Monday, December 23, 2013

A Familiar Mystery

Oh, the magic and wonder that is the Christmas season.  We went to a nearby village the other day for a tree lighting and fireworks, and my kids just had to traipse through the snow to get up close to the lights.  There were thousands of them, and the awe was overpowering – especially for the preschoolers in the crowd (and me)!  From lights, to haunting melodies, to legends of Santa, this time of year is always good on its promise to mystify.

However, when I read the Christmas story I am reminded that much of what we find mysterious was actually once quite familiar, and in much of what we find familiar lies the true Christmas mystery.  Manger scenes, for example, are exclusively Christmas for us.  A baby in a stable?  That just doesn’t happen, not even in Wyoming!  However, to be rejected from a hotel and forced to bed down in straw would have been a pretty normal experience for a 1st century traveler.  I’m not saying a lot of babies were born in barns, I’m just saying it probably wouldn't be newsworthy enough for the Casper Star.  While the legend is perpetuated that Jesus’ swaddling clothes were akin to the wrappings archeologists find on mummies, the historians tell us that they were merely strips of cloth that most all babies were wrapped in right after birth.  So much of what is mysterious to us was commonplace for them.  It is as though God sent his Son to meet with us in our most familiar environment.  Indeed, it is exactly like that, and therein we find the true mystery of Christmas.

“’Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).  In the Old Testament, we read many stories of man encountering God, and it was always terrifying!  In fact, God himself said in Exodus 33 “no man can see me and live!”  We cannot reach God, and in order for God to reach us, something must change.  He must come to us in a form that we can understand, that we can look upon, that we can touch (1 John 1:1), and so it came to pass, that out of his great love for us, God sent his one and only Son (John 3:16).  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  He came.  He came as one of us.  He came in the approachable humility of the common man, at his place of work, celebrated only by other common men, in work clothes.  God stepped out of omnipresence in order that he could be present.  This is the heart and soul of the Christmas mystery.

Celebrate it well this week!  God has come!  Open your gifts with a view of the true Gift.  Tell your Christmas stories centered on the first Christmas story.  Enjoy your Christmas traditions, remembering that they exist because of a rich and ancient tradition that anticipates the redemption of mankind.  Get lost in the mystery, remembering the greatest mystery of all, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

Here Comes Santa Claus: a short (highly plagiarized) history of a legendary (fat) guy

(Disclaimer: Virtually everything here was borrowed, copied, or otherwise taken from here, but mine is shorter and, in my opinion, more fun to read.)  

As we prepare for our final approach to Christmas, I thought it appropriate to take a look at the man behind the red parka.  In the grey space between legend and history lives the real life, rotund, sleigh flyer.  Although, his girth is as questionable as every other characteristic of the man who may, or may not, have actually lived.  While St. Nicholas is intensely popular in both the Greek and Roman Church, there is not a single historical document testifying to his existence.  Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s what we can piece together about the real life, legendary, factual, mythical, historically ambiguous, Santa Claus.

He was born to a wealthy family around 300 A.D., but after his parents’ deaths he gave away all of his inheritance.  Tales of his legendary miracle working include resurrecting three girls after an innkeeper beheaded them and pickled them in a tub of brine.  (Put that on your Christmas card!)  Such miracles led to him being made bishop of Myra (in Turkey), but due to early persecution of the Church, he was imprisoned until Constantine legalized Christianity.  He was released from prison at the height of the Arian controversy, a teaching that denies the divinity of Christ.  As the story goes, Jolly old St. Nicholas traveled to the Council of Nicaea and physically slapped Arius in the face.  The lyric comes to mind, “he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”  The other bishops of the council were shocked by his rude behavior and stripped him of his bishopness until Jesus and Mary appeared at his side, at which time he was instantly reinstated.  At this point, I’d like to point out that the Council of Nicaea did in fact excommunicate Arius, but they kept impeccable notes and Nicholas is nowhere mentioned.

What we know to be fact is that by the year 565 a church in Constantinople was built to bear his name.  In the 900’s, both the Eastern and Western churches reverenced his memory (or legend).  In medieval times, he was depicted by more artists than any saint other than Mary, and in the Middle Ages, more than 400 churches in England bore his name.  In the Germanic countries, his legends became so mixed with Norse mythology that it is impossible to separate him from the pagan god Odin.  While his radical stand for dogmatism was diminished in common memory, the legends of his generosity grew.  For example, another version of the pickled girl story was that the girls were to be sold into prostitution.  The man in red purchased their freedom by throwing bags of gold (most likely from his inheritance) through their windows.  Thus, Nick-the-extravagant-gift-giver took center stage.

