The Lesson of 9/11

(The following appeared in this blog on September 11, 2018. I have updated it and share it again as we mark the twentieth anniversary of a solemn day indeed.)

I suspect that all of us over the age of 25 can well remember where we were when the first reports began to crackle over the radio.  I had just dropped my wife off to teach for the day, in fact, and was headed back to my office when I heard the news of a terrible plane accident involving the World Trade Center in New York.

It sounded awful, to be sure, but when I got home and turned on the television it was even worse.  For it wasn’t an accident at all, but a deliberate attack, confirmed when a second plane crashed into the second of those twin towers.  Meanwhile, at her school near NASA, Julie noticed that Air Force fighter jets had been scrambled and were buzzing loudly overhead.  And as the hours wore on, the full enormity began to flow over all of us as well.  For September 11, 2001, was not just a day to remember, but a day that changed America forever.

If you’ve been on a plane recently, for instance, you will know just how much air travel morphed after that fateful day.  For even with TSA Pre-Check—and there was no TSA before 9/11—it’s still much tighter. So no matter where you are going—to a conference, on a vacation, to see your grandchildren, or to meet old friends—no matter how hopeful or excited you may—there’s still that slight tingle of anxiety when you go through the line, isn’t there, still that reminder that our security in this world is never quite completely guaranteed.  For indeed, we never really know when we too may be called to eternity, just as the people who got on those planes twenty years ago had no idea that it would be the last day of their lives on this earth either.

Likewise, that moment changed how we view good and evil, I think.  For on 9/11 whatever innocence about humankind that we might still have had, whatever fancied ideas about the world that we might have yet indulged, whatever comfort we might have felt in our denial of the power of bad things to affect us, we were inextricably reminded that there is something very wrong in the world. Indeed, evil once more reared its ugly head and stared us down, face to face.  For what 9/11 revealed is that evil not only exists–the “mystery of iniquity” as St. Paul called it in 1 Thessalonians 2.7—but that we live in conflict with spiritual forces of wickedness that are pledged to destroy us.

But what 9/11 also taught us was that even in the presence of pain and poignancy, of turmoil and tragedy, God is with us as well.  For in the words of 1 Corinthians 15, we have not believed in vain, our faith is not futile, and it is not only for this life that we have hope in Christ at all. Such is not to minimize the fact that almost 3000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, of course, and countless more had their lives forever altered by the loss of their loved ones.  But the hope we have is that God knew every one of them by name—just as He knows us– and eternal life did not end that day for any of them.  For centuries ago, the tragedy of the cross was followed by the triumph of the empty tomb. And the good news is, it still is.

On this weekend of remembrance, take a moment to reflect back on where you were that morning that changed America.  But just as importantly, ask yourself as well just where you are today when it comes to God. For if He isn’t your real security in life, the truth is, you haven’t got any at all.

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Christy Wilson and the Chaos in Kabul

“When Satan fell to earth, he fell in Kabul”—Oft-quoted Afghan proverb

No matter what your politics may be, the images coming out of Afghanistan this week have been horrendous.  For the desperation demonstrated by the Afghans who flooded the airport runways in Kabul is all too palpable.  And now some are reporting that Christians in that nation are fearing for their very lives at the hands of Taliban extremists.

All of which has made me think of the godliest man I have ever known, Christy Wilson.  For born and raised in Tabriz, Iran, where his parents were American missionaries, from the age of five Christy’s calling from God was to take the gospel to a place where it had never gone before, the closed nation of Afghanistan, known to some as “the forbidden harvest.”  But as missionaries were not allowed to enter, he found a back door in, that of becoming a teacher in a country where 97 percent of the population at the time couldn’t read or write.  

Even with that enormous need, it still took four years from first applying to the Afghan Embassy in Washington before he finally received permission to go in 1951.  And when he arrived, he felt the power of evil everywhere all around him.  Nonetheless, Christy quickly made an impression on others—he would say God showed him favor—and soon he was the acting principal of a government high school, as well as teaching private English lessons to the Crown Prince, and conducting an English course for Afghan diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Ordained during World War II to be a Presbyterian chaplain in the U.S. Navy, Christy and his wife Betty, who had started a school for the blind in Kabul, then started a small and secret house church in their home for other Christians who had come to teach or work with the U.N. agencies.  And then in 1959, he heard that President Dwight D. Eisenhower (named for the evangelist Dwight Moody by his mother) was coming to Afghanistan on his Asian tour.  And using a connection back in the States, Christy made a rather bold request: “Since a mosque has been built for the Muslim diplomats in Washington, on a reciprocal basis, we should have a church build here in Kabul for Christian diplomats.” And the President responded by presenting to the Afghan king that very request which was granted.

It took another ten years to raise the funds, provided by people from all over the world, and to construct the building but in 1970 the first and only evangelical Christian church on Afghan soil opened, with Christy Wilson as its pastor.  Three years later, however, after a relatively peaceful forty-year reign of King Zahir Shah, everything rapidly changed. Christy and Betty were given three days’ notice to get out of the country, carrying only one small bag apiece after living there for 22 years.  And then on July 14, 1973, soldiers, police, workmen and bulldozers showed up to destroy the church building itself, even digging down 12 feet belong the foundation looking for the “underground church” they had been told existed.  Instead of opposing them, however, the congregation offered them tea and cookies.  

Ironically, the mayor had been told that if the government touched that House of God that God would overthrow that government.  And three days later, that prophecy came true, when the king’s cousin declared the end of the 227-year monarchy in a stunning coup d’état.  Five years later, that government was toppled by a Communist coup, followed by the Russian invasion in 1979.  And in the eyes of some Afghans, who are quick to see omens in events, the connection was clear: “Ever since our government destroyed that Christian Church, God has been judging our country.”  

As for Christy and Betty, they ended up in Massachusetts at the same time that I did, in the fall of 1974, where–armed with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Princeton, a doctoral degree from Edinburgh, and extra study at Columbia–he began teaching world evangelization at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  And there too, his quiet but fervent faith, as well as quick wit and sense of humor, made a difference.  He made it his practice, for instance, each week to pray through the “facebook” that had photos of all the students, interceding for each person individually.  (When students met him on campus for the first time, they would be surprised to hear a professor they had never met call them by name.)  Indeed, Christy would pray with you anytime and anyplace and you never got out of his office without praying at least three times. He also established a prayer room on the campus and every day at noon, he and a band of students would unite in prayer for the peoples and nations of the world.  

It became my privilege to be a part of those prayer sessions, as well as to be appointed a teaching fellow for Dr. Wilson, and the times we spent together are a treasured part of my memories.  After graduation, I invited him once to a church I was serving in East Texas and after worship and lunch, my elementary aged son asked him if he would like to go out and fly a kite.  I explained that Dr. Wilson was probably tired, and besides, it was January and not really the weather for that activity.  But Christy, still wearing his suit, quickly got up, took Andy by the hand, and said, “let’s try.”  And sure enough, the winds shifted, and that kite went as high as my son’s excitement and my admiration for the man with him.

Christy was invited to return to Kabul in 1991 for 23 days to work and pray with Christians there.  And eight years later, he entered God’s eternal Kingdom after 78 years of providing to others a remarkable picture of what it means to serve God with both joy and power.  If he were still on earth today, however, I am pretty clear what he would say about the current chaos in the country which he loved all of his life.  “Let’s pray about it right now and see what God will do.” 

As I watch those tragic images on television, thus, all I can do right now is pray as well, knowing that no one—not even the Taliban—is completely beyond God’s reach and power to change.  But I also cannot think of that forbidden harvest and Kabul without remembering Christy. 

And I have a feeling that God can’t either. 

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March Madness, 33 A.D.

It was a Selection Sunday like none before it.  For in addition to the sixty-four college basketball teams that were chosen on March 14 to compete in the championship tournament, four additional teams were tapped by the NCAA to serve as potential “alternates” should any of those in the schedule have to drop out because of a Covid-19 outbreak.  And though that didn’t happen with the first team that had to forfeit on only the second day, the plan is still that there will be no re-ordering of the brackets should another health disqualification occur.  So if even a top-seed team cannot play at the last minute, their spot may go to an alternate that wasn’t even invited to the Big Dance in the first place.

