The Sacredness of Black Friday

ChristmasRetailand the commercialism of Christmas.

First, a confession: It isn’t Thanksgiving yet and I am listening to Christmas music as I write this in my office.  I love Christmas and I love celebrating the Birth of Jesus – God, King, Savior, Life Giver & Life Changer.

Because I love celebrating, talking about and inviting others to experience Jesus, it would seem natural for me to have a certain disdain for the consumerism/commercialism attached to both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But I don’t. Not completely. I believe there is a sacredness to it.

And that creates some tension for me. And maybe you?

Deep, deep down we all are aware, if we are honest (and what are we if we aren’t honest?), that consumerism has infiltrated the church, diluted the Gospel and all but rendered God’s people in Western Culture ineffective ambassadors of the Good News.

But – no – I mean BUT, I would like us to consider two things:

First, I wonder this question.  When did the Church become so inert that we would depend upon manufacturers, retailers, businesses & culture to keep Christmas about Jesus? Rather than living exhilarating lives of faith, we find ourselves sitting in our lazy-boys throwing popcorn at the screen of life and yelling at the players & coaches to turn things around. And then, when we get tired of yelling, we get up and participate in the very thing we say we scorn.

Church, it is not the responsibility of Best Buy, Starbuck, Kohls or Amazon to keep our Faith alive.

But maybe they are!

Second, would you consider this next question with me?  What if Thanks-getting, Black Friday and Christmas Commercialism are actually part of God’s answer to a prayer Jesus taught us to pray?

In Matthew 6:9-13 Jesus teaches his disciples a simple way of praying.  Many of us have it memorized and call it The Lord’s Prayer.  Some of us pray it every week in worship. Verse 11 simply says Give us today our daily bread.

Now, the Israelites and even Jesus ate more than just bread.  There were fruits, vegetables and even meat.  That piece of the prayer is not just about bread, but all that is necessary for the sustaining of life and references God’s daily provision for His People as they wandered in the wilderness hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

And what if a successful Black Friday and retail season leading toward Christmas Day is part of God’s answer to that prayer?  Traditionally there have been two markers for us regarding the health of our economy: home ownership, especially new homes; and retail season beginning with Black Friday.

Best Buy employs about 125,000 people.  Target about 366,000. Kohls 140,000.  Imagine with me how many people would go without their daily bread (read that as “unemployed”) if our economy didn’t work because we killed off 4th quarter spending.

Black Friday and the Christmas retail season provides is a significant piece in our overall economy and without it, many more would be unemployed – hundreds of thousands.

Do we need to be excessive? No.  Do we need to go into debt? No. Does it need to consume us? No.

But because it provides all kinds of jobs for people all over the world, jobs that allow people to buy their daily bread, it becomes part of God’s answer to the prayer.

There is a sacredness to God’s answering of prayer.


Refugees, The Prodigal Son & The Older Brother

syrianrefugeesThe current conversation in social media surrounding the Syrian Refugee Crisis has gotten me thinking.  I have read estimated reports that up to 9 million Syrians have fled their homes!  Where do they go?  Who takes them in?  How do they make new lives for themselves?

The Syrian Refugee Crisis, immigration issues, politics, all of it is really complicated and most of us who have opinions probably have only partially informed opinions.  I don’t know that I have an opinion as to whether we should allow however many tens of thousands of Syrians into the United States.  I don’t know if I am smart enough to have an opinion, much less an informed one.

But I do have an observation.

This morning I read the parable of the prodigal son found in Luke 15:11-32.  And I saw something of myself in the parable.  And as I saw myself, I think I saw many of us.

No, I don’t see the Syrian Refugees as the prodigal son who has gone astray.  But I saw myself.  I saw myself as the older brother. The GOOD brother.  The one who has done the right things: worked hard, made good choices, etc.

