We become old in a single day.
It seems that abrupt. Our old man or old woman status comes as sudden and unbidden as rain on a wedding day. It arrives as unwelcome but unavoidable as the VISA bill after the shopping spree.
The signs of decrepitude accumulate with alarming swiftness: one night you bed down youthful and nimble, the next day you wake up elderly and stiff. There you go, your skin a masterpiece of taut unblemished smoothness, vandalized by age until it’s blotched and withered and rough as lizard hide. Where did that smiling youth in the photo go, and why does he bear such little resemblance to the person in the mirror? We move from agility to debility, from keen recall to bumbling forgetfulness, from flesh tones to shades of grey, with nary a moment to catch our breath, which we have less of anyhow.
I’m thinking these gloomy thoughts for two reasons. One, I’ve been nursing a sore hip for a few days. It just happened, just another of those bodily malfunctions that attend, with worrisome regularity and for no apparent cause, those of us of a certain age.
The other reason is that my children are all home, or about to be: and they’re not children anymore. My son, whiskered and muscled, towers above me, and speaks in a deep man voice, and regales me with tales of things faraway and exotic. He makes his own way in the world, quite handily. He has skills I never acquired, knowledge I never attained, experiences I never tasted. I think he could probably hang a licking on me, but I don’t want to test the theory.
And my daughters – one who still lives at home, the other who I hadn’t seen for nearly 4 months until this past Saturday, and have barely seen since – are both women. They are full of their own thoughts, opinions, convictions, dreams and, it seems, a mild disdain for any advice I care to offer. They carry themselves with poise and confidence.
It is strange to feel so happy and creaky all at once. It is odd to be so proud of this man, these women, and in the same breath to feel so reduced and bewildered. One question I will ask God in heaven, if such things are permitted, or even needed: Why didn’t you give us a lengthier stretch of 20-something invincibility? Why couldn’t you have prolonged our prime for, oh, 50 years, or 60, so that any wisdom we attain by hard knocks and sheer longevity we’d get to apply with undimmed vigor?
But no. God built into us inevitable physical and mental decline.
The more I face the reality of this, the more I savor the soul. It’s the only part of us that can become more vibrant and supple and beautiful with age. Or it can become bitter, shrivelled, ugly. That choice is almost exclusively up to us. We tend our own soul. And the soul, unlike the body, is not subject to inescapable decay, or guaranteed spontaneous betterment. I work out my body on a regular basis (doesn’t it show?), and though I believe this is important and part of my stewardship, all I’m doing is slowing down the inevitable. Biology is a ruthless taskmaster. Chronos, the time-god, is a heartless driver.
But neither can touch the inmost places. That is our exclusive domain, to nurture or starve as we see fit. For this reason, the Apostle Paul writes: “…physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8).
Question: Do you work out your soul with greater vigor and frequency than you do your body? Do you watch over what you feed your soul more carefully than what you do your body?
As we celebrate the coming of the One who makes all things new, and as we enter a new year, would you commit to one thing above all: to receive all Christ gives you in order to become all Christ intends for you? Would you make your main business the cultivation of a deep soul?
May he bless you, and make you a blessing.
Two samples of the kind of letters children send to Santa Claus each year, c/o The North Pole:
You did not bring me anything good last year.
You did not bring me anything good the year before that.
This is your last chance
There are three little boys who live at our house. There is Jeffrey, he is 2. There is David, he is 4. And there is Norman, he is 7. Jeffrey is good some of the time. David is good some of the time. But Norman is good all of the time.
I am Norman.
The legend of Santa is rooted in the life of a real person, Saint Nicholas, the 4th Century Byzantine Bishop of Myra. He was renowned for his generosity, which had a distinct element of justice to it: one of his more famous and lavish acts of giving was to provide large dowries to three impoverished daughters of a pauper to spare the girls a life in prostitution.
The St. Nick legend morphed along the way, especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, but the Santa of modern imagination – the Santa of sleighs and reindeers and irrepressible jollity and chimney-invasions and an insatiable appetite for sugar cookies, the Ho Ho Hoing Santa who dandles little children on his knees while they whisper their consumerist fantasies in his ear – is shaped largely by Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 Poem “The Night Before Christmas” (originally published anonymously as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”).