Centuries ago, however, “Selection Day” meant something else to the ancient Hebrews.  For according to Exodus 12.3, on the tenth day of the first month of Nisan (usually March to April sometime according to the Gregorian calendar), every Jewish male was instructed to pick out a lamb that would be the right size for his household to eat at Passover.  And if a household was too small, they were instructed to join with another family and form what we might call in the language of our day, a Passover Pod.

Israelites could choose either a lamb or a goat, but the law of Moses specified that the animal in question should be a one-year old male without blemish or defect.  Oddly enough, however, families often took the animal which they had selected into their homes or campsite until the fourteenth day of Nisan when they would be killed and eaten that evening for the Passover meal. 

Why would they do so?  In part it may have been for the family to have time to carefully examine the animal and make certain it had no disqualifying marks.  For the thousands of pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the required festival would more than likely not have brought their own livestock with them.  Instead, upon entering the city, they would simply have made their way to the market place to pick a lamb from the flocks that the Sadducees, ever mindful of the business end of the Temple, had thoughtfully bred and raised for purchase.

But the custom perhaps had another purpose as well, namely, allowing observant Jews to more closely bond with the lamb that was to be offered up as a sacrifice for their own sins.  For clearly, knowing the sacrifice personally couldn’t help but make it far more impactful.

All of which makes the Holy Week story even more intriguing.  For if you do the math, what jumps out is that as the Passover lamb was killed on the Thursday of that festival that means that Jesus arrived into Jerusalem not just on what we’ve come to call Palm Sunday four days earlier, but specifically on “Lamb Selection Day.”  And by doing so, the message He sent was fairly plain:  “I am the Passover Lamb that can save you, so choose me!”  Then as if to follow up, Jesus came to the Temple every day that week so that everyone interested could carefully look Him over and hear His claims.

It’s no wonder thus that the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5.7) and the unknown composer of the Book of Hebrews similarly proclaimed that “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many” (Hebrews 9.28).  Even at the very beginning of His public ministry, his cousin John the Baptist recognized who Jesus was when he saw Jesus passing by and told his own disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1.36)  And still later, the apostle Peter reminded others that they were indeed “redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1.19).

It makes me wonder a bit, thus, if in addition to waving palms each year at the beginning of Holy Week, we might just want to consider checking out the livestock as well on Palm Sunday. For even without an actual sheep or a goat to inspect, the days ahead are truly an appropriate time to come face to face with the claims and character of the Christ.

Never mind therefore how unprecedented this year’s NCAA March Madness with its teams in waiting is; when Jesus showed up on that ancient Lamb Selection Day in Jerusalem, it was clearly a moment that changed the entire world.  What’s more, in those days between His Triumphal Entry and arrest, the “Final Four” came to have a very different meaning indeed.

(This post appears as well in the Spring issue of the Christ Church Community magazine.)

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Going Global

Like the spring that is quickly coming to South Texas, it’s a welcome sign indeed.  For when the official announcement was made earlier this week of the formation of a new Wesleyan denomination, the Global Methodist Church, it signaled all kinds of possibilities for those looking for a way out of the convictional and conversational cul-de-sac in which our church has long been circling.  And as a life-long Methodist, I couldn’t be more excited and pleased to see such a solution at last.

Predictably, of course, some immediately characterized the move as one-dimensional.  NBC News, for instance, headlined their story by proclaiming that “United Methodist Conservatives Detail Breakaway Plans Over Gay Inclusion.”  And others have already taken to Twitter to falsely suggest that the planned denomination will be discriminatory not just to those in the LGBTQ community, but to women in ministry and anyone who has a sniff of a social conscience.

None of that is true, however.  In the proposed polity, in fact, there is no reference at all to homosexuality, only an affirmation of the traditional understanding of marriage that is supported by the scriptural witness.  Rather, the emerging church will be “called to inclusiveness,” which is defined as “openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the spiritual life of the Church and its service to the community and the world.”  Or in other words, everyone will be welcome.

Likewise, anyone who speaks Methodist will quickly discover that they will be fluent in the new denomination as well.  Particularly as it relates to local congregations, many of the organizational features of the UMC are a part of the Global Methodist Church, though without much of the bloated bureaucracy on top. The new Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, for instance, is dramatically shorter than the UMC version, coming in around 100 pages rather than nine times that amount. And as the name suggests, it also has more emphasis on doctrine, by the way.