The Older Brother struggled when his younger brother, who lived a different lifestyle, came home and Dad wanted to throw down a party in celebration.  The older brother struggled because it meant loss to him.  The party would cost him his portion of the inheritance (the part not given to the younger son when he left).  At the end of the day, there would be less for him because someone who didn’t work for it was going to have squandered it one more time – at another party – this time thrown by his dad.

The older brother didn’t really love his father.  He loved his father’s wealth and was angry none of it had been given to him and he lashes out, “when have you even given me a little goat…!?”  The father, of course, reaffirms his love and that all he has is his and pleads compellingly, “This is your brother…!”

I wonder if we, as citizens of the United States, are more worried about what we will lose if Syrian Refugees come into the states than we are about their well being.  I wonder if we actually love our lifestyles and stuff more than we love the country we live in?  I wonder if we love our way of life more than we even love God?

Not only couldn’t the older brother find compassion for his brother, but he also couldn’t  see the blessing in having him home.  His own brother.

I think Dad might be saying, “This is your brother! This is your sister!”

I don’t think I want to be the older brother.


Starbucks, The President & The Stories We Tell Ourselves

nonresponsibilityI think we (the Church) wish it were true – that Starbucks was taking aim at all Christians everywhere and at the Church in North America in particular.  But, I don’t think it is.  Somewhere along the line, we took a non-issue and made it an issue. And gave Starbucks all kinds of free advertising along the way!

I think Starbucks is focused – on making money.  A lot of money.  They do this by selling coffee.  Lots of coffee.  Served in cups.  This year they are red cups, with their green logo on them.  Red and Green.  Ever since I was little, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, red and green have been the colors of Christmas.  But, I don’t think Starbucks cares so much about that as they do about making money.  

They are a business.  And as long as they are in business someone’s prayer, “Give us today, our daily bread” is being answered – all over the world, literally.

But as a Church, I think we wish it was true. The story that they are out to destroy Christmas.  I think we want it to be true because it feeds two postures we’ve grown fond of lately.

First, it allows us to tell ourselves that we are victims.  Victims of persecution.  Victims because Christmas is being taken away from us. If the US Post Office and Starbucks don’t say “Merry Christmas” when we are shipping gifts or buying coffee, then it isn’t really Christmas is it? Being victims allows us to piss and moan about how bad the world is – and how good we are in comparison, of course.

Ultimately, though, I think we like to take the posture of being victims because then we don’t have to confront the consumerism in our Christmas.  If we complain about how bad Starbucks is, the government is, somebody else is, we don’t have to face the reality that we are spending $4.00 or more on a cup of coffee when the rest of the world makes less than that a day.  We don’t have to confront the huge amounts of money we spend buying, wrapping, shipping and throwing away presents all in the name of Jesus.

But that moves me to reason number two.  I think we want to believe it is true, and take on the posture of victim, so we can also take on a posture of non-responsibility.

Yes, you read that right.  We, as The Church, actually prefer non-responsibility (not irresponsibility) over responsibility. If we are the victims, then someone, in this case Starbucks, HAS to be responsible for this mess.  Someone, or something, we can blame for the whole mess.  If it is up to someone else to make sure Christmas is celebrated, then I don’t have to take responsibility for living out the Gospel in my own life.  Our thinking is something like this: Well, if President Obama hadn’t declared December to be National Muslim Awareness Month, then I would share the Gospel with my friends, family and co-workers. But, now I can’t. Why bother… 

Our posture of non-responsibility allows us to blame and shift responsibility. In this posture we don’t have to confront our selfishness, the ways we’ve tied consumerism to the Gospel, our lack of love for others, our in ability to get along, how we haven’t raised our kids to love Jesus, etc.

I think we, the church, have grown to love controversy and our pseudo-persecution in the U.S. because it allows us to divert our attention away from the transformation needed within ourselves and the Church.  I think we have grown to love controversy because it allows us to be victims without responsibility and that lets us be lazy.

