the day i saw the Saviour

i have been a CHRISTian since 1997, when CHRIST revealed Himself to me in fullness in el naranjal, honduras, on a dirt road in that mountain village.  no sermon, no invitation complete with 15 verses of "just as i am," just an almost pauline experience of "why are you playing games with religion?" with the Saviour.  i was raised by wonderful, godly parents, who made sure that i was exposed to the Bible and the Gospel throughout my childhood days, but i will be the first to admit that in my life i have had doubts, culminating in college when everything i was being forced to learn in the biology/chemistry field contradicted what i was taught as a child.  i went through a crisis of faith, that i mostly kept to myself, where i questioned all that i had been brought up to believe.  but once CHRIST saved me, and changed my life forever, my faith became solidified in my life.  however, i will admit that i felt as many CHRISTians probably feel, a longing for the day when our faith will become sight, and we can see the Saviour face to face.  what is the reason for this?  many will give you a plethora of reasons, but very few will admit that they themselves struggle with the reality of it.  sure, they may have faith, and the Bible defines faith as "the evidence of things unseen," and unfortunately, for the majority of CHRISTians around the world, their faith must needs be placed upon things unseen.  that does not make it any less real, nor does it imply ignorance on their part, but rather the reality that we have to believe something we can only read about, and as a result, we become almost like thomas:  wanting to believe, but finding it difficult sometimes in the midst of a lack of seeing it ourselves.  that is why we long for that day when we shall stand face to face before our Saviour, experiencing Him fully and bowing at His feet in humble thanks and adoration and worship.

however, yesterday, something changed.  i saw the Saviour.  when orthodox jews pray, they pray moving their whole body, utilizing all of their senses, yielding all of them to God.  until yesterday, the only sense utilized in my faith was the sense of hearing, when my faith came by hearing the Word of God.  however, being able to utilize the senses of sight, smell, and touch, brought me one step closer to faith becoming sight.  being able to walk in the steps that CHRIST walked; touching the place where He cried out in anguish for the cup to pass from him, where His cross was placed, where His body was laid in preparation for burial, and the stone slab in the tomb where He defeated death; smelling the smells of jerusalem, the musty smell of the olive trees and dirt in the garden of gethsemane, of the anointing oils used in burial that emanated from the stone of preparation, the sickly sweet smell of stone and earth inside the tomb; made everything in the Bible come alive.

but the one sense that was the spark that lit the flame inside my soul, illuminating my faith, was the sense of sight.  standing on the mount of olives, seeing in one direction the desert where He went to be tempted, and in the other direction the city of jerusalem below, where He looked down and was moved with compassion, i gathered a glimpse of the drive inside of Him, of loving a people so deeply that it grieved His spirit at their hopelessness.  sitting in the garden of gethsemane, and looking around at the olive trees, kneeling at the stone where He prayed, and closing my eyes and picturing the darkness of that night as He awaited arrest, knowing what lay ahead, and having a chance to walk away, but choosing to submit to the Father's will,  i experienced a mere semblance of the urgency of the mission that He must have felt, the urgency of knowing that there was no other way for sinful humans to meet God's demands for holiness.  walking the via dolorosa, "the way of anguish," i could almost hear the people shouting, could almost see them lining the streets, pressing upon Him and pushing Him forward towards the place of His crucifixion.  it flooded me with the great sorrow that weighed heavier upon Him than the cross he bore upon his back, a sorrow not of what He was going through, but a sorrow wrought in the ignorance of the people around Him, the ones He loved, who not only didn't love Him back, but hated and despised Him, of a love unrequited.  few things in this life are as painful as a broken heart, and His heart was breaking as He walked that half-mile to golgotha.  seeing the rough stones on that street, and the steps going upward, that made it a sometimes unstable and difficult walk, brought to life the unbelievable task of walking that street while dehydrated and exhausted from lack of sleep, with the immense weight of a wooden crossbeam on His back.  going into the church of the holy sepulchre, i climbed the steps to golgotha, and saw and touched the ground where He was nailed to the cross, and the hole that the cross was dropped down into.  i closed my eyes and tried to block out the gaudiness of the silver and gold icons that now surrounded the place where my Saviour died for me.  i imagined what the area looked like, the smells of death and decay that would have permeated the air.  i saw His passion as He cried out "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."  climbing down from golgotha, i went to the place where His body was prepared for burial.  the romans in their cruelty, wanted to make sure that people realized the penalty for defying them, so they would not only leave people on the crosses for days after their death, to be used as fodder for crows, but once the deceased condemned were taken down from the cross, there was a stone slab nearby that their body would be placed upon and sometimes left for days as well, so that their grotesqueness and decay would be witnessed by all who passed by.  this as well removed any shred of dignity as their body lay there naked awaiting their loved ones, if any dared, to come out and prepare them for burial, and would be a further reminder to the jews of what happened when someone dared to defy the roman empire.  it was there that i saw His humility, in allowing them to treat Him with such contempt, and it resounded in my mind, flooding my thoughts, the verse where it said, "and He humbled himself, being obedient to death, even to death on a cross."  it was there that the "even" garnered meaning beyond anything i ever have imagined in my head.

