Roman Gates and Benetton Have This In Common

“I was not disobedient to the vision…” Acts 26:19.

This past week, I traveled to Turin, Italy for business. The hotel I stayed in was located across the street from some Roman ruins, including the original Roman gateway to the city. A large statue in front of the gate depicted Roman Emperor Octavian Caesar Augustus on horseback. Not far from the ruins stands a grand plaza, which includes a palace housing the famous Shroud of Turin. The fingerprints of history in this place are rather amazing. But the evidence of modernity is almost more overpowering – with the line of Hermes, Lacoste, Benetton and Coach stores now occupying and repurposing the space. I had to wonder what Augustus would have thought – with the point of his existence as a ruler all but erased by the march of time. Then I wondered where Benetton would be 1,000 years from now. It truly underscored the notion that nothing is forever, and opened my eyes to the absolute hopelessness of human power apart from God. I found myself, at this moment of reflection, so grateful for the eternity of God and the realization that those who purpose their lives to serve Him have the promise of an indelible existence.

In Acts chapter 26, the apostle Paul, in defending himself against the accusations of Jewish unbelievers before King Agrippa, states “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” Acts 26:19. He was referring, of course, to Jesus’ command that he preach to the Gentiles – notwithstanding the inevitable disgust such action would prompt among many Jews. The statement is enlightening, but even more so is affirmation of this statement by Paul’s actions that follow. Rather than persist in defending himself against accusations that call for his execution, Paul uses this moment before King Agrippa to try to save the king. In fact, Agrippa even says to Paul, “do you think that in such a short time, you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Acts 26:28. Paul’s response: “Short time or long – I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today might become what I am, except for these chains.” Acts 26:29. Paul never lost sight of his true purpose of remaining obedient to the vision of heaven, even when following that call meant forsaking his own defense. At a point when Paul could have been appealing to King Agrippa to save him, the apostle rather appealed to King Agrippa to save himself.

Like Augustus, there probably is a statute to King Agrippa somewhere. It stands as a stone idol to history, doomed to decay and the slow fade of marginalization. Every day, his temporary kingdom becomes less and less meaningful, as new ones are built on top of it and the many that followed. In contrast, the indestructible Kingdom preached by Paul and coming through Christ, not only persists, but grows and grows. Paul obviously saw no point in appealing to Agrippa’s kingdom, and because he remained obedient to the vision from heaven, I now have a vision of the true Kingdom and one true promise. It is there for us all, but to see it we must look past the Roman gate and fading mirage of humanism. I pray we do.

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Are Christians Unpopular Enough?

“These he gathered together with the workmen in similar trades, and said “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come to disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing…” Acts 19:25-27

I read this account of Demetrius, the silversmith in Ephesus, and it makes me wonder whether we Christians today, in our own culture, are unpopular enough? What do I mean by that? Paul became quite unpopular in his day because the Gospel was spreading so powerfully that it shook the very economic foundations of any society that stood against it. Pagans and other unbelievers actually feared that it would impact not only their bottom line, but their very livelihood – for their livelihood was based on the antithesis of the Gospel. It was based on peddling false gods and immorality. I just don’t see enough Demetriuses of today shaking in their boots. I don’t see the porn industry feeling the least bit threatened by Christian outreach. I don’t see the gaming industry, which is producing addictive video games based on violence and sex for our children to consume, sensing even the least bit of dread in the face of the church today. I don’t see overseers of social media, who open up avenues too often used for the spread of rumors, filth and godless – often even grotesque – propaganda, feeling any pressure from Christ’s followers. Not even abortion clinics are all that concerned anymore. I can only imagine that Demetrius would have longed to have lived only some 2,000 years later.

I don’t mean to blame the church, its leadership, or even my fellow believers for the all-too-Godless state of our world today. To be certain, our world has lost a fear of the Lord that only He can restore – and He will. But I do have to ask myself, should we not be taking a greater stand? Or are we too afraid of the unpopularity that might come with such? Are we like the Jewish authorities who believed in Jesus, but refused to confess it because they were in fear of the Pharisees? John 12:42. Do we not stand up because “we love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God”? John 12:43. I pray for revival in our great nation, that once again the peddlers of false gods, false hope and untruth would revile us because of the grave threat we present to their economy. But I also know it begins with me. So I pray that I might be as disliked as Paul and unpopular enough to be who Christ demands me to be.

