Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh…and a gray belt

I grew up in an era when you wore black shoes with a blue suit, and the color of your belt (you always wore a belt) matched the color of your shoes: black shoes, black belt; brown shoes, brown belt. Well, over the years I got a cool pair of gray boots and a gray pair of casual shoes, and somewhere along the line I lost a gray belt. I mention all this because I recently went to wear those gray shoes and realized I had to go with a black or white (eeek!) belt; or Heaven Forbid, no belt at all! That got me to take a quick inventory of my life and I realized that I was in the very enviable position of having all of my needs met, other than a gray belt. This is how well God has blessed me. A gray belt was all I needed. Pretty trivial, right? I am guessing that for most of us the same is true.  Consider what you really need to live a good life: a roof over your head, somewhere safe and warm to sleep, food on the table, a decent job – the basics.

Of course, life is certainly more than surviving to our life expectancy, but for the purpose of this rant, I’m focused on true needs vs. wants.  Now think about the gifts that were presented to the Holy Family when Jesus was born – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.  One might say that Jesus and family had more pressing needs than some incense and flashy jewelry.  But this is truly a case of God anticipating a real need and meeting it. For, soon after receiving these gifts, Mary and Joseph had to flee Israel with their son to Egypt to escape the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ ordered by King Herod in his attempt to snuff out this rival ‘King’. Gold was, and remains, the international currency. Frankincense and Myrrh were treasured even more so in their ultimate destination of Egypt because of its pivotal use in the customs of mummification and idol worship.  So here we have God establishing a tradition of using those with much to bless those in need.

So where am I going with all this?  It being Christmas soon, I am reminded that although the gratuitous giving of gifts is probably nice for the recipient, it is often a burden for the giver.  (“What are we going to get your Mother?”)  A burden in that, these gifts for the most part are not responding to a true basic need, but more to this unspoken ‘obligation to give’ that often leaves both parties somewhat relieved when it’s over.  (Of course, unless you’re a kid.)  And in the tradition of the wise men (well-off) gifting to the Holy family (in need), I’m proposing that the giving part of our annual celebration be directed to those with real needs and not so much those who will likely not remember what they got a year from now anyway.  So, although I truly appreciate the kind gesture of your holiday gift, I would be so very thrilled if you instead directed your generosity and resources to those who have real needs, and not just during Christmas.  Because you see, I did get that belt, so I’m good. Merry Christmas to All!

Hope for the hopeless

Have I mentioned that I am married to an angel?  This latest act of divine spousal intervention began back in January.   As some of you know, through a series of unfortunate events we found ourselves fostering a pair of older cats.  These seemingly inseparable cats were saved by Ellie as she and her sisters worked to settle the estate of an uncle back east.  With no one willing to take on the two older felines, there was no humane alternative but to bring them home.

As part of their new life in Arizona, my dear wife had the prophetic foresight to rename them, Joy and Hope.  Both needed lots of care and poor Joy, we came to find out, was quite ill, and after a short while we had to let her go to her well deserved rest.  Enter our 12-year-old resident cat, Buddie.  Those who know Buddie, know him as a friend to all, even the occasional transients that find their way to our doorstep.  So, I became quite disappointed to see that although Buddie was OK with Hope (and the special food we were feeding her) Hope was quite aggressive towards Buddie.  There were several serious altercations between the two, and Buddie, not one for confrontation, got the worst of it and slowly disengaged himself by spending more time outside or in the garage.   This led to herculean efforts by my wife to keep the peace and somehow make this work as she had done so many times in the past.  This in turn, caused me no small resentment towards what I began to see as this new little trouble maker.

Now at this point I must say that Hope is a sweet little cat that loves people and is always friendly and playful, a real peach.  But for a time there I could not see any of that, especially after one of those horrific cat fights.  At those times, I would not remember the horrible conditions from which she was saved, her trauma of relocating across country then losing her lifelong companion Joy, or her introduction into a totally alien environment complete with what we believe was the only other cat she had ever seen (besides Joy).  I was only interested in my peace, and my needs.  But the weeks turned to months and as I witnessed the patience, love and devotion my own earth angel modeled, something happened to me.  I began to see our little Hope as her true self, simply one of God’s creatures in desperate need of our love.  I began to spend more time with her and we bonded.  The empathy and compassion that comes so naturally for some was finally beginning to take hold of my heart.