and then, as i stood in line for 20 minutes to spend my 15 seconds inside His tomb, a tide of reality crashed into my faith.  the King was dead.  you read it in the Bible, you see it in movies and plays, but here, in the coldness and solemnity of this dark, cold, stone church, the reality set in.  as i waited to enter, i realized what the disciples must have felt as they waited.  those 20 minutes seemed like hours, as i tried to process all my soul was experiencing through the rush of the dwindling of time, like trying to drink in as much of a river as you could as it rushed past.  before entering His tomb, there was a tomb in a room off to the right, that was the tomb that joseph of arimithea occupied after giving his tomb to CHRIST.  it was not covered with a chapel, nor was it garnished with gold and silver or icons and paintings, but rather was a simple room, left untouched save the walls and high ceiling of the church built around the site.  the floor was not paved, but was still a rock and dirt floor, and you could walk down into it and see and experience what an actual tomb was like during the time of CHRIST.  this was a reminder of the lack of pomp surrounding CHRIST's burial.  i pictured that as i made my way forward with the pilgrims of the faithful to the entrance of CHRIST's tomb.  it was now covered with the extravagance that the church had bestowed upon the holy place.  the entrance was low and cramped, and only 3 or 4 people could be inside at a time due to the space constraints.  as i entered, an overwhelming sense of holiness permeated the air.  some may say it was emotion, but it was more than that.  i felt a stirring in my soul that was as powerful as that day in el naranjal, when CHRIST revealed Himself to me.  there it was:  the stone where His body lay.  it is important to note that:  it was His body.  He was dead.  this was a tomb, a grave, cold and dark, sealed off by a massive stone, despite the spectacle that it has now become.  in those 15 seconds inside, before the attendant outside began rushing us out, i experienced a lifetime.  for a moment, time stood still.  and in the final seconds, as i knelt there with tears running down my face, i saw Him defeat death, and noted that His body is not there!  joseph of arimithea's bones were carried away and put in a church somewhere, as were the other apostles and saints throughout history.  but there were no bones of CHRIST to carry away.  i watched Him in my mind's eye, sit up on that slab, place His feet over the side, stand up, and walk out of that tomb.  He's alive!  and because He's alive, we now have all of these places that have been preserved.  because He's alive, i now have a Saviour, instead of a dead religious leader leaving me hopeless.  the King is alive!

there were those there that kissed the places mentioned.  there were those that were simply there because of the historical significance of them.  there were those there that signed up for a tour, and missed the Saviour.  that's because rocks and churches and paintings are just that:  creations.  there is little value in and of those things apart from faith.  some chose to place their faith in those things, worshiping the creation instead of the Creator.  for me, they were a doorway to a hidden part of my faith that i never realized was there until yesterday.  Jesus said, "blessed are those who haven't seen and yet believe."  so was my faith any less real before yesterday?  absolutely not, as is the same with yours.  the government of nigeria will pay for their people to visit jerusalem once in their lifetime.  the nation of israel will pay for a "birthright" trip for every jew throughout the world to come to the holy land once in their lifetime.  i wish that every one of you could get the chance to come and experience the holy land, if only once in your lifetime.  but for those who will never be able to, take heart, for your faith without sight is blessed, and one day, all of us will have our faith become sight when we stand before Him in Heaven to share eternity in His presence!  until that day, my faith will forever be changed, having seen a glimpse of the Saviour, much like moses in the cleft of the rock, and having those places in Scripture come to life, from words typed on the onion-skin paper of my Bible, to a place of strengthened reality in my soul.  there is no greater CHRISTmas present that i could ever have asked for!    


the night before CHRISTmas, navy style

*this post is not in my usual format since i cut and pasted it from my original file.  but this was a version of "the night before CHRISTmas" i wrote for my sailors on both uss stout and bainbridge.