Are You Enslaved?

“We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” – John 8:33

How does one go from believing to being a child of the devil in a just a matter of moments? The answer is disturbingly simple and, for many I suspect, frighteningly familiar.

This is just what occurs to the Jews who are engaging Jesus in John Chapter 8. At one point, Jesus explains to them how, when they lift Him on the cross, they will come to know by whose authority He comes. John 8:28. And as He explained these things, many became believers. So, speaking to the Jews who believed Him, Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Then, only 12 verses later, they are children of the Devil. John 8:44. What on earth happened?

“We… have never been enslaved to anyone.”

That’s what happened. Jesus told them what they needed was freedom through His truth, and instantly their pride tightened its enslaving grip. It’s ironic that the Jews would even say such a statement, having been slaves so many times in the past, such as in Egypt and Babylon. Indeed, could they even have declared themselves free at that time, while living under the imperial power of Rome? One wonders how they managed to find their way anywhere donning such blinders.

But how did they lose the truth so quickly and easily? Maybe we’ve heard about these types before from Jesus? Are these the seeds sown on rocky soil, enduring for a brief moment but fading as soon as persecution and tribulation arises? Matthew 13:22. Or are they seeds sown among thorns, who hear the word but allow the cares of the world and deceitfulness of riches to choke it out? Matthew 13:23 They seem almost like the seeds sown along the path, though we know that at least for a moment, they believed. I sort of think this is a whole new breed of seeds. One that knows the truth of their enslavement, but simply refuses to accept it under any conditions.

Indeed, Jesus says as much: “Why do you not understand what I say?” He asks, rhetorically. “It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” John 8:43.

Ouch.

Well, actually, ouch and whoa! What Jesus is saying here is that the Jews are enslaved by choice, and would rather live in the bondage of their sin than bear the truth and live in the light. They were not without knowledge or understanding, for Jesus explained everything to them just before this moment, and indeed they believed. That is the frightening part. They believed until the moment they had to accept and acknowledge their own enslavement. Considering themselves slaves to no one or no thing, they rejected Him.

Does this sound familiar? The truth is, unless and until we acknowledge Christ as the author of our salvation story, and allow Him to write that story instead of trying to do it ourselves, we too are enslaved. We are no better off than the Jews.

So I ask, what is enslaving you? Is it worldly concerns; your career, your status, your wealth, or even your position in the church? Is it lack of total trust in God and His plan for you? Or is it pride? Are you rich, have you prospered, are you in need of nothing? (If so, check out Revelations 3:16.) Sadly, for me, I could probably say yes to all of these at some point or other. Grappling with our enslavement to sin is hard. Like the Jews, we don’t want to see it. We know it is there, and perhaps we even give it token consideration in our prayers and confessions. But how often do we let Jesus and His truth wrestle use free from its bonds?

I fear not enough. I can say truthfully that Jesus is my savior, and I can tell you candidly that He is the only way, truth and life. But I also know that aligning every moment of my life to this absolute truth takes perseverance, because the devil does not give up easily. He wants to enslave us, and has filled the world with his demons to do just this. All you need to do is turn on your television, spend 10 seconds on social media, or even just step into the mall, and you will be surrounded by slave-masters. Their chains are all forms of pleasure; sex, decadence, violence, gluttony, even rage cloaked in knock-off morality. And we give in to them more often than we know.

But Jesus wants us back.

His way is not always easy in a world soaked with sin, but His solution is simple, pure and beautiful. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:33. His word. What a tremendous gift to contemplate as this season of Christ’s birth comes upon us. I pray, therefore, that we all will take some time this season to truly abide in His word. If we do, we may find ourselves in bondage to Christ once and for all, which is the only true freedom from enslavement.

The Long View

I have discovered what I believe to be Africa’s greatest potential export.

Perspective.

