Idols All Around

One of the consistent themes that runs all through the Bible is the theme of idolatry. And if we can learn anything from its writers down the thousands of years and hundreds of generations since they lived, it’s that humans are easily deceived by idols of every sort.
It’s arrogant for us to laugh off the idea of stone and wooden deities, and shake our heads at the fish or dragons, serpents or elephants that they represented to our ancestors. (That’s right, all of our ancestors!) Because we’re no less susceptible despite our assertions that we are modern and rational. Twenty-first century man remains a remarkably idolatrous creature.
This is rarely as evident as it is during a presidential election cycle, when we believe that vast power, and all our destinies, rest with the office and person we are electing. If only we elect him, or her, all our problems will be solved and our enemies smitten! We elevate candidates and politicians to places they were never meant to be, not by God, nor indeed by the founders of our republic, who doubtless had a much more suspicious view of human character than we do; else they would never have built in so many checks and balances.
In fact, during elections we also make idols of government in general, constitutions, courts and legislative bodies. We worship commentators and media outlets and anyone and everything connected with the process. We idolize our own opinions and spend far more time in our own personal echo-chambers than we do either worshipping God or (for the non-religious) simply pursuing secular knowledge or simple joy. Pity, as our self-adulating tirades and tantrums change few minds.
But it isn’t only politics. We all have our idols. Thanks to social media, young people take constant photos of themselves in a kind of self-worship. Social media have also allowed Americans to make an idol of the approval of others, whether in likes for one’s selfie, or agreement with one’s views. The disapproval of others is a bitter pill whose side effects include exclusion from friendly society; a kind of excommunication for heresy. How many opinions would be shared more honestly if not for the fear of being shunned or attacked en masse online?
Conservatives often idolize guns or military prowess, as if they could save us from all danger. And yet the Bible says ‘Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, but we trust in the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 20:7) (The chariot being the main battle tank of antiquity, by the way.) And liberals make an idol of choice, as if replacing the word ‘killing’ with a euphemism makes it less like the reality of killing an unborn child, less like a modern adoration of the dark god Molech.
We idolize the freedom of sexual expression and sexual orientation, as if all that mattered in this life were who could have sex with whom. And on the other side, we idolize morality, as if our sanctimonious attitudes about sexual sin were anywhere as important as the forgivingness and redemption offered in the Bible to those who sin sexually, gay or straight. Grace matters more than moralism.
America idolizes the idea of compassion and charity without understanding the moral and spiritual underpinnings that make it reasonable and possible. And yet, we also idolize the American concept that everyone can simply succeed if they try, which is simply untrue. The deck is sometimes stacked and there are those who need our assistance, personally and through state programs. Some idolize capitalism, some idolize socialism, but both can become monstrous deities when not applied with Godly wisdom and caution.
The Decalogue begins with ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery, out of the land of Egypt.’ And follows it immediately with ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ And of course, after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people promptly made a Golden Calf and ignored God, the source of all their good things. You can be an atheist and still see the truth in this tale. This is the story of all mankind. The worship of those things we shouldn’t, and the rejection of those things that are truly, ultimately good.
Whether a citizen is religious or not, we can surely agree that we all have idols we should take from their altars. Maybe it’s a good time to start.

We All Have to Face Evil

Dear reader, 

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  I wasn’t sure if it was the right column for this week, but I’d been thinking about it for a while.  Ironically, I really lost track of the date and wasn’t thinking about the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.  But maybe it was appropriate as we consider what evils were inflicted that day.  Anyway, here it is.  May God deliver you and yours from temptation and evil.

