Saturday, December 6, 2008

Christmas: The Birth of Light

Christmas is a day set apart in the calendar to celebrate the birth of light on earth – in this instance, one small point of light, represented by the birth of a babe.
The presence of light is a dominant feature in the many pictographs that have been drawn of the birthing scene. In some, a shaft of light descends from the sky to a stable in Bethlehem; in others, the light is more diffuse, lighting up the countryside.
According to the biblical record, “the glory of the Lord shone all about.” Yet, also according to the record, only three shepherds tending their flocks at night are reported to have seen the phenomenon. If the light “shone all about,” one would suppose that everyone would have seen it, and been drawn to the manger to gaze in wonder at the awesome event that had occurred. Or, at the very least, there would have arisen a noisy hubbub of speculation about this strange display of light in the night.
In fact, the number of people who were aware of the light accompanying the greatest event in the history of the world could be counted on the fingers of one hand – the two parents and the three shepherds. There might have been more, but the record does not mention them.
The disciple John, in his description, comments that “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Apparently the vast majority of people at that time were “in darkness,” which is to say, insensitive and unreceptive to anything outside their normal range of perception. They were busy solving the big problems of the day, whether on a personal or national scale. Those of us today are no better. We consider ourselves well-educated, “enlightened” perhaps, but we rarely perceive anything other than what we are accustomed to seeing. What we “see” is conditioned and controlled by our cultural heredity – we think of important things as vast forces at work across the globe creating conflict between individuals and nations, huge problems that need our attention. We are so focused on the big and the “important” things of the day that we would not be aware of a little point of light that might appear in the midst of all this darkness. Sadly, Hollywood has conditioned us to expect God to act in terms of booming thunder and blazes of lightning ripping across the sky, not a quiet “light shining all about.”
John also made the observation that the light “…lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” This statement has been interpreted in various ways, but it can be taken literally – each one of us was a point of light when we were born into the world. Presumably we still are a point of light, at least potentially.
“In him (the Christ) was life; and the life was the light of men.” There would be no consciousness, no ability to perceive, to understand anything, if it were not for the fact of life. The presence of life establishes what we call mind and the ability to experience emotion. Human beings act as though the fact that they have the ability to think is a cause, but it is only an effect. There is something which has produced this effect. One way of describing that “something” is light.

Memories of a Noble Profession

Whenever I attend church I’m likely to hear about flocks of sheep and good shepherds. The pastor will tell a noble story about a godly profession, but invariably I drift away into reminisces of cigarettes and polluted water that are my childhood memories of being a herder of sheep.

