A Tree That Feels Like Me

Charlie Brown Tree 2

 

We have three Christmas trees in our house this year.  I know, weird. 

One is fancy and stands in our living room.

The newest is beside my desk in my study – a sale-tree that I bought on Black Friday.  I couldn’t resist.  It is an aluminum tree with a color wheel.  Yep, I guess they’re being made again for all of us boomers.   Did any of you have one of those at one time?

But my favorite tree is in our Hearth Room – it’s the one you see above – our Charlie Brown tree.

The fact that I have both an aluminum tree and a Charlie Brown tree is a bit ironic since “A Charlie Brown Christmas” special first shown December 9, 1965, was more directly responsible for the death of aluminum Christmas trees than anything else.  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” resonated with 1965 audiences in a way no other children’s programming had before.  

It still resonates with me.  

Charles Schultz’s characters have been a part of my life since I was 9 years old when someone, I don’t remember who, gave me the book, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown!”

I wish I remembered the name of the person who opened up this world to me. I’m thankful for them. 

Everything I like about Charlie Brown is contained in “A Charlie  Brown Christmas” and that little, lonely, pitiful looking tree.  

It is real.  Every other Christmas special has in it some element of fantasy.  

A snowman that comes to life.  

Flying reindeer. 

But not in Charles Schulz’s story.  The story is build on the reality of sadness.  

Charlie Brown is sad.  “I know no likes me,” Charlie Brown says, walking along, “so why do we have to have a holiday to emphasize the fact?”  Charlie is us.   We want to be liked.  Not just loved.  It’s hard to feel loved when we’re not liked.  

Linus recites Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  But, even with this spiritual element, God doesn’t swoop in to rescue Charlie Brown. Neither does Santa, or Frosty. There is no Elf to bring back the spirit of Christmas.  There is Charlie Brown dealing with kids who are mean to him.  And why?  He was only trying to do something good.  When he brings his tree to the group, the insults are launched:

“Boy, are you stupid Charlie Brown”
“I told you he’d goof it up.”
“He isn’t the kind you can depend on to do anything right.”
“You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.”
“You’ve been dumb before, Charlie Brown, but this time, you really did it.”

How many watchers of that special see themselves in Charlie Brown? How many have heard, still hear, those same insults?  Insults and attacks for only trying to do good. 

And no one steps in to defend him.  To advocate for him.  

He’s alone.  Like the tree he picks.  Charlie Brown and the tree are parallel characters.  Each of them is considered by others to be defective, unwanted, worth-less than other trees or other people.

“This little one needs a home,” Charlie Brown said when he saw the tree on the lot.  

Charlie Brown provided that home.

Charlie Brown was the only one who really saw the tree. Who saw the value in the tree. Who loved the tree.  He thought others would see the tree as he saw the tree.  They didn’t. 

The rejected boy took the rejected tree to his home.  When he hangs a single ornament on it’s tallest branch,  the tree droops to the ground.  Charlie Brown cries out, “I’ve killed it.  Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined.”

Have you ever felt like you can’t do anything right?  Then you get Charlie Brown.  

Linus’ Bible story inspired Charlie Brown to decorate the little tree, in spite of what others said, but it doesn’t heal Charlie Brown from the pain he feels.  What heals him is the other members of the Peanuts Gang coming out into the cold to rescue the tree – with love.  As Linus says, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree…Maybe it just needs a little love.” 

And love is what the gang gives the tree.  Show a tree, or a person, some love, and look what happens!

It may be a story from a comic strip, but it’s a story about realness.  

Real sadness.

Real loneliness.

Real rejection.

Real prejudices.

Real comparisons.

Real realization of judgmentalism.

Real love.

Real community. 

Real change. 

And it’s really good.  

Have a really good holiday.

  

Testing Our Traditions

Shiraz on the Shelf.jpg

“But we always have turkey for Christmas dinner!”