On the other hand, there are other changes that are perhaps long overdue. Bishops will no longer be elected for life but will serve defined terms with a twelve-year maximum before retiring or returning to serve as a pastor or other elder.  Along with giving oversight to the church, their primary task will be to guard, transmit, teach and proclaim the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition from a Wesleyan perspective.

In turn, congregations will have more say in who comes to serve as their clergy, as well as full control of their own property without a Sword of Damocles-like Trust Clause dangling over their heads.  And pastors will neither be guaranteed an appointment nor face a mandatory retirement age.  Like everyone else, they’ll need to earn the trust of others by being effective and accountable servants of Christ.

What’s more, as the name implies, the new denomination has been designed to be truly global in character, with male and female leaders from Africa, Europe, Russia, and Asia already involved in its formation.  And it promises to be bold in its witness to the world both in words and in actions, with the largest part of its reduced apportionments (roughly half of the current amounts) going to missions and church planting.

So what’s not to like?  In a word, change.  But then even a cursory look at the history of Methodism will show that our movement has undergone numerous shifts and realignments since it first emerged almost three centuries ago.  The United Methodist Church itself, for instance, is only 53 years old.  In many ways, thus, the Global Methodist Church simply represents a fresh expression of the Wesleyan spirit that long ago changed the world and we believe can do so once again.

Many long discussions are yet to come, of course, and a lot depends upon how and when the UMC General Conference is finally able to convene.  And every local congregation and annual conference will need to have serious conversations as to where they are most comfortable and called. But after a laborious and hard winter—both weather-wise and in the church which I’ve long loved and served—I’m taking the emergence of the new Global Methodist Church as a definite sign of spring indeed.  

            Or as the Lord long ago expressed it through the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I am about to do something new… do you not see it?” 

(Full disclosure here:  It was my privilege to serve as a member of the writing team of the new Book of Doctrines and Discipline.  To read the entire book, or to find out more about the new denomination, visit

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An Ashless Wednesday

It wasn’t exactly how we planned.  But then again, few things have been in this decade so far.  Just within the past few years, for instance, we’ve had numerous “hundred year” floods, a once-in-a-century pandemic, and just since Sunday, we’ve had record low temperatures, some of which we haven’t seen for 121 years in this part of Texas.  So all in all, we’ve probably heard the word “unprecedented” an unprecedented number of times.

Still, until the winter storm hit, we had cleverly planned how to impose ashes in a socially distanced manner, using individual Q-tips to mark the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, even while faithfully masked ourselves.  What we hadn’t planned on was the loss of power and pipes busting in the church building, creating if not streams in the desert at least rivulets in the hallways.

All of which raised the question of “How do you do Ash Wednesday without, well, ashes?”  Oh, I know that the practice itself is not actually Biblical.  Jesus never spoke about it, nor did He or the disciples ever observe it.  And the early church didn’t do so either, until a pope named Gregory the Great started the tradition in the sixth century, and even then, it took another four hundred years before the term “Ash Wednesday” came into use, when a different pope with the oddly modern sounding name of Urban began to call it that.  But we might note that the reformers such as Luther and Calvin still weren’t exactly keen on the idea.

To be clear, the Bible does talk about ashes sometimes.  Mordecai is said to have put on sackcloth and ashes when he found out about the plot by Haman to kill all the Jews.  And when poor old Job repented, he did so in dust and ashes as well, just as Jeremiah similarly told his people to put on sackcloth and roll in ashes as a sign of their contrition.  Ashes thus were both a symbol of repentance and a reminder of our mortality and thus, our dependence upon God for the gift of life itself.  But given all that’s happened in recent times, some might ask, does anyone really need yet another unwelcome reminder that life is fragile?