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ So goes the last sentence of the Lord’s Prayer. (Well, unless you count the later addition, ‘For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, forever and ever, amen.’)
The more I think about it as I get older, the more important the ideas of temptation and evil seem. As a husband, as a father, as a physician, I am fully convinced of the moral and spiritual dangers of this world. And yet, those words,’temptation’ and ‘evil’ fall on skeptical ears in a modern, scientific world. Do we believe in such a thing as temptation? Do we believe in evil? And how do we learn about these things in a time when virtue itself seems all too relative? And are they really relative as we search everywhere for virtuous leaders?
The word ‘temptation’ is dismissed as laughable. Rather than seeing it as a thing to be resisted, an assault on our character, a fork in the road of life, (or worst of all, the actions of Temptation should be embraced, as it invariably leads to fun and to liberty.
And ‘evil’ is even worse. Evil is only evil in the eye of those condemning it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s campaign contribution is another man’s bribe. Evil is passe’. It’s a yawn, a hoax passed down from an irrelevant church through silly preachers and uptight believers. Evil isn’t a thing for modern, educated people. Right?
Personally, I hold with the stark reality of temptation and evil. Reflecting on my own life I realize that I have experienced any number of temptations. Some of which I regrettably embraced.
Media and popular culture, being the principal moral guide-posts of generations, teach us that it’s funny to laugh about temptation, especially when it occurs in youth, and relates to sex, drugs and alcohol. But it quickly turns serious when we realize that temptation also eads people to use ever more powerful, ever more addictive and lethal drugs. Temptation leads men and women to cheat on their spouses, abuse children, embezzle, lie, engage in shady business deals, abuse public office, commit acts of terror, oppress, torment, rape or murder. It causes coups and wars, genocides and crushing poverty, loneliness, broken homes, broken hearts.
It’s common to suggest that such activities are merely the result of mental illness or caused by the frustrations of poverty or oppression. While sometimes true, the news doesn’t bear that out. Many very sane, very capable, very educated and financially sound people fall prey to temptation, a thing which ruins their own lives and those of others.Temptation, then, is the trail-head down evil paths. Evil, that old church bugaboo, that joke perpetuated on children, by ignorant religious folks, in order to manipulate them! But we all, every man, woman and child, believe fully in evil. We just have different words for it. We may disagree about the source. Is it something spiritual? Is it mental, financial or social? But without doubt, we know that there are dangerous forces and wrong things in the world.
Even the most convinced and brilliant atheist (and there are many) will reasonably condemn certain actions and applaud others. We use words like ‘unfair.’ We say we ‘ought to’ or ‘ought not to’ do certain things. We believe ‘that’s just wrong’ about a host of behaviors. Slavery? Bad. Murder? Bad. Greed? Bad. Human trafficking? Bad. Environmental destruction? Bad. Intolerance? Oppression? Tyranny? Hatred? Abuse of political power? Bad, bad, bad. And, to those of us with a more theistic inclination, evil.
And yet we live out a strange duality, in which we reject the idea of temptation’s perils and the reality of evil, even as we want to see virtue blossom. We find ourselves surrounded by crime, war, racism and sexism. We rail against big business, misleading ministers and lying politicians. We desire that our leaders be ‘good’ and ‘just’ even as we vacillate over virtue for ourselves, and can’t help laughing at things like ‘temptation’ and ‘evil.’
We may have to find different words to speak a common language here. But suffice it to say, I still pray that God will lead me not into temptation, and will deliver me from evil. And all those I love. For in a dangerous world, temptation and evil are real. And I’m just too weak to face it alone.

Can you be a Christian in the ER? Grace abounds…


Many young physicians in training have asked me, quietly or by e-mail, ‘is it possible to be a Christian and practice emergency medicine?’  I think that they ask a good question, and likely for good reasons.

In their rotations they have witnessed, first hand, life in the ER.  They are uncertain, perhaps, because they see the frustration that boils over in the words and actions of otherwise compassionate and caring doctors and nurses. They hear the bitterness and sarcasm, the profanity, the unkind words spoken behind the glass window that separates professional from patient.

They also see, hear, touch…and often smell…the humanity that pours through the doors of trauma centers, academic emergency departments, community ER’s and all the rest.  There is suffering and loss, and the long, piercing wail of the bereaved down the hall, receiving the worst news of all.  They experience the addicted, the drug seeker who will tell any lie, contrive any store to get the pill or injection he or she so needs and desires.  They witness the poverty and need, the hungry, empty eyes of neglected children.   The may witness, or experience, the explosive violence and cruelty of the drunk, the criminal, the wounded.  In such a place, between suffering patients and suffering staff, what young, wide-eyed Christian wouldn’t ask, ‘Dr. Leap, is it possible to keep your faith and work in the emergency department?’

So here is my short epistle on the topic:

‘To the believers in the hospitals and emergency rooms, the church medical, across the land, around the world.  From your brother Edwin, who these years has fallen and gotten up over and over and who loves you and wishes to encourage you.

It is my prayer that you have strength to face the sickness and pain into which you plunge yourself every day.  All around you come victims; victims of disease and accident, victims of violence and neglect, cruelty and hatred.  The drunk and addicted, the angry and the sad, the suicidal and lost, the rejected and abused, the healthy and also the dying; and all are among the dying in the end.  Remember that all of them, and all of us, are also victims of sin, for it was in our separation from God in ancient times that all of this pain began, and in which death took hold of those originally destined for life.