“But we always have pistachio pudding salad (the traditional dish when I was a kid) for Christmas dinner” 

“But we always open one present on Christmas Eve!”  

“But we always go see Christmas lights on Christmas Eve!”

Whenever someone tries to replace, remove, or reform a tradition, the change is probably met with a “But we always…”

What is your “always”?

Do something two years in a row and you’ve got a set-in-concrete tradition. 

Traditions are not just a holiday thing. They are a theology thing. 

Tradition. There’s a whole song devoted to it in Fiddler on the Roof.

Tradition.  It was the context of many of Jesus’ collisions with the Pharisees (Mark 7:1-8).

Tradition.  It has been the context of many of my own church collisions in my early years pastoring:

*Singing songs that weren’t in the Baptist Hymnal.

*Bringing a guitar and drums to the Sunday morning service.

*Replacing the denomination’s Adult Sunday School curriculum with a study of Charles Swindoll’s “Improving Your Serve.”

I could go on…

More recently, and more importantly, I’ve been dealing with traditions of what to think, what to believe, how to see God, how to see others, how to see myself.  

There are traditional ways of doing and there are traditional ways of thinking.  

 Both need to be “examined.”  Hold on to that word – “examine.”

First, let’s examine why we hang so tightly to traditions.  Why does the mantra, “We’ve always done it that way” fit so many so well?  There are two reasons:

 1.  We are copycats.   We tend to follow the crowd in both doing and thinking.  Instead of thinking for ourselves we want to be told what to think.   “Welcome to church.  Leave your brain at the door,” is the culture of many.   We count on pastors to tell us what to believe.  We follow their words in an automatic and robotic way. Pastors count on people to not question what they’re told.  Pastors can have an exalted opinion of themselves.  

Be a free-thinker!  Jesus told his followers that the Holy Spirit is their teacher (John 14:26). You’re walking around with the teacher within!  Listen to the Spirit.  

John writes that “the true light gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).  Did you catch that? “Everyone”  Yes, me.  Yes,  you.  Wake up to the light.  Be aware of the light.  You have in you the light of understanding. 

2.  We are scaredy cats.   Our world can be scary, stressful, uncertain.  Having traditions, when we do the same things over and over – like shampoo, “Rinse and Repeat” – we know what to do, when to do it, how to it, gives us a comforting sense of control and stability.  But is the comfort an illusion? A shadow?  Is there something more solid to which we can hold?  

Let’s examine the traditions themselves – not just the traditions of putting trees in our house or hanging our socks on the fireplace – but the tradition of thinking a certain way, of believing a certain thing. 

Ask questions about, critique what you believe and what you have been taught.

Paul tells us to “examine the preaching” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).  

Does it pass the test?  
Here’s the test:

When it comes to hearing a sermon, Paul says,  “Examine it and hold on to that which is good.” 

Listen carefully.  Listen critically. Give it a test. A beauty test.

The Greek word translated “good” (kalos) means “beautiful.”  

Does the preaching pass the “Is it beautiful?” test.  The test is not, “Is the preacher beautiful?” (I’m glad because there’s not much I can do about that!),  but is the preaching “beautiful?”

Kix Cereal is “kid tested and parent approved.”                                                              Preaching is to be “beauty tested.”

When listening to teaching/preaching, if it’s beautiful, hold on to it. If it’s not beautiful, let it go.

Traditions are about:

  • Priority – what/who is first in my life?
  • Authority – what/who will have authority over my life?
  • Beauty   

Jesus calls us to connect with something bigger than our traditioins.  He calls us to connect with love.  When traditional thinking, traditional views, clashed with love,, Jesus always came down on the side of love. 

Healthy religion always pulls us away from traditions of exclusion to inclusion, from scarcity to abundance, from a God with only enough love for my group to a God for the universe.  

A Wrinkle in the Sheet of Immigration

Fitted Sheets

Did you know that Ruth, the lady whose story is told in a book in the Hebrew Scriptures that bears her name, was an illegal immigrant?

