Saturday, December 11, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3

In this series, I'm exploring why I believe that Christian faith rings so true that it convinced me to move from being the atheist I once was, to being an enthusiastic follower of Jesus Christ.

In the first two installments, I gave my first two reasons for believing the truth of the Christian witness about God.

First, I'm swayed by its uniqueness. Unlike other religious or philosophical systems in the world, Christian belief is rooted in the notion that God reaches down to us and does all that is necessary for us to become acceptable to God and gives all that is necessary for us to live a new and better life. The Christian message about a God Who loves fallen sinners and then makes it possible for us to enjoy an eternally restored relationship with God as a free gift is so completely countercultural that it jolts me to attention. This unique perspective makes me conclude that the Christian message is either completely nuts or the definitive Word from God.

Since my life experiences cause me to observe that truth usually resides in the unexpected possibility, Christianity's uniqueness persuades me of its truth.

Second, I am persuaded by the claims that Jesus makes to be God in the flesh. These claims were buttressed by the life Jesus led and the fact that, unlike others who have made similar claims, Jesus gives no evidence either of being mad or a liar.

Now we come to the third reason I believe that Christian faith rings true: Jesus' death on a cross.

A man I know once derided his daughter's faith and the cross she wore as a sign of it. "Don't you know what happened on that cross?" he asked her. "Christian faith is nothing but a dark, sick obsession with death."

Maybe that man was only ever exposed to a morose and sickly version of Christian faith, the kind humorist Garrison Keillor described when he once observed, "When you're Lutheran and from the Midwest, it's always Lent."

But Christians don't value what Jesus did on the cross for its gruesome qualities. They value it because Jesus voluntarily underwent the torture of the cross for people like us--by that I mean, people like the one writing this blog and the ones reading it.

For us to fully appreciate what Jesus did on the cross for us, we must first come to terms with some very difficult--and for many people, unpalatable--facts.

The first is this: You and I are the genetic heirs of a condition called sin. Sin is the condition of alienation from God and others into which all human beings are born. It's our inborn predisposition to "look out for number one."

Don't believe that's our common condition? I didn't believe it either. It flies in the face of our usual view of babies being these blank slates with an innate sweetness and innocence. But then a friend asked me once, "Mark, if you locked two two-year olds in a room with a single toy, what do you think would happen?" "I suppose," I said, "that they'd fight over it." "Why?" "Because they each would want the toy for themselves." "Okay," my friend asked me, "who taught them to be selfish?"

Of course, the answer is that no one teaches infants to be selfish. It comes naturally. Infants use their cries and whimpers to manipulate their environments, including their parents who they regard as mere extensions of themselves, to get what they want.

Unpalatable fact number two: Our condition of sin causes us to commit individual sins. God's expectation of human beings--in fact, I think, our expectation of human beings--is simple: to love God with every fiber of our beings and to love others as we love ourselves. I don't know about you, but on any given day, I'm sure that I don't live up to that standard very well.

We need to understand what love is, from God's perspective. Last week, while driving from one meeting to another, I listened to the host of a national radio sports show. He was reacting to a statement from Jason Giambi that came after his Grand Jury testimony revealing his use of steroids. In his statement, Giambi said that he loved baseball. That set the radio host to talking about a definition of love. He claimed it was an emotion, an involuntary response over which we have no control. "Why do you think they call it 'falling in love'?" he asked triumphantly.

Falling in love is a very pleasant sensation. I've experienced it. It can be the initial explosion that sets the engine of a relationship running. But, it seems to me that love--the kind of love that sustains marriages, friendships, and other relationships over the long haul--is composed of a chain of conscious decisions.

I often tell young couples who are preparing for marriage that love isn't something that you feel, it's often what you do in spite of how you feel. A woman once told me, "When Joe and I first were married, we told each other that no matter what may happen in our lives, divorce is not an option." That decision to stay together has sustained them through good times and bad. The result: A marriage in which their emotions follows their commitment. Many people turn things around, making their commitments contingent on their feelings. But feelings change and when we take our cues from emotions, we render ourselves unreliable as spouses, parents, and friends. We also risk missing out on the blessings that go with sticking it out and taking our life journeys with a few valued companions.

I see persevering love in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. I can't imagine that as Jesus hung on the cross, He was taken with the curve of His executioners' noses or the sounds of people's angry voices. But I am sure that He loved us. (More on that later.)

If I regard Jesus' giving of Himself on the cross as the gold standard of love with its willingness to sacrifice Himself for our good, I come to see that I hardly know how to love. So, my condition of sin renders me incapable of loving with the kind of abandon and devotion that God commands. My inborn alienation from God is made worse by my acts of sinful selfishness and self-will.

Unpalatable fact number three: There is an immutable law of the universe that says, "the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23) Death is separation from God, the source of life. Without a connection to God, we are all looking at an eternal death sentence. Not a pretty picture.

Unpalatable fact number four: I need someone to help me. It's unpalatable because it's such a blow to our pride. But assuming that I want to recover my true self, the self God wants me to be and the self that I want myself to be and sometimes pretend to be, I need to be rescued. Assuming that I want to live, really live, I need to be rescued.

Somebody needs to bridge the gap between God and me. I am incapable of doing it. The condition of sin, with the added weight of my individual sins, drives me away from God. Trying to claw my way to God is like stepping on the gas when your car is stuck in snow: you'll only wedge yourself deeper into the ground.

That's where Jesus comes in. Not even Jesus' fiercest enemies made the case that He had ever done anything wrong. Jesus was a man, but He was implanted in His mother's womb by the power of God's Holy Spirit. That means that unlike every other human being since Adam and Eve, the first to fall into alienation from God, Jesus was exempt from the genetic inheritance of sin.

This God-Man came into the world on a simple mission. He would take the punishment we deserved for sin, paying the price our crimes demand. But because He was undeserving of this punishment, Jesus wouldn't stay dead. On the cross, Jesus killed the power of sin and death. And anyone who will humble themselves, confessing their sin and asking for Jesus to rescue them, can have life forever with God, a wonderful new life that begins even now.

In this way, Jesus bridges the gap between us. It is an amazing thing when you think about it. The New Testament marvels at it:
"For while we were still weak [in our sin], at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually die. But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)
Why do I believe that the proclamation of the Christian faith is true?

First, because of its uniqueness.

Second, because I find the claims of Jesus to be God in the flesh compelling.