Twas the night before Christmas, somewhere in the Med,
When “Taps, lights out” was heard, as passageways glowed red.
The night watch was busy standing their posts,
Diligently watching for any threat posed.
The Sailors were in berthings, exhausted from the day,
Dreaming of their families celebrating Christmas far away.

The bridge kept the helm, and I looked out aft,
As the stars above sparkled while the dark water churned past,
When out in the distance, I swore I heard bells,
What exactly it was, my eyes could not tell.
I called on the radio to report the strange sound,
But their radar showed nothing, no contacts to be found,
The full moon shone brightly, lighting up the sky,
As what I heard suddenly appeared to my eyes:
A sleigh pulled by reindeer, with Santa at the reins,
Which made me think the dark was playing tricks with my brain.
But the moonlight o’er the darkness, left absolutely no doubt,
That it really was Santa as he circled about.

Around the ship quickly, past the bridge he flew,
And I wondered if the bridge lookout saw him, too.
Yet no word was passed, from the radio, no sound,
As St. Nick and his reindeer came flying down.
Though flight quarters weren’t set, no flight crew in sight,
St. Nicholas and nine reindeer on the flight deck did light.

I stood there and stared, pinched my arm just to see,
If I had fallen asleep, and this all was a dream.
But as I pondered this unbelievable sight,
St. Nick stroked his beard, and put down his pipe.
He looked at me intently, and then gave a frown,
As he stood up and from his sleigh he climbed down.
“Young man,” he said to me, “I wonder if you might,
Explain to me why you’re on this ship Christmas Eve night?”
“Sir,” I replied, “I am a Sailor on post,
And our ship is deployed far away from our coast.”
His frown deepened further, as he looked at me and said,
“But this is Christmas Eve, you should be with family instead!”
The thought of my family brought a lump to my throat,
And I swallowed hard against tears as I zipped up my coat,
“Santa, I would much rather be home by my tree,
Watching my family unwrap presents, I miss them, you see,
But the nation, it counts upon Sailors like us,
To keep them all safe, and keep them safe we must.
Because there are those who would like to cause harm,
We’re here to stop them, so they’ve no need for alarm.
My shipmates and I, we all took an oath,
To support and defend, and with our best we’ll do both.”
His eyes welled with tears, as he wiped them away,
And he said, “Thank you, son.  I don’t know what else to say.
I really would like to tell the rest this as well,
And maybe leave gifts, and some treats, so do tell,
It is obvious you have no chimney, there’s none I can see,
Save those big smoke stacks, would those work for me?”
“Santa,” I replied, with a smile on my face, “Those go to turbines, and the engineers’ space,
And even if you could, there’s no fireplace inside,
So I think you’d be better off staying outside,”
He smiled and looked up, and then looked back at me,
And said, “Is there any kind of present they’d gladly receive?”
I closed my eyes and pictured Christmas back home,
As my family would be waiting for my call on the phone,
“Santa, I believe I can speak for the crew,
And I know exactly what they all would ask of you,
Go back and tell everyone that you see,
That our watch is our Christmas gift to them from the sea.”
He came to attention, and gave me a salute,
And said that he would do that, with love from the troops.
So he climbed back up, and sat in his sleigh,
And said those words heard that first Christmas Day.
“Peace on earth among all, I pray you will see,
And you no longer will have to spend Christmas at sea.
But until that day comes, please know that you,
Share mine and a nation’s utmost gratitude.”
He gave the reins a snap, and they took off like a light,
Just like a helo, lifting off in flight. 
And as I heard the 1MC call the lookout team away,
I heard him shout, “Merry Christmas to you all, and Anchors Aweigh!”


grave rolling st. nicholas

on the ship, i have been videoing readings of "the night before CHRISTmas," where people can read the book and i can burn it onto a dvd for them to send to their families.  it is truly one of my favorite CHRISTmas traditions.  the point of this post is not to get into the whole debate about "to santa, or not to santa," but rather to point out something that i noticed during the many times of hearing this story read.  are you ready?  here is a direct quote from the book, "he spoke not a word, but went straight to his work and filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk, and laying a finger aside of his nose and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose."  did you see it?  i ask because after all the times i have read this poem, i never saw it until recently.  what did st. nicholas do?  or better yet, what didn't he do?  read it again.  "went straight to his work and filled all the stockings."  did you catch it?  that was all he did!  it didn't say he filled the room with presents, or decorated the CHRISTmas tree, or checked his list to make sure little johnny and susie got every gift that was on their list.  nope.  just filled some stockings.  nothing more, nothing less. 