But I also think that we, the church, don’t have to be this way.  That in reality, deep down inside, we don’t want to be this way.  We want to live into the kind of life Paul ascribes to Timothy.  We want to have an enormous impact on our cities, culture and world.  We want to see Jesus do some really cool things in and through us.

But we can’t, not when we take on the postures of victim and non-responsibility.


The Bible, Gays, Guns, Women and Flat Map Theology

worldmapHave you ever had that feeling in the pit of your stomach?  The feeling that something isn’t quite what it should be?  And it doesn’t go away?  I had that.

The other day.  On Facebook.

During my usual late evening stroll (one letter off from “troll”) through my FB Newsfeed, there were these two posts about different “Church Conferences.”  For those of you who are all that churchy – one thing you really need to know is that churchy people like to have conferences.  Anyway, this blog post isn’t about that…

Back to the two conferences that caught my attention and the irony of it.  The first post was from a friend within my particular churchy tribe (the RCA) who was at the closing of the Room For All conference.  The Room For All folks are fighingt hard for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community into the life and ministry of the Reformed Church.  Right below this post was one from another friend in the denomination who LIKED a conference called We Are Protestant and certain letters were in red so the words “We Protest” stood out. This conference is put on by an organization called Together 4 the Gospel, or T4G.  T4G and Room For All really couldn’t be further apart.

Or could they?

If one was to put them on a map, then absolutely they are far apart.  As far as the east is from the west along latitudinal lines. And, I dare say, they probably don’t like each other. Of course, being good Christian folks, they would tell us they love one another; but chances are the people in T4G don’t hang with the peeps from Room For All and it is hard to actually love someone you don’t hang with…

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the map.  Both groups actually represent a deeper move taking place within the Church today – a significantly growing gap between two polarizing positions around political issues: Gays, women, immigration, guns, schools, etc.  Because of this, I also believe there is an ever growing shift away from Christ being the center. I know, I’ll probably tick someone off here, but at least I can tick everyone off at the same time.

What do I mean?  Both camps have an agenda.  Room For All, and others like them, have a very expressed agenda.  T4G’s agenda was harder to find, but on their website there is a set of assertions where it was made clear – that if I did not think like them, then my theology is wrong and that their agenda is to “recover the Gospel.”  So it would seem, that the two are so far apart.

Let’s put it this way.  If we lay out a map of the world on the table and we find that very place where the Prime Meridian intersects with the Equator, 0 degrees longitude and latitude, somewhere in the Gulf of Guinea.  Let’s say that is the very place where Jesus is central to life and ministry.  If we start there and we begin to move along the equator, based upon our THEOPOLITICAL ideology and positions, we move East and West.  And the harder we become with our positions, the more right we think we are, the further we move, until we are as far apart as the East is from the West.

On a map.  That is flat.

Flat map theology is polarizing theology.  And, if you think of the world as flat – which is indeed how we experience it most of the time – then we allow our theologies to become polarizing.

But the world ain’t flat.  Google it.  So if we put these two groups onto a map, as representatives of what is happening in our church culture today around almost any issue, we would need to put them as far apart as possible.  However, since the world isn’t flat, lets take their two positions on the map and find them on a globe and suddenly they are a whole lot closer than at first we thought.

So, how is it these two polarizing sides can be so close together?

They both have really strong agendas.  They both are deeply rooted in some right/wrong thinking.  Both have moved away from keeping the Gospel central by declaring their theopolitical agendas to be what keeps them Gospel centered.  Both functionally operate from within a vacuum of relationships with the other.  Both are looking back at the direction from which they have moved in order to keep distance from one another.

And suddenly they are standing back to back, hurting the people they are closest to.

The world we live in isn’t flat.  But the world is experiencing flat map polarizing theology from the Church. And flat map theology moves us away from Jesus.  And then we will start bickering over the cups at Starbucks…!