And third, because Jesus, a perfectly righteous man, took my punishment for sin on a cross, an act of unmatched love.

More in my next post on this subject...

High School Students' Suspension Big Story in Cincinnati

Everybody in the Cincinnati area is talking about this story.

In a nutshell, an area high school student used the school's normal means for distributing a letter in which he commended his faith in Christ. He was suspended for five days.

Frankly, I understand the stance of the school's administration that distribution of these materials in this way created the impression of preferential treatment for the Christian faith and that the young man was out of line to distribute the materials as he did.

But I also agree with a friend of mine, a local lawyer, who said, "This is the problem with zero-tolerance rules." How truly disruptive, my friend wondered, was this action in comparison with the many horrible things students could do? Five days suspension seems a bit much.

To his credit, the student, Eric Bast, has decided not to appeal the punishment.

He seems like a very cool kid, a free spirit unafraid to be himself: sideburns, multicolored hair, and all. He's also an Honors student and appears to have had a positive impact on the lives of others. Check out Eric's web site, here.

My Five Favorite Baseball Movies of All Time

It's starting to feel like winter around here, baseball has been rocked by the confirmation that at least some of its most prominent power hitters have been using steroids, and it'll be awhile before the college basketball season hits its stride. So, it's the perfect time to talk about our five favorite baseball movies of all time. Use the comment button below to share your list. Here's mine...

1. Field of Dreams
2. The Natural
3. Bang the Drum Slowly
4. The Rookie
5. Angels in the Outfield (Disney remake)

Friday, December 10, 2004

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 2

[I apologize for being tardy in the delivery of this essay.]

On Thursday, I began this series by saying that the first reason I believe that Christian faith is true, that is, a true pathway to God, is its uniqueness. The Judeo-Christian faith of the Bible is the only religious belief system in the world that says that a relationship with God or a state of holiness is a gift from God, accessible to those with faith in Christ. (This is what the Bible calls grace, a word which in the Greek of the New Testament, is related to our word for charity.)

This unique perspective, so out of step with the teachings of other religions, either means Christian faith is completely right or totally off the mark.

But there's a second reason I believe that Christian faith is true. It's this: Jesus Himself. The truth or falsehood of Christian faith rises or falls on Jesus and the Christian belief that Jesus is God in the flesh. And that is a huge, risky claim. Can Jesus bear the weight of that sort of trust?

Let's consider the claims Jesus made for Himself.

He claimed to be the definitive means by which people can know and experience God. He said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you know Me, you will know My Father also..." (John 14:6-7) (see also: John 3:16)

He claimed the authority to forgive sin, a power that belongs to God alone (Mark 2:7). In Matthew, we read: "But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, 'Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven," or to say, "Stand up and walk"? But so that you may know that the Son of Man [a way Jesus typically referred to Himself] has authority on earth to forgive sins'--and then said to the paralytic--'Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.' And he stood up and went to his home..." (Matthew 9:5-8)

He claimed to be the very reflection of God Himself. This is what the phrase Son of God means, not some genetic descendancy. Matthew records, "He [Jesus] said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.' And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father in heaven...'" (Matthew 16:15-17)

Jesus' actions also spoke volumes. Among the miraculous signs He performed were healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and even raising the dead. Not even Jesus' most vociferous enemies denied that He said and did these things. Their objections to Jesus weren't based on the facts surrounding these actions.

Religious authorities objected to Jesus because, by insisting that God was accessible to all people who simply believed in Him, He threatened to diminish their power over people. Jesus freed people from guilt-based religion so that they can enjoy a grace-based relationship with God!

Political authorities objected to Jesus because they saw His Lordship as a threat to their power over people's lives. A follower of Christ will voluntarily acquiesce to governmental authority for the common good. But if that authority asks a Jesus-Follower to violate conscience, dishonoring God or harming a neighbor, the Jesus-Follower will bow to Christ's authority as supreme.

Ordinary people objected to Jesus because, after using miraculous signs to point to His deity (His God-ness), Jesus refused to wield His power in trite or self-serving ways.

In John 6, for example, Jesus miraculously fed more than 5000 people with a few fish and scraps of bread. But instead of causing them to worship Jesus as God, they wanted to trivialize Him, forcing Him to become an earthly king who would, maybe, put a chicken in every pot and a Porsche in every garage. So insatiable was their appetite for the things they though Jesus would give them if they, in effect, elected Him as their president, that even after Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee, they tracked Him down. Jesus upbraided the crowd, telling them, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for Me, not because [in My feeding you] you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves..." (John 6:26)

And in Luke 4, you can read about Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Once again, bread comes into play. The Devil demanded that Jesus prove Himself:

"If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" (Luke 4:3) Jesus was so secure in Who He was, that He refused to be pushed into performing party tricks to prove Himself.

Jesus allowed people to worship Him! You find instances of that in a number of New Testament passages: Matthew 2:11, Matthew 14:33, Matthew 28:17, and John 9:38.

And if you like blunt talk, consider this statement by Jesus: "The Father and I are one." (Jesus speaking, John 10:30)

The point is that Jesus claimed to be God. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, the one-time atheist turned Christian, professor, and author of The Chronicles of Narnia, among other works, speaks of the religious faith of the ancient Jews. The Jews claimed that through people like Moses and Ruth and David, through patriarchs (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), through prophets (like Isaiah, Elijah, Jeremiah, and others), and others, God revealed Himself and His intentions for the world. God even revealed that one day He would act decisively through an Anointed One (Messiah in the Hebrew and Christ in the Greek) to erase the power of sin and death over people's lives the world over. That Anointed One was to be spring from the Jews (or Hebrews or Israelites), God's chosen people. Centuries passed as God forged His people to be faithful. Lewis writes:
The comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
Lewis goes on to deal in some detail with the shocking nature of another claim made by Jesus: that He could forgive sins. "In the mouth of any speaker who is not God," Lewis says, "these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history." But, Lewis points out, not even Jesus' enemies accused Him of silliness and conceit. And he observes: "Christ says that He is 'humble and meek' and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings."

I hope you will excuse this rather lengthy quoting from Lewis. But no one ever expressed himself better and what he says next is the crux of the matter addressed here today: the reliability of Jesus as the rock on which to place the weight of one's eternal existence. Writes Lewis:
I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him [Jesus]: '"I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must take your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Why do I believe that Christian faith is true?

I believe it first of all, because of its uniqueness.