That really started the snowball rolling.
Something got lost along the way.
I’m not trying to spoil the fun – some of my favorite memories of my children when they were young was their annual visit with Santa down at the mall. But Santa has been co-opted by a consumerist conspiracy to subvert the Christian virtue of giving and replace it with the capitalist fetish for spending. That should give us all pause. The modern Santa has no continuity with the 4th Century Saint: he has become almost his nemesis. Modern Santa-hood eclipses ancient sainthood. It is hard to imagine, for instance, the modern Santa breaking the bank to rescue poor girls from the brothels.
But that’s not the worst of it.
This is: The Santa myth preaches a toxic form of legalism. Legalism is, in essence, the belief that everything I receive is owed to me because I earned it. In religion, legalism says that God owes me a good life here and now and salvation eternally because I earned it by my upright living. In economics, legalism is the idea that only the productive are deserving. In nature, it’s that only the fittest survive. In relationships, it’s that only the beautiful are happy.
And so on. Legalism reduces everything to a transaction: I’m owed something because I earned it.
The myth of Santa is incurably and irreducibly legalistic. At its heart it says he owes us gifts because we earned them by our good behavior: he’s making a list, he’s checking it twice….
That old legalist.
Don’t you see? A gift stops being a gift to the extent you’ve earned it. It’s just a reward. It’s remuneration. It’s compensation. It’s what you have coming to you. You did not bring me anything good last year. You did not bring me anything the year before that. This is your last chance.
Such thinking only makes sense in a world in the death grip of legalism.
But we live in a world that’s grace-soaked. In a stunning irony, it’s a lament in the book of Ecclesiastes that actually turns legalism on its head
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all (Ecc. 9:11).
This is a lament sung in the key of despair. It is a complaint against some cosmic unfairness. But hear it through the filter of the gospel, and it becomes great good news. It means we live in a world where it’s possible to win races and battles and eat meals and receive money and favor that you never earned. The gospel would add that we get all this, not merely because time and chance happen to all, but because grace reigns. Grace soaks this sin-dark world, and breaks the grip of legalism. And no longer does the law of return have the last word.
Listen, I’m not saying go tell your wide-eyed 4-year-old that Santa is a fraud in the service of capitalistic greed.
But I am saying, tell them first, most, often and always the real Christmas story. Tell them about the real gift-giver, Jesus. Tell them about his grace – the gift we didn’t earn. Tell them about his best gift – himself, given at ultimate cost to himself but free to us. Tell them that, and make that the center of everything.
Merry Christmas indeed.
The City of North Cowichan invited me again to pray for our mayor and council at their swearing-in ceremony. I have done this now four times over the last 9 years. The first time I did it was December 2002. The most recent time was this past Wednesday.
I consider it a high honour. I am humbled to be asked to serve our community and its leaders in this way. And it is a fulfilment of what all of us are commanded to do anyway:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
I like the forceful simplicity with which Eugene Peterson renders the first part of that: “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know. Pray especially for rulers and their governments to rule well….”
On the four occasions I have prayed at these public ceremonies, not once has anyone set limits on the manner or content of my prayer. I assume and honour the need to be brief, but never has anyone restricted or vetted me, or insisted on some generic, one-size-fits-all prayer that would be palatable to people of all faiths or none. They just let me loose. I have always prayed in the name of Jesus. I have always woven biblical verses into my praying. I have always tried to pray both priestly blessing and prophetic warning. And I have always prayed thanks: for the beauty, freedom, safety and prosperity of our community, and for these men and women who are willing, for little pay and often little thanks, to serve us.
But come back to what Paul writes to Timothy about praying for rulers. Paul wrote this during the reign of Nero – in fact, about midway through his reign, and most likely after the Great Fire of Rome for which Nero blamed and then executed Christians. Nero, though popular with many in his realm because of his grandiose generosity, was one of the most vicious, capricious, foolish, self-absorbed leaders who ever lived. He makes the late Moammar Gadhafi look like Nelson Mandela. Here is the account by the Roman historian Tacitus, himself no friend of Christians, of Nero’s cruelty toward Christians:
…an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [to the charge of being Christ-followers]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted… Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car.
Yet Paul, with not a trace of rancor, asks Christians to pray for this man and his regime.
