What We Need For Christmas Summary

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thank you for reading my series about what we need for Christmas.

Remember that whatever mess we find ourselves and the world in, Christmas is a reminder that God has not given up on us and on the world.  Isaiah 9:6, a prophecy from around 700 BC describes the Christ we celebrate each Christmas:

“And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

To meet our deepest, most significant needs, this Christ is provided for us.
         As Wonderful Counselor, He is our source of wisdom; (covered in this post)
         As Mighty God, He will empower us to live as He did; (this post)
         As Everlasting Father, He invites us with unconditional love into His family; (this post)
         As Prince of Peace, He buys peace between us and Him, and between us and others. (this post)

“Four gifts for Christmas. They are the greatest gifts that anybody can give or we can have, and they are all in Jesus. They are for us. They are for you, if you will have them.” – James Montgomery Boice

Celebrate these gifts today!

In closing here is a video of the Royal Choral Society performing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, for He, the Christ of Christmas, shall reign forever and ever:

More than Truth

“The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.
Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” – Proverbs 14:20-21
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” – Mark 1:1

In May 2021, I heard a sports update on the radio that eight members of the New York Yankees baseball organization, including players and staff, had tested positive for Covid-19.  Then the radio host raised his voice in alarm and added: “and all of them were fully vaccinated!”  The next day, I read a different report online about the Yankees that said all who tested positive were asymptomatic.  The first report didn’t mention that they were asymptomatic, and the second report didn’t mention that they were vaccinated.  Both reports were factual, but both reports were misleading.  One sounds like good news, and the other bad, but it’s the same story.  I can’t judge the intent of either source, but the point is that there is more to discernment than telling the difference between truth and lies.

While there is absolute truth, not all truth is the way, and not every way leads to life.  In the last post, I introduced a “Moral GPS”, our internal chatterbox of voices that influence our decisions.  In choosing between these, I wrote “Facts matter, but any voice can have facts.”  You can choose the wrong direction even if the signs pointing that way were “true”. A key input to that system is the media.

During the pandemic, many became increasingly frustrated with the idea of “truth”, and this has at least in part been intentionally engineered.  Bogeymen were everywhere, and you or your neighbor might be one!  Frustration is good for politicians and journalists, which is nothing new – consider these quotes and their dates:

“The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles, or television.  It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety” – Eric Sevareid, CBS journalist, in 1974

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H. L. Mencken, in 1923

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Feeding this frenzy is the fiction that if journalists and others are telling the truth, they are “objective” or “unbiased”, and therefore “ethical”.  This claim of objectivity is not only light years from the truth, but also theoretically impossible for anyone but God Himself.  I studied journalism in college, and although they didn’t outright teach bias, they taught us to think about what goes into making the following decisions and others:

  • What stories do you publish “above the fold” of the newspaper, where people are most likely to see it?
  • Which quotes do you place early in an article (people usually don’t read the entire article, but please keep reading this one), and which do you place later?
  • Which sources do you work harder to get a quote from, and which do you give up on after leaving one voice mail?  The ones that support your view, or the ones that contradict?
  • Which statistics do you cite, or not cite (to save space and make deadline)?
  • What term do you use to describe a person or idea?  The term used by advocates, or by adversaries?

There is no “lying” going on behind many of these decisions, just “editorial discretion”.  There were, of course, manipulated polls and other things I learned about, but very few outright lies.  In the more modern media age, though, these things are elementary.  Now technology even allows companies to make these decisions for other people’s content!

Of course, not all journalists are unethical, which is just like any profession, but the industry trend seems to be downhill, and those who get the most attention are often the worst examples.  It’s an industry in need of a revival.

Frustration is also good for some economically.  “Big tech” businesses made a ton of money during the pandemic, partly by feeding your anxiety.  Algorithms and clickbait aren’t interested in informing you, only manipulating your emotions to draw you to advertising.  They analyze in labs how the chemical reward system of the human brain reacts to different things so that you will return for that “high” repeatedly.  They’re making you emotional on purpose.  Bad news sells.  Thoughtful news, not as much.  Again, the intent and the business model are nothing new, but technology has made it ruthlessly efficient, and a pandemic-panicked population created a captive audience with so many “normal” activities unavailable.  One of my best moments of 2020 was getting to a movie theater in November.  It was a needed distraction and a healthy sense of normalcy[1].