i say this, because you have all heard me rant and rave about the materialistic idol worship service that CHRISTmas has become.  i hear pastors all the time preaching from the pulpit vilifying st. nicholas, or as he is commonly known in the common vernacular:  "santa claus" (coming from the dutch variation of st. nicholas sinterclaas.)  however, st. nicholas, or santa claus, is not the villain.  if you look at the historical account of st. nicholas, he lived in the late 200s and early 300s a.d.   he was the son of a wealthy couple who died, and left him a huge inheritance.  he was a very devout CHRISTian, and would use his wealth to help others, even after becoming a bishop in what is now modern day turkey.  the most famous story attributed to saint nicholas was the leaving of three bags of gold coins at the house of a poor man.  this money was to meant to be the dowry for his three young daughters, so that he could afford to have them married and them not be relegated to a life of prostitution.  the tradition was that he threw the bags through the window of the house for three consecutive nights, because he wanted the gift to remain anonymous so as to not embarrass the man.  on the third night, the man stood outside his house to try and find out the identity of the mysterious benefactor, so nicholas dropped the bag of coins down the chimney, which happened to land in one of the girls' stockings, which were hung by the fireplace to dry after washing them.  other accounts have him leaving coins or fruit in the shoes of children that were left outside the door to avoid tracking dirt from outside into the house.  this was traditionally held to have happened on december 6th, which is why much of the world celebrates st. nicholas day on decemeber 6th.  it wasn't until the poem, "a visit from st. nick," was published in 1822 in a newspaper in troy, ny, that they modern day figure of st. nicholas came into being.  the author, clement moore, who wished to remain anonymous at the time, wrote it as a fictional story to his children based upon the story of st. nicholas.  he himself was a clergyman and used historical facts to write the poem, such as st. nicholas having a white beard and dressing in red, as he was commonly shown in the orthodox icons.  he took some liberties in changing the date to coincide with CHRISTmas, but until then, st. nicholas was not associated with the holiday. 

so why the history lesson?  because i believe that if st. nicholas could see what his story has morphed into today, he would roll over in his grave.  this was a man who devoted his life to helping others, including sailors, which is why he is the patron saint of mariners.  he was a person who was not materialistic, but rather one who sought to help others with the gifts that God had given him.  that is a far cry from what santa claus and CHRISTmas represents in today's society.  but there is a debate technique called "setting up a straw man," in which a person sets up a decoy and attacks it, rather than attacking the actual problem.  this is the whole debate over santa claus.  you see, many people attack the "lie" of santa claus, and not what the lie represents.  many of the people who preach against santa claus have no problem with other make-believe games with their children.  how many dads have had sword-fights with their kids only to fall to their young knights' blows?  was the dad dead?  no!  he was pretending.  how many moms have sat at a tea party with their daughters and sipped pretend tea, telling them how good it was?  i know many santa claus deniers that have admitted to playing the tooth fairy game.  what is creepier?  a little fairy that loves children's teeth so much that they are willing to pay for them, or a man who gives gifts to children out of generosity?  but, like i said before, the purpose of this post is not to debate the game of santa claus.  because the game is not the problem.  yet we sit and whack away at the straw man that is santa claus, all the while ignoring the real problem:  greed and coveting.  why do we do this?  because it's easier to attack a fictional character as the culprit behind the problem that we create ourselves.  we are the culprits of greed. 

in the movie "fred claus," the statement is made that in the early 1900s, the average child asked for 3 presents, and today that list has grown to 27 gifts per child, and due to this increase, there was no way that santa claus could keep up with the demand and needed to step aside.  it's comical, but true.  there was a letter from the early 1900s to santa claus that was recently published, and the list was surprisingly simple and short.  the modern day phenomenon that is black friday, that everyone laments, was created by us.  it's easy to blame the merchants.  but yet, the real blame lies on us.  think about it, if the CHRISTmas lists of the early 1900s hadn't grown into the books that they have become, those children wouldn't have grown up expecting extravagant CHRISTmases, nor would they have passed that on to their children.  we are all born with the sin nature, meaning that we are all born wanting stuff.  and when that nature is fed, it grows.  that's why the Bible says to train up a child in the way he should go.  so when our kids begin becoming materialistic, we can either a) teach them the dangers of greed and want, or b) feed their greed and want and watch it grow to the point that we stab other parents trying to take the last ps4 at wal-mart on black friday because we have to get it for our kids or they won't have a good CHRISTmas.  so the problem is not an imaginary obese man in a red suit, it is the greed that has been unfairly associated with a man who devoted his life to giving to help others.