Let me explain. Whenever I come to Africa, I am reminded of a great lesson in life. One I too quickly forget about when I leave, and return to my “out of Africa” life. An eye-opening frame of reference that is both awe-inspiring in its detail and somehow stark in its simplicity. It’s not the picture of stark poverty, hunger, illness, or even just hopelessness in general.  It’s something more subtle and possibly even more disturbing when placed in the context of my life.  It is the long view.

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The Transkei Long View

Take a step, two steps, or at most a very short walk, from where ever you are in rural South Africa, and you will find it. A place where a field unfolds, a valley yawns, a set of rolling hills beckons. And there within the painted landscape, life weaves itself into a tapestry of colors, shapes and sounds.  It populates the canvas with additional dimensions of sound, smell and even touch. A group of rondavels here, and another there – each with its own chorus of voices, cries, bellows and crows. They may be miles apart, but all remain in full view. Whole discussions float among them and between them,  echoing across the landscape, seemingly without care. There seems to be no concern for keeping secrets (though there are many, but that is for another blog), no need for hushed tones locked with enclosed spaces.  Privacy? I am not sure there is a Xhosa word for it.  In this long view, everyone’s business is everyone’s business, and why worry that from this end of the valley, what is said will be heard on that end.

Stand on a hill in this place, and you will find what I am so desperately trying to capture in these words. You will smell the wood fire, but is it from just over here, or way over there? You will hear the Nguni cattle bellow, not knowing to whom they belong, or even where they are. But like all else, knowing that it doesn’t really matter. And you will hear the conversations carrying on in this house and in that, again separated by football fields or even miles. It reminds me of church steeples I once saw and heard in Italy. Each with a foundation in its own village, guarding over its section of the valley – all in view from just the right place. Each, at noon, ringing its bells – but none in time. One starts alone, another joins a minute later, and a third comes in to provide both the chorus and the closing, accidental solo.

This is the long view.

But as I noted, it also provides something else. Something less peaceful.  Something actually disturbing. It gives that uneasy reminder of the short view. The one most of us live. The one we get from our front porch, looking about 300 – 500 feet across the cul-de-sac (if we are lucky).  The one we get from the driver’s seat of the brake lights five feet from the front end of our temporary prison. The one about a foot from our faces, glowing in the contrived luminescent glow gifted to us by IBM, Dell or Apple. We stare into a world at our finger tips in amazement at how we can do so without ever actually going there.  And in so doing, never actually go there.

This is the short view. We seem to love it. And it loves us. Sometimes, I think, to death. Not in the physical realm, mind you, but more so in the spiritual realm.  In the realm of Matthew 28:19, where “all nations” reside in the long view, but seem eternally cut off by the short one. In fact, I sometimes think that if we ever thought Satan incapable of love, we stand corrected. He loves the short view.

Consider that my short view of one friend’s battle with cancer led me to conclude no other tragedy was more worthy of my prayers. That was until I sat on a dirty mattress in a damp cold rondavel, rubbing the arm of another friend, barely in her twenties, as she lay beneath blankets battling both HIV/AIDS and cervical cancer. Her best hope, questionable surgery in a rural hospital. There is no Mayo clinic here. No pulling out all the stops; and as needed bringing to bear the most advanced treatments currently available. No, here it’s whatever can be done with the knife. Maybe it works. Or maybe she becomes another sad statistic. She is who I see in the long view.

My short view of my kids’ education at times leaves me wondering if maybe he or she would just do better with that other teacher, or in that other school. But in the long view, I see poor children victimizing one another on a dirty, crowded rural school yard; left unattended because all of the teachers decided to leave at 11:30 am to gather their government-issued pensions. And that is until I see 18-year-old boys in 4th grade who struggle to read, all because the system failed them then simply passed them through. That is what I see the long view.

My short view of the unkind words of a friend or neighbor to his spouse makes me wonder, where is God there and why has he not read Ephesians 5:25-27? That is until I meet the wife who endures beatings and rape regularly, believing it to be merely a fact of life, just as her husband’s daily routine of drinking himself silly at the shebeen is just a fact of life. That is who I see the long view.