After close to six months, and although the aggression towards Buddie was still there, I began to understand that Hope was indeed a gift from God.  A gift that I may not have wanted, but certainly needed.  I’ve learned a little more about patience, a little more about compassion and acceptance and a lot more about trusting God to work all things out for the good.

Happy ending!  When it became clear that the cat-friction was continuing to have very negative effects on both Hope and Buddie, our cat therapist (yes, that’s what I said) recommended that we try again to re-home Hope.  Reluctantly, we began to make inquiries and within two hours of posting a notice at a local senior living community, we got a call from a lovely woman interested in meeting Hope!  The next day we dropped Hope off at her new home, one for which she traveled thousands of miles and suffered through several traumas.  She now lives peacefully, not at all aware of the role she has played in helping me become a little less hopeless.

Therefore, my dear friends,…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (awe), for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  Phil. 2:12-13

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”    Ezekiel 36:26

Praise God!


Won’t you be my Neighbor?

Do you remember Mr. Rogers?  I recently saw a trailer for this new documentary about Mr. (Fred) Rogers.  I imagine that most of us have either seen Mister Rogers Neighborhood as a kid or watched with your kids.  If you have, you’ll agree he’s not easy to forget.

I got to thinking about my perception of the man.  If I am honest, I have to say that I probably thought he was a bit of a flake.  Really, is this guy for real?  But, like a lot of things I used to think, age, scripture and thoughtful consideration have peeled away enough layers of world view for me to glimpse the real truth.  I may have thought that he was a little too gentle, a little too kind.  (Like there’s such a thing as being too gentle or too kind…There’s that world view thing again.)  I may have even thought he was a wimp.  But now (thankfully) I see him as he truly was – simply as a disciple of Christ (he was a Presbyterian minister) preaching in the best way that he could the message of Jesus Christ.  Now I have a new-found admiration for the man, partly because of his commitment to the message, and partly because he probably knew that people like me would see him as a flake but never wavered.

And what about the message?  I think we all know the song sung at the opening of the show:

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor;  Would you be mine? Could you be mine?…

Now the Old Testament concept of neighbor was rather restrained, limited to ‘those of their own nation, or to their own friends; holding, that to hate their enemy was not forbidden by the law’ (ATS Bible Dictionary).  Then Christ comes along and flips everything upside down, summed up with the parable of the Good Samaritan.  (Just a reminder that the Samaritans were despised by the Israelites, considered enemies, and in no way what any Jew at the time would consider a neighbor.)

In the parable (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus redefines the term neighbor from one of proximity or friendly association, to one of universal relationship.  Basically, he tells us to remove the limits we place on our compassion, our tolerance and our love to include even those we consider our enemies.  We should have no enemies, in that at the very least, everyone we encounter should receive our good wishes and prayers.  And with this definition, we all can be neighbors regardless of where we live, if we all choose to first live in the Kingdom of God.  So, when Brother Fred asks us in the song’s final reprise, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”, the invitation is to share a relationship rather than a zip code.

The true brilliance of his approach is that it comes at the level a 5-year-old can grasp, with the glorious hope that the message will take root and withstand the attacks that ultimately come with worldly living.  Neighborly love, or agape love, is the message, unconditional and without thought of return, simply because we can choose to.  As God chooses to love us, regardless.

“Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” – Fred Rogers

Oh yeah, and he wore some snappy sweaters!

Why I post about God on social media

There is no escaping the fact that we humans are creatures that regularly seek validation.  We love to be right, and even more, love to hear that we are.  The dramatic rise of social media and its universal appeal very clearly proves this.  And like any new technology it has come with some revolutionary benefits and some cautionary lessons that demand attention.  So, in a very short time, we are trying to figure out what is, and what is not appropriate to say when your audience is literally the rest of the world.  I think about the great minds of our civilization – Aristotle, Socrates, Aquinas, Lincoln – and what else we may have learned had they their own blog.  I also immediately hear the verse from the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, when Judas laments:

“..If you’d came today, You could have reached a whole nation, Israel in 4 B.C had no mass communication!”