How does that fact affect your view of the immigration issue that heats up our country?

I talked about Ruth in my teaching last Sunday in our series “What Would Jesus Say About…”. 

The issue about which we tuned our ears to Jesus was immigration.  Christians often agree with the many  “be kind to foreigners” verses in both the Hebrew Scripture and Christian Scripture, but they also often add this caveat: “Yes, but those were legal immigrants.  Since illegal immigrants are lawbreakers they shouldn’t have any rights.”

Then, we read the story of Ruth.  And she throws a wrinkle in our position (Have you tried to fold a fitted sheet?).   People think they have a Biblically wrinkle-free position on immigration until they read the story of Ruth.  

Ruth was an illegal immigrant.  She’s from Moab.  One of those countries.   Check out Israel’s policy toward immigrants from Moab:  

“An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3).

“Forever”  is a long time.  

Still not convinced that Moabites were excluded…that Moabites were to be kept out? 

Look at Deuteronomy 23:6: “You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all their days forever.”  

There’s that word “forever” again.  

The Hebrew of this verse is colorful.  Check out these different translations:

Never pursue their welfare or prosperity – CSB

Never promote their welfare or prosperity – NRSV

Never seek a treaty of friendship with them – NIV

Never seek their peace or their prosperity- NASB

Don’t wish for their peace or success – NCV

Don’t be concerned with their health and well-being – CEB

 Ok.  I get it.  The message is clear.  Don’t give a hand to help the Moabite and Ammonite.  They’re not good people. 

Here’s the wrinkle.  Boaz, the hero of the story, flagrantly disobeyed Moses’ law.  He showed Ruth, and her mother-in-law Naomi, kindness, provided food for them, pursued their welfare, helped them succeed.  And friendship?  

Oh, Boaz went way beyond friendship and got intimate with Ruth.  

Follow that intimacy down the family tree and we arrive at Jesus – Jesus, the Son of David (Matthew 1:1).  Ruth and Boaz were great-grandparents of David.  Jesus was the “Son of David”, and David was the great-grandson of an illegal immigrant mother and a law-breaking father.  

Boaz, like his descendant, Jesus, chose love over law.  Kindness and compassion over keeping the rules.  

What would have happened had Boaz obeyed the law?  

He wouldn’t have been kind to Ruth.  He wouldn’t have provided care for and to them. 

He and Ruth would not have fallen in love.  They would not have had sex and conceived a child, a grandchild…and if you keep going, Jesus would not have been born.  

That was my point in the sermon.  Afterwards, a good, wise friend pointed out to me another way to look at it: If Boaz had kept the law, God could have found another way to bring Jesus to the world.  True. Then my friend said,  “But isn’t it cool that God chose to use an illegal immigrant to bring Jesus to us?”  Cool indeed. Thank you friend!

I get that nations have a responsibility to protect their borders.  I’m not campaigning for illegal immigration.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

* Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world.  As a follower of Christ, I am, foremost, a citizen of that kingdom. For me, that citizenship takes precedence over my U.S. citizenship.  I am to embrace and express the values of His kingdom – values of love and service to the least of these.  How can I live in the  kingdom of the U.S. and live by the principles of the kingdom of Heaven?

*What should be my motivation?  Respect for the law or love of people?  Let’s not forget that it was famine and death that compelled Ruth and Naomi to migrate to the land of Israel.  The same story can be told millions of times today.  Think about the words of an immigrant from Kenya, Warsan Shire,

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Maybe I should have more compassion for people in horrible situations?

So, if God broke the Mosaic law, or used a law breaker and an illegal immigrant to bring Jesus to us, lifting love and compassion over law-keeping, what might God think of people today who challenge the law for the cause of love?  Think about it.  