And the answer is, “yes.”  For Lent is meant to trigger both our repentance and our renewed rejection of whatever habits or attitudes we may have fallen into that are not worthy of the gospel of Jesus.  It’s a bit like the French expression:  recular pour mieux sauter, “step back in order to jump farther.”  Indeed, that’s the heart of Ash Wednesday, with or without ashes, carne or con carne, if you will, as we would say here in South Texas.  For the ashes are just an outward sign that we are ready for a re-set of our relationship with Christ.  And it all begins with that simple reminder:  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Oh, I get it, trust me.  This has been a trying time indeed, especially for the millions here in Texas who have literally been left out in the cold for several days without power and heat and sometimes water.  And if we have one more “unprecedented” or “once every century” event it may just send all of us over the edge.  But then perhaps that’s all the more reason to “step back” from that edge in order to take a better leap of faith forward during the Lenten season ahead.  For maybe wearing the ashes visibly is not nearly as important as actually remembering who we are supposed to be as the children of God.  For even without physically marking our foreheads, we can still remember that we are dust and repent and believe the gospel. 

I have a feeling that God will see that sign of the cross that no one else can.  And maybe no one else needs to this year.

(Taken from a video Lenten message delivered on Ash Wednesday.  To watch the full message, visit or log on at

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All Quiet on the Western Front

As the dawn unfolded this morning, a silence descended on the western steps of the building, almost like the Capitol itself was catching its breath after the chaos that ensued there yesterday.  For though it was not unprecedented–nor even entirely unpredictable, in fact–the disruption in Washington D.C., was still deeply disturbing on both a personal and national level.

My first time in that building, for instance, came as a high school senior when I participated in a week-long seminar with other students from around the country. I was dazzled indeed not just by being in those beautiful halls but by feeling an almost cosmic connection somehow to the many who had walked in those corridors before me.  For I found myself not just in an impressive building that is the seat of our government, but in one that is the home of an idea itself, the very notion of democracy.

And so, the images of rioters scaling the walls, breaking windows, and forcing their way into those almost sacrosanct Senate and House chambers hit a visceral nerve for me.  For I might have hoped that no matter how heightened the political tensions may be in America today, there would have been some boundaries that even our deepest disagreements would still respect.   

The problem is, however, that in allowing ourselves to become so bitterly divided in our politics and culture, we’ve also lost a significant part of our souls along the way.  When the President personally denigrates his political opponents (and even allies), for instance, and the Speaker of the House publicly tears up his State of the Union address in full view of the cameras, or when party leaders–or even neighbors–treat one another not just as opponents but as actual enemies, incapable of any good at all, we’ve gone well beyond policy disagreements into the politics of personal destruction.

In the end, however, the real struggle is not between Democrats and Republicans, progressives or Proud Boys, but between serving God and serving ourselves.  And in that respect, it is not too much to suggest that what was on full view yesterday in those scenes from Washington was nothing less than human sin run rampant.  Unfortunately, it’s the same kind of evil that lurks in the recesses of all of our hearts too if we do not consistently take steps to root it out.  For as C.S. Lewis once noted, if God should sovereignly determine to destroy all sin at midnight tonight, who among us would still be here at 12:01?

In Washington, they’ve already begun the clean-up, of course.  And by the time that the inauguration of a new president takes place on that western side of the Capitol, having been moved there from the eastern front forty years ago, things may outwardly at least look a bit more normal.  But if we don’t fix what’s really wrong with the system—you and me—it will not stay quiet on either side of that building, nor down the street at the White House, or even, in fact, in your house or mine.   

Indeed, if anyone is going to short-circuit this cycle of sinful self-destruction that has consumed our country, it may just have to start with us, as we resolutely refuse to be enemies with others. 

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A Christmas Ambush!

I suspect she learned it growing up on the family farm near Hillsboro.  For from the 1840’s on, in the rural South it became a Christmas tradition for many such families such as hers, most of whom likewise had limited resources at best. Not surprisingly, thus, my mom, one of five sisters with a widowed mother, not only practiced it as a child, but when she grew up she taught it to her own family and, in turn, I passed it onto my kids, too.

It’s a simple idea, really.  For the point is just to be the first one in your household to greet others on December 24 with the exclamation, “Christmas Eve Gift!”  And whoever you manage to get the drop on is then expected to present you with a small present, traditionally some candy or nuts.  Amazingly enough, however, the tradition can get downright competitive.

When I was growing up, for instance, my mom would often be right at our bedsides when we awoke on the 24th, and before we could even adjust our eyes, she’d yell out with a smile: “Christmas Eve Gift!”  And though I thought her tactics were a bit unfair as a child, when I became a parent I found them to be eminently reasonable.

There’s a variant on the tradition, of course, that moves the whole practice to Christmas Day itself, changing the greeting accordingly.  In my mind, however, doing it on the day before presents are customarily exchanged seems to add an extra dimension to it, almost like getting a bonus gift or, to use another Southern expression, some lagniappe that you hadn’t planned on receiving.  

But in either case, there’s something wonderful indeed about a greeting that recognizes the birth of Jesus as a gift to this world.   For that’s what all of our presents, large or small, one to the other, are meant to remind us of in the first place, is it not?  That God so loved the world that He GAVE the ultimate Christmas Eve Gift, so that you and I might not perish but find eternal life?

Despite what advertisers might try to sell us, thus, Christmas is not about the commercialism, but the connections—those between God and ourselves, and ourselves and others whom we love.  And in that respect, I am glad to know that even in England, far away from the rural South, my grandchildren are growing up with that family tradition, too.

Just because they are six hours ahead of us here in Texas doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to beat me, however.  For should they happen to read this while I’m still sleeping on this side of the pond it will still count: “CHRISTMAS EVE GIFT!” 

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The King and The Maiden (Advent Devotion for December 23)

“Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden.”  So began the story once told by the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard.  For in his tale, the king was the most powerful man of his time, one with the strength to crush any who opposed him.  This mighty king had but one chink in his armor, however:  he was deeply in love with a humble maiden, one with no family pedigree, education or standing in the royal court.

Why he should love her was, in Kierkegaard’s telling, “beyond explaining.”  But love her he did. The problem became thus how could he act upon his feelings, given his position and power?  His royal courtiers told him, of course, that all he had to do was command her to be his queen and it would be so.  For she would surely not resist him—no one dared to do so. But while he could force her to be present in his palace, the king knew that he could not force love to be present in her heart.  So would she truly love him in return?

To be sure, she might say that she did, for again, who could defy that mighty king?  But would she really?  Or would she simply subject herself to his power, live with him in fear, but secretly bear a grudge for the life she had been forced to leave behind?  Would she even be happy by his side?  And how could he ever know for certain that she was?  For the king did not want a conquered consort but one who equally shared his love; “it is only in love,” Kierkegaard noted, “that the unequal can be made equal.” 

And so unable to elevate the maiden without destroying her freedom, that king made a rather momentous decision:  he would be the one to descend to her status instead.  He arose, took off his crown, relinquished his scepter, and took upon himself the life of a peasant, not just posing as one but actually becoming such. 

Clothing himself in a tattered cloak as a beggar, the king thus went to her cottage not in disguise but in a new identity, renouncing his throne to win her hand. Or in the words of the writer, that king thus became “as ragged as the one he loved so that she could be his forever.  It was the only way.  His raggedness became the very signature of his presence.”

And the point which Kierkegaard made in his parable is the very one which the apostle Paul long before expressed when he wrote to the Philippians about the One who “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  Indeed, the Incarnation is nothing less than the story of a great King who left His throne and descended to this earth in order to win our hearts as well.

And just suppose He did it all for us.

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The Santa Snitch (Advent Devotion for December 22)

The authors of the book behind the concept will tell you that it all came from a family tradition started by Carol Aebersold for her twin daughters, Chanda and Christa, when the girls were growing up in Georgia in the 1970s. Since the family first self-published the Christmas-themed book in 2005, however, The Elf on the Shelf has been widely embraced by literally millions around the world.  For it offers an explanation for the age-old existential question of how Santa Claus actually knows who is naughty and who is nice.  

Simply put, it suggests, Santa has “scout elves” hidden in people’s homes who not only see everything we do but who fly back to the North Pole after everyone has gone to bed each night to report into Santa all the activities, both good and bad.  Santa then is able to update his list, (running the data twice, no doubt) before the elf flies back and hides in a new place for the next day’s surveillance.

What’s more, although children can speak to the elf and tell it all of their Christmas wishes to get a more direct pipeline to Santa, they are warned never to actually touch the elf lest its magic disappear.  With parents thus willing to pay twenty-nine dollars for a keepsake box to teach their children that it’s okay for others to spy on you, the Elf on the Shelf has become a multi-million-dollar business over the past several years.

As cute as it may be, however, and as hard as some parents may work to deliberately re-hide the elf each evening, there’s something indeed a little off about the whole concept.  For aside from the privacy issues it raises, it reinforces the idea that at Christmas we should all get simply what we deserve in life—toys (or a new Lexus) if we’ve been good, socks or lumps of coal (or a used Pinto) if not.  

And that would seem to be just about the opposite message of what the Christian faith is about, at least according to the Bible.  For it was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us, demonstrating God’s own love for you and me.  In fact, God so loved the world, so John rather famously wrote, that He gave His only Son so that any who believe in Him—even if they have been naughty and not so nice—might have everlasting life.  In short, it’s all about grace, not receiving our just desserts in life.

Of course, the elf is far from being the only Christmas tradition that goes against the actual meaning of this season.  And I get that it’s meant to just be a bit of fun, something everybody could use about now.  It was not too many years after the elf first appeared, in fact, that a stuffed toy looking a bit like a rabbi or Hassidic Jew showed up on store shelves as well.  And before long, the Mensch on a Bench (a Yiddish term meaning a “person of honor or integrity”) became the team mascot for the Israeli national baseball team.

But I’m grateful still that while God does indeed see me while I’m sleeping and knows when I’m awake, He doesn’t need a surveillance elf to keep tabs on me and report back.  For His watchful eye is meant to protect more than detect, and His magic will never disappear.

Just in case you’re looking for a good investment opportunity, however, I do have a good idea for a “Preacher on a Bleacher.”

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Look Up! (Advent Devotion for December 21)

By now you no doubt have heard about it:  if you look to the southwest night skies this evening just after sunset, you’ll see a heavenly display that no one on earth has viewed since 1226. Scientists call it the Great Conjunction and it reminds us just how relative everything really is.  For though Jupiter and Saturn will still be roughly 460 million miles apart, to observers here on the third rock from the sun it will look like they have snuggled up, separated by only inches, or just one fifth of the moon’s angular diameter.

To be sure, by our way of reckoning eight hundred years itself is a pretty long time.  For in 1226 Genghis Khan was still ruling Mongolia, Francis of Assisi died, and in Paris, workers had just started building a brand-new cathedral known as Notre Dame.  But on the other hand, though the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn line up about every twenty years, the two planets won’t look this close again until 2080.  And if you want to see the conjunction on a Christmas Day itself, you’ll need to figure out how to hang around another eight centuries to 2874.

For many, of course, this Great Conjunction would seem to be an explanation for the Christmas Star referenced in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  The former book, for instance, tells us the Star of Bethlehem appeared unto the shepherds nearby the little town on the night when Jesus was born.  And in turn, Matthew records that some six hundred miles to the east Persian astronomers known as Magi saw the same conjunction and traveled to Israel to find out what it meant.

If that is so, however, scholars have some ‘splaining to do about just exactly when the birth of Jesus took place.  For using the death of Herod the Great as a chronological clue puts the Nativity somewhere between 7 and 3 BC, though many now question when Herod died as well.  And though there were three different times when Saturn and Jupiter got closer in 7 B.C., none of them would have been all that remarkable, and certainly not nearly as dramatic as what will appear overhead tonight.

When you project the night skies backwards, though, astronomers believe that in 2 B.C. there was indeed a conjunction where the planets were so close to one another that they may have looked to those on the earth like a single spot of light.  Yet even that would not be quite the dramatic imagery that much of Christian artwork over the years has depicted, with a divine spotlight shining down on a wooden barn which, given the lack of wood in the area, was probably a cave instead.

In the end, thus, we are left with as many questions as answers.  But if the celestial performance this week causes us to at least wonder a bit about the Bethlehem skies that night, then I say it’s worth it to go out and at least look up a little.  For it’s not the stars that really matter; it’s the One who made them that ought to captivate us.  

The psalmist said it best perhaps: “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19.1) So should it really surprise anyone that when God put His rescue mission for all of us into effect, landing at Ground Zero in Bethlehem, those same heavens would not explode a little in both anticipation and joy?

Maybe we should do the same.

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