So, one of the questions regularly debated on SM is when (and where) it is appropriate for God to be interjected into the conversation.  “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.”  For the most part, good advice, since these two topics stir extraordinary passion, and as such, argument is highly unlikely to change the mind of any challenger regardless of your own apparently justified rationale; and, on occasion cause serious fractures in otherwise solid relationships.  (Think recent election)  So for the most part, I would agree that unless you are posting on a blog site that specifically is geared to these sorts of debates, trying to actively evangelize on sites like Facebook or LinkedIn may not be beneficial to your cause.  Now, that said, I guess I could be accused of actually doing just that more than a couple of times.  And, after reading a couple of recent objections to what would be considered someone’s ‘religious’ post on LinkedIn, my own inner desire for validation prompted me to consider why God is so much part of my social expression.

Some context:  I am a Christian.  I have spent a good deal of my later adult life studying, reading, and researching the subject of Christianity in order to support my now well founded personal beliefs.  Some believers don’t need hard evidence, their faith is sufficient.  Not me, I needed to see sufficient proof to the point of even travelling to Israel and standing on the sites where scripture took place.  Once I became convinced, it allowed my faith room to move me forward.  And once convinced the premise of who I am, and what my purpose was completely changed.  Totally.

(Warning: the following is my opinion and I am not asking you to agree.)  And this monumental change I believe is what lies beneath most objections to any discussion about God.  Fear of change.  Fear that the God-less foundation that many of us have / had built our lives upon would be shattered and some other less-type life would need to be accepted……but I digress.  Remember I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, simply stating why I post about God.  😊

And once convinced of the voracity of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus Christ, they became my go-to wisdom for most any situation, personal, family, relationship and business, much like the same way I would unhesitatingly recommend Dale Carnegie, Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs in areas where those individuals have demonstrated some level of wisdom.  To ignore Judeo-Christian teachings in a thoughtful consideration of any subject, in my opinion, would demonstrate either plain ignorance or a denial that must be based in fear – that fear of having to admit that there actually may be something to what Jesus has to say.  (A similar fear that prohibits Republicans and Democrats from ever agreeing on anything it seems, ever.)   And once having opened my mind to applying the teachings of Christ to my life, there was not a situation to which I could not see their application and experience success.  Not one.  ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ really does work as long as we know Jesus, and are willing to accept the answer he provides.

So there it is.  Why do I post about God, and in my case, Jesus Christ?  Mostly because every time I read something, anything, social issue, political issue, business predicament, personal crisis, family disaster…guns, war, gender discrimination, abortion, immigration, unemployment, low wages…I truly believe I have the answer, straight from the source that created us and knows how we work best:

“Love** one another (Yes, even your enemy).  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”   (**’wish them well’ is the translation that works for me.)

I believe it, knowing first that there will be plenty of people who will think me naive, simple, or ‘religious’.  To those people I beg your patience and forgiveness.  But I also know that there will be some, or even just one hidden in the crowd, who may be seeking their own validation in this belief wherever they can find it, FB, LinkedIn, wherever; that is until they understand that the only validation that means anything is from our heavenly Father and Creator…in my opinion.

Drop your stones, people!

The divine brilliance of God’s Word is literally at our fingertips.  He’s given us His vast wisdom, not surprisingly, most of which having to do with simply getting along with one another.  Yet, we regularly ignore it.  For instance, the amount of energy we spend as a society in accusation and condemnation is quite disheartening – don’t you agree?  Don’t you think that at least as much energy should be spent in reconciliation and redemption?  This apparent drive of ours to root out every little misstep, and immediately crucify.  It’s a bit much.  There’s the press, the politicians, the media, the socially righteous, the right, the left, the self-proclaimed victims and so on, all clamoring for punishment for each and every wrong.  (I’m sure I’m in there, too.)

With cameras on us constantly, every misspoken word or weird facial expression winds up as more material for Jimmy Fallon’s nightly monologue. Such effort, such expense, such distraction.  ’Methinks thou dost protest too much!’  Now, understand, I am all for the obliteration of the inequities that exists in this world.  Outing things like racism, bigotry, bias and discrimination of course should be the way of all good citizens, and the duty of all good Christians.  However, it seems to me at least, that we fall so way short in our efforts because of our eagerness to first pin accountability on the one caught in the act, instead of addressing the underlying fractures in our society’s moral structure.  Where’s the follow up?  Who’s talking about the changes that need to be made in each of us so that social injustices don’t require a riot or revolution or public outing to get addressed?   Hypocrites we are.  We sell and buy sexuality at every turn, and then are outraged if someone admires a woman’s figure in a pair of jeans.  (That guy’s got to be fired!)

Now, take Jesus for instance – which is always a good way to start.  Think about how he handles the case of the women accused of adultery (John 7:53 – 8:11).  Quick recap: Jesus’s adversaries look to catch him in a trap.  They present to him a woman allegedly caught in the act of adultery.  (So, where’s the male participant in all of this, right?)  The accusers remind Jesus that the punishment for adultery is death (Lev. 20:10).  In this case, they seek death by stoning.  They also seek Jesus’s approval, which for a teacher of love and mercy puts him in a bit of a pickle.  Or so they think, since any appeal for mercy is in direct conflict with the law.  So here they stand with stones in hand, ready to immediately carry out the sentence upon the accused, and maybe even Jesus.  And then something really outrageous happens.  (I’ll allow the narrative to make the point):

When they kept on questioning him, (Jesus) straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her….”

 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older (wiser) ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

As I said: brilliant.  Jesus exposes the hypocrisy, allows the accusers to consider their own short comings, has the accused acknowledge her sin, and teaches us all a little bit about mercy – if we ever want it, we need to give it, because believe me we all are going to need it sooner or later.  So the next time we are ready to chuck a stone, let’s also consider an offer of redemption.

Hug a Gift Today!

What was the best gift that you ever got?  A lot of us have been getting gifts all of our lives for various occasions and reasons.  Some amazing gifts, and some maybe not as memorable.  I certainly remember a gift of a new 1975 Chevy Vega (at the time $4000) from my parents for doing well in high school and then getting a full college scholarship.  That was pretty cool at the time because I never expected it. I mean, Christmas around my house was usually a lot of pajamas, underwear and slippers…maybe a board game.  Nothing like the apparent abundance of gifting I have seen in my very own family since then.  Now don’t get me wrong, giving is a good thing.  It springs from a desire within us to express our love and sometimes our gratitude – right?

But what’s got me thinking today, having just come out of the most ‘giving’ time of the year, is how these many gifts are received.  I mean, how many times have you seen a kid beg for a gift, maybe a new bicycle.  Nothing else mattered in the world, but if little Jimmy could just get that new bike all would be perfect in the world – or that video game, or that new iPhone.  But, soon enough the ‘new gift’ thrill would fade away.  As gift givers I’m pretty sure we all have become just a little pissed off when we would see that oh so important gift left out in the rain, or broken, or lost.  Such is the price of abundance.  From much comes a numbness to appreciation.  Ask anyone who has nothing, and you’ll usually find the opposite – gratitude for the littlest scrap.

OK – nothing new here. That is, until I thought of my own gift abuse.  Now that you’ve had a chance to think about your greatest gift you may have come to realize that it wasn’t the bike, or the car, or that trip to Maui.  Maybe you’ve realized like me, the greatest gift you got was when a special friend, family member, or mate came into your life.  When a loved one who changed your life, literally changed the path of your existence, for the better.  But then it takes you 30 or 40 years to realize it.  Years where at times you took the gift for granted, maybe broke it or even lost it, because you thought it was yours to abuse.

And then I got sad with that thought.

And then I got glad, knowing I still had a chance through the grace of God and the gift itself, to receive it again, to see it as it was the very first time, to embrace it and cherish it and be aware that the gift was indeed from God; finally understanding that any abuse of a gift from God is a sin, in that like all sin it moves us just a little farther away from Him.  And then I became better for that knowledge, for knowing that we are each gifts from God to one another – perfect gifts because He knows exactly what we need.  And, so much better than underwear, or even a car, because God’s gifts are forever.  Hug a gift today!


The First Christmas Tradition

Tradition – the spread of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way

For many years now our family has had ‘breakfast’ for dinner on the eve of Thanksgiving.  We started when our kids were quite young and normally would visit an IHOP or anywhere we could get breakfast served.  Not sure exactly what we were thinking at the time we came up with that one.  Maybe we were just trying to get some special family time before the chaos of the next day that comes with large gatherings of our family.  In any case, that tradition managed to stick.

I’m guessing that each of us may have their own family traditions this time of year sparked by the more universal traditions that come with the Christmas Season, some of which were started before Christ was even born!  I mean, there is still discussion as to Christ’s birth date and it simply being a nod to the former pagan celebration of the winter solstice.  So, here are a few others that I thought you would find interesting:

The Vikings made a habit of bringing evergreens and sometimes full size trees into their homes during the cold dark winter to remind them that life would again bloom once the snow melted.  Christians later saw evergreens as a symbol of eternal life and sometimes decorated them with apples (think Garden of Eden) and hence the later use of those red shiny glass balls that have put many a family pet in the emergency room.