Remember that the guilty and the innocent alike suffer from this, and that our Lord came to be an intercessor, high priest and atoning sacrifice for all.   Your struggle is against the infirmities of the flesh, but also against the wounds of the spirit that underly all suffering in this veil, until we reach the kingdom where death has no power…and you will be out of work for all eternity.  Amen.

Look around you each day, and consider that the emergency room, the hospital ward, the clinic, the operating room, these are places where the gospel is shown forth to you in power, a great gift from the Father so that you may understand by the example of others’ troubles what spiritual truths lie beneath it all and undergird it all.

Although we are all poor reflections, destined to one day (as the word says) ‘be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is,’ we are still his dim but ever growing likeness.   And we are His hands, feet, mouth, eyes, mind.  Like Him, we who go day in and day out among the lost, the suffering and those who (despite their willfulness) are hostages to evil.

And although we may have sin in our hearts, although we judge and are angry and frustrated, we do His work.  That is, brothers and sisters, we bring love and touch and healing and comfort to those who frequently have done nothing to deserve it, who exhibit no gratitude or intent to change, but who need our love, need the love and redemption of Jesus.  And like Him, we will show it seventy times seven, through temper tantrums thrown our way, complaints, cruel words, irresponsibility, patient satisfaction, EMR (the devil’s work) and every other difficulty.

Dear ones, in the ER, grace is at work, and a model of grace is there for you to enact and understand.  You give undeserved love and care for everyone all day, every day.  The Spirit gives you strength in hardship so that you may be bold, whether rested or tired, prepared or unprepared.  Also, remember that the spirit works in your sinful heart, to your salvation and holiness.  Those your treat are no worse than you and you no greater than them.  There is a great gift of holy humility in that truth.

One day, on that Great Day, you will see that each act, every stitch, every comforting hand, every EKG, every airway, every psychiatric commitment, each and every weary step into the same room with the same patient and same complaint, every unkind word for another physician restrained, every patient act, these were all acts of grace that molded you.   And the Father, Son and Spirit will welcome you, veteran of ten thousand daily trials.

And it is in this way that one can be a Christian in the ER, in the trauma center, clinic, operating room, delivery suite and all the rest despite the trials, temptations and bitterness that the enemy of our souls inflicts up on us in our work.

May the God of all peace guide you and strengthen you in your difficult work, and fill you with radiant, overwhelming love.

And may you have a quiet shift.


Instrument of torture as wearable art; Jesus mocks the cross…

Old weathered wooden cross with blood and tie ropes representative of the cross that was used during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Old weathered wooden cross with blood and tie ropes representative of the cross that was used during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

My wife has a new cross necklace, given to her by some dear friends of ours. It’s a beautiful bit of silver-work, with flowing lines, flowers and a fish symbol. In fact, our house has a lot of crosses on the walls. People have remarked at the number and artistry of them. We smile and say, ‘every entrance faces one; keeps out the vampires.’ 

It’s odd, though, that the cross became a thing of decoration to Christians. There were pre-Christian cross symbols and pre-Roman crucifixions, but the Roman penchant for this particular form of suffering, and the very execution of Jesus, would seem to have put an end to any illusions about the symbol being a thing of beauty.
And yet, it was first used to represent Christianity as early as the third century AD. At that point, the cross was still being used as a form of execution! (Indeed it probably continued for a few hundred years more and still is used in parts of the world.) Then, as now, wearing a cross was rather like wearing a necklace with an electric chair charm, and decorating with one is akin to having a wall hanging with a noose in the center; rather macabre.
For some, crosses of silver and gold, wood or stone, are nothing more than cultural decorations of minor historical interest. However, to those who really understand and keep Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, to those who take the time to study, pray and reflect, the cross is a treasure of unfathomable power and beauty.
We could say, for instance, that the death of Christ on a cross was the ultimate act of social justice. You see, Roman crucifixion was for the ‘outsiders.’ The only Roman citizens executed on the cross were army deserters. Others were exempt from its brutality. Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, his death was the death of the stranger, the immigrant, the slave, the criminal. He died with the kind of people he touched, healed, comforted, taught and came to redeem. He was not ‘connected’ or possessed of earthly power.
His cross, blood soaked, embedded with scourged skin, was a symbol of the rebellion of love and non-violence against earthly power and its vanities. He did not resist. He said to his enemies, in essence, ‘fine, have it your way. Even here I work for your good. Hate me, kill me and I will love you through my death.’ Unlike most of history’s rebels, he said of his tormentors, from the crushing height of the cross, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
All of these things make us seen the cross as compelling, even with its stains and jagged edges, ropes and nails. But the reason, in my opinion, that it became a thing we see as beautiful is that on it, Christ finally ended the tyranny of sin and death. It’s beautiful because it is empty; because finally someone died on a cross (with all of its condemnation and misery) but lived once more.
In the ancient world death lurked everywhere, but without even the staying hand of modern science, medicine, hygiene and law. And on that cross Jesus, by dying and returning, put the power of death to sleep forever, and showed mankind that although we would die as well, we could also live again like him. The message is precious to the sick and grieving; that is, all of us in the end.
There’s more; because now as then, guilt and remorse, evil and worry, sorrow, loss and brokenness were everywhere. Christians call it ‘sin,’ as unpalatable as the word is today.
The power of sin, the devastation of the entrenched separation of man from God and all that it wrought, also ended on that hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Finally, we could say with joy that Christ mocked the cross and all it stood for by defying its power and the power of those who used it. The old rugged cross, dark god of death, became a thing for necklaces and wall hangings, covered in flowers and rimmed in silver. The wooden torture device liberated and turned to good, like everything Jesus touched.
Easter is a time of flowers, pastels and so many beautiful things. But none as beautiful as the cross and the one who died on it and triumphed over it.