But it is not all about seeing more clearly the negative. Indeed, looking beyond the immediate will reveal a world of brokenness we might just as soon ignore. But it also reveals a world we would never believe we took the chance missing. A world where our purpose is transformed from the worldly to the Godly. A renewed view into the possibilities God saw in us when He sewed us together in the womb. A view that empowers us to carry out Christ’s final and perhaps greatest command (third to loving a God and loving one another- but integral to both). A view we must have to go and make disciples of all nations.

Go now. Find a hill and gaze upon that longer view. Consider every thing happening in that moment right before your eyes – from the single blade of grass growing in a field to the most innovative machine being assembled in a distant factory. Consider every life being shaped, from the promise of the vibrant preschool to the tragedy of a drug addicted teen. Look over it all and ask yourself, what view contains God’s vision for me?

Ask Him.

Then prepare to buy a ticket or at least a tank full of gas, because chances are you’re going somewhere…

Ian Hetherington, A Life Well Lived

When I am in my latter years, and reflecting back on my life, I hope it looks like Ian’s did.  I hope I can honestly say the world is a better place because I was there. Ian certainly could.

Ian

Ian, with Bruce, Helen and Alex

I don’t know why, but whenever I think of Ian, Winston Churchill comes to mind.  Maybe it’s the courage they both showed in life, fighting for what is right.  Perhaps it’s because Ian always seems to exude wisdom – not just knowledge, cleverness or quick wit, but that deep wisdom that I have come to associate with Churchill.  I could just imagine Ian saying “nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.”  Or perhaps, “when the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber.”  Or maybe, frankly, it’s just because they’re both Brits.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that Churchill wasn’t really the last lion.  And this week, in many ways, I feel we are bidding goodbye to the other one.

My friendship with Hetherington family, Ian, Helen, Rob, Bruce and Alex, spans most of my life.  Alex and I were best buds growing up in Johannesburg.  Among my earliest memories of his father, Ian, is when he would catch us snooping around his den in search of chocolate.  Ian always kept a bar of very fine chocolate somewhere in his den (we never did find it that I recall), and on certain special occasions, he would bring it out and give each of us one, tiny square.  On the occasion of catching us snooping, I recall an imposing figure darkening the door between the kitchen and the den. He seemed about 17 feet tall at the time, with long, bony fingers that were the length of yardsticks.  And we all feared those fingers.  For although I never suffered this fate, they could deliver torturous pain to the earlobe of a cheeky child with one solitary flick!  I don’t recall what happened next.  But knowing Ian, he probably found the chocolate and gave us some.

dear friends in it.

Some 25 years later, after moving to America to finish out my adolescence, attend college and become a semi-productive member of society, God blessed me by reconnecting me with Alex.  And from that grew what is today 25:40, the ministry Amy and I started to try and help orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa.  This also marked my return to the country of my youth, and the first time I would see Ian and Helen again after decades.

And it was like nothing had changed.

That is what dear friends do for you.  When the world is constantly changing, and rarely for the better, when we sometimes feel we are losing control, and can never go back to that innocence of childhood and all of those wonderful memories, that is when dear friends re-appear and remind you that life is always a blessing.  Oh sure, Ian had changed some.  He wasn’t as tall as I remembered him being – perhaps it’s kind of like returning to your elementary school and wondering why everything looks so small when, at the time, it was huge.  He also had filled out a little from the lanky man I seemed to recall.  But he was still very much Ian, with the rugged face, thick glasses and gentle but oh-so commanding demeanor.  (Helen, for her part, didn’t seem to age one bit – God bless her.)

He was still Ian, but I was someone different.  For once, I was old enough to carry on an intelligent conversation with this man about the country of my childhood, the people in it, and the very purpose God placed in my heart to return.  For once, I could partake of his wisdom; I could listen to the voice of a gentle man with an amazing heart and a wealth of experience in life. There is little in life more precious than that.  I came to appreciate that my personal Ian – the dad of my best friend, the guy with the long fingers and the chocolate – was only part of who Ian Hetherington was.  And a small part at that.  He also was a keen business man with a heart, a true heart, for people.  He was a man who, in the midst of the grips of apartheid, worked tirelessly helping young black entrepreneurs make a start against incredible odds.  He was a man who cared about community and country.  He was a friend of many friends, all caught up in a struggle to better the lives of the oppressed.