It is time to turn around, toward each other and begin practicing the love Jesus taught & modeled. That only happens in relationships that are deep, vulnerable, and life changing.


Dr. Dobson – I love you, but I think you got it wrong.

abusedwoman

Dr. Dobson, you got it wrong. No doubt you are smarter than I am, but you still got it wrong. And, I confess Dr. Dobson, I am angry about your post (read it here) and so I am sure there will be a bit more sarcasm than usual. But you got it wrong.

Most studies I read indicate that anywhere from 25-33% of the women in the United States are in relationships where there is physical abuse taking place. That means 1 out of 4 or 1 out of 3 of the women we all see at the grocery store, gas station and walking their cute children around our neighborhoods are being hit by their spouses or partners. These are real people, people we know, living in very real fear because the danger around them is not made up but is very real.

Dr. Dobson I believe it is irresponsible to encourage Laura, or any person in an abusive relationship, to provoke the abuser. In fact, I believe it is even irresponsible to encourage her to stay in the house. In her letter to you, which you replicated on your post, indicates that not only does he rage at her, but does so at the children as well. She, and so many others, is in physical (as well as psychological, emotional and spiritual) danger as indicated that she is being beaten with his fists, has had teeth loosened, been cut, and in fear for her life.  She is even in fear for having contacted you!

I wonder.

What if the next fit of rage happens while she is near stairs? What if during the next exchange she is hit so hard she falls and hits her head on something hard sustaining a closed head brain injury? What if they are in the kitchen and he happens to have a knife in his hand?

I wonder how the trauma of being beaten is impacting Laura’s understanding of God’s love and grace? I wonder what their children are learning about being men and women? I wonder…

I wonder who will raise their children if he accidentally kills her in his rage? Did you know that each day, 3 women die from domestic abuse?

Dr. Dobson, I wish you had encouraged Laura, and others in her situation, to find a safe place for herself and her children. I wish you had offered to help Laura created a safe exit strategy.

Laura, your husband’s rage is not your fault. You and your children ARE NOT responsible for his violence. You were not created to be the recipient of his violent outbursts. Loving your husband does not mean staying in a dangerous situation. You were created in the image of God and you are deeply loved by him. There is pain in leaving, but there is no shame or condemnation.

And while I know there are no simple answers and the ramifications of domestic violence runs deep, I do know the answer is not to stay and provoke him until his rage is uncontrollable again. It takes great courage to leave an abusive spouse. I know, I have helped others do so. And your leaving may just be enough to create the crisis needed for him to seek help.

Laura, the toughest, but maybe the most loving thing you can do, for your husband, your children and yourself, is to leave and find a safe haven.


A Gift of Shalom

Craig and I sharing an Astro's game together - they lost...

Craig and I sharing an Astro’s game together – they lost…

It was just a little past noon when I pulled up in front of their home. Graciously, Craig and Trisha were going to allow me to mooch off of them for no less than NINE days. Nine days of sitting in the dinning area at meal times. Nine days of sprawling out on the living room sofa. Nine days shuffling the order of cars in the driveway, showers, coffee, meals, conversation and life. Nine days of letting someone you don’t really know that well, and have never lived with before, move in and live with you.

But they did much more than LET. And while I was technically a guest in their home, I was never really a guest. It was more than that. It was richer, and deeper. It was shared fellowship that blessed me greatly.
I was going to be in Texas for nearly two weeks. Away from family soon after dropping my oldest off at Hope College. Most of that time would be spent getting training in some marriage therapy before participating in a Faithwalking Retreat with other pastors from the RCA and CRC. Rather than spend those first nine days in a hotel, I did what I do – I invited myself over to the to someone’s house! In this case, the home of Craig and Trisha Taylor.

I know Trisha well through Ridder Church Renewal (an RCA/CRC initiative) and had met Craig once. As soon as I stepped into the house, I was not only given a key and full access to the kitchen, where I taught them how to make double crust stuffed pizza, but I was also given the gift of shalom.