I also believe it because of Jesus. In spite of His outrageous claim to be God, capable of doing those things that only God can do, He clearly was neither a lunatic or a liar. He must be God. Having concluded that to be so, the very least I owe Him is my attention, if not my allegiance.

In the next post of this series, I'll address what Jesus has done to make me believe that I should follow Him.

Nine No-Show Witnesses at a Murder Trial

I read this article on the front page of Tuesday's Cincinnati Enquirer.

The refusal of all these people to testify at a murder trial may have had something to do with qualms they had about a fourteen year old defendant.

But, given that none of them even notified the prosecuting attorney of their reticence, one wonders what their motivation for ignoring subpoenas may have been.

What do you make of this?

You Say You Need Armor?

Sometimes, one person speaking up at the right time can make a difference! The National Guardsman who asked Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the lack of adequate armor on military vehicles in Iraq seems to have set things in motion. I'm so glad to see the uparmoring process being cranked up. (I never knew the term "uparmoring" until the other day, did you?)

Archie Griffin is a Class Act

I always knew that Archie Griffin, so far the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, was a class act. But underscoring it is this article in which he talks about the possibility of Oklahoma quarterback Jason White following in his footsteps.

A-Rod, a Good Guy in Baseball

Okay, so there are pampered baseball players and the steroid controversy threatens the integrity of the game.

But Alex Rodriguez has shown himself to be the one of the good guys. He's donating $750,000.00 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and to Domincan Republic relief.

A-Rod was a member of a Boys and Girls Club while growing up and is now a national spokesperson for the youth movement.

I'm a fan of Boys and Girls Club, serving as vice president of our county's club as well as president of an individual unit of the organization. I see the impact it has on young people.

I can't help but be a fan of Rodriguez. He's clearly destined to become one of the all-time greats of the game.

But what makes him cooler is his commitment to giving something back, especially to young people who need the encouragement, direction, and hope that the Boys and Girls Club movement brings young people across America.

A Fix for Political Junkies

Little more than one month after the Presidential election, even before the Electoral College has voted or W's second Inauguration has happened, what is it that dedicated political junkies want to talk about? The 2008 race, of course. Hugh Hewitt is talking about Rudy Giuliani and the race for the Republican nomination in this column.

Bedford Falls is On My Mantel

My wife and daughter know that I love It's a Wonderful Life, regarding it as not only the best Christmas movie ever made, but the best movie, period. (My son agrees, as does my future son-in-law.)

So, you can imagine how excited I was last week when, after a trip to the local Walgreens, the two women in my life returned with four illuminated ceramic pieces depicting various Bedford Falls landmarks. (Bedford Falls is the fictional setting of the movie.)

As I already had one of the pieces, my collection now includes: Bailey Building and Loan, Bedford Falls High School (pool not included), Bedford Falls Train Station (Can you name the three best sounds in the world?), The Church of Bedford Falls, and Bedford Falls Trust and Savings Bank.

They're now on my mantel and look great!

The pieces are sold exclusively at Walgreens and are made by collectible manufacturers, Enesco.

If you or a family member or friend are into It's a Wonderful Life, these pieces are wonderful to have!

By the way, Walgreens is one of the companies profiled in Jim Collins' book, Good to Great.

Links to 'The Power of Encouragement'

'The Power of Encouragement' is the name of a series of blog articles I wrote last week. These six installments talk about encouragement, its benefits, how we can be encouragers to others, and the ultimate source of encouragement in our lives. I really enjoyed writing the pieces and they've been well-received. Now that I've moved onto a new (and shorter) series on why I believe Christian faith is true, it seems like a good place to provide you with links to all six articles on 'The Power of Encouragement.'

They are...

The Power of Encouragement, Part 1: The Impact of Encouragers

The Power of Encouragement, Part 2: Encouraging without Words

The Power of Encouragement, Part 3: Principles for Parents

The Power of Encouragement, Part 4: Encouraging Leaders

The Power of Encouragement, Part 5: The Ultimate Source of Encouragement

The Power of Encouragement, Part 6: A Community of Encouragement

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Speculation About the Meaning of the President's Backing of Kofi Annan

In spite of widespread calls by bloggers and some Republican members of Congress for the forced resignation of United Nations general secretary Kofi Annan, President Bush, through outgoing UN Ambassador John Danforth, has emphatically backed Annan's continuing on the job for the duration of his term.

It's interesting to speculate about what this means.

One possibility is that the President, anxious to mend fences with a world community significantly at odds with him over the war in Iraq, has decided that this was a battle he'd rather not fight. Many other countries had already expressed, if not confidence in Annan, at least a willingness to see how investigations into his handling of the Oil for Peace program and other matters until making judgments about his future.

This is also the second time in a matter of days that the President has gone against the conservative wing of the Republican Party. The other instance was his ultimately strenuous support for the Intelligence Reform bill. Without Mr. Bush's support for that legislation, it likely would not have passed this session of Congress.

The President may be gambling that in Congress in the coming session, he will need the support of moderate Republicans and Democrats to get some of the legislation he wants through the Congress, while feeling that most of the more conservative members of his party will have no viable alternative but to support him. If this is the case, it's the mirror image of Bill Clinton's strategy as, confident that Democrats in Congress would back him in spite of preferring more liberal legislation, he reached out to moderate Republicans.

Jason White Appears to Be Front-Runner for Second Heisman

After winning both the O'Brien and Maxwell awards today, Oklahoma Sooner quarterback Jason White appears to be the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy as college football's best player. If he wins the Heisman, he will only be the second two-time winner of the trophy. The first, of course, is my fellow Buckeye and Columbus native, Archie Griffin, OSU running back in the 1970s. That would be heady company for White! (By the way, Griffin is now president of the OSU Alumni Association, a huge endeavor.)

Armor is More Than Just 'Nice'

Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit is a sharp, insightful commentator on what's going on in the world. By many accounts, his is the most popular blog online. I read his stuff virtually every day and have mountains of respect for his many abilities and his learning.

But I was a bit miffed by his take on the question posed by the National Guardsman to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld regarding the lack of armoring for US military vehicles in Iraq:
ARMOR: Various snarky antiwar readers seem to think that this story, in which Rumsfeld was challenged (by a member of my local National Guard outfit, actually) regarding armor, is somehow a devastating indictment of the Bush Administration and the war in toto. Actually, I'd say it's rather a lot less than that.

