A plea for the tree

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.”  Ephesians 1:7-8

Yesterday, I finally took down our Christmas tree.  What do you think it says about us that we got our tree up about five days before Christmas and took it down about five weeks after it.  On second thought, don’t answer that!

2011 was an odd year.  I don’t mean strange, I mean odd — as in not even.  In our house, this is significant.  It means that next year our tree will have NO GARLAND because it will be my wife’s turn to rule over the tree decorating.  She gets the even years.   Our tree will be what I call a “designer tree”.  It will be beautiful and orderly — a tree of which Martha Stewart would undoubtedly approve.

However, I prefer the tree to be more . . . festive. I like to overwhelm the tree with multitudes of decorations and then saturate the whole thing with a thick layer of tinsel. I like it to look like a veritable volcano of color and sparkle — a Yuletime Mount St. Helens.  Unfortunately, the next eruption will not be until 2013.

This breach of unity in our marriage has existed for over thirty years.  The children, who are now grown, have all sided with their mother (presumably because of the inordinate corrupting influence she has had over them as fellow females). But like any good attorney, I am appealing to a higher court — the court of public opinion — where half of the jury is composed of males that might have as little taste as me.

So here is my “plea for the tree”.  I begin with an admission (always a risky tactic).  The Susan tree is prettier.  But now a quick and decisive counterpoint via the rhetorical question:  Is beauty really what we are going for here?  I say, “No way, Jose!” 

I submit that a Christmas tree, like any work of art, expresses something.  Now beauty and order are not BAD things to express, but I suggest that there is something here greater than beauty and order!  I  contend that a gauche, over-the-top Christmas tree is  a more holy tree because it better captures the ridiculously generous abundance .of the gracious gift that we celebrate. I submit that we should lavish on our poor, humble tree a super abundance of decorations to commemorate how on that first Christmas God lavished mercy and grace on us poor, humble sinners.  In short, our tree should be over-the-top because Christmas is over-the-top. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have listened to the evidence.  You have heard the arguments.  I ask for . . . nay, I demand, your verdict on behalf of my client, that gaudy gusher of garland, that chaotic cornucopia of Christmas color, that effusive eruption of everything exuberant– the Cleve tree!  I am sure you will all do your duty!

P.S.  In the last few years, I have learned to be slightly more sensitive to how I tend to make jokes at my wife’s expense.  Thus, I should make it clear that no one better appreciates nor is more in favor of expressing the abundance of unmerited grace we have received at Christ’s expense than my wife.  She just doesn’t like garland.  Beyond that, this whole story is an example of the use of a common rhetorical device — pure exaggeration.


The nation with no king

“In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  Judges 17:6

It is not my intention to comment very often on the socio-political topics of our day.  It isn’t that I don’t see them as important, it is just that to me constant ranting about them outside of the context of the gospel (which I often do privately) does little good, distracts from the gospel message and threatens to raise my blood pressure to levels above what my doctor recommends.


However, there is an exception to every rule and today is one of them.  Here are some of the tidbits that have made the news in the last 24 hours.  In Wisconsin, a school board issued a public apology for printing an opinion editorial in the high school newspaper by a student that opposed adoption by gay couples and cited biblical references that refer to homosexual acts as perverse and unnatural.  The horrified school board issued a statement that decried such article as tantamount to “bullying” and vowed to never again permit such insensitive and hate-filled statements to appear in print.  Questioned about whether such a policy constituted censorship or infringed on any constitutional rights to free speech, the board was unconcerned.  (Apparently, in Wisconsin, there are at least some parts of the Bible that have become too offensive to be fit for public discourse.  Ironically, they seem to be mostly those parts in which God tells us what HE finds to be highly offensive!)

In Utah, a school board has refused to allow the students at a new high school to choose a cougar as their school mascot.  The school board reasoned that such a mascot might offend middle aged women.  I know you think I made this one up, but I promise you, I didn’t.  You know, it is going to get difficult to tell all the teams apart when the only permissible mascots are colors and plants.  I guess there is no anti-defamation league for either  . . . yet!

Finally, a couple has finally publicly acknowledged that their five year old child is a boy.  One would not think that this was newsworthy, but it turns out that the couple had heretofore gone to great lengths to conceal from everyone else in the world their child’s gender because they wanted him/her/it to be freed from all the gender based stereotypes of our culture.  For the last five years, they have dressed him/her/it in gender ambiguous clothing, given him/her/it gender ambiguous toys, and called him/her/it by gender ambiguous names such as “infant” and “child”.  They did all this to make sure that no one would know their son was a boy lest they might actually treat him like one. ( I can’t wait to check in on the “adolescent humanoid” in about ten years.)