When I was nine years old my father bought several hundred sheep and immediately discovered that owning sheep in cattle country is not a good way to gain new friends or keep old ones. But that’s another story. My story is that my father hired me (bribed?) that summer to help herd the sheep for $1 a week (I could go home on weekends). This was a fortune to my nine-year-old eyes, for $1 in those days could buy 10 comic books or 20 ice cream cones -- assuming one could get to town, which I seldom did except on a school bus that made no stops for personal business.
Anyway, the deal was that I was to camp out with a wizened little old Mexican man (“as old as the hills” applied to him) and learn the responsibilities involved in being a shepherd and, according to my father’s instructions, to learn Spanish. Well, I lived for six weeks with that old Mexican and learned a little something about sheep but no Spanish because the talking was confined to occasional grunts. What I learned, to my father’s chagrin, was how to roll cigarettes. I am still adept at it. Those were the days of Bull Durham sacks with drawstrings you tightened with your teeth. I will always associate the thought of sheep with the memories of those cigarettes.
Another thing about the Mexican shepherd is that he ate canned sardines for lunch every day, and then would drink from the canteen and leave the stench of sardines in the water. I would just about gag when it was my turn to drink. For supper we ate from a pot of pinto beans heated over a campfire and sour dough bread baked in a Dutch oven.
Well, the summer ended and school started. Dad didn’t keep the sheepherder, as it was expensive, the coyote menace was diminished, and the sheep seemed to get along on their own. Except that they needed to be in the corral at night, and that became my job. As soon as I got off the school bus I had to saddle a horse and go get the sheep, who usually grazed on a mesa about two miles from the house. In the winter it was apt to be sundown or dusk by the time I reached the sheep, and it was a very cold and slow ride home. Sheep are the slowest creatures in the world! I learned that once I got the sheep started toward home they would finish on their own, so I would leave them and take off at a gallop for home and a place in front of the stove.
One evening the sheep didn’t show up at the corral. It got dark and supper was finished. My father asked me where the sheep were. All I could do was stammer that they were headed home last time I saw them. My father simply stared at me, didn’t say anything. I wanted to shrink down into the floorboards and disappear. He went out and brought the sheep in himself, and never said anything more about it.
From that day forward I made sure the sheep were home before I was.
Later that year, to my monumental relief, my dad sold the sheep and ended my days as a member of a noble profession.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Discouragement is one of the most common maladies around. We’ve all suffered multiple doses of it. Very depressing! Here’s my home remedy.
First, I have set up a system of alarm buzzers and flashing red lights that go off in my mind automatically when this feeling creeps up on me. All this buzzing and flashing tells me to stop whatever I’m doing, take a deep breath and acknowledge that I have for the moment wandered off into an unreal world. Pep talks or trying to assume a positive attitude don’t do it because in that state I’m insane, at least temporarily. I’m literally out of my mind. So I turn off the buzzers and flashers and go to that quiet, still place within myself where I can think straight and assess the situation.
What is this discouragement that is causing all this turmoil? Invariably it turns out that I feel discouraged because what I want isn’t appearing, the way I think things should be isn’t working out, that person over there isn’t behaving the way he should, and so I have this heavy load to bear. Woe is me! My lower lip is apt to stick out in a pout.
If I feel discouraged, it is because I have bought into an unreal world that exists only in my imagination. In this instance, it is a self-centered world, a world in which it’s all about me, I’m the most important person, I’m the big enchilada, and I know just how everything and everyone should be. Oh my! Thank goodness for those buzzers and flashers that warn me of insanity!
When I am out of my mind I’m liable to talk about “the real world” as if it were actually real. For instance, I might say that when I leave a church building after a Sunday worship I step out into the real world. If that were true, then the world I experience inside the church must be false and unreal. Is it? Which world is real, and which false?
The real world is where the Kingdom of God reigns. And it reigns everywhere, here and now, not just inside a church. If, in a state of insanity, I refer to anything else as “the real world,” well, I’m living in a fantasy world where things are always going wrong and it’s so discouraging, dontcha know?
As human beings we spend a good deal of time wandering around outside the kingdom of God in a substitute world that individually and collectively we have devised. So pervasive is this substitute world we actually believe it is the real world and sometimes we get caught up in a struggle between our relationship with God and paying our dues in the so-called real world. We get confused, and perhaps come to know first hand the truth of the statement, “a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.”
When I release my emotional allegiance to the unreal world all problems and concerns fall away. They are seen for what they are – unreal, and in the process of passing away. “Not by power or might, saith the Lord, but by my spirit.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Who's Asking?

Many years ago I thought it would be beneficial to my “spiritual progress” to occasionally issue myself a report card on my achievement and deportment. I sought to answer the question, “How am I doing?”
Generally speaking, my self assessment said I wasn’t doing well. Most of my grades were Cs and Ds, some heart-breaking Fs, a few rare Bs. Never an A. I was struggling earnestly to be a better person, to be a better Christian. It was a hard and, if I were honest, not very rewarding task.
Then one day all that changed. I suddenly realized that God had no interest whatsoever in grading my progress. If I was looking for approval from Him, it would never come. God’s only “answer” to my “how am I doing?” question was one of His own: “Who’s asking?”
Who is asking? The self-important twerp, or the Christ-centered child of God? Only the twerp would feel the need to ask. The twerp, ensnared and enslaved by the value systems of the human nature world, is congenitally unsure and in constant need of propping up. He is wed to a false sense of self, a self that thinks itself independent and capable of existing outside the consciousness of God. That self is in the process of passing away and is desperately afraid. Perhaps, if it in some way “improves,” it will somehow be saved! Its report card, no matter how dismal the grades, is its supposed ticket to salvation.
The false self can seem very humble. It is quick to proclaim, for instance, that it is not perfect. “Nobody is perfect, you know,” it says with a nudge of the elbow and a knowing wink. “Nobody can be perfect.” In fact the false self by its very nature is arrogant. It proudly defies the words of Jesus Christ, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Amazingly, no “good Christian” who professes a love for Jesus ever seems to contradict the twerpy self!
Any human being who imagines he can maintain an identity separate from God – who believes, for example, that he is an independent entity who has the power, even the right, to ignore God if he chooses – is imperfect and will remain so till death releases him. No report card of supposed progress will save him. Those who truly accept the dominion of Jesus Christ do not waste their time on earth measuring human imaginations of what perfection is. They abide in the spirit of the Almighty God, wherein is perfection.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Will the Real Sarah Please Stand Up?