It was shalom in the sense that while I was away from my family, I was given much more than “guest privileges.” At no time did I sense I was tolerated, but was made to feel that my presence in their home mattered.

What was on my heart, mattered to them. And as they would share, it was done in such a way that what was on their hearts mattered to me. I had access to who they were and they had access to who I am. When Craig and I were told we were on our own for dinner, we spent hours sitting at the table sharing long after the pulled-pork sandwiches, and although my backside was sore from sitting, the experience of shalom kept us glued to where we were. Shalom.

Throughout the following days we would laugh, watch sports, talk music and movies, go to the coast and eat out; but there was always more. There was a shared sense of meaning and the work of God in our lives.
The gift of hospitality is much more than a bed or some food. The gift of hospitality creates space where lives intersect, can be accessed by others and shared in such a way that shalom develops.

Depending on the version you read, the Bible calls this “entertaining” one another (Hebrews 13). But our culture today has hijacked that to mean something trivial – having a “good time.” Not that having a good time is bad, I’m all about that! But to be hospitable, entertaining one another, is so much more. In Romans 12:10 we are told to be devoted to one another, prefer one another; and, when the occasion arises, entertain one another.

I wonder what it would look like if the CHURCH were more entertaining. Not with light, music, programs and parking lot greeters; but in the deeper sense of the word. What if the church was about the business of creating the safe places necessary for others to experience the Shalom of God?

I wonder what our world would look like…


Awkward…!

imageThe half dozen or so people were spread throughout the fitness center. Each one doing her, or his, own thing.  Most were on some sort of cardio machine and only one other was over by the free weights of this Houston area Planet Fitness.  I followed the unwritten rules of gym ettiquette (mostly because it wasn’t my regular gym) and worked out without engaging anybody in conversation.

It’s an interesting phenomenom, belonging to large nationwide gym.  And with Planet Fitness’ “no gymtimidation” policy, most people work out in silence, with headphones on and only on occassion even making eye contact.  Even then the eye contact is usually some sort of non-verbal communication around the use of a piece of equipment – not relationship…

Not here. Not Houston’s little PF on Fondren.  Not with LeRoy.

Let’s face it, public locker rooms are always a bit awkward; and when you are leaving the shower area with your towel wrapped around your waist, you feel particularly vulnerable!  Just saying… That’s how it was for me when I met LeRoy. Still sweating from my workout, but freshly showered before heading to the couple’s therapy training I’m in Houston for, I had my towel around my waist when I hear a southern accent say, “I don’ think I’ve seen you ‘roun’ here before?”

I look to my right and there before me is a tall, thin African American of about 60 years of age. He had a huge smile and held out his hand, “LeRoy.”

“Brian.”  And inside my head there is only one word sreaming loudly, AWKWARD!!!

LeRoy asks when I moved to the area and I explained to him that I was here on sabbatical getting some training on couple’s therapy. LeRoy’s smile immediately is replaced with a look of deep regret.

While we both got ready for the day before us, LeRoy told me about his failed marriage, that he moved to Houston to try and rebuild relationships with his kids and grandchildren, and how much he regretted not working hard to make his marriage work.  He was going to meet his two year old grandson for the first time later that day.

As I was getting ready to leave, he told me to learn a lot. Then he paused and asked, “Would you pray for me today? Maybe you have more pull with the Big Guy than I do.”

I’ve never prayed for anyone in a locker room before, at least I don’t think so, but I’m glad I did.  I will probably never see LeRoy again. But I think our world is full of LeRoy’s. People, like you and me, going through life with its struggles and joys, hurts and pleasures, successes and failures.

And all of us longing to connect more deeply with one another and with God.  Only very few of us will find the courage to step out of the unwritten rules of culture and become vulnerable enough to reach out and connect with others. 

I’m really glad LeRoy had the courage to start a conversation in a locker room – even if it was awkward.