So what is going on here?  Well, since I know just about everything, I will tell you.  Twenty first century Americans live in a culture that, like ancient Israel, has no  “king”.  We recognize no outside monarch, such as our Creator, as having the authority to instruct us as to which end is up around here.  Having no anchor, literally everything is  becoming up for grabs.  Simple questions that we thought were reasonably settled are now thrown open for debate.  What is a man?  What is a woman?  Are there differences between them?  If so, is that good or bad?  What is the difference between a man and a tadpole?  Is that good or bad?  What is marriage and why do we have it?  Is that good or bad?  What is a family?  Is that good or bad?  At this point, any question that involves discerning the difference between good and bad has us pretty flummoxed.  Speaking in Okllahoman, it is getting to where we don’t know “come here” from “sic ’em.”

Since we have had no king, we have had no alternative but to make it up on as we go, i.e., to “do what is right in our own eyes”.  When I say that we have had no alternative, it makes it sound like we would have liked one, but didn’t have one.  That would be misleading.  We are more than happy to be our own king for as long as we can.  It is only when, like the prodigal son, our “rule” lands us in a pig sty eating pig slop that we start questioning whether or not throwing off the yoke of our “overbearing father” was such a good idea.

My guess is that we are not too far from being fed a steady diet of pig slop.  Let us pray that we will then at least have the sense of the prodigal to recognize that having God for our king was not tyranny, but “the beginning of wisdom.”

Whitewash and bandaids

because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall,  these prophets smear it with whitewash . . ” Ezekiel 13:10

“They dress the wound of my people  as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,”’ they say,  when there is no peace.” Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11

These two verses come from two different Old Testament prophets, but they both are addressed to those who purport to speak on God’s behalf.  They are warnings against declaring peace when there is, in fact, no peace.  Such false peace is not the kind we may think of — a worldly political peace.  The sort of peace in view is a peace between an indiividual and God.  The warning (and if you read the rest of the passages, it is a stern one) is against pronouncing that a person is reconciled to God and may rest securely without fear when, in fact, that is untrue.  It is a warning against giving others a false assurance of forgiveness.

Ezekiel describes this as applying whitewash to a flimsy wall that is about to fall down and calling it sound and sturdy.  The idea is that you do only a surface, cosmetic repair.  It is made for the eyes of men, but lacks any real substance.  Jeremiah pictures it as applying a bandaid to a cannon ball wound.  The treatment is surface only.  It does not actually treat the root of the problem and bring true healing.

In my view, this is addressing what is referred to in modern circles as “easy believism”.  It describes a counterfeit gospel.  On the surface, it looks and sounds like the real thing.  But it stops well short of bringing true redemption and salvation.  It promises reconciliation with God without true repentance– through the kind of belief that stands all by itself.  It implies that faith can take place simply between your ears without ever actually spreading to your heart, your hands and your feet.  It separates what can not be separated — receiving Jesus as Savior and receiving Jesus as Lord.

Paul’s advice is this:  “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”  (2 Corinthians 13:5).  He is saying make sure NOW that your faith and repentance are genuine so that you will know that you are ready for the day of judgment.  This seems similar to Jesus’ admonition that we should strive to enter by the narrow gate.  Don’t trust in whitewash and bandaids.  Make certain that your wall is really repaired so that it it will stand in the day of judgment and make certain that the grievous wounds of sin have been genuinely healed by the redeeming power of the gospel.


“For the word of God is living and active.”  Hebrews 4:12

These four pictures have one thing in common — they are each famous works of art.  They are also arranged in a particular order, progressing from the most realistic (a photograph) to the most surreal (Picasso’s Guernica). I have included these because I have come to a revelation– one that should have been obvious to me and, I fear, may have long been obvious to you — the Bible is a work of art. The Bible is not just an instruction manual — although it has that aspect.  It is not a catechism.  It does not just set forth concise propositions of truth, although thankfully it does state propositions.  But most of the Bible is narrative, with a fair sprinkling of poetry.  It tells a story and stories have an artistic quality.  They convey meaning without stating it specifically.  Some precision in communication is sacrificed in the hope that other virtues will be enhanced.

If we think about it, a good story does have virtues that propositional statements aimed at the exact same point do not have.  For one thing, we remember stories long after the propositions have been forgotten.  For another, stories reach places propositions do not.  In rhetorical terms, they have pathos, not merely logos.  Simpler put, they touch our hearts as well as our minds.