When the Reformation came in the mid 16th century, all protestant countries squelched the St. Nick legend, save Holland.  There, he was known as Sinterklass.  In Germany, Martin Luther emphasized the ultimate Christmas gift-giver, the Christ Child, or in German, Christkindl.  Over the years this came to be pronounced, Kris Kringle. 

And it came to pass that in the soup of Christian culture, the story of Jesus, the legend of an ancient bishop, and the myth of a Viking god, were morphed into a single household name.  From miracles, to extravagant gift giving, to slapping heretics in the face, this is the legend of Santa Claus.  One Christmas story that has remained unchanged is that “she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  Martin Luther was right.  Jesus is the ultimate gift-giver!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Savior on Capitol Hill

Once again I find myself surrendering my joy to things unworthy of it.  I allow myself to become too consumed with the embarrassment caused by our nation's leaders and I allow myself to become too irritated by the ridiculous things I hear people say about said embarrassment.  As I have been studying for my sermon from Luke 19:28-44 my eyes have been graciously lifted above the fray.  I recall a story from earlier in Luke where some people tried to drag Jesus into a political debate concerning some poor souls who had been murdered by the Romans.  Not only murdered, but their blood had been mingled with the blood of the Temple sacrifice.  This was a blasphemous and tragic insult beyond our modern mind's ability to truly empathize.  Jesus (who's Father established every law broken by this travesty) completely side-stepped the issue.  He went directly to the spiritual jugular and forced their nearsighted eyes to gaze eternity in its glorious face.  "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."   Or, my paraphrastic interpretation, "This is the kind of heartache that happens on a sin-cursed planet, which is exactly why you need Me."

In my text for Sunday Jesus' disciples display a remarkable understanding of this truth.  After so many teachings, so many stories, so many miracles they finally get it.  They so totally get it that they don't care what the crowds think, what the religious experts think, or what the Romans think.  They praise Jesus will full voice in a lavish display that totally freaks the Pharisees out.  As the disciples call Him King and declare that He is sent from God, the Pharisees pull Jesus aside and beg Him to rebuke his guys.  They are probably expecting the Romans to sweep in and crush the rebellion at any minute.  Jesus says, "Nah, can't do it.  Besides, if I did, the rocks would cry out.  I am the King.  I am the Savior.  This is going to happen and nothing will stop it!"  Reflect on history with me for a moment.  The Roman Empire no longer exists.  Those particular religious sects no longer exist.  But the praise of the King continues to rise, and is not slowing down at all.

Why do I let myself get anxious, irritated, and opinionated about things that aren't going to last?  About things that aren't going to save anyone?  More importantly, why do I allow these things to rob me of the joyful praise of my King?

If you find yourself wrapped up in all the political nonsense filling the airwaves, this song is for you:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Thailand Update

We made it to Thailand!  See?

Chian Mai, Thailand.
We climbed this 300 step staircase to see a Buddhist temple,
Buddha on a hydraulic pallet jack, 
and Tim, stealing this puppy from a little girl.
I also had a snack.

Meanwhile, down in town, this massive, modern, high-end mall is almost complete.
The inside view of the mall with my Wawee coffee.
While the builders of this mall live here with their families, dogs, and chickens.
The reason we are here is to minister to the staff of the Cornerstone Counseling Center.  They exist to help missionaries, just like the ones we visited in the roughest parts of Phnom Penh, when the burden of mission work weighs them down.  
Missionaries, like the rest of us fallen creatures, face burnout, temptation, emotional trauma, and relationship struggles.  That is why Cornerstone is here.  But who takes care of the Cornerstone staff?  That is why we are here.  We will be guiding them on a retreat for spiritual growth and reflection on the power of the Gospel and the faithfulness of God.  Please pray for us for the remainder of our trip as we try to be the hands and feet of Christ for this team.   As is very common with ministry, I think they will end up being more of an encouragement to us than we are to them.  Somehow, in it all, we believe God will do wonderful things.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Phnom Penh Photo Guide

 These photos are in no apparent order, much like the driving.  Enjoy.