Consider also this quote:

“One of the most tragic events of our time is that we know more than ever before about the pains and sufferings of the world and yet are less and less able to respond to them…There appears to be a general assumption that it is good for people to be exposed to the pain and suffering of the world…If we let the full content of newscasts enter into our innermost selves, we would become so overwhelmed by the absurdities of existence that we would become paralyzed” (emphasis mine)

This comes from a book I just read titled “Compassion”[2], written in 1982.  Before the internet and smart phones.  Let that sink in.  The suffering of the world is not a yoke you want to carry, but it’s in the interest of many journalists, politicians, and computer programmers to make you feel it.

Truth + Perspective
So, how do we start to filter all of this?  Proverbs 14:20-21 quoted above provides one example of how the Bible deals with and presents truth.  Both verses are “true”, but each has its own perspective.  Verse 20 describes the world as it is: “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends”.  No matter the economic and political system you live under, you recognize this as generally “true”.  Ancient Israel had the same “truth” as the modern world.  But what do you do with this information?  Your self-determined Moral GPS might tell you to pursue riches, because it is “good” to be liked and have friends.  Who wants to be disliked?  If this is “just the way it is”, why go against the grain?  Greed is good.  More on this later.

This isn’t the only Proverb that states things as they are, with no value judgment attached.  Another example would be Proverbs 17:8 – “A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers.”  This doesn’t mean one should give bribes, but it’s “true” and helpful to know how bribes function, even if your goal is to avoid them.

Fortunately, verse 21 adds perspective in God’s value judgment on the truth of verse 20: “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.”  If you fear God, your course of action is not to reinforce the truth of verse 20, but to seek to correct the situation with righteousness and justice.  A Christian must be concerned about what to do, in addition to what is true.

The Illusion of Pax Romana
Also, at a higher level, there’s “Gospel Truth”, a sort of master narrative that adolescent truths and narratives want to be when they grow up.  In “Evil and the Justice of God” by N.T. Wright, he says, “the word gospel itself…was a direct confrontation with the regime of Caesar, the news of whose rule was referred to in his empire as ‘good news’, ‘gospel’”.  Before Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the “gospel” was an existing genre of literature, or more accurately propaganda, exalting successive Caesars as bringing in and sustaining the Pax Romana[3], or “Roman Peace” which lasted roughly the first two centuries A.D.  Wikipedia describes it “as a period and golden age of increased as well as sustained Roman imperialism, order, prosperous stability, hegemonial power and expansion”.  These gospels sometimes assigned miraculous powers to Caesar and ordered that he be revered as a god.

The Christian gospels are not “biography” by genre, but “gospel”, a narrative to challenge the existing narrative.  Jesus operated in the environment of the world’s greatest empire, which would endure no rival, no other gospel.  From this perspective, His ministry looks different.  All He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire and He was promoting a different narrative.  Mark’s gospel says those who saw Jesus “were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.’”[4]  Actual miracles showing that He could solve every problem He encountered, while He promised a world where all problems are solved for those who believe in Him.

However, those who were happy with the empire didn’t go quietly.  Proverbs 14:20 truth was just fine with them since they were the rich ones enforcing the rules.  “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”[5]  Preservation of the “Pax” often led these leaders to clash with, and ultimately crucify, Jesus.  John 11:48 records the panic of religious leaders about Jesus’ activities: “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, they protested because it was “against the rules”, which they needed people to follow, otherwise the Romans would have to step in, re-establish order, and probably put in new leadership.  Their fear of Caesar was so strong that they determined to kill someone who was able to raise the dead. Make sense to you?

Early Christians faced similar problems.  Much of the persecution of the early church was because “The exclusive sovereignty of Christ clashed with Caesar’s claims to his own exclusive sovereignty,” according to historian Earle Cairns[6]

Conform Wisely
Back to the original topic of this post: journalism.  Part of the genius of the founding fathers of the United States was that, by granting freedom of the press, they were putting government and journalism in opposition to each other (at least in theory) and opening the way for multiple perspectives to get a hearing.  They knew that limiting distribution of “truth” to those in power was dangerous.  The powerful would be satisfied with Proverbs 14:20 truth.  In the world of Pax Romana, Caesar is god and loyalty is required for the prospering of the kingdom.  There can be only one narrative.

If you live in a country with press freedom, be thankful.  Diverse information is needed to rightly understand the broad situation of our world and immediate surroundings, but too much of that knowledge can be soul-crushing, draining us of compassion needed for the problems right in front of us.  The wrong truth can make us despise our neighbor, or to support the wrong gospel.