Now God has not left us with nothing but art — a Bible with no skeleton that gives it a definite shape.  It is not a book in which everything is subject to debate and individual interpretation, much like the most avant garde sculpture.  God has hemmed us in with some propositions for our own protection and encouragement.  See, for example, the epistles of the New Testament.  But he has also put some flesh and blood with the “bones” of the scriptures so that the word of God might be, as it says of itself, “living and active”.

Thus, the Bible has a range of styles of expression much like the four pictures above.  Some of it is clear and distinct — like a photograph. John 3:16 comes to mind.  The parables are more fuzzy, but still relatively clear.  They remind me of the Mona Lisa — the picture is clear enough, but some tantalizing mystery remains.  At the farthest end is that which requires the most imagination.  The book of Revelation is the most obvious example.  It reminds me of a Salvador Dali painting — everything is kind of dreamy and things are not always what they seem.

In fact, Revelation 11:8 is the verse that really got me thinking about this whole issue:  “Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified.” (Rev: 11:8).  For a left brainer like me, that sentence is more mind expanding than LSD.  After all, Sodom and Egypt are two different places and neither of them are where Jesus was crucified.  God is teaching us with metaphors and asking us to use our imagnination.  In short,he is using art!

Because so much of the bible is art and not science, it is inexhaustible in what can be learned and very little, if any, can be said to be known comprehensively. My own experience has been that exploring the Bible is not unlike the exploration of the new world done by guys like Magellan and Columbus.  We begin with a core of knowledge that we can and must grasp firmly (the mainland of Europe, if you will).  This is what can be stated propositionally.  It is extremely important.  In fact we have to return to it periodically when the unanswered questions begin to overwhelm us.  Like the “weaned child with its mother” described in Psalm 131, we often need to be comforted and calmed by the memory of what we already know.  But the unknown still calls to us.  So we keep setting off on adventures, seeking new understanding (making maps as we go for others who will come after us).


On being resolved

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.”  Galatians 3:10

The passage from one calendar year to another has come to involve a certain ritual — the New Year’s resolution.  I don’t know how or when this custom became culturally ingrained, but I vote that we change it.  I suggest that a whole year is way too long to expect me to be able to remember to behave like a much better person than I really am.  I don’t even remember my New Year’s resolutions from last year, but I consider it doubtful that I happened to keep them.

We could try “New Month” resolutions, but I think that also exceeds my “behavioral modification attention span”.  I think that a week is pretty much the realistic limit to how long I can be expected to remember to behave like the person I wish I was. So I am putting the “New Week” resolution out there in the hopes of seeing a groundswell of grassroots support.  I further propose that Sunday be the day for making such resolutions.  Not only is Sunday historically considered the first day of the week, but churchgoers will have the added benefit of being constantly reminded how they completely failed to keep their resolutions from the week before.

Actually, there is an important lesson to be learned from the inevitable failure of almost all New Year’s resolutions — sheer willpower is not the way we change from who we are to who we want to be.  The Apostle Paul spilled a lot of ink discussing the distinction between two different types of self improvement programs– law and grace.  Under the latter, we behave differently because we actually become different people.  By knowing God — seeing him as he is and entering into an interactive relationship with him — we become a new creation.  We have new spiritual DNA.  We actually produce different fruit because we are a different kind of tree.

Paul contrasts this sort of change (which works from the inside out) with “the law” (which operates from the outside in).  When the law is our self-improvement strategy, our own willpower is central.  God tells us what he wants and we marshall all of the resources of our will to comply.  This is kind of like living every day under the weight of a myriad of  New Year’s Resolutions.

This type of approach is almost always doomed to failure.  We can’t simply decide to be a different person.  We may continuously resolve to do better, but in the end, we just end up being who we really are. We have to be changed at the most fundamental level and we can not do this on our own.  As the prophet Jeremiah said:  “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23).

Paul described it as the difference between trying to be conformed (being reshaped by some external object) and being transformed  (taking on a fundamentally different identity):  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind . . .”  (Romans 12:2).

This does not mean that I don’t have a New Year’s Resolution.  I do.  I am resolving to pray more.  I don’t know that that resolution has much more chance of succeeding than the others but I think it is going in the right direction.  If I pray more, I will know God better.  If I know God better, I will be changed.  And if I am changed, there will be more and better fruit.

Happy New Year to everyone!

P. S.  With apologies to my wife, here is my personal favorite: