Monday, November 26, 2018

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town"

            Have you ever had that feeling like someone was watching you?  Like, maybe you’re out hunting, and you’re in your deer stand, and you get the tingling feeling on the back of your neck that YOU are the one being hunted.  Or maybe you’re at the park, watching your grandchild play on the monkey bars, and you get the distinct impression that somebody’s watching you.  It can be a creepy feeling, can’t it?  In 1983, The Police sang, “Every breath you take / Every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I'll be watching you.”[i]  Sometimes those words seem all too true.

            Blaine was a deacon at a church I served years ago.  He’s also one of the police.  Not the band, but a detective for the city of Charlottesville.  He told me that he was reviewing the security recordings of Michael’s Craft Store, looking for someone who had stolen from the company.  The manager pointed to someone on the video, riding the escalator.  “That’s the guy,” said the manager.  “No, that’s not the guy,” Blaine told him.  “No, that’s the guy,” the manager insisted.  “I’m telling you, that’s not the guy,” Blain said again.  “How do you know that’s not the guy?” the manager asked.  Blain said, “Because that’s my pastor!” 

            Yep—sometimes you get the feeling you’re being watched, and other times you’re being watched without even knowing it.  About this time of year, as we look forward to Christmas, you might hear the old song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,”[ii]  which has been performed by artists such as Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, and Justin Beiber.  You know the words: 

You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is comin' to town
He's making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin' to town
He sees you when you're sleepin'
He knows when you're a wake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

            This song has been a favorite of parents who want to convince their children that they’d better be good all year long.  We get the idea of an omniscient Santa at the top of the world, who can see everything, and who doles out rewards (toys) and even punishments (coal and switches) based on good or bad behavior.  My question is—is that the idea that most of us have of God?  And if it is, how does that make you feel?

            The Bible says a lot about God’s omniscience—God’s quality of knowing everything.  That’s tied closely to God’s omnipresence—God’s quality of being everywhere at once.  Psalm 139 gives a good example of this. 

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord.
You go before me and follow me.
    You place your hand of blessing on my head.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too great for me to understand! (vv. 1-6)[iii]

            The fact is that, even more than Santa Claus, the very real God knows everything about you.  Hemming you in means that God completely surrounds you, is inside you and outside you..  In poetic language, the psalmist says God’s presence is inescapable even in the darkest depths of death.

 I can never escape from your Spirit!
    I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
    if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning,
    if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me,
    and your strength will support me.
I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
    but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you. (vv. 7-12)

            God is inescapable!  What stands out to me is that no matter where you are in the place of the dead, God is there.  I was always taught that if heaven is where God is, then hell is where God isn’t.  But Psalm 139 says that there’s no place where God isn’t—and that even in hell, God is still loving people.  This echoes the words of Psalm 23:4, “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.”  Just as God will continue to hold you and know you after death, God also knew you before you were born.  The psalmist continues:

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
    as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.
How precious are your thoughts about me,[b] O God.
    They cannot be numbered!
I can’t even count them;
    they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up,
    you are still with me!
…Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
    and lead me along the path of everlasting life. (vv. 13-18, 23-24)

            So, from inside to out, from beginning to end, God is with you and God knows you.  The question is—is this good news or bad news to you?  It depends on your disposition toward God.  For those who view God as an Orwellian Big Brother, or for those who compare God’s omniscience and omnipresence to the TV director from The Hunger Games, this could be a bad thing.  If God sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, and knows when you’ve been bad or good, then this could challenge your independence.  But if you’re favorably disposed toward God, then the idea of this all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful God might remind you of insurance companies that say things like, “You’re in good hands with Allstate,” or “Nationwide is on your side,” or “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”  With this kind of God, you know you’re more protected than if you were under the Traveler’s Insurance umbrella.  Today, I’d like to invite you to welcome the all-seeing gaze of God, to invite the permanent presence of the Father.  He’s here anyway, and he sees anyway—but it’s so much better when you want him.