Seeing Through Jesus’ Glasses

Aniumal glasses

I was raised in a culture that taught us to develop a “Biblical worldview.”  If we break that down, I guess it means to see the world through the lens of the Bible.  Or, to allow the Bible to  inform and influence the way we:

 – see the world.

 – talk about the issues in the world.

 – respond to the issues in the world.

 I appreciate the intent of the instruction. But, I wonder if the instruction falls short? If it is misguided?

You see, The point of the Bible is to guide us to Jesus – at least that’s what Jesus himself says (John 5:39)

So, why settle for a Biblical Worldview when Jesus invites us to a Jesus Worldview?  

Honestly, we don’t really follow the Biblical worldview of stoning disobedient children, sacrificing animals to appease God, slavery, silencing women, and on and on.  So, I really don’t get the “Biblical Worldview” thing.  I can more easily grasp a “Jesus Worldview.” 

Jesus invites us to “Follow me”(Matthew 4:19).  Not a book.  Him.  

“All authority has been given to me,”  Jesus says as an introduction to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).  Did we catch that?  Jesus did not say all authority was given to a book that some guys were going to write.  All authority is given to Him.    

At the close of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged the hearers not with “The one who hears the words of Moses, or Isaiah and acts on them is like the wise man, but “The one who hears and acts on (does them, practices them) my words is like the wise man” (Matthew 7:24).

I want to wake up each morning with the thought – “Jesus, let me see all things, all people, through your eyes. Give me your worldview.”

I’m teaching a series called “What Would Jesus Say About…”.  We’re diving headfirst into a deep pool.  One thing I’ve noticed is that most of the discussion about these issues from Christians sound similar to the discussions about these issues from people who don’t claim to follow Jesus. We tend to repeat the views and even prejudices of whatever news source we listen to or group we hang out with.  

I’m inviting people to join me in discovering a Jesus perspective of what is going on today. 

I’m asking myself, and encourage others to ask as well:  

“If following Jesus does not influence or transform the way I see and talk about the issues of our day, I wonder what good religion is?” 

The Teeter-Totter Connection

Teeter Totter

Have you seen or read about the “Teeter-Totter Wall.”  You had to look fast because it was only up for 30 minutes.  

 

In contrast to the tensions that we feel surrounding what’s happening at the wall, seeing a teeter-totter through the wall with kids of all ages cooperating and connecting, made me smile.  And that can’t be a bad thing.  

 

The teeter-totter was designed 10 years ago – yes, you read that right – 2009 – by Ronald Rael, an architecture professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Virginia San  Fratello, an associate professor of design at San Jose State University. It was installed July 29, 2019.

 

Not everyone liked the teeter-totters.  Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council and a border control agent gave this commentary: “Stunts like this do nothing but try to paint a narrative that frankly is false and try to get the public sentiment on their side.  They don’t work in the real world and don’t know how the real world goes – frankly, they shoudn’t be doing this.”  

 

I get what he’s thinking and saying.  But his statement makes me consider the question, “What is really real and what is false?”

 

Maybe he’s wrong and Carole King was right when she sang “Only Love is Real”.  “Everything else illusion,” she wrote.  Maybe all this hate, violence, racism, fear, economic deprivation, is not who we are.  Maybe they are imposters who have stolen our true identity.  

 

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), was a Doctor of the Church – not the M.D. kind, more like the PhD kind.  The Catholic Church gave the title of “Doctor” to those who made a “significant contribution to theology or doctrine though their research, study, or writing.”

 

Check out this “contribution” from Doctor Thomas: 

 

“All things love God.  All things are united according 

to friendship to each other and to God.”  

 

“Come on Dr. Aquinas.  Get real. Don’t be so naive.  That’s not how the real world is or how the real world works,” some may think.    Well, maybe the premodern saint and sage is on to something. Maybe the mystic recognized what science tells us today:  “There is an interconnection of all things.”  And, if all things are interconnected, isn’t there wisdom in seeing all things as friends?  We have science and spirituality teaching us, drawing us to look beyond the surface to the core.  At that core we find connection.  

 

Sesame Street gave us “The Rainbow Connection.”  

Why not a Teeter-Totter connection?  

 

Look again at the above picture and let it remind us that we are all connected.

 

Kissing Goodbye…

Joshua and Shannon

I read with sadness last week that Joshua Harris and Shannon Bonne were splitting up (I didn’t see the word “divorce”in their announcement).

Joshua is the famous author of the influential book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

The mega-hit had mega-influence on teenagers and college students.  The book, a love manual for a generation of conservative Christians, was foundational in youth and college ministries as leaders sincerely worked to help those under their care to build healthy relationships.  

It didn’t work out so well.  Josh began to have regrets about the advice he had offered.  In 2016 Josh participated in a documentary called “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”  In 2018, Josh released a statement disavowing the concepts in the book and calling for a stop of its publication. 

This morning, I read this from Josh, 

“The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus.  The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction’ the biblical phrase is ‘falling away’.  By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”  You can read Josh’s full statement here. 

I kissed dating goodbye.

I kissed marriage goodbye.

I kissed Christianity goodbye.

While these announcements have sent shockwaves through the evangelical community (and garnered a lot of criticism) the waves I’m feeling are ones of understanding and sadness.

I understand the deconstruction. It has been a necessary but sometimes painful part of my spiritual journey.

I am sad about their break-up but absolutely respect their decision and approach to their future relationship. I don’t know them.  I don’t know their story.  I don’t judge them.  I am for them. 

Maybe Josh, Shannon, my wife Denise and I are learning some of the same things – we’re just taking different paths in the education process.  

*I’m learning that “formula faith” is empty and dangerous.  You know, the “if/then” formula.  If you do this, then you will get this.  If you put a $100 bill in the offering plate then you will get $1000 back. That’s called the “prosperity gospel.”

Well, there is also “prosperity dating”.   If you stay a virgin until you’re married (Josh took it further by suggesting boundaries of no kissing, no holding hands, no being alone together before you tie the knot) then God will bless you with a good spouse, great sex and a lifetime of marital bliss. 

When the “tit for tat” way doesn’t pan out, we not only question the “way” but we question the goodness of God.  

*I’m learning that legalism is lethal and fear-based faith is scary.  Josh relates in an interview with SOJO that he and his staff started to “recognize a lot of legalism and really unhealthy patterns.”  

*I’m learning to trust the inner voice of the spirit within. Shannon puts this so well in her Instagram post when she says she was taught in her fundamentalist conservative church  “that my heart was deceitful above all else and therefore, someone else knows better what’s best for me” – describing a culture of authority figures knowing more….

We’ve been taught to listen to others but not taught very well, if at all,  how to listen to the divine image of God within us (1 Corinthians 2:11-13, John 10:27).

*I’m learning that deconstruction is not just ok, it is good.  Is deconstructing what Jesus did?  “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you.”  Or, exchanging old wineskins for new ones that can hold the new wine of his way? 

But deconstruction is hard. Do you know how hard it is to question and challenge what our culture of family and church has taught?  It’s gut-wrenching stuff.  Our world seems to collapse.

Josh says that he’s no longer a Christian.   Josh goes on to say that “by all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not not a Christian.” I so get that.  I have felt the same way.  How many times have I said, “Well, if that’s what being a Christian is, I’m not one.”  

What is the measurement of being a “Christian?”  Is it Christ? Maybe? That kind of makes sense.  The early Christians were “followers of the way” (6 times in the book of Acts).  

Maybe a Christian should be defined as a person who follows in the way – the pattern – the values of Jesus? 

I admire Josh and Shannon.  They are expressing publicly, at high risks of being judged and ostracized, their spiritual and relational journeys. They didn’t have to do it.  They could have kept it to themselves.  But by doing it like this, they are helping others like us. 

