Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas and God Bless Us, Everyone

As I do each year this time of the year, I can't help but think about how the Christmas holiday has evolved as I've become an adult, and as I've gotten older, I find it harder and harder to get "in the spirit of Christmas"... whatever that means. As children, we have the allure and anticipation of gifts which can serve as a reminder of God's gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. As a self-sufficient adult, I wonder if that analogy subconsciously backfires and we suddenly find salvation as something that we need to provide and work for ourselves, a chore which becomes bothersome drudgery.

Earlier this week, as I dutifully read advent devotionals with my children, I was reminded that the obvious implication of Christmas is and should be the most meaningful one: God is Here. In a world where humans - regardless of whether they believe in God or not - cry out for justice, comfort and deliverance, Christmas is really about answering the question which in some way of form is asked by every person who draws breath in this world, "Is there a God?" and "What are the implications for me?"

Christmas is all about giving us an answer to this question. To a world which is fallen and broken where pain and suffering still exists, God is very much here. He isn't some fictional entity dreamed up by Hallmark, powerful scheming men, or Madison Avenue. He isn't the absentee father who created a mess of a world and decided to walk away and live His own life of leisure on a Caribbean life. God is here in the midst of our "everyday" lives and is ever-present in our world - interceding and working things out in ways beyond our wisdom and understanding. In Jesus Christ, God is here and desires relationship with those who He created, so that we might know Him and enjoy Him, and that even in our trial and suffering, we need not walk alone or in futility try to figure the messiness of life for ourselves. It is both an answer and invitation.

That's worth celebrating.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Materialism, Greed and Death

Last Sunday, a young couple in New Jersey left an upscale mall after an evening of holiday shopping and walked to their luxury sports utility vehicle, starting a chain of events which would eventually leave a 30-year old lawyer murdered and a wealthy suburban enclave shaken. The carjacking and murder of Dustin Friedland hit particularly close to home, because it took place in a town which was my home as recently as eleven months ago, and it made me reflect upon both the tragedy of the crime and underpinnings beneath it.

Short Hills, part of Millburn Township, has always had an uneasy relationship with the towns just to the east - such as Orange, Irvington and Newark - with the former being affluent, largely white neighborhoods and the latter being poorer with strong concentrations of minorities. There's a stunning contrast, with Short Hills being a haven for hedge fund managers, corporate executives and Ivy League-educated professionals drawn to million dollar mansions and nationally recognized schools with neighboring towns struggling with poverty, crime and failing schools.

In light of this, the wealthy suburbanite credo is to simply "isolate and self-protect", or put another way, keep away from the dangerous areas. What shook people was that this wasn't a matter of a yuppie couple getting carjacked while driving home from a Devils hockey game in Newark. This couple was in an area which was presumably safe - it was "a wealthy area filled with other wealthy people". Of course, if you've made up your mind that you want to steal something, you're probably going be drawn to places where (1) there'll be high quality, expensive things to steal and (2) victims will be less likely to fight back - in other words, places like the Short Hills Mall. 

Earlier this week, I went to an assembly held at our local elementary school here in Sugar Land, Texas discussing crime in our community and the police officer stated that the criminal element in Houston viewed Sugar Land as "the land of milk and honey", and my particular subdivision as being a favorite target. Why? The large Asian population in this area were profiled (stereotyped) by criminals in three ways:
  • Asians are small business owners with lots of cash
  • Asians own a lot of high quality gold
  • Asians are less likely to own or use firearms
But even more fundamentally, thinking about property crimes - and the tragic lengths that some will go to commit them - made me consider the fundamental origin of such actions. Or put another way, what compels a person to decide to commit such a crime? In thinking about this, I realized that some of this revolved around an exposed nerve. Predictably, thinly-veiled racial overtones were big hit. Look at the comments section underneath any of the articles pertaining to the carjacking and you'll notice a couple of key themes:
  • "Condolences for this heartbreaking tragedy."
  • "These 'animals' deserve to die."
  • "No surprise that the perpetrators were black."
  • "We need to allow NJ to become a 'concealed-carry' (gun) state."
  • "Why aren't Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson organizing demonstrations against this crime?"
Any property crime begins with the belief that one is somehow entitled to something (theologically, this can be described as a combination of pride and greed), and at some point, the desire to take possession of something outweighs to desire and imperative to act and live righteously. 

