Confessions of a Daily Christian is a collection of my musings (and occasionally those of my friends) on a variety of subjects as I pursue a simple pilgrimage–one of a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. My faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, my High Priest and Holy Bridegroom, informs all that I am–all that I think and do. I hope my blog will provide you with a pleasant diversion and perhaps some food for thought, and that you, in turn, will share your thoughts with me.

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Location: Wichita, Kansas, United States

I am chief among sinners, rescued from the despair of my former life by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not my desire to judge, but as a simple beggar, I wish to tell others where I found the Food that leads to Eternal Life, Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life and the True Vine.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Death of Realpolitik

If ever there were an area for fruitful ethical debate it is politics. Whether local, state, national, or international, the concept of government has always been fraught with questions of morality, and why not? The Bible assigns the administration of justice among people to the realm of civil government. One could logically infer that a government that is less than just itself would be unable to assure justice to its people.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to confuse this issue with debates as to what governmental structure achieves this end best. Surely history teaches us that their have been goodly and benevolent monarchs (or dictators), and their have been "democracies" whose stock-in-trade was suppression and oppression (like the "People's" Republics of China and Korea, who have cemented their authoritarian regimes upon the blood of the people). How, then, is it seemingly possible for our nation to assume that the mere introduction of "democratic principles" in mideastern countries that have no context for democracy will have happy results? After all, Hitler was the result of a "popular" election, and retained his power through the acquiescence of a largely silent population.

For some reason, we still look hopefully toward supporting popular uprisings that will ultimately topple these evil oligarchies or dictatorships, casting off their shackles to move into that hopeful sunrise of democracy. We forget that we supported the Fidel Castro, that beloved populist, who has maintained one of the longest surviving Marxist regimes in modern history, assuring equal access to education, healthcare, and poverty for all. I hear politicos waxing hopeful about a popular uprising in Iran, forgetting what happened to the popular uprising in Tianamen Square in Red China.

The United States has been an adept practitioner of "realpolitik". Essentially, realpolitik is the somewhat cynical, if realistic, understanding that ultimately, aside from attempting to re-establish an impracticable 21st century colonialism, we must deal with nations and our own national interest in real, rather than ideal, terms. This situational ethic plays one nation against another in global chess game in order to maintain a relative order by maintaining a "balance of power". Of course, we have marketed our ideal of the "give your tired, your tempest toss'd to me, I raise my lamp beside the golden shore" to such an extent that many around the world look at the United States as the Holy Graal of liberty for all, and are greatly disillusioned when our economic and military might is used to preserve the status quo rather than leading the world into and era of blessed freedom and peace.

This is because we have been marketing a result, the end result of a process nurtured in a specific cultural climate. And one cannot market a result without the process. It cannot simply be transplanted. It is, in many ways, culture specific. The reason the Pax Romana worked was because it was administered by Rome. It fell apart when Rome itself began to decay from within. The strength of Rome was in the cohesiveness of its cultural framework. When its cultural framework was destroyed, the Empire fell into chaos, ripe to be plucked by external powers. Had the church not stepped into the vacuum, much of western culture would have been lost. In these tumultuous times, the ideals of western culture, once protected by the great democracies of the world, have collapsed for lack of a foundation, and echo as a hollow promise to an increasingly tribal world.

I have no solutions for this. Or, at least, not from the realm of "realpolitik." I think that the neo-conservatives are guilty of great error in propogating a Messianic vision based on the United States and its position of strength in the world. Perhaps, during one brief moment during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, there was a conjunction of ideals embodied in the leader of our country that invested the United States with a certain moral clarity. The moment, however, was brief, for we were still engaged in realpolitik. Such moments in history are ephemeral, for they are inevitably fallen and human. This is why Jesus Christ did not come to teach us a way of living, but was, Himself, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." This is why Jesus did not give us a government, but the gospel. As Christians, our government is not of this world, but is over it. And the world will not enjoy the Pax Christus until the Second Coming of out Lord and Savior. Until that time, we are left with a solution far more effective and dynamic than "planting the seeds of democracy." For these are not the seeds that we are to plant in the hearts of men and women. It is only the gospel that will bear fruit tenfold and a hundredfold. It is only the gospel that will change the world.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Somehow, as I grow older, I find myself haunted more and more by the ghosts of Christmas (or Christmases) past. I hate to admit to the jaded cynicism I often feel during the "Christmas" season. I look around me at the tinsel that once had the humility to wait patiently in boxes until after Thanksgiving, now festooning every retail, wholesale, and "for sale" presence the day after Hallowe'en. Images of Dracula, werewolves, monsters and witches seem merely to change costumes as we are bedecked with Santas, reindeer, elves, and miscellaneous nativity scenes (often as an afterthought).

This year, Christians are up in arms about the "de-Christianizing" of Christmas. Political correctness seems to dictate that we must recognize every other religious, semi-religious, and irreligious holiday in the year, but the general thought of our PC police appears to be properly Dickensian, at least according to Scrooge--"I wish that every fool that goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips should be boiled in his own plum pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. Merry Christmas! Bah! Humbug!" Who knew that the PC police were literate?

Nevertheless, there sometimes seems to be a certain hollowness to our Christian protestations. Don't get me wrong! I also am incensed by the general umbrage that occurs whenever any sense of Christian belief is paraded into the public, even on ceremonial occasions. But I also recognize that this process of de-Christianizing Christmas--in fact, society in general--has been going on for years. For far too many of us, God and Jesus Christ had already been effectively relegated to the background, sort of like those rag-tag relatives from the wrong side of the family that show up unannounced at Christmas celebrations and crassly make their presence known in the most uncomfortable ways.

I honestly miss the days when Henry Harvey, a local television personality, appeared every year beginning in December on afternoon T.V. as a genial Santa Claus. I loved him as a kid. Of course, I can look back now and realize that a major part of the show was the Santa Claus displaying toys that could be bought at various stores around the city. It was, in fact, a daily advertisement for local businesses to hawk their wares to impressionable kiddies. But Henry Harvey was a kind and generous man, who seemed to have as much fun "being" Santa Claus as playing with the toys. He encouraged children to be good, and would always share the true Christmas story on his show. In fact, given how liberal our home church had become, I probably learned more about the gospel from Henry Harvey than I did from our minister.

At that age, I had no problem reconciling Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, because Henry Harvey had no such problem. Santa Claus was always presented as a depiction of the spirit of Christmas, a spirit of kindly generosity and mirth that helped to make Christmas a time of wonder. Mr. Harvey, forever to me the very image of Santa Claus, always spoke of Jesus Christ, born in a manger as the true wonder of Christmas. The tinsel, the colored lights, the Christmas trees, family, and presents under the tree (especially those that I bought for my parents and other relatives) were, in a real sense, gilding the lily. They provided an unmistakable atmosphere of wonder, beauty and joy that a child could understand, but it all framed the wondrous act of God that appeared helpless and dependent as a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in the feeding trough of the animals in the stable. It was a season of generosity and gift-giving, in poor imitation of the gift we had been giving.

I enjoyed going to church, singing Christmas hymns, and hearing the familiar Biblical texts. The choir, in which I was to become a regular fixture until we changed churches (when the new minister came and the sermons had devolved into a string of political commentaries), always sang special anthems on the Sunday before Christmas. Our organist at the time is now well-known around the world, and would play with such skill the instrument would bring forth music of an ethereal beauty and grave majesty. And on Christmas eve, we had a traditional candlelight service, singing hymns and carols together with friends in anticipation of the holiday made holy by the heartfelt celebration of what it represented. Even as a child, time and eternity, heaven and earth, seemed to kiss, and I would feel transported as though I were singing with the heavenly host.

But it has been long since I have had such feelings of wonder. Christmas lights have begun to forsake color for the clean, crisp, oh-so-modern clear lamp (which brings to mind the gaudiness of the parking lots of used car dealers in the fifties and sixties). Retail stores, no longer the privately-owned stores that used to be downtown, with more or less elaborate Christmas windows and down-home customer service, but large chain stores owned by corporations with a desire for bottom-line returns and the avoidance of ACLU lawsuits, have thrown our own inconsistency back in our faces. Truth to be told, we hardly remember Thanksgiving, and Christmas has become a burden. Shopping no longer has the homey feel it once had, but is characterized by a slam-bam-thank you, ma'am approach. Customer service is often perfunctory if it is available at all. Lines for over-worked cashiers stretch back into the aisles while other cashier locations remain empty. There is no quicker way to lose all sense of Christian charity than to go shopping in December.

And we ache. We miss what we remember as the beautiful innocence of it all. Our churches have larger and more "meaningful" Christmas pageants that try to recapture that sense of wonder and worship, but the whole spectacle seems somehow out of focus. Nativity scenes have become little more than sentimental symbolism that carry little of the majesty they once seemed to exude. And we complain, and raise our voices against the de-Christianizing of Christmas. We deride the major retailers who are willing to have their fourth-quarter profits inflated by the remembrance of the birth of Christ, but are too timid to wish people a "Merry Christmas", preferring instead the sanitized "Happy Holidays." But we are grasping at the wind. Like frogs, placed in cold water slowly heated to boiling, we've been lulled to sleep for so long that we wake up frantically trying to save ourselves, but realize to our own despair that we are seeing about us the result of our own lukewarmness.