[i] “I’ll Be Watching You.”  The Police.  Album: “Synchronicity.”  A&M.  1983.
[ii] “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”  Words: Haven Gillespie.  Music: J. Fred Coots.  1932.  Published by
TOY TOWN TUNES INC; GILLESPIE HAVEN MUSIC PUBLISHING CO.  First sung by Eddie Cantor on his radio show at Thanksgiving 1934.
[iii] Scripture quotations taken from the NLT.

Book of Virtues # 12 - "Are You a Turducken?"

            Thanksgiving has come and gone.  You know what that means—a time to gather with friends and family, a time to focus on spirituality and gratitude for what God has given you, a time to feast your soul on the bounty of God’s grace.  If you’re like most Americans, this sounds like an utterly unrealistic explanation of the holiday, which today is all about football and food.  In terms of food, we have a way of going over the top with new creations.  You’ve probably heard of the turducken—a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken.  Sometimes our celebrating can get a little excessive, and we can find ourselves caught up in over-indulgence.  At the end of Thanksgiving Day, you can end up feeling like YOU are a turducken—over-stuffed and overindulged.  Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with celebrating.  Proverbs 9:1-5[i] says:

Wisdom has built her house;
    she has set up its seven pillars.
She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine;
    she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servants, and she calls
    from the highest point of the city,
“Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
“Come, eat my food
    and drink the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways and you will live;
    walk in the way of insight.”

            No, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating.  In Proverbs, Wisdom calls us to a feast.  Jesus frequently feasted with friends, to the degree that those who misunderstood called him a glutton and a drunk.[ii]  But of course, Jesus was the sinless example of self-control, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.[iii]  When Wisdom invites us to a feast, it’s within the limits of common sense.  But Proverbs, our book of virtues, discourages overindulgence.  Verses 13-18 say:

Folly is an unruly woman;
    she is simple and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house,
    on a seat at the highest point of the city,
calling out to those who pass by,
    who go straight on their way,
“Let all who are simple come to my house!”
To those who have no sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet;
    food eaten in secret is delicious!”
But little do they know that the dead are there,
    that her guests are deep in the realm of the dead.

            Wisdom may call us to feast with her, but Folly invites us to overindulge, binging on stolen water and food eaten in secret.  Now, personally, I’ve never seen anybody steal water.  It’s like, remember when you would go over to Grandma’s house and you’d ask if you could have some of that water out of the little glass water dish on the side table?  And Grandma’d say, “No, you, you can’t have any water.  You have to wait til after dinner.”  But then you’d sneak it when she wasn’t looking.  Then you’d be off around the corner, drinking that water and saying to yourself, “Mmm—this stolen water sure is sweet!”  No—if that happened, it’d be a sign you were way overcommitted to that water, wouldn’t it?  Then you’d run off and sneak some food.  One of the marks of an eating disorder is when people feel the need to hoard food in secret stashes or eat when nobody can see or judge them.  Overindulging on food is common at Thanksgiving.  So is overindulging on alcohol.  Proverbs warns: “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise (20:1).” Proverbs 23:19-21 says, “Listen, my son, and be wise, and set your heart on the right path: Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”

            The Bible puts drunkenness on par with gluttony—in fact, they are the same thing.  Both are overindulgence.  But Wisdom encourages self-discipline.  William Bennett, editor of The Book of Virtues, writes, “In self-discipline, one makes a ‘disciple’ of oneself.  One is one’s own teacher, trainer, coach, and ‘disciplinarian.’…There is much unhappiness and personal distress in the world because of failures to control tempers, appetites, passions, and impulses.  ‘Oh, if only I had stopped myself’ is an all too familiar refrain.”[iv] 

            It’s easy to get yourself into a sticky mess with over-indulgence.  But food and drink aren’t the only things you can over-indulge in.  Remember the story of King Midas, who never had his fill of gold?  Like a superhero, he was granted the ability to turn everything he touched to gold.  At first, that seemed like a great thing, a fantastic way to get even richer.  But he couldn’t pick up food to eat, because it turned to gold.  He couldn’t take a glass of water, because it became gold.  When his little daughter threw her arms around him and kissed him, she turned to golden statue.  He’d lost all that was worth having—so having learned his lesson, he pleaded for his gift to be taken away, and everything was restored.[v]