In a time when we fondly remember Madiba, South Africa would do well to thank the likes of Ian Hetherington, and those like him who quietly engaged in the struggle for a better South Africa for all South Africans.  Ian had the heart and courage of a lion, but the humility of a sparrow.  Every time we spoke, he would make a special effort to thank me for what we were doing (trying to do, really) for South Africa – and in light of the life he led and the life he gave to this country, it just felt so humbling every time.  Like John the Baptist when Jesus asked to be baptized, I just felt as though I should be the one heaping praise and thanks on him. But Ian did nothing for praise, I don’t think.  He did it all for dignity.  A dignity for those who so long lacked any.  And I know there are many in South Africa who can testify that it is a better place because of him.

Ian now has gone home to his Father.  He’s gone to a special room in the Father’s house that Jesus has prepared just for him.  John 14:2.  Perhaps it is like his special den, with the dark wood, the big desk, and the loft.  Perhaps there will be trousers and a comfortable cardigan – as I always remember him wearing.  I am certain there will be a bar of heaven’s finest chocolate.  Ian, do me a favor will you?  Save a square for me.

The Only Gift That Matters

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John 1:1

For me, this is the most powerful account of Christ – and the reality of not only His coming, but His entire being – that there is.  What it reveals is nothing short of amazing, when we actually take time to focus on who and what Jesus is and always has been,  and then consider how He chose to come into the world and hand-deliver us the greatest gift of all – Himself.

First, John 1:1 reminds us that Jesus was there in the beginning.  Before anything existed, He was there.  Next, we are reminded that Jesus was with God.  And not only that, but also that He was God.  I found this concept difficult to get my mind around at first.  Worldly logic can’t comprehend both being something and being with something. But the Greek translation of “was” in this context helps.  It means “to be identical.”  In other words, Jesus was identical to God – though separate, they are one in the same. Think about that, there is no other who can make this claim.  None. Jesus is the only One identical to God, the only One who is perfect.

Because He was there from the very beginning, Jesus also was there at our very beginning.  And not only was He there, but the Bible tells us He played a role in our making.  The scriptures tell us that in the beginning, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…”  Genesis 1:26.  For me, this is incredibly significant in a number of respects.  First, it confirms the truth of John 1:1 that Jesus was with God, as God says “let us” not “let me” or, as with all the rest of His creation, “let there be.”

Second, it reveals that Jesus had a hand in the design of the absolute highlight of God’s creation – you, me and every other child of His.  As noted, with respect to light (Genesis 1:3), the sky (Genesis 1:6), the oceans and the land (Genesis 1:9), the stars (Genesis 1:14); and all living things on earth (Genesis 1:20, 1:24), God used the words “let there be.”  He didn’t say “us” and He didn’t use the word “make.”  Only when it comes to man, does God use the words “let us make.”  Think about that.  God “made” you and me and all of His children. We were purposefully designed, intentionally and carefully handcrafted by Him.  As David revealed, God created our “inmost being”, He “knit [us] together” in the womb, and because of Him, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Psalm 139:13.  And Jesus was part of that.

Third, Genesis 1:26 tells us God and Jesus made man in their “image” and “likeness”, which we know from John 1:1 was one in the same, as the Word “was God.”  According to the Ancient Hebrew Research Center, the Hebrew word for “image” is “tselem” and is literally translated as an outline or representation of the original.  See Genesis 1:27, Jeff A. Benner, www.ancient-hebrew.org.   The Hebrews’ focus, however, was not so much on physical image as it was on function – in other words, God made man as a representation of His own function, purpose, goals etc. Id.

Whatever the interpretation, Genesis 1:27 tells me that God and Jesus first made man just like them.  In other words, perfect.  But with one feature we apparently could not resist abusing.  Free will.  And to the detriment of all, Adam and Eve exercised free will by opening the door to sin and in so doing ensuring that we would never again have a chance at perfection.  Genesis 3.  We were left forever broken, with no power, no ability, nothing, to redeem ourselves.

In ignorance and with some degree of insolence, our forefathers spent millenniums following and falling away from God. Through floods and raining sulfur, invasion, occupation, and at times complete destruction, they never seemed to learn. It was as though they were forever waiting on something, or someone, to finally show them the way.  And Jesus was there, all along – the only perfect One, God’s only Son.  He was seated at the right hand, waiting for His time – as the prophets and forefathers revealed time and again.  Isaiah 7:14, 9:6-7; Micah 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalms 2, 89, and 110 (to name but a few examples).

And then the greatest gift was delivered.  “The Word become flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14.

Since we celebrate His birth at Christmas, our tendency is to focus on the infant child, born in a humble manger to a humble woman and her humble husband.  And, indeed, it is an amazing miracle that the Word would render Himself so seemingly vulnerable, and enter the world not on mighty chariots or in a pillar of fire, but from the womb of a modest woman in an animal’s stall.  Still, to me the gift we celebrate today is not just His coming, the manner of it and the importance of it.  And it is not about His going, the significance of which we must reflect upon in the coming months (and always really).  For me the gift is also about, and perhaps mostly about, what Jesus left us with – both through His incarnate being and in His supernatural being.  The Word and the Way.  John 1:1, 14:6.

Jesus died for our sins, that we who believe would no longer carry the burden of our brokenness, but rather would enter anew into the Kingdom He has prepared for us. But before we could ever receive this salvation, before we could even know it is available, He had to come. He had to show us the Way.  Before all of the promises can be fulfilled, we have to accept the absolutely greatest gift of all – Him.

“I am the way and the truth and the life.”  John 14:6.  That is the greatest gift of all.  Consider that again, only in the context of who Jesus is and always has been – with the Father, identical to the Father, our designer, and our creator, from the beginning.  “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”  John 1:3-4.  How is He a gift we could ever refuse?

Well, there is a way – and that is when we just don’t get it.  As John foretold, “[t]he light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  John 1:5.  In some interpretations, the word “understood” is replaced with “overcome” or “overwhelm.”  The Greek translation of even these words, however, suggests that they connote a lack of understanding.  So the bottom line, for me, is this.  If we refuse to accept this gift, if we refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Way and follow the path He so graciously bestowed upon us, it is not because He is not the Way, the Truth and the Life.  It’s simply because we don’t understand.  We don’t get it.

If you do get it, if you accept Christ as the Way, then this Christmas, every Christmas, and every day for that matter, praise God for that gift of understanding.  It truly is the greatest gift you have ever been given. And then give that gift away. Share it with others. You might just be the one that shares with someone else that greatest gift ever they will ever receive.  And if you haven’t received the gift yet, I pray that you will accept it this Christmas.  Because in the end, He is the only gift that matters.

We’re Preparing for Christmas, But Are We Prepared For Christ?

The evidence that I am slowly losing my mind is mounting. The most notable recent example was my decision to venture, with all of my children mind you, into New York City on black Friday.  No sane person would do this, which explains the sheer insanity I experienced.  I really didn’t have much of a desire to go, but Amy and I had promised our girls on any number of occasions that the next time we visited my brother in New Jersey, we would take them into the city.  Next time, as “fate” would have it, coincided with black Friday.

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I think the most memorable moment (in a hellish and frightening sort of way) was when I entered Zara, apparently the women’s clothing Mecca of Soho.  I had no commercial intentions in going there, of course.  I merely wanted to extract my daughters from this place before I froze to death on the sidewalk.  As I tried to enter the store, I was faced by a wave of semi-crazed people dressed in black and trying desperately to get out.  I am not kidding; it was like there was a fire in the store or something.  I did my best salmon impression, eventually working my way upstream and into the store.  And then I saw the reason for the mass exodus. Or rather should say, experienced it.

I was in hell.

Truly.  It was like I imagine hell to be.  People were frantic, rushing around like ants after you step on their nest. They were jostling each other, pushing and shoving, grabbing and groping – acting like one might if he were being held underwater.  There was barely room to move, which when combined with an almost panicky atmosphere, left one feeling both helpless and, well, just really stressed out.  I looked up at one point to catch the eye of a woman who just looked at me and shook her head, as if to say “what on earth am I doing here?”  These people are absolutely ludicrous, I thought to myself.  And then the really scary part dawned on me.

And I’m one of them!