Perhaps we need to return to the more orthodox understanding of the Christmas season as one of fearful penitence, living in expectation of the return of God to judge the world, but surprised by joy on Christmas day that God indeed did come in Jesus Christ, and became human, in all ways like us, but without sin, so that he could be a faithful High Priest whose humble acceptance of His bloody sacrifice would, in His resurrection, open the doors of hell itself and make for us a place with Him in heaven. We need to again stare in wonder at that point in time when the time and eternity met, and those of us who should have received judgment and death instead were given love and forgiveness. No cheap Christmas trinket this--but a gift whose worth is beyond measure: a gift that cannot be earned, but may only be, in humility, received. Perhaps then we will again be able to look with eyes made innocent by the gifts of the Christ child, and see Christmas for what it is and has ever been in the counsels of God from eternity past. And the lights will regain their color, and Santa Claus, that jolly old elf, will embody for children that merriment and joy that Christ gives us, who were all naughty, but have been declared nice by the only true "selfless" act in the history of the world. Maybe then we will be able to sound less like tinkling cymbals and sounding brass when we defend Christmas and its message before the watching world.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The Blessing of Age

It has been long since my last post, but I wanted to make the design of this blog somewhat my own, so I have been working to learn HTML, XHTML, and CSS (I'm told I need to learn javascript also...whew!). This has served to remind me that there is no point in life where I can simply rest on my "laurels". This, in fact, is why the servant who held the laurel wreath above the head of a victorious Roman centurion returning from the wars, always said "Sic transit gloria mundi"–"Thus passes the glory of the world." All things are fleeting, and when we try to grasp them they slip through our fingers like the insubtantial air. Learning is continuous. But ultimately all our understanding is like a drop in a vast ocean. If all we have is knowledge, and all we depend on is our intellect, all we will be left with as we age is the vague malaise that all that we have labored to learn is has not been enough. It has never been "enough".

Even wisdom–that integration of knowledge and behavior that results in the skill of living a righteous life–can only teach us that at best, our view of life is like looking at the back side of a tapestry. We see a backing covered with knots and threads, with only a dim view of overall pattern. Certainly this was the view of Solomon, the great King of Israel, who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes. "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind,"[Ecclesiastes 1:14]. Many find this book incredibly depressing, for one by one, Solomon finds vain and futile all things that our culture worships: wisdom or the carefree life, youth, industry, advancement–all people, just like the animals, have death and decay as a common destination. But in fact, Solomon simply concludes what we all must conclude. Life "under the sun", unconnected to God, is empty. It is futile. It is a vanity. Solomon's final words are instructive: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil," [Ecclesiastes 12:13-14].

How then should we live? Even Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of the pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commmandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly no enter the kingdom of heaven," [Matthew 5:17-20]. But Paul, the Apostle, teaches us: "But now a righteousness from God apart from the Law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no differenced, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus," [Romans 3:21-24].

What is this "justification"? It is a legal declaration from God as King and Judge–a "paid-in-full" which releases us from the judicial penalty of our actions. But beyond this, the righteousness of Jesus is credited to our account before God. Jesus not only took our place before the bar of God's justice, giving his life in payment for our sins, but he rose again to give us a new life and standing before God. He sits now at the right hand of God, as our HIgh Priest, and has given us the Holy Spirit as our legal advocate, comforter and guide. As Paul concludes: "What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against whose whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is it that condemns? Christ Jesus , who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us," [Romans 8:31-34]. Paul continues, but I believe you get the gist.

What does that mean for you and me? Is "faith in Christ" an excuse to believe in "salvation" as the ultimate fire insurance? Can we now "rest on our laurels" (or the "laurels" of Jesus Christ, if you prefer), so that our behavior is no longer an issue? May we now adopt a careless life, satisfied that no matter what we do, we have a heavenly "Get out of jail free" card? As Paul would say, "May it never happen!" Paul told the Christians in Philippi to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His purpose," [Philippians 2:12b-13]. Paul reminded them: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father," [Philippians 2:5-11]. We are bought with an inestimable price. We are free to love and obey God, to experience the true peace that comes with living in our proper relationship to the One who created us in His image. The Christian life is one of progressive deification. We submit to Jesus Christ as our Lord, the one who saved us from our life of despair, in order that we may become more like him.

Is the life of the Christian easier? It depends. Free-fall from an airplane is incredibly easy. Everything works in accord with natural laws. The wind resistance may even make you feel as though you are flying. But the effect of gravity is inevitable, and unless your chute deploys, you will come to an abrupt–and painful–end. The life without Christ is, in some ways, careless and free, for you are flowing with the current, little heeding the roar of the waterfall in the distance. And such company you will have! The life of a Christian is challenging. You are swimming upstream, and the progress you make is not by your own strength, but in reliance upon the strength of the Holy Spirit. You are not promised worldly health, wealth, or success. In this world, you are not promised an end to temptation and sin. In fact, the opposite is often the case. As Jesus Christ Himself was persecuted, suffered, and died at the hands of sinful humanity, the Christian is told to expect persecution in this world. I am not speaking of suffering for being obnoxious or petty...or suffering for our own failure to live consistently with our belief. The more we are willing to become like Jesus Christ, the more we will be at odds with a fallen world. Even Satan, who took no notice of us before, while we were living in obedience to him, will now stalk us about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. But everything is in the relationship. In our relationship to God we find purpose and meaning, love and joy, and a blessed hope that is denied to others. The only question that remains is, will we both hear and heed God's call? Will we turn aside from the emptiness of a life in this world without Him, to face the rigors of the life of faith for what that life promises–true life, abundant life, and everlasting life with God? And this life becomes more real with age–and more blessed.