Thursday, November 26, 2009

It's All About the Shopping

And so it begins: The “holiday” or “Christmas” season, often accompanied by the word “shopping.” The Thanksgiving edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel landed at my door this morning filled with an inch or more of sale inserts whose purpose it is to lure me into stores at 4 and 5 a.m. on Black Friday with “door-buster” deals and “one-day-only” specials.

As a Christian and recovered shopper myself, I understand the psychology behind exuberant shopping at Christmas.

Christmas is the only time chronic shoppers can binge in stores guilt-free. After all, they’re shopping for Christmas. Is it so bad that a few items land in the cart that aren’t gifts for others, but gifts for themselves? It’s still Christmas shopping, right?

I read a survey that said 66% of people shopping on Black Friday will be shopping for themselves. I take that to mean what it says: for themselves; not for others. So the whole premise that Black Friday is a gift-shopping day is quickly becoming a myth, replaced by the reality that it is just a day off work to go fishing for great deals on yet more stuff for oneself.

For others, shopping at this time of year is exhausting because gift-giving, for them, is their ticket to recognition: they hope to find love and acceptance through the gifts they buy. So they frantically roam the stores seeking that perfect gift--and I do mean perfect--that will wow and impress the receiver and all who are in the room when the gift is opened.

I remember buying gifts for my extended family gift-exchange and thinking that the gift absolutely must reflect positively on me: it couldn’t be too cheap or too common, had to be exquisitely wrapped and ultimately the hit of the family gathering. The gift was more about me than the other person. Under that mentality, Christmas shopping becomes a competition with other gift-givers, the stakes growing higher each year. This is exactly what the Bible admonishes against: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1). Yet for many, gift giving is their way of not only attempting to be seen, but to be loved, befriended, accepted and affirmed.

William Gurnall, born in 1616 in England, is the author of the Puritan classic “The Christian in Complete Armour.” In volume one of this classic, he writes:

“We lose the good of material things by expecting too much from them. Those who try hardest to please themselves with earthly goods find the least satisfaction in them.”

I would say the same is true for gift-giving. I’m not at all against giving gifts. I am, however, wary of the motivation and expectation that lies behind much gift giving, be it gifts to others or so-called gifts to ourselves. When we expect gifts to do things they can’t, we become disillusioned at the result and vow to shop harder next time.

Gurnall has the solution for this vicious cycle of emotional and physical bondage to gifts, gift-giving, and shopping, of which I can personally attest: “All of our frustrations,” he writes, “could be easily avoided if we would turn away from things and look to Christ for happiness.”

This Christmas, I’m not suggesting people stop giving gifts entirely. What I am suggesting, though, is to start with the only true and perfect gift that never disappoints: Jesus Christ Himself.

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:17

Friday, November 20, 2009

Walking the Narrow Path in China

Today's Wall Street Journal writes about Christians taking their churches underground in China. Like I said in my last post, the powers of darkness can attempt to stop and silence faith, but have never been successful in doing so. And even if people were ever to be silenced, we remember again Jesus' words that even the stones will cry out.

Here's the link to the WSJ article written by Leslie Hook:

"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Matthew 16:18

"Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it." Mark 16:20

Monday, November 16, 2009

FFRF Hits New Low

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is at it again, this time unconscionably attacking UW-Whitewater because a campus religious organization sent out an email invitation for a prayer vigil for Staff Sgt. Amy Krueger who was killed in the shootings at Fort Hood. Krueger was a psychology major at Whitewater.

FFRF, once again, has spoken out against a freedom that is guaranteed by the Constitution, and they spoke out in a way and at a time that shows their true colors at their darkest.

FFRF went ballistic over the word “prayer” in the campus email and immediately penned a frigid letter to UW-Whitewater chastising them, completely forgetting (or not even seeing to begin with) that a young lady had just died.

FFRF’s Annie Gaylor engaged in her traditional kindergarten tactics, bullying the UW with the implication that the UW must change the wording of “prayer vigil” to “memorial service.”

UW-Madison’s Badger Herald calls FFRF a “nontheism” group, which is a laugh. FFRF is anti-theist. A non-theist would graciously and maturely decline religion and mind their own business without being offended by every religious icon, word and practice.

FFRF is not content with taking the stance that religion is a non-entity to them. No, they go much further, turning their personal opinions on religion into a public vendetta in the hopes that they can wipe religion off the map. (One wonders what “injustice” they’d entertain themselves with then?)