But there is a scarier side of this still, when we think of what black Friday really has come to represent.  Sure, it’s the symbolic first day of the “holiday” shopping season, the first day of advent for Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Nothing wrong there.  But for many Christians, it all too often represents how we “prepare” for Christmas.  Please bear with me here, because this is not just another blog about the commercialization of the birth of our Savior, or a lament of how we have taken Christ out of Christmas.  Rather, it’s about this question; we’re preparing for Christmas, but are we really prepared for Christ?

As the Christmas season falls upon us, it seems as though we are readying ourselves (if at all) for the birth of Jesus.  And so, we focus on our Lord as the one who made Himself vulnerable as a baby and gentle as a lamb.  We celebrate the Jesus who came into our world as a mere mortal and voluntarily died on the cross to save us from our sins.  And we should celebrate this, as it represents the greatest gift ever given – the gift of our salvation.  A celebration is in order, but when it comes to preparing, it is not a past event we should be focusing on, but a future promise.  Put another way, are we really prepared for His coming, as opposed to his coming birthday?  You see, Jesus isn’t coming again as a baby.  And He is not dying again on the cross.  That’s done.  He has opened the gate once and for all – and narrow though it may be, it is up to us to go through it.  Matthew 7:13.  Jesus has shown us the way, John 14:6, and when He comes again, it won’t be to repeat that performance.

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.  For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.  That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”  Matthew 24:37-39.

So again I ask, as we prepare for Christmas, are we really prepared for Christ?  When He comes again, will He find us keeping watch? Matthew 24:42.  Or will He take us by surprise?  Will He find us cowering in a corner, literally shaking in our Prada boots or Berluti loafers?  There aren’t going be any chestnuts roasting on that open fire.

Honestly, I am not usually one for fire and brimstone.  Yes, I have a sense of urgency, but the words “lake of fire” aren’t usually in my vernacular.  But my experience on black Friday, my view into how we really prepare for Christmas – or at least the next coming of Christ – left me with much to ponder.  If this is where we are as a society – pushing, shoving and even beating each other up trying to get the best deal on more material (or immaterial, from an eternal standpoint) stuff – what does it mean for us?  Is this really how we prepare for the coming of our Lord, by doing more or less precisely what He told us not to do?  The really frightening part is that it’s not as though we don’t know better, assuming any of us is picking up the Bible.  There are abundant examples of what happens when societies reach the point where I fear we are headed, or perhaps even have arrived.

Before the flood, “[t]he Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”  Genesis 6:5.  And with Sodom and Gomorrah, where men practiced idolatry and immorality, “[t]he Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah – from the Lord out of the heavens.” Genesis 19:24.  And there are the Assyrians, to whom the Lord warned “I know where you stay and when you come and go and how you rage against me,” before sending a single angel to wipe out an army of 185,000.  Isaiah 37.  I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you.

Still, Paul testifies: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.”  Romans 1:18. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Romans 1:21-23.

Sound somewhat familiar?  Yeah, it does to me too.  In fact, it sounds a lot like Soho felt on black Friday – as people prepared for Christmas by chasing, and even fighting over, expensive by ultimately worthless idols.  Now I know what you’re thinking here – that I’m being the Grinch and I just need to chill. Fair point.  But still I wonder if the Grinch isn’t what we need right about now, someone who might return us to the Whoville that existed when all the trappings were gone and the people focused on what mattered.  Maybe I should have waited a few weeks to write this blog.  Maybe I should have calmed down and let the memories of black Friday fade into what I pray will be a season of truly belonging to Christ.

But then again, He might just return in the meantime.

This Christmas, I am praying with some brothers in Christ over the people I love who do not truly know the Lord.  I am so grateful to these brothers for this opportunity, because these prayers are going to be the most meaningful gift I can offer.  I haven’t bought a single Christmas present, and I am not sure when I will actually get around to that.  If past is prologue, it will be Dec. 24. I will do so, and yes I will get joy out of giving, as we all should. But even if I get on the ball, place all the orders, wrap all the gifts, tie all the bows, and sign all the cards on time, will it really matter if I am not prepared for Christ?

May God bless you in these coming weeks, and may you truly know the comfort of knowing and being prepared for Him – the greatest gift of all and the only one that matters.