so what are we to do?  can we fight society?  no.  we can't stop the ebb and flow of the societal river.  but we can take a stand in our own lives and the lives of our children.  there is nothing wrong with giving gifts.  the gifts given to the CHRIST-child are a perfect example of this.  but when it comes to CHRISTmas and the traditions surrounding it, we can take that opportunity to teach our kids about contentment.  just because a kid gives you a list doesn't mean that you have to get them everything on it.  it doesn't mean that you have to go into debt to buy gifts that you can't afford.  it means that you take the time to teach your kids about what it means to be greedy, and the dangers of that mentality.  it means that you love your kids enough to tell them "no" to outrageous requests.  it means that you share in the magic of CHRISTmas with your children, by reading them fictional stories and decorating and engaging in family activities together such as making cookies and candies.  or better yet, how about our taking the story of st. nicholas, and teaching that to our kids, about giving to others less fortunate, whether that's packing a box for operation: CHRISTmas child, or buying a CHRISTmas meal for the family in your church that is struggling, or by pulling an angel off the angel tree at the mall and giving your kids the opportunity to share their CHRISTmas with an unknown child that is truly in need.  psychologists have even shown that a person who gives is happier than a person who gets.  in "a CHRISTmas carol," the ghost of CHRISTmas present shows ebeneezer scrooge the two children hidden underneath the bottom of his robe.  he says that their names are "ignorance and want," but to beware "ignorance" most, because on his forehead is written the word "doom."  our "want" has consumed us, but our "ignorance" of it will lead us to our doom.  a nation that is greedy will eventually consume itself.  judging by what we see every year in december, it doesn't seem we are far from it.     


home or something like it

a strange thing happened this morning.  up until this point, i've been trying to ignore the holidays for the most part.  i think about them, but try not to focus on them.  i would rather put them out of my mind and just see every day at sea as a "groundhog day" of sorts, no different from the next.  however, this morning, as i sat at the table in the wardroom eating my breakfast, and drinking a cup of pumpkin spice coffee that i had brewed in the wardroom coffee pot for everyone (the officers thank you, baby love!), for no real reason, i had tears in my eyes.  maybe it was the smell of the coffee in the air, the taste of it in my cup, or the talk of the parade, or a combination of those, but i was instantly transported back in my mind to my own kitchen, leaning up against the counter with my cup of pumpkin spice coffee that i drink this time of the year, talking with my bride, and my kids running around.  scientists say that our sense of smell is one of the most powerful senses linked to our memory, and this morning proved it.  and all of a sudden, everything that i had tried to ignore slammed into me with the force of a freight train, and i gulped down my last swallow of coffee and made a dash to the restroom to splash some cold water on my face and regain my composure.  the ship does everything that they can to mitigate the pain of being away from home, and make it as "homely" as possible.  we will have a thanksgiving meal, that we all took part in the preparation of, and have a holiday routine with nothing major going on today.  the thanksgiving day parade will be on the televisions this evening, followed by football.  throughout the day, "happy thanksgiving" has been on everyone's lips that you pass.  but no matter how much they try to make it as close to home as possible, it isn't home.  and we all feel it.  our thoughts today will be overtaken by images of our families and loved ones around tables across the country, dressed in their nice clothes, eating their thanksgiving meals.  that is the sacrifice we all make for our country's freedom.

as i fought back these emotions, it brought a very interesting thought as well.  in the movie the matrix, from which this blog takes its name, morpheus tells neo before awakening him to the truth about the matrix that he has always felt that something was off, that something was not quite real about his existence.  this is an interesting parallel to us as Christ-followers.  the bible repeatedly talks about this world not being our home, and refers to us as aliens in a strange land.  you see, as Christ-followers, our home is in heaven, and even though we can do what we can to make this world as home-like as possible, it will never feel like home to us.  there will always be something that seems "off" to us, and this world is a pale comparison to our home in heaven. 