I hope for Josh and Shannon a steady move through the process of de-construction toward re-construction in which they discover a religion that indeed “re-aligns” them with the God of love in them.  

 

All You Need is Love

Paul All You Need is Love

The theme of my sermon Sunday  (July 21) was The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love”.

John Lennon wrote the song in the context of the conflicts of the 60s – the Vietnam War, Racism, Gender Discrimination, on and on.  

Beatle John’s solution?  Love.

Paul wrote his love poem, 1 Corinthians 13, in the context of the conflicts of the church.  There were, in the church, factions, divisions, comparisons, competition, categorizations – “I’m better than, more spiritual than, closer to God than – you.”

Apostle Paul’s solution?  Love.

The Love Poem of 1 Corinthians 13 was not written to be read at a wedding – although it’s a pretty good fit – it was written to be read at a fight – a relationship fight, a church fight, a community fight, a country’s fight. 

Love.  How can we love the “other”?

I got a clue from a rock – a talking rock.  South of Springfield, MO, where I live, is an attraction called “Talking Rocks Caverns”.   

Do you think they’re using “talking” as a metaphor?  Have you ever heard a rock talk?

Jesus says if we don’t recognize and respond (eulogeo – bless, speak well of) to Jesus as King of a new kingdom, then the “rocks will cry (an urgent scream) out” (Luke 19:40).  

Talking rocks. Shouting rocks. 

The Psalmist says there’s a concert in the fields.  “The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are carpeted with grain.  They shout and sing together for joy (Psalm 65:13).

Shouting Rocks.

Singing Sheep and Grain. 

There’s a lot of shouting and singing going on in nature.  An actual “rock concert”! 

How does that help me love?

Jesus teaches us to find God incarnate in this world.  Holding up the bread at the last supper, he said, “This is my body.”  

Paul writes that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen” (Romans 1:20).  

God can be seen in things if we want to see.  

In rocks. 

Even in people.  

“In the least of these” (Matthew 25:31-46).  

According to Paul, all of humanity are God’s “offspring (genos – from God’s genes)” (Acts 17:28).

Does spirituality teach us that we can see God in people and pebbles? I’m thinking, “yes.”

Science seems to teach us the same thing.  In case there is any question, I did not do well in science through school.  English, Literature, Philosophy? I loved. Not so much for science. But, I’m now I’m reading scientists who sound spiritual!

Go figure.

Science and spirituality both agree that we are all one…that we all come from one God – unless you believe that God is a white-bearded old man living in the clouds.  But if you see God as “spirit” (John 4:24), as Universal Being, Cosmic Mind, the unity of the uni-verse makes sense.  

“Universe” – “uni” means “one.”  “verse” is from the Latin “vertere”  and means “to turn.”  

Universe means we are turned into one.  

We are one.  One unified reality.  Science tells us that if we look closely enough at any person, plant or rock, its basic structure, the atom, is nothing more that a collection of spinning energy vortices – in everything.   

I don’t get that at all.  What I do get is this: Despite our apparent separateness, there appears to be one energy source from which we all arise.  Whether you call it the “Higgs Boson” or God, science and religion both agree that it’s real (Well that concept is a bit too “out there” for some people of faith to accept.) 

There is a supernatural, mystical connectedness between everything…

…even with those with whom I have major disagreements and differences.

Why should I bother with the “other”?

Why should I care about those over there?

Why should I try to walk beside those on the other side?

Why should I be with those with whom I disagree? 

Why not walk away from those who think a different way? 

Because we’re connected.  

Another guy much smarter than I, Tom Chi, said, in a Tedx Talk that “societies that deeply adopt this idea are the ones who over time deepen their level of consideration, deepen their level of expression, deepen their level of understanding, for each other.”  He goes on to say that “this is actually something that is literally true.”

Since the connection is true, the unity is a reality, I need to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bonds of peace (Ephesians 4:3).