Beautiful cross made from flowers

Beautiful cross made from flowers

Churches Shy Away From Hard Questions

My column in yesterday’s Greenville News.  While primary responsibility for teaching our children rests with us as parents, the church often drops the ball in its mission to the young.

I have a problem with the church. It’s not the music, or the ‘mega-church’ concept. It’s not the donuts or the coffee or any other petty issue. The problem I have with the church is that I fear we are doing a poor job of preparing our kids for life.

What troubles me is the way we dumb things down for Christian young people. Maybe we don’t want to frighten them, maybe we don’t want to confuse them or cast any doubt into the faith we’re trying to mold. But frankly, we are failing them. Because it’s a world of hard times and hard questions, and unless we teach kids how to answer them, they’ll have grave difficulties believing all of the stuff we tried to teach.

One of my kids used to come home from Sunday School and we’d ask, ‘what did your teacher talk about?’ He’d shake his little head and sigh. ‘Moses…again.’ Like all of my kids he wanted more than stock stories designed to get through a study guide every year. In fact, our family has often used the term ‘Sunday School answer,’ when having discussions. For example: ‘why is it wrong to steal?’ Answer: ‘Jesus.’ We all laugh at that, but we all know that Sunday School answers don’t always cut it.

The problem we Christians tend to have is that we have a kind of global ‘Sunday School’ answer for the world, which usually comes down to ‘it’s in the Bible.’ Which is great for established believers to say to one another. But at a certain point in time, thinking Christian kids will start to ask about that book we hold as sacred and about that God we worship. And they’ll wonder whether to believe or consign their faith to myth.

Now, if Christian kids ask that, what will non-Christian folks ask them, or say about it? If they don’t recognize the book, or the faith, or the rules, then all of our ‘but it say so,’ and ‘Jesus loves you,’ may fall on deaf ears. So, when our kids go off to work, college or the armed forces, it won’t take long until someone easily shatters their beliefs; not even intentionally, but simply by asking hard, honest questions.

Kids in many churches today are very kind and good. They go on mission trips and they work in the food-bank. They teach the younger kids in children’s ministries, etc. But all too often they aren’t being asked the hard questions in church, or being taught how to deal with them. And I don’t mean that they aren’t being taught how to ‘make the sale.’ I mean they aren’t sure how to face the issues themselves.

What questions do we need to help them answer? Here are some: ‘Why am I here? Do I have a purpose? What is my purpose? Is there such a thing as truth? Why can’t all of our truths be equally true? Did Jesus exist? Does God exist? What do we need Him for? Is there evil? What is sin? Is the Bible reliable? Aren’t all religions the same? How can we be scientific and true to our beliefs? Is Christianity cruel and mean and oppressive? What if I screw up? Why is there pain, suffering and loss? If there is, what does it say about God? Can I have hope in trouble? What happens when we die?’ (Incidentally, many of the same questions are asked by every kid, whether their families are Christian or atheist.)

That’s only a short list. But if we love our kids then we’ll sit down with them and address those life-shaping uncertainties. We’ll do it using the Bible, and by taking from philosophy and history, art and music, biology and physics and every other area of human endeavor, so that they will go into life equipped with solid answers, not fragile platitudes that blow over at the first wind of disagreement.

They’ll ask other questions; sometimes questions we hadn’t imagined. And may of them will have serious doubts. They may walk away from their faith. But they deserve our patience, love and prayers. Because a faith shaken by honest skepticism will be better in the end.

Church leaders and parents, let’s prepare our young people. They need depth to face the world and transform it. They need truth to help them endure life’s struggles. They need to know they are loved and that their lives have meaning.

But Sunday School snippets aren’t enough anymore.


Coming Home to The Father’s Beach House

I am doing some temporary work on the SC coast. As it happened, this weekend was the birthday of our daughter, who turned 15 years. Since her celebration fell on a weekend, my wife brought our little girl and her siblings (and a dear friend) to the beach for the weekend.

Since I was there before the clan and found our rental house, it was also my task to stock it. Friday afternoon the family was on the move and I left the ER about 7 pm. Jan had sent me a list of assorted snacks and drinks to buy. So, giddy with the knowledge that my favorite people were headed towards me, I went off to Kroger.

I filled my buggy with chips and Goldfish crackers, with gum, Oreo Cookies, Mounds Bars, Kit-Kats and Hershey Milk Chocolate. I loaded up on Lay’s Potato Chips…Salt and Vinegar, Jalapeno, Barbecue and Wavy. There were water bottles, Coke Zero, Diet Coke and Sprite Zero. And for my lovely wife, a swimming pool of an un-sweet tea from Popeye’s, along with a dozen or so pieces of fried chicken for the late arrival dinner the kids would certainly want. It was exactly the sort of feast that makes a vacation, however short, a vacation. And the best part was that as I shopped, I knew the desires and preferences of each of my loved ones. I was preparing the house for them specifically.

As I returned from the store, the resort community where we are staying was serene, with a cool wind in the pines and palmettos, and humid that air smelled like impending rain. A few cars drove the narrow streets and the waterways under the bridges were still. The guard at the gate was relaxed. No chaos or danger lurked. And on entering the dark house I had left at 6:30 am, I hit the switches and light filled the house, as I turned up the heat to take off the night chill. The heat and light like some foretaste of the love and youth that were only a couple of hours away.

I set about putting groceries away and then arranged the snacks and goodies on the counter for easy access as soon as everyone arrived. And on my daughter’s pillow, a small bouquet of Daisies, a flower she loves.

When they were close I met the family just before the gate to give them a parking pass and escort them to the right driveway. We then parked, unloaded and I went about hugging and kissing. I must have embraced everyone three, four or five times; certainly six or ten for my bride! I directed them to food and I positively danced and skipped around the house, sliding on the hardwood floor in my socks, so happy I was to see them. We laughed and told jokes, we smiled and teased until we could barely keep our eyes open, then it was off to bed.

The next day was more of the same, with lunch and dinner out for the birthday girl, a walk on the cold, cloudy, beautiful beach in between, and games around the table in the evening. Today, as I write, they are all on their way back home, while I have some more shifts to work. The house is empty except for me, although if I am still I can hear echoes of their laughter, their jokes, their wisdom. Their love for one another still hangs in the air of the kitchen and dining room. I can sense the warmth my wife provides to my heart, which still lingers. And I smile at the absolute wonder of our children who are temporarily absent in body, but present in every other way to this passionate father.

Even as I was getting ready for their arrival, I knew this entire event was a message. It was somewhere between epiphany and Theophany. It was certainly a new insight into both my family and my faith. While I did not see God or his representatives, as a Theophany by definition is, I certainly felt a powerful insight into God, the Father.

In John 14: 1-4, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ (ESV.)

That verse resonated through my head, that image through my soul, as I looked around the neighborhood and the house in preparation for my family. I imagined the Kingdom of God, beyond time, outside time, in a way we cannot fathom. And yet, at the end of all suffering, loss and pain; at the end of every separation and hint of loneliness or sorrow.

There, God waits for us. There, He prepares the rooms, knowing who we are and what we love. There He stocks up for the great celebration. There, He waits, checking the unfolding of history, speaking to us, encouraging us, calling us forward to the place where we will be safe and happy for all eternity, loved and cherished. From there he and his servants sally forth to our aid, rescue or comfort, or to bring each of us home in our time. It is the place where the joyous, thrilled Father will kiss every wayward child who made his way on the prodigal road to the Father’s house. And we are all prodigal in our own ways.

And what would the Father fail to give for his child’s safe arrival? Everything up to His own life? There’s the Gospel. The Gospel of Christmas and Easter, where the Father, lover of our souls, desperately desires our presence with him for all eternity and comes to earth to love us, then demonstrates love so great that even death is not off the table, nor is death an end or impediment but one more bit of trouble to be overcome for the children He loves more than they can fathom. The cost of eternity is paid. The gate is open to us in the evening, and next morning, of our lives.

God wants us with Him, and nothing can make Him cease wanting us. He will not force his children to come along, but will do everything else to bring us at last to the warm, well-lit home he has prepared and stocked for our joy, our warmth, our safety and our eternal communion with Him.

Rules and morals? Guidelines? Of course. These are the road-maps to the Father. Don’t turn off here, don’t get lost there, don’t trust any false father for only the true Father loves you, only He knows the depth of your pain and the beauty of your creation in His image. Only He is preparing the perfect place for you. Love the other kids, bring them along. Sin is a distraction, a thing that will keep you from the good. That’s why He’s so eager to forgive all, and keep us headed home.

And when we finally pull in, walk in, fly in or appear with Him, such kisses He will lavish upon us and such delights prepare for us that it is worth anything to make the journey, the last great journey to His side.

1 John 3: 1 says: ‘See what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ The children of God get to come home to the house of the Father.

St. Paul reminds us further that we cannot begin to grasp it: ‘But as it is written, “what no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”’ 1 Corinthians 2:9.

On that day with him, in the best vacation home of all, we will laugh with tear-filled eyes and cry with joy in our hearts. And if there are soda’s or candy bars, if (as I suspect) there is sweet tea and fried chicken, it will only be the most miniscule hint of all that awaits. Because the best thing of all will be to stand in the presence, at last, of the Father we have longed for all our lives. The Father who has ached for us, planned for us, and sacrificed for us since we first took shape in his great, loving heart.

I pray that I see you there.


Christmas is Rooted in Imperfection

This was my column in Sunday’s Greenville News.  Merry Christmas my dear friends!

Christmas appears, if we believe the marketing, to be a season for the rich, happy, safe and whole. The time when vast, intact families of beautiful, healthy people gather around lavish feasts and exchange mountains of gifts, all while understanding ‘the real meaning of Christmas.’ Children come home from college, husbands and wives embrace, grandparents sit quietly around the fire attended by grandchildren and even the dogs have shiny coats, pawing open their toys from palatial pet stores. Outside the window snow falls and Santa slips away with a smile. I love it! Except, it isn’t always that way. In fact, it isn’t mostly that way.

Maybe that’s why it started the way it did. Humble and dusty, in a shed for animals, with poor parents, traveling far from home and having a baby whose identity and destiny were, at the least, overwhelming. Christmas started in a place where poverty was not merely widespread but baseline. Riches, means, these were the outliers. When Christmas is temporally perfect, that’s grand. But Christmas is for those struggling. At Christmas, Jesus is born into the midst of difficulty and brokenness, not into a palace.

Furthermore, the Christ child came to a people with a clear cultural memory of slavery, in a time when they were subject to the vast power of almighty Rome. He came in a time when being forced into slavery, because of debt, crime or conquest, was simply a fact of all too many lives. It is comical that those who object to Christianity use the term ‘slave religion.’ Of course it is. It was and is a slave religion because it cared for the slaves (and others nobody wanted), embraced them, and because Jesus himself said came, among other missions, ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives.’

And of course, we are slaves and captives still. Slaves to the illusion that politics (or worse, politicians) will redeem the world. Slaves to possessions. Captive to the idea that only money matters, and that with enough money every person will be good, healthy, kind and just if only we can shuffle it around adequately. Slaves to the beliefs that we can control everything, that success is all and that education and intelligence somehow excuse us from trouble. Captives all around, though the shackles are prettier than the heavy iron of old days. But they hold us still.

Jesus was not born so that we could have a nice holiday, although I love Christmas as many of us do. He was born, launched into this world, a teacher, healer, deliverer, redeemer. And this is very important for all of those whose lives are broken at Christmas. I’ve seen them over and over. Christmas can be a time of grieving, worry, fear, sickness, loss, mourning and loneliness as surely as it’s a time of beauty and wonder. And why not? It fits the story. Angels and heavenly songs attend the infant King, born into a place of trouble and suffering, point-counterpoint.

So then, move past the limited accounts we have of that first Christmas. Watch the Gospels after Christmas and see the child become a man. He healed the possessed, the blind and lame. He taught mercy and turned human judgment upside down time after time. He raised the dead. And he forgave sins, which is maybe the one thing we find the most objectionable of all (because it would mean we have to believe in sin and our own guilt).

Trouble at Christmas is especially hurtful, simply because we want everything to be just right. But we must not be ‘troubled at the trouble.’ Christmas happened, and happens, exactly because of trouble. The world needed more than kind words and beautiful ideas. It needed a deliverer, who would plop right down in the midst of every dark thing that binds and wounds us.

I hope that everyone has the perfect Christmas, with loved ones and prosperity all around. But most of the world won’t. Which is, beautifully and ironically, exactly why Christmas happened. And why the man Jesus, years later, said in John 16:33, ‘I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’

If that’s not a Christmas greeting for everyone, nothing ever was.

Merry Christmas.

Jesus wasn’t about right or left. My column in today’s Greenville News.

My column in today’s Greenville News. 

Jesus wasn’t about right or left.

These are contentious times when it comes to the junction of religious faith and politics. Whether the issue is poverty, same-sex marriage or abortion, there is remarkable division even within the Christian world. This is evident in the fact that people often refer to, or ally themselves with, the ‘Christian Right’ or the ‘Christian Left.’

It’s a fascinating discussion, and indeed, Christians do have political leanings that vary widely. Some are dedicated, hyper-conservative fundamentalists while others feel that Jesus was a kind of ‘proto-communist’ and we should all be the same. Christianity can, in fact, be a rather malleable belief system. And like all ideologies it can be twisted to justify good and bad with equal fervor.

This is all fairly evident in the response to the US visit by Pope Francis. People on the left side of the faith are thrilled that the Pope is concerned with climate change and income inequality. Those on the right hope that he can overcome his Argentine bias against capitalism and see what a functional middle class, and a nation with safety nets for the poor, actually looks like. They also dream that he will speak boldly about the horrors of abortion. Both sides have ‘a dog in the fight.’

The thing is, we all have it wrong when we become a faith of factions. We all have it wrong when we make it about politics and not Jesus. When conservative Christians (like myself) fall in love with war for its own sake, for the power and domination, for the intimidation and machismo of it, we forget the Jesus who loved even the enemies who crucified him. When we fail to be sympathetic to the sick and broken, we neglect the Jesus who touched lepers and healed the blind and fed the 5000. When we love money and success as ends in themselves, we become deaf to the master who reminded us that the journey to heaven is nearly impossible for those carrying bags of earthly wealth. When we believe morality is an end in itself, we abandon the Jesus who came to bring redemption and deliverance from our inevitable sins. We must try our best not to be ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’ Christians. We must only be Christians.

But when liberal Christians focus only on patching the wounds of this transitory existence by shifting money or passing laws, when they scoff at eternity and eternal consequences, they lose sight of the Jesus who told Pilate, ‘my kingdom is not of this world.’ When they say that Jesus was merely a radical thinker who came to teach us acceptance not transformation, who came only to compel us to ‘be nice’ and not judge anyone (not even our own sins), then they turn their backs on the loving teacher (and ultimate judge of all, according to scripture) who lived and taught morality and who promised to transform us into something far better than what we are. The very Jesus who had hard words for every kind of sin, including sexual sin as well as greed, lies as well as hatred, and who spoke about hell and judgment extensively, even as he promised to rescue us from both.

Furthermore, when any flavor of Christianity reshapes Jesus to be more acceptable to popular culture, they forget that He said to his disciples, in Mathew 24:9 ‘Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.’ Popularity, and popular acceptance of our beliefs, are not likely to happen if we truly live the way He wanted us to live.

We will certainly have varied opinions on politics and policies, and on the proper expression of our faith in our daily life and national politics But we aren’t supposed to insult or disdain one another. We should, rather, care for one another and see what we can learn by loving those who share our faith but differ in perspective.

Jesus himself, the night before his arrest, said it best. In John 17:20-21 he was praying for his followers, and then continued, ‘I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’

Not a word about right or left. May we all be one.








The Cross Pokes us with its Sharp Corners

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Happy Easter!  He is Risen Indeed!

I have a cross necklace that I received as a gift for Christmas. This cross is a little larger than others I have worn. It is noticeable. And it is also a little annoying. When I sit, it pokes me in the chest with sharp corners. I have to say that I’m glad. Crosses, the ones with real meaning, are like that. They are, one might say, offensive.

Christians use the cross as an emblem of our belief. It’s on our churches and the back windows of our cars. It’s draped around our bodies in jewelry and tattooed on our skin. It decorates the walls of our homes (which remain vampire free; it works). We could have stuck with a fish, or some symbol that looked like an empty tomb. But we are drawn to the cross, to the horizontal and vertical confluence of earth and heaven, the geometric representation of the person of Jesus.

Today, the holiest day of the Christianity, we remember that ultimately powerless cross of 2000 years ago, where Jesus of Nazareth died for a while. Crucifixion was hardly unique. It was just one implement of misery used by an empire adept at causing suffering and death, for all their greatness in other areas. (Like all powerful empires and nations.) I think that maybe his cross can seem offensive to moderns because it was not special. Thorns, scourges, beatings, blood, nails, ropes, spears, insults, nakedness. The way common convicts died, in pain and fear. Is it offensive because it was so common? Maybe. We like our deities the way we like our politicians, super-heroes and entertainers; rich, powerful, invulnerable. Jesus, on earth, was none of those things.

Of course, the cross may be offensive, even painful to us today because we can inherit it. Jesus said, ‘if any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.’ It looms over the believer’s life, saying ‘what have you done for the one who hung here?’ But we prefer small crosses, with smooth edges and no demands, that we can stow away for Sunday.

Or it could be that the cross is annoying and offensive because it meant judgment and punishment. We prefer to pretend, in our moral and spiritual superiority, that there must be no judgment of anyone, for any reason. And we certainly don’t want to see punishment meted out, unless it’s against our ideological enemies. But just maybe, the entire story we celebrate today offends because it exactly what we need, and exactly what we refuse. The world wants the love of the teaching, healing Jesus. The world is offended and frustrated by the moral, righteous Jesus and by the very idea that we sin and need atonement. (This despite the fact that we believe fully in sin, we just call it things like intolerance or hatred, phobia, greed or ignorance.)

The story is also offensive to us because it spits in the eye of death, the one thing we fear most of all (an idol for modern man if ever there was one). I mean, that we decorate ourselves with the instrument of our Lord’s torture and murder can only be by his design; perhaps it’s even his way of goading the devil; a cosmic, ‘told you so!’

The resurrected Jesus also offends because he rises above the hatred we want to hold so closely as our own possession. Jesus lives, dies and rises for all who will accept the gift: for ISIS fighters and the Christians they usher into martyrdom, for gay rights activists as well as fundamentalist Christians. The same for liberal and conservative, rich and poor, for Israeli and Palestinian, city and country, atheist and believer, Democrat, Republican, Communist or Tea Partier. Easter offends because the tortured, resurrected Jesus gives us no excuse for our own varied ways of hating and marginalizing. The stunning, love soaked sacrifice he made was the most democratic, the most universal, ever offered.

Today, we celebrate the offending, offensive, loving, pursuing, resurrected Christ. No amount of apologizing for him will make him less annoying to the world, so we needn’t worry about trying. And no amount of your own pride or sin will make him love you less. His cross, wounds and empty tomb are witness to that truth.

He is risen indeed!

Cheering His Doom. (A poem for Good Friday.)

Cheering his doom. A poem for Good Friday, but I’ll be on the road tomorrow. (I posted this last year, but wanted to bring it out again.)

Jesus on the Cross with Heavenly Sky Above



Cheering his doom


Tattooed and angry,

drunk or hung-over,

violent and frothing,

through the streets of Jerusalem

they called out

rude names and screamed

‘crucify him!’


It was sweet to see the healer,

the hypocrite, the charlatan

brought to a just end.

But any bloodshed was

better than boredom,

or the quiet hell of guilt.


And behind them, arms crossed

over fresh, clean robes,

were the sober

the good and proper who,

also, shouted or whispered

(those whispers were venom)

‘it’s a good thing too,

a trouble-make he is;’

terrified, all of them, that the man’s

words were a threat to their dusty,

ages-old ease,

or might awaken their numb souls,

so long free of nagging prophets.


Yet it was neither Jew nor Roman,

barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free,

male or female who lined the streets

where spit-covered palm fronds,

one week old,

decayed beneath

his bloody feet.


It was not Protestant or Catholic,

not Orthodox or Pagan,

not Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu

or even atheist.


It was I, me, mine, us,

who loved him first,

then found hate more natural than

the higher, harder nature he offered.

God indeed!


And we cheered (and cringed) as the scourge flew

and the flesh flew and the fists

and hammers fell hard,

and the thorns made blood into wine,

while nails

sank into those carpenter’s

holy hands

(leaving holes for future doubters),

and a spear opened a fountain

of baptismal fluid on the hillside.


And on that third day, well,

who saw that coming?


Except him, of course.

He forgave our ignorant

complicity from his

transient throne of cross-beams.


Blind, helpless fools.

In our murder, we merely

let him save us.


Edwin Leap, 2014