but there are those that look around them, and like the apostle paul said, will love "this present world more than the next."  many times, we accept the cheap imitation as the real, because it is our present reality, but if we are honest, and take our blinders off, we can realize that it is not real.  in the movie "labyrinth," the goblin king offers the heroine a version of her home that looks just like her home, but she realizes that it is not real, and only a cheap imitation.  that's what this world has offered us, and many of us accept it.  why do we do this?  perhaps because it's easier to accept the here and now.  so we choose to take the "blue pill" of ignorance and live in the bliss of denial because this is what we know.  it's safe, it's easy, it takes no thought or faith, and it's familiar.  we all long for the comfort of the familiar.  out at sea, we get into a routine, and this reality becomes our focus.  to think of home is too painful, so we adapt by trying to put it out of our minds.  that is why port is always bittersweet.  it breaks our routine, and we get to do things like facetime and skype with our family members, bringing a painful reminder that our reality is not what we've made it.  so many prefer to not pull into port, or to get back out to sea so that they can get back into their routine and block home out of their minds.  they've began to love this present life, more than the next.  they know that they are stuck here until the deployment is over, so why focus on what you can't have.  that's the attitude that many of us as Christ-followers have.  we are stuck here on this earth, so make the best of it and try not to focus on it not being our home, in other words, accept it.  and by doing that, we have swallowed the blue pill, and that can have disastrous consequences.  when we settle into our present reality, we can forget what we have waiting for us.  there are those that have settled so much into their ship reality, that they have made bad decisions that affect their future reality.  over-spending online, not communicating with home, and "loving the one they're with" are the results of that chosen ignorance.  it is the same for us as Christ-followers.  when we stop focusing on Christ and our future home with Him, we accept cheap imitations of his wealth and end up in debt because of coveting.  we accept cheap earthly imitations of intimacy instead of His model of holy intimacy in marriage and daily communion with Him.  we accept cheap imitations of friendship and family instead of our permanent family in heaven and stop spreading His gospel, even among our own earthly families, for fear of offending them or being ridiculed.  we accept this cheap imitation of life, instead of the abundant life that He promises us, both on this earth, and in heaven. 

so today, i made a decision to embrace my cup of pumpkin spice coffee and the memories it brings, because that is my reality here on earth.  i am consciously choosing to focus on my family back home, no matter how painful, because my longing is to be with them.  and i will be thinking about what they will be doing today, as i eat my thanksgiving meal this evening.  because i know that they will be thinking about me.  i think about my three boys, and my bride, and what it's going to be like when i am back with them.  i encourage you to do the same with this present life.  remember that this earth is not your home, and as the song says, "you are just a-passing through."  as you attend worship services this weekend, think about your family in heaven, and what their worship service must be like, and how glorious it will be!  think about those faithful departed in your own life, and the joy of seeing them again.  i think about my 3 grandparents that are there, my friends that are there, and those now that are brothers and sisters in Christ that will be there with me, and it fills me with joy.  think about the faithful departed heroes of the faith, such as the apostles, and the greats such as martin luther, charles spurgeon, john calvin, and countless others, and the conversations you will be able to have with them when you are home.  but most importantly, think about the love of your life, Christ, and being there with Him.  on that day, we will truly have the thanksgiving feast that will far surpass any that we've had on this earth!  so happy thanksgiving to all of you.  i pray that this dose of the "red pill" has refocused you, as it has me!   


sad little tree

i am having an identity crisis.  i am a tree.  a common evergreen, usually of the spruce, fir, cedar, or pine variety that most people put out around CHRISTmas time.  for a couple centuries, i’ve been called a CHRISTmas tree, but lately, my cousins have been renamed as holiday trees.  but that is not my quandary.  CHRISTmas tree, holiday tree, festive tree, it makes no difference to me.  whatever my cousins are called, they are still used for the same purpose:  celebrating CHRISTmas.  “a rose called by any other name…” and all that.  but my existence is within a different paradigm.  some years, i am put up at CHRISTmas time.  the family decorates me and the children get excited when they see me.  the parents sit at night on the couch together and look at me in the dark as my lights twinkle in the corner of the living room.  presents are wrapped and placed under me, and i am enjoyed for the entire month of december. 

other years, i am put up in july, or september, or even february.  my branches are decorated in the same CHRISTmas fashion, and i must look odd and out of place to the world outside my home.  presents are still placed under me, but the excitement is dulled, and there is a somber mood that surrounds me.  i do not particularly care for those times, but it is still nice to be used.