            There are plenty of people who have overindulged in one way or another—whether that’s food or drink or smoking or drugs or sex or gaming or social media or gambling or anything else that you once thought you could control, but that now controls you.  Now, like Midas, you’re pleading for God to take away the consequences of your addictive behavior.  Maybe you’ve seen your little daughter turn to gold right in front of your eyes, because of your actions.  Maybe you’ve seen your family suffer because of what you’ve done. The sad truth is that you must live with the consequences—but God can heal you of the disease of your addiction, if you’ll let him.  Jesus recognized that “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41).”  Hebrews 4:15-16 says that Jesus will help us.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”  When you beat yourself up because you’ve blown it—remember that God gives grace. 

If this message has hit you where you live, the first step is admitting that you’re a turducken.  This is why people in an A.A. meeting stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Bob, and I’m an alcoholic.”  You’ve got to get honest with yourself and others about the problem you have.  Maybe you’ve got some other kind of addiction going on.  You’ve stuffed yourself so full and overindulged in whatever way, and it’s become a problem.  Because of this problem, life has lost its sanity, and it’s no longer sustainable.  You can see that this problem is hurting the people that you love, and it’s hurting you.  There are people who can help.  Talk with your pastor or doctor or counselor.  Step into a local twelve-step recovery meeting.  Make sure you get the help you need.  God gives grace, but only you can take the first step. 

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[ii] Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34
[iii] Galatians 5:23.
[iv] Bennett, William J.  The Book of Virtues.  Simon & Schuster: New York.  1993.  Pg. 21.
[v] Hawthorne, Nathaniel.  “The Golden Touch.”  Ibid, pp. 63-66

Monday, November 12, 2018

Book of Virtues # 11 - "The Richest Person in the World"

            The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor, who was known at the time as the richest man in the world.  Once he was visited by Solon, who at the time was called the wisest man in the world.  After he had showed off all his possessions to Solon, Croesus asked the philosopher who he supposed was the happiest person in the world.  He was disappointed when Solon named several happy people who were not at all wealthy, but who understood the meaning of love and family and country.  When Croesus grew angry, Solon told him, “No man can say whether you are happy or not until you die.  For no man knows what misfortunes may overtake you, or what misery may be yours in place of all this splendor.”

            Many years later, King Cyrus of Persia overthrew Greece, and took Croesus prisoner.  To make an example of his power by killing the richest man ever, Cyrus had him beaten and was about to have Croesus burned at the stake.  Remembering the words of the philosopher, Croesus moaned, “O Solon!  O Solon!  Solon!”  Cyrus asked Croesus what this meant, and Croesus told him the sage words that his friend had spoken.  Hearing this, Cyrus stayed the execution, gave him his freedom, and the two became lifelong friends.[i]  Solon’s words are true today as well—happiness is not measured in a person’s riches, but in their understanding and experience of love.

            The Book of Proverbs has much to say about money as well, and its message is much the same.  Financial gain isn’t everything—the things that matter run much deeper than that.  Proverbs 3:9-10 says, “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”[ii]  In other words, what matters most is honoring God.  When you put God first instead of your money, God will take care of you.  Keeping this in mind, Proverbs warns against seven pitfalls associated with riches.
 1.      Cosigning on Loans.  Yes, the Bible advises against it.  Proverbs 17:18 says, “One who has no sense shakes hands in pledge and puts up security for a neighbor.”  Nothing will create more strife between you and your neighbor (or your kids) than cosigning on a loan for them.  Then, if they default, it’s on you—and what a strain on a relationship that will be!

2.      Self-Indulgence.  Proverbs 21:17, 20 ways, “Whoever loves pleasure will become poor;    whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich…The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down.”  God has given you resources to be used wisely, not squandered.  So, make financial decisions that will last instead of spending on consumables. 

3.      Impatience.  Sometimes it can be tough to wait on money that is waiting for you. But Proverbs 20:21 says, “An inheritance claimed too soon will not be blessed at the end.”  The writer is probably thinking of someone who has inheritance money waiting, that’s intended to be used for their retirement.  But instead of letting it be a blessing at the end, they use it early—and then they don’t have it later.

4.      Debt Lifestyle.  It seems like operating in the red is the American way—but Proverbs 22 warns against it.  “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender (v. 7).” Also, “Do not be one who shakes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you (vv. 26-27).”  Debt freedom should be the goal of every Christian.

5.      Hoarding.  Proverbs 11:26 says, “People curse the one who hoards grain, but they pray God’s blessing on the one who is willing to sell.”  When you think about it, hoarding indicates a lack of faith, because you’re trusting in your stores of provision and believing in scarcity, rather than trusting in an abundant God who will always see you through.

6.      Taking Advantage.  Proverbs 28:8 says, “Whoever increases wealth by taking interest or profit from the poor amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor.”  Hebrew law prohibited charging interest from fellow countrymen at all—so Proverbs suggests that taking advantage of a neighbor’s poverty will bring judgment from God.  The author expects the person who takes advantage of his neighbor to lose a fortune to someone else who will actually do his duty for the poor.

7.      Dishonest Gain.  Dishonest people would frequently alter their scales so the produce they were selling would seem a little heavier, and thus they would make more money.  But Proverbs 11:1 says, “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.”  Making money is important, but honesty is even more so.

Just as the Bible warns of financial pitfalls, it also encourages positive financial practices, promising God’s blessings for those who follow them.

 1.      Generosity.  Proverbs 11:25 says, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.”  God will pay back generosity by letting others see your generous spirit and frequent your business more often.  It pays to give—to the church, charity, and to individuals you see in need.
2.      Saving.  While the author discourages hoarding, sensible saving allows you to take care of others.  Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.”  What a blessing it is to provide for your children and grandchildren—but saving like this can only be done through…
3.      Frugality and Contentment.  Proverbs 15:16-17 says, “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.  Better a small serving of vegetables with love than a fattened calf with hatred.”  There’s nothing wrong with spending, but it’s better to enjoy modest pleasure, along with a proper attitude towards money, than to allow your uncontrollable desires to cause trouble.

When you think about your relationship with money, attitude is everything.  You can either make gaining and keeping money, or thoughtlessly consuming money, your all-consuming passion—or you can cultivate a balanced attitude that helps you take care of others. 

I’m reminded of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen.  In short, the emperor wants to impress everybody by his fabulous new garment, made of fabric that only the wise can see.  Of course, the reader knows that the emperor is being swindled—but the ruler, not wanting to seem unwise, pretends like he can see the “invisible” garment.  In fact, all the king’s subjects, likewise, not wanting to seem unwise, all pretend that they can see the new clothes as well.  It’s not until he parades his splendor before everybody that a child says, “But he has nothing on!”[iii]  Your relationship with money can be that way.  You can think it’s something to strut about, but people can see right through your pretense.  They might even act like they’re impressed, but in the end, you have to realize that you’ve got nothing on. 

In one of his letters, Paul reminds his young friend Timothy, “Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6).”  When it comes to money, I pray you’ll keep your priorities straight.  I pray you’ll know that happiness is not measured in a person’s riches, but in their understanding and experience of love.  Understand this, and you’ll be the richest person in the world.

[i] Bennett, William J.  The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories.  Simon and Schuster: New York.  1993.  Pp. 135-137.
[ii][ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iii] Bennett, pp. 630-634.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Book of Virtues # 10 - "Who's Side Are You On?"

            This Tuesday, we will go to the polls and elect people to serve in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Perhaps I shouldn’t say “we,” because in the 2016 elections only 58% of eligible voters actually participated in the elections.[i]  That means that if a candidate gets elected with 51% of the vote, by 58% of the eligible voters, that candidate’s election only represents the desire of roughly a quarter of Americans who are eligible to vote.  To say that our system is flawed is an understatement—but it’s the best system we have.  I understand that it’s boring to talk about elections, and boring to pay attention to politics.  That’s why so few people do.  Recently, I read:

A lady who was known as Churchill's main rival in parliament was giving a speech. Churchill, with his usual enthusiasm for his rival, dozed off while the lady was speaking. She stopped her speech and awoke Sir Winston by yelling, "Mr. Churchill, must you sleep while I talk?" Churchill sleepily replied, "No, ma'am. I do so purely by choice."