Typical power line configuration.

Some random white guy.

One of the difficult things for our Western minds is the stark contrast between the rich and the poor.  In the middle of all this poverty stands the Royal Palace with it's lavish buildings, rich lawns, and modern comforts. 

It's hard to see, but lady on the bike has an IV bag in one hand, and a baby in the other.

Full load.

Our tuk tuk driver's home.

Some of the prisoners at S21.

Street side view of the neighborhood where AIM is located.

The geckos were out in force.

The view from our hotel room.

Potatoes or some other root vegetable.

The government buildings are another example of the rich/poor divide.

Some Photos for "Trying to Be a Christian"

These photos will follow the previous blog post, providing some visual context for the places I described.  I would say, "enjoy," but there is nothing enjoyable here until the last few.

The first stop along the Killing Field audio tour.
These palm leaves have a rigid edge described as a row of shark teeth.  Bullets were too expensive for the mass executions, so sometimes these branches were used to cut throats.  Most victims, however, were killed with blunt objects or farming tools.
This stupa was constructed to house human skulls excavated from the sight.  At the killing fields like this one there are an estimated 1.7-2.5 million victims.  This stupa houses 8,000 skulls, displayed like this:

After the killing fields we visited the infamous S21, the prison where victims were tortured into confession, and then sentenced to death, driven to the nearby killing field, and summarily slaughtered.  There were transcripts displayed of interviews from countless men, women, and children, many of which included statements like, "I have no idea what I did wrong."

And then our day experienced a blessed and drastic change.  We traveled by tuk tuk to Svay Pak and visited AIM, a ministry focused on rescuing young girls from the sex trade.  For security reasons I could not take photos of the girls themselves, but I think you'll get a feel for the liberating power of the Gospel at work in this community.

In what appears to Western eyes to be a slum, AIM is revitalizing an entire community.  Most, if not all of the buildings you see here were formerly brothels, now housing a vocational school, kickboxing studio, elementary school, church, and a pastor's home.

From the roof of the main building we can see a safe house for several teenage girls.  The inside is beautiful and clean, and has a computer lab, library, kitchen, and counseling room.  A year ago it was a brothel.
Also from the roof we see the kickboxing gym.  Pimps are trained here.  Try this for innovation - they are getting pimps off the street by teaching them how to fight.  Several men (boys) in this project have advanced to become professional fighters, giving them income and prestige that will get them out of the sex-trade.  Many of them are coming to Christ.
A street view of the studio.  Don't mess with those Cambodians!
A Christian CEO of a Chinese company has partnered with AIM to put in a factory.  Right now about 50 girls are making t-shirts in the room above.  Soon there will be 250 filling this entire place.  Many of these employees have not been a part of the sex-trade, but the problem is systemic, not isolated.  By offering good jobs the community begins to transform.  This is just one peace of the really big puzzle.
The upstairs room of the factory.  To our right (outside the picture) are the girls busily turning that pile of material into t-shirts.  Behind the material are sewing machines waiting for new hires.
 This building was featured in the film, The Pink Room.  The upstairs specialized in "virgin sales," meaning prepubescent children.  After a police raid the "Pink Room" became the original building of AIM, turned church (as AIM expanded), and is now the Cambodian pastor's home.  If you look closely you will see kids toys, flip-flops, and grandma sleeping on a mat. 
This is where the girls receive vocational training that will prepare for work in factories, like the one above, or other employment.  They are given computer skills, language training, and trade skills, predominately sewing and silk screening.  Beyond training, they are paid for their work, given a free lunch, free day care, and their language training and a Bible study are considered part of their paid work day.
Companies in the states contract for clothing like this.
I can't give you a face, but when you pray, think of the girl with the pony tail.  There are many, many more like her who need to hear some Good News.  From the preschoolers in the kids program (which was way to vibrant to find a faceless picture to take), to the pony-tailed girls on sewing machines, to the former pimps studying Muay Thai, to the community church at the center of it all, Jesus is changing lives in Svay Pak.
One of the missionaries hard at work.  Pray for these guys who see the darkness every day.  One of them showed me a display of photos of little girls in the community who are stuck in the trade and they can't get them out... yet.