The audacious attempt to restrict the mourners at UW-Whitewater is the height of self-centeredness, completely lacking in compassion, love, integrity and goodwill towards Amy Krueger, her family and the staff and students of UW-Whitewater. At a time calling for humanity’s kindness, FFRF answers with an egregious display of narcissism.

Deep down inside, I think FFRF knows that a moment of silence or a sanitized memorial service can never substitute for prayer. Which is why they try to do it, because they know there is power in prayer. Which would admit there is a God. Which gets back to what FFRF is most fearful of and the reason for all their actions.

Prayer can never be a “moment of silence” because prayer is never without sound. Prayer, contrary to what many people might want to believe, is not “silencing the mind.” Prayer is alive and active as we cry out to God and listen to His words back to us. In times of tragedy, God hears our very heartbreak through prayer, even when we don’t know what to pray.

Romans 8:26-27 tells us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.” This is not passive silence--as if one can silence inner heartbreak! The fact that FFRF thinks a sanitized memorial is possible only shows how ignorant of prayer and the human and Holy Spirit they are.

Prayer will continue to offend and set off agendas. And the powers of darkness will continue to roam the earth looking for people to silence. However, Jesus Himself, in Luke 19:40, gives us this assurance, “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

“I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. Away from me, all you who do evil, for the Lord has heard my weeping. The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer." Psalm 6:6-9

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Over and Out"

I was telling my son Nick how, when my friends and I were little, we used to hang out in the fort my brother built and play detective. We’d hide behind trees and communicate via imaginary radios, ending our communique with “over and out.” We said this because that must’ve been what we heard in the many war movies we’d grown up watching. But Nick didn’t get what it meant, so I Googled the phrase and found out we’d been using the lingo the wrong way. On one website, a person posted the following:

“As for 'Over and out,' you would be shot out of the water if you used the phrase on marine radio. 'Over' means 'I have finished speaking and am awaiting a reply.' 'Out' means 'I have finished the communication.' 'Over' and 'Out' should NEVER be used together in serious radio communication.”

I laughed at how I’d been misusing those words. But then again, it didn’t surprise me. Isn’t that how much of the world operates? In conversations across the globe, people are talking, but they are "over and outing" each other, putting in an appearance of listening or wanting to hear, but then saying “out” before the other person can respond to the “over.” We all know what it’s like to try to convey a thought to someone whose mind is already made up regarding what they want to do or to think. And we’ve been in situations where we’ve been guilty of thinking about where we’re going to have lunch or when we’re going to do the laundry while someone else is talking to us. We portend a stance of “over” while practicing “over and out.”

This happens to me with God. I remember “praying” once about getting involved in a ministry (I put praying in quotes because I’d already made up my mind). I was so sure it was something God would approve of, but just to be safe, I took a couple days to go through the motion of “seeking God” about it. Not hearing anything from God on this (which Oswald Chambers says should be taken as a red flag) I remember one day decidedly closing my Bible and thinking, “God will bless this, even if I haven’t really heard from Him.” Oh, God did bless it, in that He taught me never ever to plunge ahead without His call again!

See, I was in “over and out” mode. I pretended to be in “over” mode, awaiting God’s leading, but in reality, I jumped right to “out” mode, essentially shutting God out. That is, until mopping up and bailing out time came: ever notice how, after we’ve made a real mess of things, we’re suddenly ready to listen to God? We’re ready to be in “over” mode only?

So often in prayer I’m restless and I pray about something, but then move on to another request, or go on to do my Bible reading, or hurriedly finish up with my quiet time anxious to get to other activities. I’m praying “over and out” prayers. I pray and then tell God that my communication is over before He has a chance to even speak to me. I put down the radio and go about my day, leaving God waiting on the other end.

Oftentimes people say prayer doesn’t really accomplish anything: we do. I’ve felt that way sometimes. I want to just jump in and “do” and not wait for God. But it’s that very act of “doing” without God that is the hindrance—the prevention—of prayer taking an active, accomplishing role in our, and other’s, lives. Prayer doesn't accomplish things because we hang up on the author of prayer before He can give His answer. Instead of ending with “Amen,” we close with a self-centered “over and out.”

Just as “over and out” should never be used together in serious radio communication, it should never be used in serious God-communication either.

"Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. 'Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?' he asked Peter. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Matthew 26: 40-41

"Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 'Abba, Father,' he said, 'everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.'" Mark 14:35-36

"When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 'Why are you sleeping?' he asked them. 'Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation." Luke 22:45-46