but there are some years that i am not put up at all.  i sit in my box in the back of the garage and gather dust.  one year, i was put up at CHRISTmas, and i was excited as i looked forward to a month of children playing around me, being the center of attention in the room, and bringing joy to the family.  but i was taken down immediately after in the midst of tears and thrown roughly back into my box and shoved back into the garage.  this year, i sat here in my box and waited.  and waited.  and waited.  but was never retrieved.  i felt the chill in the air of december come and go, and the warmth return again, and was never allowed to leave my box.  i suppose it is because i am a reminder of what’s missing in the family during those times.  i belong to a military family, and deployments are no respecter of holidays, even CHRISTmas.  so i get neglected, and that’s ok.  i understand.  i may not like it, but i would rather stay in my box than bring sadness to people.  because i realize i am lucky.

you see, there are some of my cousins that may never get put up again.  they had the same erratic schedule that i did for years, until one day, a knock on the door changed CHRISTmas forever for their family.  now, they are always a reminder of what will forever be missing at CHRISTmas time.  i’ve heard that they’ve been replaced by little tabletop shrubs, or were never replaced at all.  so for now, i’ll settle with my erratic schedule.  although i do not like not knowing when i’ll be put up, at least i know i’ll get put up.  and while i may be a reminder of what’s temporarily missing, i know i’m not a twisting knife in the heart of a family that will never celebrate CHRISTmas in the same way again. 

so call me what you will:  CHRISTmas tree, holiday tree, festive tree, it makes no matter.  but when you look at my cousin in your living room this year, remember Who it is we represent, and say a prayer for those who will put my cousins up in a ramshackle mud hut in the desert, or a steel gray ship at sea, and see halos around their twinkle lights through the tears as they miss their families.  and remember those families for whom we are a reminder of a permanent hole in their lives every year in the month before december 25th.


the downgrade of the western church

many people have compared the united states to the roman empire, and there are those who support as well as disagree with that theory.  however, one comparison that has been largely overlooked is the comparison of the organization of the church with that of the roman empire.  in the early days of the church, people met in homes in secrecy, for fear of the government and persecution.  then, upon the emperor constantine's conversion to CHRISTianity, the church got thrust from the shadows into the light and placed in a position of prominence.  while this was seen as a welcome change to many in the church of that day, it became a chink in the armor of the church as corruption infiltrated the church by those entering the clergy with a lust for power instead of a desire to follow the CHRIST of the church.  it became a social institution used for political gain, and the ethics and morals that were hallmarks of the church were replaced with greed and tyranny.

fast forward to the founding of the united states.  the founders of our country fled religious persecution to come to a country where they were free to worship CHRIST in the manner they felt was biblical.  the church experienced a revival, only to find herself subject to the ebb and flow of societal popularity, but for the most part remaining a personal aspect of the individual rather than the collective.  in post ww2, there was a heightened sense of national pride, and consumerism experienced a significant flux as the baby boomer generation burst onto the scene, and the economy shot through the roof.  it was then that a return to the church arose, and church got thrust out of the individual homes and into the public spotlight and a place of prominence.  church membership became synonymous with national pride and americana, and the consumer culture that pervade society made it's way into the church.  church became a commodity, a place to network, and a mark of a person's patriotism and societal standing.  while many baby boomers today look back to what they refer to as the "golden age" of the church and the "good ole days", the 1950s was a great boost to the church as an organization, but was one of the great detriments to the church as a biblical entity.

as the 1950s lingered on, the spiritual depth of the church became shallower and shallower, with CHRISTianity becoming replaced by a religion of morality.  This left the children of the 1950s generation disillusioned with the politics and the superficiality of their parents, resulting in the rebellion of the 1960s against everything having to do with the church and the religious moralism modeled by the previous generation.  there were slight returns to biblical CHRISTianity, but the consumer CHRISTianity that was germinated in the 1950s had taken root, and every return to biblical CHRISTianity was preyed upon by the consumer culture, like a leech sucking off of its host, but never killing it.  this cancer of consumer CHRISTianity has affected the church, and not in a good way.  the church has become a religious country club, where the command of "go" given by CHRIST has been replaced with post-modern tribalism, with church members hiding behind their million-dollar church walls and denominational signs, isolating themselves from a decadent society, but not out of a sense of fear and survival, but rather out of a need to not be bothered or taken out of their comfort zone.  this shallow version of CHRISTianity has led to a replacement of biblical principles with political correctness and a denial of the promise of CHRIST that His followers will suffer for His Name's sake.  we are told by pastors such as joel osteen that our life in CHRIST should be a dream life with God as our own personal genie, waiting to grant our every wish.  we are told by pastors like rob bell that we should ignore biblical definitions of sin in the name of love and acceptance.