Armor's nice, of course, when people are shooting at you...
Readers of this blog know that generally speaking, I think that preachers like me should refrain from making public political commentary, unless they see what they consider to be an injustice being perpetrated. Leaving American military personnel without adequate armor for their vehicles is, I feel, a grave injustice. And so, I publish the brief email exchange that happened between Glenn and me after I read his comment that "armor is nice."
"Armor's nice"? Nice?

The lack of armor says nothing pro or con about whether we should have gone into Iraq. So, people who are using the flap over Rumsfeld's response to a National Guardsman's question [to argue for or against the war] are barking up the wrong tree.

But "nice" is not the descriptor I would use for armor for an occupying army in a nation that had a history of sponsoring people who attach explosives to themselves.

"Nice" is not the appropriate adjective for armor in a country that, everybody in the world had to know would require long years of post-war occupation.

Try words like essential, necessary, required, and even the more tepid, needed.

Call not having it negligent, irresponsible, and, again more tepidly, ungrateful to our fighting men and women.

We ask these people to fight in Iraq. We start the war. So, we should have had some notion of the post-war occupation needs, especially since the whole world knew that we would win in a matter of weeks. It borders on the criminal not to give our military the tools with which to finish the war, which means a successful occupation.

I'm a Republican, Glenn, and I am livid about this situation and the secretary's response. Our military personnel are being treated unjustly by the very nation that should be expressing gratitude and support.

Chocolate ice cream is nice. Spring days at the ballgame are nice. Armor is a lot more than nice and I don't think that your comment was very nice.

I hope that you'll re-think your response to this situation.

Mark Daniels

Glenn wrote back:

Armor is a trade-off, like everything else. What this really remindsme of is bombers in WWII. It was quite clear that the extra speed you got by stripping guns away did more to protect bombers than the gunsdid. But the crews wanted the guns for psychological reasons. I think that some of the armor issue is the same way.

Here's how I responded:

I understand the analogy you're drawing, but I feel that it's invalid. Nobody from the Pentagon has advanced the notion that the reason for failing to adequately uparmor the vehicles used by our personnel, particularly our National Guard and Reserve personnel, has anything to do with "trade-offs." In fact, as I understand it, the Pentagon plans on uparmoring current vehicles as well as producing new ones that are more adequately armored.

But thanks for your response.

What do you think?

Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1

Recently, I was asked, “I’m a Christian; but how do I know that our faith is true and other religions aren’t?”

First of all, no Christian believes that every aspect of all other religions is completely false. C.S. Lewis, the writer and British intellectual who turned from atheism to faith in Christ, once wrote:
“When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most [the existence of God]; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.”
This mirrors my own experience in moving from atheism to Christianity. As an atheist, I dismissed all religious belief as vestigial superstition.

But after I came to faith in Christ, I could see that there is a broad consensus among all the religions of the world that there are such things as right and wrong and an amazing agreement about what they are. As a Christian, I’m able to commend the Muslim tenet of giving to the poor, for example. And I see good points in other religious beliefs.

But, like the adherents of other faiths, there is a point where I believe that Christianity is the truth and other religions deficient. As Lewis puts it,
“...being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic---there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.”
So, what is it that I believe makes faith in Christ right as compared to others religious approaches?

One thing is Christianity’s uniqueness. The faith commended on the pages of both the Old and New Testament (the differences casual readers claim to see between these two segments of the Bible are, on close examination, more apparent than real) is unique among the religions and belief systems of the world.

In the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, a relationship with God or the acquisition of holiness come, not from a seeker’s spiritual efforts, but as a free gift from God to those who simply trust Him.

That’s true in the Old Testament, where we’re told that the Jewish patriarch Abraham believed God and God counted his belief as righteousness (or rightness with God). It’s also true in the New Testament where it says, “For by grace [God’s charity] you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God---not the result of works...” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

This is so different from every other religion and world belief system that one must conclude that the faith of the Bible is either completely true or completely false.

So, the first reason I believe that Christian faith is true is its uniqueness. It commends an utterly unique approach to God which, while not appealing to my ego, does promise me relief from guilt and shame and something which a lifetime of New Year's resolutions has demonstrated I am incapable of securing on my own: peace with God, peace with others, peace with myself.

More on why I believe Christian faith is true tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Ruminations on December 7 and Our Generation

What follows isn't meant as a political statement. To the extent it criticizes, its criticism is directed at all of us in America, including myself.

Yesterday, December 7, saw the confluence of several important events.

First, it was the sixty-third anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Until September 11, 2001, it was the most grievous act of aggression against America in the nation's history.

Second, Hamid Karzai was inaugurated as the democratically-elected president of Afghanistan. This was a fruit of the US war against the al Qaeda terrorist network which, along with its Taliban allies, once held Afghanistan in its grip and used the nation as a staging ground for its terrorist acts.

Third, the House passed a revised Intelligence Reform bill based largely on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission appointed in response to the 2001 attacks.

In the days immediately following those attacks, it was common for people to say that just as Pearl Harbor represented one of the defining moments of what Tom Brokaw called "the greatest generation," the September 11 assaults by al Qaeda was this generation's defining moment.

Just as that earlier generation of Americans would be called upon to sacrifice and pull together for the good of the country, we were called upon to make sacrifices and pull together.

The efforts on the homefront by World War Two Americans were incredible. Historians Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager write:
President Roosevelt had called upon the United States to become "the arsenal of democracy," and the nation responded. The enormous energies of the whole people were speedily channeled into war production, and all its activities--manufacturing, farming, mining, transportation, communication, finances and even science and education--were in some measure brought under new or enlarged governmental controls. Great new industries were created overnight...Universities and industrial research laboratories were commandeered for the development of hundreds of new techniques, gadgets, and inventions and for research in such things as radar, sonar, the proximity fuse and the atom bomb...

Labor as well as capital contributed its full share to the winning of the war...The only serious labor difficulties came in the coal mines...

Farmers, too, performed of production...[In spite of being] under severe handicaps of labor shortages and inadequate supplies of farm machinery, the farmers broke all agricultural records.
And it wasn't in just wholly-mandated ways that the American public marshalled itself to win the Second World War. Americans came together in voluntary ways, making sacrifices for the war effort that either weren't legally mandated or which could have been easily eluded. That fact is underscored during this time of year, when most of us watch It's a Wonderful Life, with its portrayals of rubber tire drives, air raid drills, USO-volunteering, and blood drives.

We must of course, grant that the war against the Axis powers was very different from the one we're now fighting against al Qaeda and its allies. Yet, it must be said, the nation hardly seems marshalled behind this effort. If anything, our national bad habits of overspending and self-indulgence seem worse than ever, whether reflected in our federal budget or in our personal lives. Again, I indict myself as a guilty party in this state of affairs.

Our political leaders, whether Republican or Democrat, seem to have concluded that America's economic strength is such that little sacrifice is demanded of us as individuals and that government spending, even for non-war-related items, can create unprecedented volumes of red ink without endangering us. A conservative Vice President says that "deficits don't matter."

I feel as though we Americans are being treated like lab rats by our political leaders: They seem to feel that as long as they throw us more pork, we'll be happy and hardly notice that we're in a war.

This is doubly troubling because I feel that it plays into al Qaeda's hands. Osama bin Laden has credited the 1970s-80s war of "Afghan freedom fighters" against the Soviet Union with the Evil Empire's demise. He claims that the expenditures of money and lives destroyed the Soviet state. While I think that bin Laden's assessment doesn't take many other factors that led to the death of Soviet Communism into account, the war in Afghanistan nonetheless played its part.
Bin Laden has made it clear that his guerilla-like assault on America is designed in part to cause us to spend ourselves into oblivion.

It has been three-years-and-three-months since the September 11, 2001, attacks on our country. It was precisely at the same point following the attack on Pearl Harbor that, on March 7, 1945, Americans took the Remagen Bridge and began moving across the Rhine. Within weeks, Mussolini was executed, Hitler committed suicide, and Germany surrendered.

Whether we have made similar progress in the war on al Qaeda since 9/11 is a judgment that people far more knowledgeable than I can make. There have been many notable successes, such as the fact that no terrorist acts have occurred on US soil since that grievous day and the fact that al Qaeda has been largely driven from Afghanistan, now functioning as a democracy. (I leave out consideration of the War in Iraq, about which there are conflicting judgments both as to its relevance to the war against al Qaeda and its success. Again, brighter minds will have to address that.) As I say, my intention here isn't to make a political statement.

In any case, comparisons of World War Two with this war probably at least border on apples-to-oranges, except as it relates to the homefront.

Somehow, I feel, we all need to be engaged at some level in this struggle and it doesn't seem to be happening. I sense that in some ways, we all are missing our chance to be part of an effort that could mark us, if we sacrifice and work together enough, as the rightful heirs of the greatest generation.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

His Excellency, Samuel Betances, and the Promise of America

Recently, at a leadership conference, I heard Dr. Samuel Betances speak. I'd never heard of him before and so, had no notion of what to expect. His was one of the most extraoridinary presentations I've ever heard.

Betances had a number of strikes against him as a child. A mixed-race youngster of Hispanic and African-American heritage, he grew up poor in Harlem. Written off as troubled and intellectually-deficient, he dropped out of high school.

Because an elderly woman believed in and refused to give up on Betances, he was inspired to complete his high school education. Ultimately, he received a doctorate and became a college professor.

Today, he is a partner in a major leadership consulting firm. He's counseled with several US Presidents and provides all the diversity training for every new class of general officers in the United States Air Force.

He's also a man of deep faith who counsels his fellow Christians to witness for their faith, but not to force their beliefs down others' throats. He's my kind of Christian, in other words.

Readers of this blog know that I'm an inveterate dot-connector, striving to see the relationships between different ideas or events that come my way or happen in the world.

As I've continued to read Joseph J. Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, I find myself thinking of something Samuel Betances said at that leadership conference.

Just last night, I read a section of the Ellis book called, "This Species of Property." It's in the chapter about that period of time between Washington's resignation of his Revolutionary War commission and his selection as President. "This Species of Property" deals with the subject of George Washington, his slaves, and the more global issue of slavery in America.

According to Ellis, as early as 1785, Washington was being lobbied by friends and strangers to make a statement to the nation against slavery by freeing his own slaves. "Despite the code of silence [on the subject of slavery] and circumspection, there is considerable evidence that slavery was very much on Washington's mind during his [first] retirement," writes Ellis. Washington was prompted by his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, says Ellis, with the argument that:
ending slavery was a logical outcome of the American Revolution.
Based on the evidence of correspondence, Ellis says that Washington's feelings about slavery developed in two ways during this period of his life.

First, through a series of events, Washington came to see slavery as "a massive American anomaly," inconsistent with one of the defining principles of the Declaration of Independence, that "all men [sic] are created equal." Among those formative events was the presence of many Blacks in the Revolutionary army. Owing to the desperate situation confronting America during the Revolution, slaves were given their freedom and served alongside white soldiers. Washington commanded the most racially integrated American military force prior to the Korean War.

Second and, according to Ellis, more important to the ever-practical Washington, he understood that slavery was an economically inefficient system doomed, in the end, to bankrupt plantation-owners like himself. Ultimately, this fact lay behind Washington's decision to free his slaves upon his death.

Washington then, was perhaps slightly more enlightened than the overtly racist and grossly hypocritical Thomas Jefferson. But none of the Founders were devoid of racism. All were willing to compromise with the institution of slavery, forestalling a day of reckoning that came with the Civil War.

Because of this deficiency in the Founders, it has become fashionable in some circles to completely dismiss them and the system of government they created. Because they didn't live up to the ideals they promoted and for which they fought a war, or because they they didn't see or refused to see the intrinsic inconsistency of fighting for equality before the law and in the eyes of God, while upholding slavery, it's suggested that all of America is a lie.

Indeed, among some political elites in America today, there is a condemnation of America, a loathing of America, that dismisses the entire American experiment as failed and flawed, as worthless and insusceptible to reform.

Samuel Betances doesn't agree with this view. He points out that when Martin Luther King, Jr. made his I Have a Dream speech, he didn't dismiss the promise of America, embodied in the Declaration, the Constitution as originally crafted, or the Bill of Rights. He appealed to those documents as guarantors of the birthright of every American to have equal access to opportunities in our country.

Those wealthy, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant founders who didn't live up to their own ideals established the framework that made it possible for King to press his case for equality for all. So before we dismiss America and its promises, Betances suggests, we should remember and be thankful that the promises of equality--the promises of America--came from flawed white men who didn't fully understand the implications of their own philosopy and cause.

One thing that constantly impresses me when I read about George Washington is how he was always rising above himself. He had less formal education even than the storied Abraham Lincoln and yet, Washington's correspondence reveals an intelligent and insightful, if less than eloquent, person. Angry and impetuous as a young man, nearly getting himself court-martialed as a colonial officer, he overcame both his anger and his impetuosity, showing resolve, patience, and self-control as General and President.

From Washington, maybe, we need to see our charge as being the same as his. We need to rise above ourselves, overcoming our own shortcomings and deficiencies, and use the framework left behind by previous generations of Americans to keep uncovering more implications of the promise of this country.

Just for Fun: My Ten Favorite Christmas Books

Many families have their own particular cherished Christmas customs. The Daniels Family is no exception. Being unregenerate bibliophiles, one of our Christmas traditions, naturally, is collecting Christmas books, which we tote out in early December and keep around throughout the season in order to be read and enjoyed again and again.

The collection is now comprised of well over twenty books. They're all enjoyable and each has a particular significance for us. But some of them are especially loved.

In fact, parting from my usual habit of naming five favorite thises or thats, I found that I couldn't cull this list of favorites down below ten.

These books are all family, or even children's, books. But like the best books in these categories, they're no less meaningful or fetching for adults.

So, here they are, my ten favorite Christmas books.

1. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Our son, now 23, read this book when he was in the third grade. He asked my wife and me to read some of it to him. We were so taken with it that we ran out and bought our own copy. On Christmas Day that year, as we drove to see relatives, my wife behind the wheel, I read the whole book aloud. I've repeated the performance virtually every year since.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever tells the story of the Herdman kids and how, hoping to get free cookies and other goodies, they became part of the church Christmas pageant. The Herdmans are the most raucous, uncontrolled, ill-behaved, and bad-mannered children you can imagine. For page after page, I still sometimes laugh until I hurt when I read about them.

All that laughter gives the touching ending of this book great impact. I can't read its final chapter without misting.

If you want a gentle, hilarious reminder of the true meaning of Christmas, as well as an insightful gander into the hypocrisy of church life, I recommend this book. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever truly is one of the best Christmas books ever.

2. Santa's Favorite Christmas Story by Hisako Aoki and Ivan Gantschev. This book, filled with beautiful, mixed-media illustrations, tells the story of what happens one cold December when the animals in the forest found Santa Claus sleeping. They become alarmed, fearing that Santa would be unprepared for his annual global trek and that Christmas would have to be cancelled.

But Santa assures them that, with or without him, Christmas will happen. "Christmas," Santa says, "hasn't got anything to do with me." Santa then proceeds to tell the animals his favorite Christmas story, that of the first Christmas.

For years now, I have been using this book for my children's messages on the Sundays just prior to Christmas. The book still mesmerizes and it gently challenges our consumerist Christmas, using jolly old Saint Nick to talk about the birth of the Christ Child.

3. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. I've yet to see the movie version of this book, which has been a favorite at our house since it was first published back in 1985. I wonder whether I'll like the film or not. The text is sparse and mysterious, the illustrations beautiful, adding to the text's mystery and wonder. This book is not so much about Christmas as it is about growing up and the ability to dream. I love it.

4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. (Ours is the Ideals Children's Book edition, 1989) O. Henry named his now-classic tale of Christmas gift-giving by a poor married couple after the magi--magicians or wise men--who came from the East to bring gifts to the Christ Child at Bethlehem. In this story, we learn about love and self-sacrifice, which really were the motivating reasons behind the mission of Jesus when He came into the world. (First Timothy 2:1-6) The poignant tale is enhanced by illustrations that evoke the era in which O. Henry wrote.

5. The First Christmas: A Festive Pop-Up Book by Tomie de Paola. This is the first of three books on my Christmas list from this first-rate and often-imitated artist and children's author. Here, de Paola has presents the story of the first Christmas with his typically stunning artistry, enhanced by the pop-up format. This is one to show your children until they're old enough to handle its delicate features.

6. The Clown of God by Tomie de Paola. This isn't a Christmas book, technically. But it is the story of a juggler who gives his greatest gift to the Christ Child. It is poignant and a call to each of us to give to the Savior Who has given everything to us!

7. The Legend of Old Befana by Tomie de Paola. This is one of several books de Paola created to honor his Old World heritage. Befana is a character, sometimes thought of as a witch, who plays a Santa character who leaves cookies and other goodies on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. De Paola adds his own whimsical touches to the old legend. This is a fun book.

8. Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect by Richard H. Schneider with illustrations by Elizabeth J. Miles. This book spins a legendary tale about how a once-perfectly shaped Christmas tree became imperfect, yet valued. It's a tale of self-sacrifice and compassion. It also encourages each of us to accept ourselves, imperfections and all. This is a wonderful story for children of all ages.

9. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. This wordless book tells the charming tale of a boy's adventures with a snowman. That may not sound like much. But it really is beautiful, the perfect book for cuddling up with your child in front of a fire just before you take them to their beds for evening prayers. (This book, by the way, has been made into an equally enchanting short film.)

10. The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. This is such a fun book! The Ahlbergs' central character, the Postman, delivers a series of cards and letters to people along his route. What's fun is that readers are able to open the items up, reading the notes the postman delivers. The book affords all the delight that people of the Victorian era must have felt as they rummaged through the nooks, crannies, and drawers of a giant desk. You'll never outgrow the delight of this book.

That's my list of ten favorite Christmas books for right now. Hopefully, this Christmas season we'll find another volume to add to our collection and our celebrations.

So, what are your favorite Christmas books? Use the "Comments" button below to tell me.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Ukraine and His Excellency

This past week, I've been thrilled and amazed by the images from Kiev that I've seen on television. Enduring sub-zero temperatures, citizens of Ukraine have, by the thousands, said that they will not accept their country sliding back into the despotism under which they lived as part of the Soviet Union. Equally courageously, the Supreme Court there has invalidated the most recent round of the presidential election, ordering that it be repeated.

What these brave souls have been saying is that as citizens of a democracy, they expect the transition of executive power to happen peacefully, that victor and vanquished will accept voters' verdicts magnanimously, and that power cannot be hijacked by the use of bald force or brazen manipulation.

We take the peaceful transition of power so for granted in America (at least, for the most part), that we may not realize what a stunning thing it truly is. Few societies in the history of the world have gotten the hang of it.