Christmas tree lights started as candles on trees to express Christ’s role as the light of the world (and unfortunately caused more than a few fires).  Thankfully, those have been replaced by the present day variety of lighting we now use to decorate our homes.

Most of us know that Santa Claus was actually Saint Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of the 4th century famous for his generous gift giving to poor children.  But did you know that the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings comes from the story of three particular impoverished sisters who left their stockings drying over the fireplace?  Saint Nicholas threw gold coins down the chimney which landed in the sisters’ stockings (and get this) so that they would each have a wedding dowry and not have to become prostitutes!  (According to MSNBC via Wikipedia.)

How about candy canes?  Looks like a German choirmaster in 1670 wanted to keep the kids quiet in church during Christmas Eve, so he commissioned a local candy maker to make some ‘sugar sticks’.  And, in order to justify giving kids candy during mass he asked the candy maker to add a crook to the top of each stick, which he argued would help children remember the shepherds who visited the infant Jesus!  Is that what you think of when you are sucking on one of those tickets to type-2 diabetes?

So, here is the point.  It’s easy to lose Christmas in all of the hype.  Should we be hyped?  Of course!  It’s only the most significant act in the history of this universe, including its creation.  But let’s not lose that significance in the lesser traditions that most of us have no clue why we are doing them.  Let’s consider a new tradition, a reminder of where all others spring.  Let’s start each day with the thankful knowledge that God became human in the form of an innocent, vulnerable baby so that we could know His extraordinary, unconditional love for all of eternity.  And all we need to do is say yes to that offer.

Traditions speak to who we are, where we come from and where we can expect to be.  So, let’s start this new tradition of finding Christ in everything we do this time of year, and in so doing remember why indeed it is the most wonderful time of the year!

But who do you say?

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Many of you may be aware of the crowd-sourced online dictionary, Urban Dictionary, where contributors present their own forms of words or slang, and provide alternative definitions for existing words or phrases…it’s kind of fun.  For the heck of it one day I looked up Jesus Christ and found several proposed definitions; as of today there are 74.  Interesting.   At the time, we had recently studied the section in Matthew 16:13-20 where Jesus asks his disciples who do people say he is, so I thought that I would submit Peter’s response to UD (Number 3 on the list):

 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

 Pretty definitive I would say especially since it is supported by Jesus’s immediate response,

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 

So very simple put, our Christian spiritual journey is a reconciliation of our personal response to the ‘who is Jesus’ question with the response endorsed by The Man Himself. Would you agree?  Thankfully, many more gifted authors including C.S. Lewis get into this fundamental tenet of Christian belief in great detail and I would recommend spending the time necessary to come to Peter’s conclusion, if you haven’t already.  Our ability to respond in an informed manner to probably the most important question we will need to answer in our lifetime has eternal consequences – so give it some legitimate consideration.  (I thought that if it took as long as I spent getting my college degree that would be pretty reasonable.  It didn’t, as the evidence is quite compelling if you are willing to approach it with an open mind.)  But it is the next verse in this passage, spoken by Jesus, from where I got my latest revelation:

18 And I tell you that you are Peter,[a] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades[b] will not overcome it.

Up until this week, I thought that Jesus was placing the entire weight and future of the newly founded church squarely on the shoulders of Peter (and the other core disciples), like, “Hey guys I gotta go now!  Make sure you get this church of mine up and running til I get back!”   But now, to me, that thinking seems flawed, as it is not individual men, but their beliefs that form the bedrock of all great institutions.  And since this entire exchange begins with the question of who people believe Jesus is, it makes more sense that the rock Jesus is referring to is not so much Peter the man, but Peter’s belief that Jesus is the Son of the Living God (and all that belief brings with it) which forms the foundation, the rock, on which our church is built – right?  And although Peter and the rest of the disciples were truly the right team at the right time, would not have God’s plan of salvation ensued regardless of who he selected as His earthly messengers?  (Do you think slavery would still exist if Abe Lincoln decided to become a dairy farmer?  Some causes are just too significant to be attributed to single individuals.)  So then, aren’t we, and all those believers that came after Peter, also disciples of Christ, obligated like Peter to spread the Gospel and demonstrate our belief?

Yeah, that’s what I thought…believing is a powerful thing.

Check out the Video of the Moment alongside for more…