The vice-presidential candidates debate is the featured drama on television Thursday evening. A record number of viewers are predicted. News analysts describe the upcoming event as if it were a prizefight: In this corner, the wily veteran Joe Biden, and in that corner the underdog newcomer Sarah Palin. Can Palin survive the bout, or will she fall to a knockout blow from Biden?
Pundits predict disaster for Palin. They say she was floored by questions from two news anchors in warm-up matches. Charlie Gibson glazed her eyes with a quick query about The Bush Doctrine, and Katie Couric shook her up with a left hook about McCain’s record as a reformer. “Saturday Night Live” comedians portray her as a dumb Alaskan housewife who can see Russia from her kitchen window and a witless goofball disturbed by all the foreigners she saw at the United Nations building.
Just three weeks ago Palin entered the national political scene as a breath of fresh air in a smoky, stale, arena of same-old, same-old politicians. Half the population immediately fell in love with her, and the other half, for no rational reason, loathe her.
Thursday evening will be “the moment of truth” for Palin. Is she for real, or just a meteor that flashed across the political sky for a few weeks? Is she an air-head, or is she a woman of uncommon substance and integrity? Is she a product of political hype, or a real human being with depth of character?
None of us really know. Not yet. But we are about to. That is why the Thursday night debate carries such dramatic interest. Palin will of necessity enter the arena by herself, no longer tied to handlers who have coached and instructed and protected. For the first time in this political campaign, Sarah Palin will be relying totally on herself.
What will she do? Will she be the Alaskan Sarah Palin touring the lower forty-eight, or will she try to be a urbane, knows-all-the-answers candidate crafted by political hacks? Are we going to see an honest-to-God real person, or are we to witness just another politician following the same tired old path?
Please, Sarah, answer our prayers and be real. You don’t have to know the name of the president of Georgia, not now. Be honest. Rely on the inner integrity that has brought you to this place in history. Strength of character is the only real qualification for the presidency. Do you have it, or don’t you? We are about to find out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Presidential Experience?