This is why it has been so interesting to watch the unfolding of events in Ukraine while reading Joseph J. Ellis' commendable biography of George Washington, His Excellency. As I've pointed out in an essay that appears somewhere on this blog (you can Google it), one of the many extraordinary things about Washington is that he walked away from the offer of absolute military and governmental power not once, but twice. No one in the history of the world, so far as I know, has ever done that. Before or since. To me, Washington is the preeminent political hero of all time and so I've read His Excellency with great interest.

Sometimes Ellis' version of Washington seems like a sort of Inspector Clousseau-figure, accidentally bungling into success and acclaim. This is a bit dubious to me and frankly, on the whole, I prefer Richard Norton Smith's Washington biography. (Flexner's is also excellent.) But no one has better described that crunch moment when George Washington established a precedent that America and other democracies have imitated or sought to imitate ever since.

It was March 16, 1783. The battle of Yorktown, America's decisive win over the British, fought in the Virginia Tidewater region, had effectively ended the war. But the army had not yet been disbanded, as combatants awaited word from treaty negotiators meeting across the ocean.

Washington's army, much of it encamped at Newburgh, had endured the tortures of an eight-year war with Britain, suffering unimaginable privations. They were often paid for their pains with indifference, no pay, and empty promises.

In early March, officers and soldiers, fed up with their continued mistreatment, coalesced around a cabal that has come to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. The conspirators planned to converge on the Congress established under the Articles of Confederation and either coerce passage of a revenue bill that would provide the soldiers with pay or overthrow the government altogether. Either way, they proposed to engage in government by thuggery.

It was a moment rife with danger, threatening to kill America's nascent democracy just as it was being born. Washington, as the preeminent person in America, would undoubtedly have been able to lead his army in taking control of the government of America. A new nation whose citizens had long been accustomed to living under royal dominion would have barely questioned the enthronement of a new King George.

But Washington got wind of the conspiracy and determined to nip it in the bud. He learned that the conspirators were planning on a mass meeting to be held on March 11. Washington said that only he could call such meetings, cancelled the first proposed gathering, and set another one for five days later. He gave a stirring speech at that meeting. Writes Ellis:
...His central message was that any attempted coup by the army was simultaneously a repudiation of the principles for which they had all been fighting and an assault on his own integrity. Whereas Cromwell and later Napoleon made themselves synonymous with the revolution in order to justify the assumption of dictatorial power, Washington made himself synonymous with the American Revolution in order to declare that it was incompatible with dictatorial power....
Ellis then quotes a portion of Washington's Newburgh address, a moving and personal testament to the purpose of the Revolution from the perspective of its greatest protagonist. When Washington, with his unmatched prestige, took his stand, the conspiracy was destroyed. Shortly, he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the American army and returned to Mount Vernon.

The years immediately following witnessed America struggling to establish itself, pay its debts, and become a nation under the inadequate and ungainly Articles of Confederation. Ultimately, it was replaced with the Constitution. Washington was naturally and unanimously selected the first President.

Once again, while he served as President, there were some who wanted Washington to become a king or to stay in power indefinitely. Once again, he wielded and then voluntarily walked away from power.

In so doing, Washington taught the world the lesson which the people on the streets of Kiev have been teaching the incumbent leaders of Ukraine this week. The lesson, simply, is that in a democracy, power does not belong to anybody. It's temporarily reposed in the hands of those selected by the people. And when the people have decided that the jig is up, the incumbents have no right to hold onto their power.

George Washington believed in a strong central government. He believed in a powerful standing army. He believed that the government should be presided over by a strong executive.

But he also believed in what we now call civilian control of the military. He believed in what is called a republic. And he believed that governments are only empowered by the consent of the governed.

It testifies to Washington's strength and faithfulness as a leader that all of these things that he believed in are today taken for granted in America and emulated throughout the world.

That's why as the drama in Ukraine continues to unfold, one of its central characters is offstage, his name unspoken, but his influence undeniable: George Washington, his excellency, the man who employed the power given to him to undertake the people's business...and then handed that power back to again to the people.

May the people of Ukraine be blessed with that kind of leadership--whether it be exercised voluntarily or at the instigation of the people or the courts there--in this hour of crisis and opportunity.

Sunday, December 05, 2004


Matthew 3:1-6, 11-12
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, December 5, 2004)

Robert Russell, a prominent pastor from Louisville, says that in the 1960s, there was a house in his neighborhood where the owners kept their Christmas lights blazing way past Christmas. This went on for weeks and weeks. Russell says that in about mid-February, he became critical. "If I were too lazy to take my Christmas lights down," he said, "I think I'd at least turn them off at night."

One mid-March day, he passed the house with the Christmas lights and saw a freshly-created sign. It said simply, "Welcome home, Jimmy." Later, Russell found out that Jimmy had been serving in Vietnam. His family, refusing to celebrate Christmas without him, had kept their Christmas lights turned on in anticipation of his return.

This is a season of light. We string lights on and in our houses and on our Christmas trees. They shine and blaze from skyscrapers, storefronts, even barns. (The latter being particularly appropriate since the Savior Whose birth we celebrate was born in a barn.) The tradition of Christmas lights began, I'm told, as a way of remembering the star that guided the wise men to the baby Jesus. In olden times, people used the lights of candles as a way of saying that Jesus, the Savior of the world, was welcome to their homes.

But there's more to this use of light at Christmastime than the twinkling of a far-off star. The Bible says that the God we know through Jesus Christ is a "consuming fire," worthy of our "reverence and awe." The Gospel of John says that Jesus, God enfleshed, is the "Light of the world" and that no amount of darkness can possibly snuff out His power.

In our Bible lesson for today, Jesus' relative, John the Baptist, is in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem. John's mission, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, was to prepare the way for the entry of Jesus into our world. John said that the way to do that is to repent, to turn from sin and let God be in charge of our lives. As a symbol of their repentance, he called the crowds to be washed--or baptized--in the Jordan River.

But then, John makes clear that the baptism with which he baptizes is nothing compared to what Jesus will bring. "I baptize you with water for repentance," he says. "But One Who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals." (Carrying sandals was the work of a slave. John is saying that he isn't even worthy of being Jesus' slave.) Then John says this of Jesus:
"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
Several scholars whose work on this passage I've consulted would say that a better translation might be:
"He will baptize you with the fire of the Holy Spirit!"
The Bible teaches that when a person turns from sin and receives Jesus Christ as God and Lord of their life, something happens to them. God's very Spirit enters them. A flame is ignited within them. And like fire in the natural world, this spiritual fire has three major effects on us.

The first is that the fire of God's Spirit purifies us. When I was a boy and would lodge splinters into my hands, I'd go to my dad. Dad inspected things and soon, get a needle from my mom's sewing kit, and pull out his lighter. Dad would turn the tip of the needle over and over again in the flame of the lighter for maybe thirty seconds and after that, wave the needle through the air to cool it off. Then, he used the needle to pick the splinter out of my hand. Of course, the reason that Dad ran the needle through the flame was to kill off any bacteria that might cause infection.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for fire is pur, from which we get such English words as purge, pure, and purify, among others. When we open ourselves to letting Jesus Christ be in charge of our lives, He begins to purge us of all the old, destructive habits that previously blocked God's presence from our lives and He creates a place of purity where He can live with us and transform our lives. The fire of God's Spirit purifies us like the flame of Dad's lighter purified the needle.

In the natural world, fire not only purifies, it produces heat. Heat is energy and power. The fire of God's Spirit not only purifies us, it also gives us the power to live, even in the face of challenges and difficulties.

Taylor Caldwell was a novelist who lived from 1900 to 1985. She didn't really begin her career as a writer until the 1930s, after having gone through a painful divorce and a later remarriage. But much of Caldwell's late twenties, lived during the 1920s, were a real struggle for her as she tried to provide for her young daughter and herself.

One Spring day, Caldwell once wrote, she was without a job and going downtown to look for work. As she sat down in a streetcar, it was raining and she wished she had an umbrella. An old one had fallen apart and she couldn't afford a new one. But there, on the seat next to her, was a silk umbrella with a silver handle and inlaid with gold and flecks of enamel. When she looked at it more closely, Caldwell saw that a name was engraved into it. Ordinarily, she might have handed the umbrella to the streetcar operator and been on her way. But as she came to her stop, there was a driving rain. So, she took the umbrella to protect herself and immediately went to a phone book to find where its owner lived.

The umbrella's owner, a woman, was obviously grateful when Caldwell later returned it to her. It had been a gift from her parents, now dead, and had been stolen from her more than a year before. "She took the umbrella, and her eyes filled with tears," writes Caldwell. When offered a reward, Caldwell refused, seeing how happy this woman was.

The months that followed for Caldwell were, she says, "wretched." She could only find temp jobs and in that time, was able to save but eight dollars toward buying a Christmas gift for her little girl, Peggy. She writes: "My last job ended the day before Christmas, my thirty dollar rent was soon due, and I had fifteen dollars to my name--which Peggy and I would need for food...I had already bought a small tree, and we were going to decorate it that night."

Caldwell approached her small apartment with feelings of dread and hopelessness. She was certain that God and the entire human race had completely forgotten her. She even doubted that God was there. What, she wondered, would become of her and her little girl?

On arriving at the apartment, Caldwell fetched her mail. Most of the items, she recognized, were bills that she couldn't pay. There were also two plain white envelopes which, she was sure, contained still more bills. She tossed them aside and tried her best to be upbeat for her daughter.

Later that evening, the doorbell rang. A delivery person had come with several boxes. Caldwell was sure the man had made a mistake. He assured her that he hadn't; the packages were for Peggy and her. When Caldwell and her daughter opened them. they found gifts: a doll for Peggy, gloves, candy, a leather purse. She scrounged around to find the name of the sender. It was the owner of the umbrella.

That's wonderful, Caldwell thought, but soon, her rent was due and she had no hope of paying it.

After Peggy fell asleep, she decided to look at the two envelopes she'd earlier tossed aside. One contained a check for thirty dollars from one of the companies for which she'd temped. It was a Christmas bonus. Rent money!

The other envelope contained a permanent job offer.

Soon, Caldwell heard church bells ringing, announcing the coming of Jesus at Christmas. Carolers sang, "Come, all ye faithful." And Caldwell knew that God was a very present Person and power in her life. "I am not alone," she thought. "I never was alone at all."

And neither are we. The fire of God's Spirit gives us the power to live!

Natural fire also gives light. My grandfather was part of the crew to first put electricity in Ohio Caverns up in Logan County. I knew this the first time I visited the place and so, was particularly interested when our tour guide turned off the lights. The complete lack of light created utter blackness.

For most of human history, the only light people had came from fire. And unless we enter a cave and have the electric lights turned off for awhile, it's difficult for us to imagine how dark the world can really be.

Life without Christ is utterly dark. We may that that we know what we're doing and where we're going when we try to live without Christ in our lives, but we're only fooling ourselves. You see, Jesus Christ is the true Christmas light. Those who allow the fire of His Spirit to invade their lives find their ways illuminated. As they pray and worship, serve and love, they see that the light of heaven are always turned on for them, a beacon of hope and certainty in a world sometimes mired in hopelessness and filled with uncertainty.

This past week, I read the touching story of a boy named Wally, a second-grader who should have been in the fourth. He was a big, clumsy boy, a bit slow-witted. For the Christmas pageant, Wally was assigned the role of the innkeeper. Wally didn't do so well as the cast prepared for the big night. But his was a small part, so it was okay.

During the performance, Wally needed prompting when, as the Bethlehem innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary away on the night of Jesus' birth, he said, "No! Be gone!"

But as the little Joseph and Mary of the pageant walked away, looking forlorn, Wally changed the whole night. He called out, "Don't go, Joseph. Bring Mary back. You can have my room."

Our whole lives can be changed when, like Wally, we make room for Jesus in our lives. As we prepare for Christmas, let's not forget the most important preparation of all. Let's repent, turn away from sin and self-will and welcome Jesus into the center of our lives. When we do, Jesus sends His fiery Spirit, Who sets to work making us pure, giving us the power to live, and lighting our way through this life and on to the one to come.

[The notion of using this message to talk about the qualities of the fire of God's Spirit was inspired by a sermon by Pastor Derl Keefer, in a sermon which appeared in The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2001. The three qualities I identify are adaptations of three he talks about in this message.

[Robert Russell's true story of the Christmas lights appears in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.

[Taylor Caldwell's remebrance, "My Christmas Miracle," appears in Christmas Stories for the Heart, compiled by Alice Gray.

[The true story about Wally, "Trouble at the Inn," appears in the same book compiled by Alice Gray.]