The Bible commands: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” – Romans 12:2

How do we do this?  Maybe God could tell us the “right” network to watch, the “right” amount to watch, and the “right” solution.  However, nobody but God is the Answer.  Therefore, each person must practice discernment as the Spirit guides and give grace to others.  Each must learn to fear God and let Him overrule the other voices in our Moral GPS.  If we pay attention, we know the Bible is not silent.  Proverbs alone contains a lot of relevant wisdom on the subject:

“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” (13:20)
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” (18:2)
“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” (18:17)
“Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” (20:10)
“Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” (22:24-25)

Find news that suits God’s purpose for you and helps you glorify Him.  The world needs Proverbs 14:21 truth, and God requires it.  Like Jesus did wandering the streets of His day, look in your circles – family, church, neighborhood, workplace, state – and have compassion for those who need good news that isn’t in the news.  For some of these people, the institutions of your particular “Pax Romana” failed them – family, community, the courts, the government, even the church.  Perhaps a judge declared against them wrongly?  Perhaps they were a victim of abuse nobody knows about?  Maybe there is some other secret struggle or sin?  A disability, either permanent or temporary?  Perhaps they just don’t fit in with the clique of your neighborhood?  Maybe their employer made a “business decision” that cost them their job?  Some might have been hurt by the pandemic in less-obvious ways: they lost their life savings when their small business went under, they struggle with mental health, they saw their college dreams fall away, and any other number of things.

You won’t hear about many of these people on the news, and often politicians aren’t interested in their problems, especially if it makes their narrative look bad.  Anyway, these lost sheep don’t want publicity.  They just want compassion first, then perhaps help and a way forward.  Or perhaps just compassion and hope.

Individual people can be understood and shown compassion; narratives and statistics can overwhelm us and shut us down.  In the book “Compassion” quoted earlier, the authors write: “When information about human suffering comes to us through a person who can be embraced, it is humanized”.  They also write that the expression “to be moved with compassion” occurs 12 times in the New Testament, always in relation to Jesus or God the Father.  The original Greek behind it suggests not just a passing feeling or sentiment, but something you feel in your guts.  When Jesus found hurting people everywhere He went, His compassion compelled Him to help them.  In feeding people, healing people, and spending time with outcasts, Jesus made it clear that the Pax Romana wasn’t “good news” for everyone.  He wasn’t necessarily trying to pick a fight, but He couldn’t help it.  God is love after all.

You may upset the “Pax Romana” of your time and place, but every “Pax Romana” is illusory and temporary.  Break some rules.  Be creative.  Don’t let anyone recruit you into a cause that isn’t yours and that isn’t God’s.  Don’t let them lay heavy burdens on your shoulders that are impossible for you to bear.  The weight of the world was on the cross, but not your cross.

I’m horrible at compassion but working to do better.  I hope that a lot of us can do better as we emerge from the pandemic more aware of the impact of only seeing the world through windows.

If you are one of the hurting people, reach out for help.  There are likely more people who care, and more resources available, than you know.  You’re not a statistic.

Thank you for reading.

Coda
If you can spare a few more minutes, check out the song, “Never Take It” by twenty øne piløts.  It’s an upbeat sounding, yet defiant, take on how media tries to “weaponize you and I”.  The lyrics are fantastic.
Lyric video
Lyric page

[1] One of the worst things about 2020 was that I knew there were people who hated me for going to a movie theater and “putting lives in danger”
[2] McNeill, Donald P.; Morrison, Douglas A.; Nouwen, Henri J. M.  Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1982).  I bought this book in 1993 but never read it until re-discovering it recently while looking for another book someone texted me about during a nap.  I decided to read it since compassion is so needed given the societal damage done by the pandemic and related trends.  Glad I did.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana.  Yes, Wikipedia is a lousy source, but this is a blog.
[4] Mark 7:37
[5] Matthew 23:4
[6] Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (1996).

(Originally posted June 2021)

The First Orphans: Silent in the Trees

Have you ever wondered what life was like for Adam and Eve during Genesis 3:7?  This verse, which happens between the moment they fell to temptation and the moment they next meet God, says “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”  Since they were able to figure out how to make clothes for the first time, we can guess that the time frame within Genesis 3:7 was more than a few minutes.