in the midst of this bleak outlook, there is hope.  CHRIST founded the church, and promised that she would endure until the end.  however, the biblical church, which is made up of people, and not bricks and mortar, will carry on in a far different way than what we have seen of the church as an organization in the past half-century.  the church as an organization will carry on, but i believe it will fundamentally change to reflect the societal shifts and political pressures being placed upon it.  there is still big money to be made utilizing the CHRISTian name, and as long as there is money to be made, there will be a need for the organization to exist.  but i foresee the biblical church having to go back into the shadows in a future of increasing persecution.  the good news about this is that the biblical church has always thrived under intense persecution, and the church has always grown historically during those times.  but it is a qualitative growth vice a quantitative growth.  more time is spent actually making disciples and not converts, and the original model presented by CHRIST for the church prevails.  this happens all over the world on a daily basis, and the church thrives in those countries where persecution is heaviest.  the question CHRISTians in the united states must answer is what are we willing to endure for the sake of CHRIST?  because i have a feeling that in the not too far future we will see who is willing, and who is merely giving lip service.      


low in the grave he lay

i have seen a lot of recent posts on facebook stating something along the lines of "sunday's coming".  as CHRISTians, we focus on the passion week, starting with palm sunday, all the way to maundy thursday, and then good friday, with the culmination being resurrection sunday.  by the time we get to good friday, the focus then shifts to sunday.  while sunday is very important, we neglect saturday to our detriment.  we know very little about that saturday between Christ's death and His resurrection.  we can infer a few things, but the Bible is silent about the events between the death of Christ and the resurrection.  we know that joseph of arimathea provided a tomb for Him to be laid in and he and nicodemus prepared Him for burial by wrapping Him in clean linen and spices, with mary and mary magdalene present.  we also know that the jewish leaders petitioned pilate to place a roman guard in front of the tomb to prevent His disciples from "stealing the body" and saying He was resurrected.  but in terms of the disciples, we know nothing about that saturday between His death and resurrection.

maybe the Bible is silent on this day because it is not important.  we know that saturday is the sabbath, and the disciples were resting on the sabbath according to law, so maybe this is why the Bible is silent on this day.  but one very important thing we can assume from what the Bible does tell us, is that saturday was a very long one.  we know that the disciples went into hiding on that friday, and that they were still in hiding on sunday.  we know that they were sad and downcast from the conversation on the road to emmaus.  so even though the Bible is silent on the actual events of saturday in terms of the disciples, it communicates a lot.

as CHRISTians, we all have what i call "saturday mourning" experiences.  as a chaplain, one of my many duties is making casualty calls on the families of deceased marines and sailors.  as a hospital chaplain, i was also responsible for being there when families received the news that their family member passed away or when patients received a grim prognosis.  i not only was there for the initial notification, but for the aftermath as well.  there are times in all of our lives when we experience those times of solemnity.  we have received bad news, and there is an outpouring of support from friends and family members, but eventually those friends and family have to return to their lives and we are left on our own to process what has been told to us.  it is in those times that God can seem like He's light years away, and we can feel left all alone to deal with the crushing blow that has come our way.  sometimes, the dark times in our lives can cause us to forget the promises God has made to us.  even the disciples forgot that Jesus said that He would rise again on the third day.  the jewish leaders didn't forget it.  they even tried to prevent it.  but they didn't just lose the one person that they had put all their hopes and dreams on.  the disciples were sad, and they were afraid.  and they were hiding.  all because they had lost their faith that God was still there and was still going to keep His promise.

in our lives, it's easy to think that God has somehow forsaken us or forgot about us when things don't go the way we think they should.  we are never promised an easy life, and on the contrary, we are promised the exact opposite as CHRISTians.  so when we are in those "saturday mournings", we can rest assured that God's promises still hold true, and that just because things didn't work out the way we expected, it doesn't mean we didn't have enough faith, it means that we still need to have faith that God is still there and is still in control.  because until we get to heaven, "saturday mournings" will come, and are in fact, inevitable.  we may be tempted to go into hiding, as many CHRISTians do, both from God, and the people of God.  but we should not remain in hiding, or remain downtrodden, because during our times of sadness, we can be a more powerful witness of the One who is bringing "resurrection morning", to a world that is in perpetual "saturday mourning" without hope.