A culture of materialism teaches us that a man is worth the sum of his possessions, and as a society we glorify and value conspicuous contentment over humble contentment. Turn on the television for an hour during this season and you'll get a sense of what I'm talking about. A culture of greed means that the wealthy live contentedly in separate worlds and wealth disparity, in which the have's live contentedly while others both struggle with poverty while throwing gasoline on the flame of discontentment. A culture of death fundamentally cheapens the value and sanctity of life. From murder committed in the commission of a theft to abortion, this culture teaches us that the lives of others are considered dispensable to be discarded on the whim of one's selfish goals of convenience and pleasure.

It's sad to see these three cultures manifest in the shadow of Christmas. And even without committing felony murder, we're all still living those values in our own ways. We need the Savior to free us from these things that will cause us to destroy each other and ourselves.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Danger of Sacred Places

It's really easy to live in the past, and waste a lot of time doing so. Sports fans will always remember then-Celtics basketball coach Rick Pitino ranting after another frustrating loss for a franchise that was spoiled by success driven by a legion of Hall of Fame players and what seemed like a regular cadence of championships: 
Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off.
Of course, this phenomena isn't confined to sports. In fact, the more destructive habit is to hold on to places, things and seasons in one's own life. I recently heard some powerful words about this in a sermon from one of my former pastors, Charlie Drew (paraphrased):
We tend to be allergic to God being real. Sometimes so allergic, that we will turn good, even sacred things, into God-substitutes and as a result keep the real God away. We can perhaps all remember a good and satisfying time of community or fellowship in our past, say a particular easy and delightful time in our marriages or a wonderful time in a great church we were once part of a great fellowship group where everybody clicked and we were happily and healthily in each others' lives. But now perhaps, things are harder. Now perhaps, things are different. And we're spending too much time and energy either pining for what used to be - oh, for the good old days! - or trying to manipulate the present to be more like that past.  
God comes to us in real life in real time and speaks to us and says, "Stop it. Don't do that. Remember, what made that time and place and memories so good - if indeed they were as good as you seem to remember them - was Me. Me, the real God of real history including yours, and I am still here. Only now, the reality that I am serving up is different in some way. You have made an idol of that sacred time and sacred place, and it could be a future time of place. I can't wait for 'X' to happen, for my schooling to me done or for the kids to be out of the house. I am now giving you something new and different and I'm not doing this because I am cruel. I am tearing down that temple in your life. I am tweaking that custom in your life so you will remember to deal with Me." 
Sacred space is perhaps the most dangerous. Really good memories and really sound and lovely hopes are often the greatest enemies because they become substitute gods for us. And God knows that these substitute gods will hurt us. They will kill us. So in love He does what hurts, taking those things away and changes the game plan so we will be forced to deal with Him, the God of real-time, the God of today.
I think this really struck me because I tend to struggle with both living too much in the past and projecting and agonizing too much about the future. In terms of living in the past, part of this is driven by the grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side phenomena, where we tend to idealize what used to be, conveniently ignoring all that was difficult or frustrating about a past season of life. Our obsession with the future is garden-variety anxiety, hoping for and dreading the potential failure of not accomplishing an always changing set of goals and milestones which somehow comprise a vague definition of future success. 

And as Charlie Drew astutely hints, the bigger problem is that I'd just as soon not deal with God in the present. Or put another way, I prefer to deal with God and the present reality He has for me on my own terms - or not at all. But the truth is, each change in life - even the hard ones - are God's mercies. They are gifts which are opportunities to see how God works in new ways and new contexts in our own lives. For my family, we had a chance to see God work in our lives in New York City. With some sadness we left that and had a chance to see God work in our lives in New Jersey. And with some sadness we left that and are now having a chance to see God work in our lives in Texas. Life events happen, and our lives will change again someday, if not geographically then somehow else. The question is to what degree our eyes will be fixed on Him during those changes.

It's tempting to not live in the present. In times of trial and hardship, I can make the case that it's far more pleasant to drug myself with nostalgia and dream about an idyllic future. But I'd do so at my own detriment. As life changes, it behooves us to continue to walk with the God of today or else we run the risk of missing the sweetness of the power of God manifest in the present.