            This seems to reflect the attitudes of many, when it comes to politics.  But boring or not, how we vote is important.  With the title of this article, you might be wondering what I mean, when I ask the question, “Who’s side are you on?”  You see, I wouldn’t dream of trying to influence the way you vote in this particular election—but I would be bold enough to try to influence the way you vote, in general.  I'm not talking about voting Republican or Democrat or Libertarian or otherwise—but voting ethically, based on the virtues you learn in the Bible.  The Book of Proverbs has a lot to say about government.  Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.”[ii]  When we vote, we shouldn’t be on the side of a particular candidate or specific party—but on the side of righteousness.  Keep that in mind, and look for righteousness in a candidate, and you can’t go wrong.

            Proverbs gives several examples of what a leader shouldn’t be.  Proverbs 17:7 says, “Eloquent lips are unsuited to a godless fool— how much worse lying lips to a ruler!”  In other words, dishonesty ought to be the first thing to disqualify a candidate.  Proverbs 28:3, 15 says, “A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops…Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a helpless people.”  A ruler shouldn’t disregard the needs of the poor.  When you’re looking for a good candidate, see how he or she treats the weakest people, and how their policies affect those who cannot stand up for themselves.  Proverbs 28:21 says, “To show partiality is not good— yet a person will do wrong for a piece of bread.”  This means that it’s a bad ruler who makes policies that benefit their own bank account.  Instead of showing partiality based on their own special interests, they should do what’s right and just.  Unfortunately, J. O’Rourke was right in saying, “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”

            It’s been said that once a little girl asked her father, "Daddy, do all fairy tales begin with 'Once upon a time'? "No, sweetheart," he answered. "Some begin with 'If I am elected.'"[iii]  We need to make sure that the goodness of a candidate is the real deal, and that they’re not just telling us a story to get chosen for office.  James Freeman Clarke reminds us, “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.”  If you ever see a statesman or stateswoman running for office, instead of a politician—vote for them, because we need more people like that!

            Proverbs gives us some examples of what an ideal leader ought to be like.  16:12 says, “Kings detest wrongdoing, for a throne is established through righteousness.”  Pick a person who doesn’t just say the right things, but who lives the right kind of life.  Proverbs 20:28 goes beyond righteousness and adds a deeper quality: “Love and faithfulness keep a king safe; through love his throne is made secure.”  If you vote for a politican who’s unloving and unfaithful, you voted for the wrong person!  Proverbs 31:8-9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  Our votes ought to support the kinds of public servants who will do just that.

            We like to blame the sad state of affairs in American politics on those who run the country.  Unfortunately, we can’t do this, because we forget that our leaders were elected by the people.  All too often, we go to the polls uninformed about the candidates, the parties, or the issues.  Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”  What an indictment—but it’s true!  If we voters made it impossible for crooked politicians to get into office, all we’d have running our country would be people of integrity.  Unfortunately, we’re willing to vote for anybody who will serve our special interests, regardless of the kind of character the candidates have.  Orson Scott Card once said, “If pigs could vote, the man with the slop bucket would be elected swineherd every time, no matter how much slaughtering he did on the side.”  In other words, whoever offers you a little something is who you’re likely to vote for—but Christians ought to be better than that!  We should be first to make sure that we’re voting for people of virtue and truthfulness—and if our  parties won’t field candidates who represent these traits then we need to either replace those people in our parties who choose candidates, or we need to consider changing parties. 

            When I ask the question, “Who’s side are you on?” it’s certainly not my intention to get you to choose one party over another—because maybe each party makes a good point about this issue or that.  But I’d hope you’re on the side of the weakest and most vulnerable, the people who can’t speak for themselves.  And I hope you’re on God’s side, insisting on candidates who reflect Christian values.  2 Timothy 2:1-2 says, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”  I pray you’re on the side of truth, and I pray you’re on the side of peace.

[i] What does voter turnout tell us about the 2016 election?  Politics Nov 20, 2016 3:03 PM EDT.  September 26, 2018.
[ii] Bible quotations taken from the NIV.