“Who has the experience to be president of the United States?”
The announcement of Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate has heated up the “experience” arguments. Critics of the nomination say that being the mayor of a small town and the governor of a sparsely populated state does not prepare her to be a world leader. Her supporters reply that the experience of a mayor and a governor trumps that of a community organizer and senator.
Let’s look at the question as dispassionately as we can. In the history of this nation, there have been 43 presidents. Which ones were qualified to fill the office, what experience prepared them for that responsibility?
How about the first one, George Washington? His experience consisted of being a farmer and a military officer lacking formal training. As a military officer he lost more battles than he won. He had never been elected to any kind of office prior to becoming president.
We don’t want to go through all 43 presidents, so let’s skip ahead to Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be the nation’s greatest president. What experience did he have that prepared him for the office? Almost none. His venture into store keeping failed, he was “un-elected” as a captain of volunteers in the Blackhawk War, and he lost a senatorial election. All he was really good at was talking. He was a successful lawyer and story teller. And, even when he won the presidency, he attracted only 39 percent of the popular vote.
How about Harry Truman? Never was there a more invisible man before he became president, and never had a man failed at more enterprises than he. His political success, whether as county commissioner or U.S. Senator, was made possible by the support of the corrupt Pendergast political machine. He was a terrible speaker and had to live with his mother-in-law. Yet he is acknowledged today for his honesty and integrity. John F. Kennedy? Unlike Lincoln or Truman, he had no failures in his resume because he never did anything other than run for political office. He used his reputation as a war hero and his daddy’s money to win election to the Senate and squeezed into the presidency with the help of some murky Chicago politicos. Khrushchev called him “the boy” and moved missiles into Cuba. But Kennedy proved he had the mettle to fill the office.
Ronald Reagan had decades of experience as a movie star. Bill Clinton was unknown outside of Arkansas. George W. Bush was an oil speculator, owned a baseball team and served as a Texas governor. None of them could identify the name of the prime minister of Sri Lanka.
Which presidents were “best prepared,” in terms of experience, for the presidency? Well, uh, let’s see…. John Adams. He helped write the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, served in the Continental Congress, and was ambassador to Great Britain and France. He did not fare well as president. Woodrow Wilson was said to excel as a college professor. Herbert Hoover spent a lifetime in government, distributed aid to refugees of World War I and knew how to catch trout. Yet his name, 80 years after his term, is remembered with disdain.
Do any of the current nominees for president/vice-president have experience that prepares them for the presidency? No. There is really no criteria. So let’s stop arguing about it. Instead, let’s look for intangible qualities that have nothing to do with party affiliation, background or “experience.”

Change You Can Believe In

“Change you can believe in” is the motto of presidential candidate Barack Obama. Unprecedented numbers of young people and idealists have “bought in” to his campaign promises. The question is, can Obama deliver on his promises? The answer is No, and it has nothing to do with personality or political affiliation. No political candidate, no matter his or her party, is going to “change things in Washington,” “clean out” special interest groups, or accomplish any of the promised reforms cheered by Obama supporters.
All the things considered “wrong” in Washington are in fact merely the magnification of human nature traits common to the experience of everyone. In Washington, these characteristics are highlighted by TV cameras and fingers are pointed at individuals perceived to be practicing deception and dishonesty. “Elect me,” says the finger pointer, “and I will do away with all this bad behavior and do only good things.” The promises sound good, especially to the young and the idealistic who instinctively know that there must be a potentially better world. Older voters, on the other hand, instinctively realize that such “change” is easier said than done. Their experience is likely to be, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
This is the experience of the human nature world, which is a world that does not recognize the spirit of God nor its supreme sovereignty. Man builds his own world, and tells God, in effect, to stay out. Laws are passed to prohibit even the mention of God in public places.
To replace God, man devises what he considers “goodness.” It is good to consider all religions equal, for instance, and thereby eleminate religious conflict; Allah is just another word for God, goes the reasoning; man is evolving and getting better all the time. But as a matter of fact man teeters on the brink of self-extinction through nuclear holocaust, starvation, pollution or myriad other perils such as global warming. The United Nations, formed for the good purpose of creating global peace, is in fact composed mostly of rogue nations ruled by dictators. Every “good” thing in the human nature world sooner or later decays into ugly parodies of what was originally intended.
Accusation, Blame, Criticism, these are the abc’s of the human nature world. Listen to any politician’s spiel, and you will hear accusation, blame and criticism of that guy over there who is responsible for this mess. “Vote for me, I won’t make a mess.” But a mess is the only possible result because whatever is created is built upon accusation, blame and criticism. The process is an endless circle, a serpent chasing its tail.
“Change you can believe in” asks us to believe that a better world can result from policies that employ accusation, blame and criticism. And asks us to believe that a politician who uses these abc’s is somehow above the crowd. He’s not, and we should know better.
“Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”
The only change you can really believe in is the one that occurs inside a person when he opens himself to the holy spirit. Perhaps someday there will be a sufficient number of those to form a government; in the meantime it might be best to rely on cynical practicality in selecting our governmental leaders.