The song “Trees” by the band twenty øne piløts may be a contemplation of that time, and if it is, the song imagines that Adam and Eve had some time to think about it.  Songwriter Tyler Joseph crafts lyrics that allow for religious and secular meanings, but also that sometimes also apply to multiple audiences.  In the song’s lyrics, “You” is sometimes capitalized, and sometimes not, and therefore I think the song has two intended audiences, God and the band’s fans.

Reading between the lines a bit, I’ll explain below what I get from this song, in each audience perspective.

You = the Father
The lyrics are relatively compact, with the repeated verse of:

I know where You stand, silent in the trees
And that’s where I am, silent in the trees
Why won’t You speak where I happen to be?
Silent in the trees, standing cowardly

Our first ancestors had lived a perfect life in fellowship with God in the garden of Eden, but the fall into temptation changed that relationship, and the verse imagines how.

  • First, the sense of togetherness was gone.  They were still in the garden, but the sense that God was also there was gone.
  • Second, although “the eyes of both were opened,” the voice of God guiding their activities had gone silent.  They had chosen to determine their own way but had not considered the consequences.  Wherever they were, He used to guide them, but now they were confused.
  • Third, instead of being comfortable in God’s presence, they were terribly afraid of Him.

And a repeated chorus of:

I can feel Your breath
I can feel my death
I want to know You, I want to see
I want to say
Hello, hello
Hello, oh, hello

In the original Hebrew Genesis was written in, the words for “breath” and “spirit” are sometimes the same word.  Therefore, the first two lines of this chorus mean that our ancestors could still feel God’s presence (His breath/spirit), but instead of it being a comfort, they now felt something they never felt before – their mortality.  This is a foreshadowing of their being cast away from access to the tree of life.

Also, instead of the constant conversation with God they had known their whole lives, now they wanted to speak with God and know Him again, but He was not responding.  In the context of the song, maybe it was then that “they knew that they were naked.”  They knew they had done wrong, were exposed, and thought judgement was what they should expect.  Adam and Eve went from perfectly hearing their Father’s and Master’s voice, to feeling like orphans and castaways from His family.

What came next?  Genesis 3:8 says, “And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”

You = The Fans
The “you” in the song is also the band’s fans – and Tyler sings out to them, in the trees.  Tyler says the song is also about a personal experience he had, which he doesn’t publicly explain, but He does publicly display tattoos of both the cross of Christ and of bands around his wrist, which likely represent rubber bands people wear to manage and prevent self-harm.  These tattoos are like permanent memorials – or Ebenezers – from his life, and his ongoing recovery from mental illness.  Many of the band’s fans are going through similar struggles and many feel left behind by the world.

Therefore, the “you” of the song is those who feel alone and silent in the trees, who feel ashamed before God, hiding themselves.  They expect God to show up in judgement, as Adam and Eve expected, and hid their nakedness.  Tyler could be calling out to them: God did not judge me, and neither will He judge you if you call out to Him.  God will speak to them, “where they happen to be.”  After all, Genesis 3:9 says: “But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”  It was God who desired and initiated reconciliation with His people.

The outro of the song has Tyler screaming HELLO over and over again, before the song ends with 12 seconds of intentional silence before the track ends.

What will be the answer?

When you find someone alone and silent in the trees, remember James 1:27 – “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

If you find yourself alone and silent in the trees, tell your Heavenly Father you want to say hello.  He wants to know you and He wants to see you.

Coda
For many years, “Trees” has been the last song played at every twenty øne piløts concert.  Why is this?  On the album “Vessel”, “Trees” was the next-to-last song and other parts of the album built to it.  The first song on “Vessel” describes demons and spiritual warfare, the second song is called “Holding On To You,” and the third song, “Migraine,” has the repeated line:

And I will say that we should take a moment and hold it
And keep it frozen and know that life has a hopeful undertone

It seems like from the beginning of the album, that moment to hold on to when you’re battling whatever demons you have was coming.  So, in each concert, the fans know that the moment to hold on to is coming.  The song is a moment you can remember when you’re down and know you’re not alone.  The song an Ebenezer in its own way, and a bold statement that the band is not going to ignore the problems of people left behind, the metaphorical widows and orphans of the world.  Also, if they pay close attention, those fans can find the message of Christ in the lyrics.  God doesn’t wait until our affliction is over and we make ourselves acceptable to come to us. He bridges the divide Himself.

Below is a video I took at last night’s concert in Philadelphia.  Apologies for the video quality, especially when they fired massive amounts of confetti into the air, which fans collect to remember the moment later.  My phone camera just couldn’t keep up, but I offer it as a 5-minute moment you can take and hold and know that life has a hopeful undertone.


And what’s all this about widows and orphans? This post continues a series on James 1:27, which began here. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

His Master’s Voice (aka This Blog Doesn’t Need Another Mascot)

You may not know him by his name, but you’ve probably seen Nipper the dog.  He’s quite famous, although he died in 1895.  Nipper, of course, is the dog from the painting “His Master’s Voice” where he is listening intently to a gramophone.  The picture became a popular logo for many companies, including RCA to sell record players, because the dog looks like it thinks his master is in there talking to him.  The RCA recording technology is so clear!

“His Master’s Voice”, an 1898 painting by Francis Barraud. From Wikipedia Commons.

“His Master’s Voice” is also a good introduction to some posts I’m working on about hearing our Master’s voice.  We might like to be like Nipper, and every now and then we might get a glimpse of what that’s like, but we’re unlike the painting a lot of the time.

For one thing, most dogs are naturally loyal and want to please their masters.  That’s why Nipper loves the gramophone so much.  A funny thing about dogs is that they don’t care what their masters believe.  They won’t discuss philosophy with them.  Not that their master’s philosophy doesn’t matter to the dog, because if their philosophy includes cruelty to animals, that’s very bad.  Dogs just don’t think at that level.  On the other hand, dogs are very, very excited and eager to hear you tell them to do something.  Cats of course are very different – I have two of them – and they’re too often a better picture of how I really relate to my Master in heaven than Nipper is.

The other point is that dogs have great hearing.  The painting has no sound, but you get the idea that, no matter how much noise was going on around him, Nipper would be right there, trying to find his master in the gramophone.  In contrast, people are bombarded with loud voices from all directions and usually aren’t as good at filtering the good from the bad.

Centered on the story of Gideon from the book of Judges, I’ll be sharing a few posts soon about how difficult and messy listening for God’s voice really is.  I’m trying to figure it out every day.

Ebenezer, looking concerned

Lastly, if you see Ebenezer (a squirrel and the blog’s mascot), tell him Nipper is only here for a short visit.  Also remind him that in heaven, even the dogs and squirrels will lie down together in peace.

Coda
One of my favorite song lyrics of all time is:
“I’m looking past the shadows of my mind into the truth; And I’m trying to identify the voices in my head; God, which one’s you?”

It’s from a 2000 song called “Breathing” by Lifehouse.  They probably didn’t have Nipper in mind when they wrote it, but it’s about us all wishing we could pay better attention to our Lord, to know His will, or sometimes just to be present with Him.

You can read the lyrics here, or if you have 4 ½ minutes, listen here.  Apologies for any ads on these sites.


The next post in the series is here

The King of Glory Shall Come In

Tradition suggests that Psalm 24 was used at the start of temple services in ancient Jerusalem, possibly commemorating the Ark of the Covenant moving from Obed-edom’s house to Jerusalem, an event recorded in 2 Samuel 6:10-12:

So David was not willing to take the ark of the LORD into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.  And the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household.  And it was told King David, “The LORD has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing.

This was the second attempt to move the ark, the first attempt having ended in disaster, in 1 Samuel 6:6-8:

And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled.  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.  And David was angry because the LORD had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day.”

God gave detailed instructions for moving the ark in the book of Numbers 4:9-20.  It was supposed to be carried on the shoulders of Levites descended from Kohath.  Instead, they moved the ark as the Philistines did (1 Sam 6).  The judgment of Uzzah reminded Israel that God is not to be taken lightly or for granted.

Today’s post is a flashback to the 1989 song by Christian rock band Petra, “The King of Glory Shall Come In,” which is based on Psalm 24.  When Psalm 24:3, referenced in the song’s verse, says “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?”  David, the author, is asking who is worthy to be in God’s presence.  However, the chorus of the song is my favorite part.  Some believe verses 7 to 10 of Psalm 24 were a call-and-response between the priests and the people, who cried out for God to be among them.  Knowing they are unworthy; they still need and desire His presence among them.  The song imagines what that call-and-response might have been like, but in 80’s praise-rock style!

Call for the King of Glory to come into you today!  By the sacrifice of Jesus you can “stand in his holy place” with “clean hands and a pure heart.”

For just the lyrics, go here, but for the audio of the full song, click below: