with them; he doesn’t throw stones.

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It can be very frustrating in today’s world and in our society to see Christians who have very different ideas about worship styles, ways of interacting with others, even ways of living out the words of Christ.  Sometimes, it seems that fellow Christians are blind to the needs of the poor, or the sins of their friends, or the hypocrisy in their lifestyle.  I think scripture gives us a clear directive:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Matthew 7:3-5 (English Standard Version)

We should not rush to condemnation, name-calling, and finger-pointing.  Instead, we should do a “vision” test and see if we are looking and acting in love or in self-righteous hypocrisy.

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God doesn’t want us to be blinded by the light of our own knowledge and self-righteousness.  Instead, He wants us to walk in the light of His Word–His Word made flesh!  May we live in the light of Paul’s example of prayer, loving correction, and running the good race.

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