But that’s not the most amazing thing. This is: Paul connects our prayers, not only with peace for us, but with our evangelistic effectiveness. Our prayers for rulers, Paul suggests, further God’s desire for “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” This is breathtaking. It means when we pray for leaders, we release God’s saving action in the world.
And that, in the early church, is exactly what happened. Here is how the historian Will Durant describes it:
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fiery tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at long last defeating the strongest state that history has ever known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won.
We do not have in the Cowichan Valley, thank God, corrupt, treacherous leaders bent on destroying us. We do have in our community, by God’s grace, good, wise, just people ready to serve us. But how much more then should we pray for them – for rulers and their governments to rule well? We should pray, not only so that we have peaceful, quiet lives, but to release God’s saving action in the world.
Our faithfulness in this will determine what later historians say about us.
My community has, by God’s grace, good, wise, just people ready to serve all who live here. But how much more then should I pray for them – for rulers and their governments to rule well? I should pray, not only so that I have a peaceful, quiet life, but to release God’s saving action in the world.
Your and my faithfulness in this will determine what later historians say about us.
I am seeing two broad and worrisome trends in the North American church today: a nitpicking, name-calling crankiness, and a shoulder-shrugging, yawn-stifling complacency. We have a surging tide of angry self-appointed prophets, and a sprawling mass of apathetic self-indulgent spectators.
It’s not our finest hour.
On the one side are the rigorists and dogmatists. They lather each other up, largely through blogs, into fits of vitriol. Their main activity is to ferret out and denounce anyone whose theology doesn’t line up neatly with their own. Their black list includes, variously, Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, Rick Warren, Richard Foster, and many others (and all who approve of those on the black list). In other words, the list includes men and women whom God has used to further his kingdom and deepen our faith. But never mind that. Somewhere, on page 303, say, of so-and-so’s book on such-and-such, he quotes a medieval mystic on prayer whose doctrine of salvation is, let’s say, quirky.
Off with his head!
Or at a conference in Toledo she appeared on the same platform as a mega-church pastor who endorsed a book by someone who once said something questionable.
To the gallows!
Or he wrote, in his very own words, something stupid and regrettable (as most of us are prone to do from time to time).
I even stumbled across my own name on one of these black lists. Last year, when I was preparing to speak at a well-known Christian university, I searched my name along with the name of the university to find out my speaking times. What popped up first was a website warning these university students against my dangerous thinking. My crime? I was friends of someone who was friends of someone who had been influenced by someone whose theology the writer found objectionable.
I’m neither joking nor exaggerating.
This is tiresome, foolhardy, and futile. It is the wrong fight. I am a great proponent of clear and biblical thinking, but this is not that. This is an exercise in hair-splitting that effectively shuts down the Great Conversation and replaces it with diatribes, jeers, and mud-raking. It is generating massive heat and almost no light.
Then on the other side are those who are no more interested in theological inquiry than in learning Sanskrit. They don’t care about creed or doctrine: they just want to “be encouraged,” “feel good about” themselves, “be inspired by the sermon,” “enjoy the worship” – all phrases I’ve heard many times. It’s a faith cobbled together from hunches, slogans, emotions, but not much thought. It’s an elixir for the narcissist. This is a caricature of biblical faith, and provides no defense against error and no ballast against storm.
I plead for us to transcend both dogmatism and complacency. And I know just the thing: conviction. What the most robust, winsome and effective Christ-followers have always had in spades is deep conviction. Here’s what that looks like: being willing to die for your beliefs, but never to kill for them. It’s being willing to face prison or torture for your faith, but to imprison or torture no one who refuses to share it.
I think of Tevye, the father in Fiddler on the Roof, booming out the keystone of his life: “Tra-di-tion!” But in this case the keystone is Con-vic-tion!
Conviction is when we are personally gripped and transformed by what we believe, and when we love to share those beliefs, but when we feel no compulsion to crusade for them, force them on others, or denounce those who think differently. Virtually, all holy wars spring, not from the overflow of belief, but from its deficiency. They are a way we overcompensate for doubt.
Jesus said a Christ-like life, not the loudness of our pronouncements or the deepness of our feelings, is the primary evidence that we know him.
That only grows in the soil of deep conviction.