Carbon Dating and the Naked Emperor

Carbon dating is the heavy artillery that the scientific establishment trundles out to blast any arguments against its holy of holies, the Theory of Evolution. Anyone not well schooled in physics and other sciences is likely to be intimidated or to get lost in the explanations of exactly how the dating method works.
It’s really not all that difficult. One needn’t have a science background to see the flaws; one need only remember the fable about the emperor who had no clothes but everyone pretended he did because they were afraid to say he was naked.
In brief, carbon dating involves the cycles of “decay” by which organic materials are returned to an inorganic state. Atoms that comprise a substance known as carbon, over time, are synthesized into other atoms. Dating an old material can be achieved by determining how much of the carbon remains. At least that’s the theory.
Carbon is also a form of latent energy. Coal, for instance, is a carbon that can be easily transmuted into heat through the process of combustion. There is also a thermonuclear aspect involving atomic radiation which accounts for the light and heat provided by the solar sun and other stars.
The laws of physics pertaining to carbon are immutable and the scientific description of how it works is accurate. The question is not with the principle of carbon dating, but rather with the unprincipled manner in which it is often employed to “validate” questionable assumptions.
Carbon dating assumes a premise that time is the only factor impinging on the breakdown of carbon atoms. In other words, it assumes that all other factors have remained unchanged over the past thousands or millions of years. Yet even the most biased defender of the technique will acknowledge that a number of things have changed – drastic changes in world climate, for instance, along with cataclysmic volcano eruptions, earthquakes, great floods, meteor hits, perhaps even near collisions with other planetary bodies. Considerable combustion took place during some of these events, and carbon is a combustible material. It would be fair to say that carbon atoms have been subjected to a good deal more than time over the millenia.
Proponents of the evolutionary theory speak glibly of hundreds of millions of years required for evolution to, ah, evolve. The mathematical odds of atoms accidentially combining to form an amino acid, for instance, is so remote that theorists account for it by tacking on another hundred million years to their estimate of the earth’s history. The fact is that these theorists don’t have a clue as to how, for example, nucleotides, the building blocks of genes, were first formed. Their “answer” is to say that surely, given enough time, hundreds of millions of years perhaps, such an accident could happen. In short, it is all wild theory and not even remotely “scientific.” The vaunted theory of evolution, held in such esteem by “educated” people, is an emperor with no clothes.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

“Sunday Morning Coming Down” is the name of a song written by Kris Kristofferson and sung by Johnny Cash. It is a hauntingly sad song, seemingly describing the after-effects of a self-indulgent Saturday night. “Hung over” is perhaps the condition of the narrator, but what comes across to the listener is the man’s cry of spiritual desolation, deep anguish, soul-rending despair. He is, in effect, a man with no place to go, no place to be. On a Sunday morning he feels the pain of his isolation, not just from the familiar weekday sounds and sights of the city, but from any sense of connection with the God for whom Sunday is set aside.

Forty years ago Kris Kristofferson was a genius. As a young man newly arrived in Hollywood, he could do no wrong. His songs touched the heart of the nation and dominated the airwaves. Then his talent seemed to dry up and he wrote no more. Now he is a grizzled old man who ekes out a living playing grizzled old men in the movies.

Sunday morning in a Kris Kristofferson world was a dreadful time. The normal activities of the workaday week were suspended. The downtown sidewalks were empty, there was “nothing to do” but mope about and feel the dark despair of a “Sunday morning coming down.” Johnny Cash’s deep baritone voice could make the phrase sound like doomsday.

“Sunday Morning Coming Down” strikes a universal chord in all of us because in our heart of hearts there is a sadness that never goes away, a sadness that never stops hurting because we have never learned how to fully give ourselves to God. We ascribe various reasons as to why we are sad, but the only reason for sadness is our separation from God. We mourn for him as we would a lost loved one. We can’t help it. That’s the way He made us. “Our hearts were made by thee, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in thee.”

Time and narcotics have apparently dulled at least some of Kristofferson’s pain. The rest of us have endured in various ways, and a few wise ones have come to the recognition that sadness can be transmuted into love when we worship God. And we worship God only as we treat every moment of our lives as “Sunday morning,” -- a time set aside for God -- and we rise up to greet our Sunday morning, giving to God our hearts, our feelings, our thoughts, thereby knowing the peace of His presence.