Playful, Pius or Remembered Stuff

Hang out with the old preacher by browsing my blogs.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Singing sweet myth

"It came upon a midnight clear..."  Did the shepherds check their watches?  Where is it recorded that the angels appeared to the shepherds at midnight?  This is no big deal.  In fact we grant poetic license for the sake of a popular Christmas Carol, written by Edmund H. Sears in 1850.  But did you know that Mr. Sears was a flaming liberal?  He was a minister in the Unitarian Church, and was almost dared by his friend to write a Christmas song from his theological perspective.  And I guess he put one over on all of us with this Carol.

Perhaps it was the tune that gave it lasting value in the hearts and minds of believers.  But I will guarantee you that it definitely was not the theology of this hymn.  It basically has no theology.  When you stand at a distance (as in observing a piece of art), you will notice it is peculiarly lacking in doctrinal content.  In fact the author seems to go out of his way not to mention God or Christ or sin or salvation or any of the record of events that took place the night of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Oh yeah, there is the message of "Peace on the earth good will to men" in the third line of stanza one.  In spite of the unfortunate King James translation of a phrase that was intended to underscore election, there is this sound bite from the angel's message that makes the theme of this song.

According to the gospel writer, Luke, the message of the angels that dramatically cheered those shepherds was, "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord."  Messiah, anticipated for these thousands of years, had arrived in the form of a newborn.  Those who knew they needed a Savior had been looking for the Messiah for their whole lives.  The announcement was emphasized by the fact that it was delivered by angels.  The peace and good will anticipated were for those to be rescued by this Savior.

The song we are looking into does not celebrate--or even mention this.  It is carefully written to make the message no more than a wistful longing for a peaceful life on earth.  It is not a careless mistake that the true gospel is excluded from this song.  It was calculated to be that way by a man who didn't believe in the deity of Christ or the need of His death for sinners to clear the way for true peace.

That longing for peaceful life finds its fulfillment in the final stanza of the carol.  The ever circling years finally brings in the age of gold.  Then the whole world will give back the song to the angels.  It might as well be the age of Aquarius (remember Hair?), or evolution's  crowning refinement of human nature.  We don't need God (so why mention Him?) and we certainly don't need a crucified Savior (how medieval!).  We just need to grow up and be nice to each other.

Now, of course, this is a free country.  You can believe that if you want, as did Mr. Sears.  But let's be honest with the documents of the New Testament, that is NOT the teaching we find at the heart of the Christian faith.  The good news we like to sing at Christmas time is that the God/man has come to pay the price for our sins that we might be forgiven and made fit for heaven.  "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.  Hail the incarnate deity...born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth." Now there's a mouthful of theology.  And it has the advantage of being what the Bible actually says.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Macy's department store likes to use this word as an advertising slogan.  During the Thanksgiving Day parade I saw the banner on the facade of Macy's in New York City.  Without bothering to do the research, I'm going to guess that it has its origins in the movie, "Miracle on 34th Street" in which a clever lawyer "proves" in court that Macy's Santa Claus is the one and only Santa Claus.

In the course of the story line, a cynical rationalist single mother is raising her daughter to be a skeptic too.  Mom was burned by a bad marriage, and the little girl is taught to disregard fairy tales and all other intangibles along with the fabrications.  The test case boils down to Santa Claus.  When mom inexplicably learns to love and trust Kris Kringle, she tries to get her still cynical daughter to believe by repeating the mantra, "I believe, I believe...."

In this case the object of her faith was Santa Claus.  The adult theme was to have faith in people.  If you really love someone, you have to think the best of them and expect the best from them.  It's a fun movie with whimsical fantasy accompanied by an upbeat message about relationships.

But I was pondering the implications of this one word slogan: "Believe".  Grammatically speaking it is an imperative.  It commands us to take a certain attitude about something, namely develop a conviction that it is true.  It is only fair to ask, "Believe what?"  If you believe everything you are disregarded as gullible, and subject to the wiles of every bunko artist that comes along.  Surely this cannot be the message.

If it means to believe in the spirit of Christmas and create irresponsible debt in order to shower all your friends and relatives with impressive gifts, then it is just a part of the great conspiracy to make us slaves to the wealthy aristocracy.  Since it is put forth by an emporium of merchandise, this becomes the more likely scenario sought by those who purvey  this slogan.  Enough cynicism.

To believe is the same as to have faith.  And when we speak of the meaning of faith, someone needs to ask, "Faith in what?"  Here's a kid high on some hallucinogenic drug, who believes he can fly.  This is likely to lead to his untimely demise.  No matter how strongly we believe in a thing (or person), it is not our faith that creates reality.  If I strongly believe there is oil under my back yard, I might spend all the money I can borrow to sink a well.  My faith will not bring up oil.  It may or not be there, but my faith will not place it there.

Since we're are being hypothetical here, let's say that I have studied geology, and that I have spoken to many in the field who know more than I, and they all say there is oil under my property.  Let's say we have verified its presence with sonar tests.  Now if I say I believe there is oil under my property, it is not a blind faith that hopes against all odds that it is true.  Instead it is really a faith in experts and empirical evidence.

Are you with me so far?  Okay, then lets try these models on religious faith.  Far too many people think the definition of Christian faith follows the blind faith model.  How many times have you heard that faith is a leap in the dark?  Unfortunately there are too many churches that will reinforce that definition. There are professing Christians who think that is how we believe in God.

Let me suggest that the Christian faith is a little more like the second model, trusting the experts and examining empirical evidence.  In my antitype the "experts" are not ministers.  In this case the expert is Jesus Christ.  He said, "No man comes to the Father but by me."  He promised, "Whoever hears my words, and believes in Him who sent me, has eternal life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life." (John 5:24)  I don't believe in heaven with blind faith.  I believe in the Expert who has been there and came back to tell us about it.  No one else in all of human history has authority documented by anything as strong as resurrection from the dead.

Now as for the empirical evidence.  The science is jurisprudence.  The process is to examine the eyewitness testimonials of those who walked with Jesus and were there at His resurrection.  We have those documents, and we have more textual evidence to examine than we have texts to prove that Julius Caesar existed.  Don't scoff unless you have read the New Testament for yourself.

Now it's time for me to confess that this is not really how I came to faith in Christ.  When I heard Billy Graham say this is what the Bible teaches, something deep within me recognized the message as true.  I found that what Billy said the Bible was teaching about my human nature vibrated a harmonic response in my heart and mind.  I knew it was true because that book knew me with frightening accuracy.  I knew I needed a Savior.

Don't just "believe".  Believe in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas traditions

I enjoy hearing of family traditions for the holidays.  Thanksgiving is still relatively free of commercialism, so they are infringing on it with Black Friday's now.  But most folk still like to get family together for turkey and all the trimmings.  If you like turkey sandwiches, it is best to be sure you host this meal.  After picking and burping, the men retire to the couch to watch football, the kids play outside, and the ladies clean up.  No, it's not fair, but that is the tradition.

Then there are myriads of differing Christmas traditions.  Some make certain to find a church that has a Christmas Day worship service.  Others may read the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Luke.  In our home we actually memorized this portion of scripture and recited it together.  In most of our homes, however, Jesus got little more than a tip of the hat.  We piously proclaimed that we were celebrating His birth (and we actually convinced ourselves this was true), but the main event always comes down to the fun of opening presents on Christmas morning.

Some homes allow for one curious present to be opened Christmas eve, as the remainder wait for the morning.  I've heard of some homes where the presents are opened Christmas eve.  I forgot to ask them what they did in the morning.  Slept in, I suppose.  It is so difficult for a kid to wait past 6 o'clock to get out of bed and begin the arduous task of ripping open all those pretty packages.  If dad was up the night before, assembling a complicated toy until the wee hours of the morning, 6 o'clock is mighty early.  But that was part of the tradition when I grew up.

I don't know when I began to realize that it really was more fun to give than to receive, but parents get even more fun than their spoiled little ones, seeing the twinkle in their excited little eyes.  We teach them so easily about greed and indulgence.  Then, as they grow, we hope to teach them that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.

Since my Barbara's birthday is December 24, and since we got married on December 26, you might think we developed unique traditions.  It might have been nice to have a routine that would give proper emphasis on each of these significant calendar events.  But we never found a way to do that.  When we tried to go to a fancy restaurant on our anniversary, we were still so full of Christmas goodies that we couldn't enjoy a meal as we might on a different night.  So I suppose you might say our tradition began to be to celebrate our anniversary on any night, but not Dec. 26.  That works much better.  On our first anniversary, we were in Philadelphia to attend Westminster Seminary.  We did go to Old Bookbinders restaurant, and I learned to eat a whole Maine lobster.  I told the waiter I would order it on the provision that he taught me how to eat it.  He came with a complete bib, a nutcracker and a tiny fork and showed me the finesse of dismantling one of these delicious beasts.

Then, because we usually had a Christmas eve service, Barbara constantly had her special day trampled with other plans.  Seldom did she get her chocolate cake (unless she herself broke down and bought one).  What does a family do with a chocolate cake when the house if already full of candy canes, pfeffernusse cookies, fruitcake, hard candies, fudge, etc.?

She was frequently short-changed, even when growing up because her father too was a minister.  Yet it was my dear wife who supported and encouraged us to have Christmas eve services where ever we were.  And, of course, she played the piano for the service.

We do share fond memories of one special Christmas eve service in our fledgling chapel in Neptune, NJ. when the first snow of the season arrived in the form of a blizzard that night.  Our neighborhood came out for the service in unusual numbers.  Ushers had a snow shovel by the door with which they periodically cleared the porch.  And when we lit candles and sang "Silent Night" to conclude the service, we had a tradition that almost everyone there cherished.  It was necessary to dig cars out of the parking lot, and at least one of them needed a passing cowboy with a rope to pull him out of the slippery stuff.

We had taken an enjoyable Christmas Carol and scripture reading service, with a pointed sermon for the holiday visitor, and made it a time to point to Jesus, the author of all of our good times.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A day that will live in infamy

I remember Pearl Harbor.  Yes, that piece of ancient history was a current event in my memory.  I was only seven years old, but the adults around me were so suddenly sober and serious that I was impressed that something really big was happening, but I lacked the maturity and experience in life to measure just how big this was.

It was a Sunday when the family gathered around the table at grandma's for a three course culinary climax.  Someone turned on the radio (remember there was no such thing as TV yet), and whatever else was scheduled was interrupted for the shattering announcement.

Later I was told that our family had an intensified interest in the events of the day because my uncle Harry was in the navy somewhere in the south Pacific.  Nobody knew just where.  He was just a kid himself, having lied about his age to join the navy.  Anxiety lasted for quite a while before we heard from him.  As it turned out he made it through the war, but with a few hair raising stories to tell.

I remember blackouts, neighborhood wardens, air raid sirens and special blankets for us school children to lay in the hall during drills.  I remember food rationing, gas rationing and other commodities which were limited to mere civilians because of the priority of the war efforts.  I remember Rosie the Riveter.  I heard of Tokyo Rose, trying to demoralize the marines with her taunting radio broadcasts.

And I remember patriotism.  Today what would be sneered at as corny and naive devotion to America, was easily the majority spirit of our culture in those days.  I've never seen anything like it until 911 when patriotism made a brief revival.  I think there are some in New York who still carry this devotion.

Isn't it strange how a few decades change things so radically?  War veterans would get together and remember their buddies who had fallen in the war.  And increasingly the news showed us reunions that included Japanese veterans as well.

It may well be that not many "Welcome Home" banners were flown for kamikaze pilots (I couldn't resist that temptation to indulge in inappropriate humor), but it is true that the best jump-start a nation's economy can get is to declare war on the USA and then lose.  We don't hate the Japanese people any more.  In fact we send billions of dollars to help them recover from the tsunami.  We buy more of their automobiles than we buy domestic made.

Peter Sellers made a hilarious movie, "The Mouse that Roared", based on the very principle that a tiny country might save its economy by losing a war with America.

We can have fun with the idea.  And we can be glad that our countries now live in peace (and dependence) with each other.  But that only emphasizes the question, who ever really wins a war?  President Roosevelt said, "I hate war."  Those who have been there say war is hell.  And for every war there are hundreds (thousands?) of survivors who never really survive.  Some wars are necessary, but they are necessary evils.

It's a broken world, and it should be obvious that the sinful distortion of the human heart is the cause.  How do you change that twisted human heart?  You can keep pretending that human nature is basically good, or you can cry out to the Manufacturer to repair the damage we have done.  God can change the heart.  And this season of the year we like to celebrate that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.