Dachau, A Place of Hope?

Many years ago, my wife and I visited the site of the Dachau Concentration Camp, about 10 miles to the northwest of Munich. This abandoned munitions factory in a quiet medieval town was reconfigured into a place of death and suffering. The camp saw nearly 200,000 pass through its gates; Jews, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, etc. We are told that 31,951 were reported killed, but it is believed that many more deaths went unreported.

The camp was liberated by US forces on 29 April, 1945. It was used for holding SS troops awaiting trial and was the actual site of the Dachau war crimes trials. After 1948 it was used to hold ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe awaiting resettlement, and used by US troops during the occupation. It was closed in 1960 and made into a museum which exists so the world does not forget the horrors of war, injustice, and unbridled racism.

How could Dachau ever be considered a place of hope? It happened on Christmas Eve 1944. The place was a cold and dark bunk room where a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, himself a prisoner was preaching a Christmas Eve sermon to the skeleton-like figures huddled around him. This is what he said:

God, the eternally wealthy and almighty God, enters into the most extreme human poverty imaginable. No man is so weak and helpless that God does not come to him in Jesus Christ, right in the midst of our human need; no man is so forsaken and homeless in this world that God does not seek him, in the midst of our human distress…This is what is so singularly peculiar in the Christian message of salvation, which tells us, ‘You need not go to search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the man who, as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in a manger. All your need is so far from being alien to him that on the contrary he gave himself freely to bear it with you.’ Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.’

This is the significance of Christmas; that God became flesh and dwelt among us. The infinite, eternal God became one of us and fully entered into our human situation so that he might redeem us. I think we still have this mythological notion that if we are facing difficulties, feeling depressed, and experiencing life’s unfairness then our Christmas will be ruined.  On the contrary, it is as we do experience such things that we will have a clearer understanding of the true nature of the incarnation; that the God of the Stars has become the God of the brokenhearted.

This is the truth of the incarnation: God stooped so low in Jesus that no one is excluded from his grasp. No, not even you.

If Ayn Rand Was Jesus…

Ayn Rand was a Russian-American writer (1905-1982) who developed a philosophical system called Objectivism. Simply, she believed that humans discern reality through their senses; and that the moral purpose of life should be the pursuit of one’s happiness, which she called rational self-interest. For those familiar with it, Objectivism is really just another form of Existentialism. Her system can be seen in her novel Atlas Shrugged and a non-fiction book The Virtue of Selfishness.

A thought entered my mind as I was musing on things during this great season of the Incarnation. What if Ayn Rand was Jesus? See if you get a clue from this quote of where we might be if such were the case: “It is morally proper to accept help, when it is offered not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e. when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver’s virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses, or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such.” In Atlas Shrugged, the character John Galt took an oath and said, “I swear- by my life and the love of it- that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Gulp; we are scrooged! If Ayn Rand (or John Galt) was Jesus, it would not be in her rational self-interest to leave the heights of heaven’s glory and enter in the miseries of this life in response to the flaws, weaknesses, and moral failures of the likes of me or you. These, not our virtues, form the ground of our desperate need. She would never have humbled herself to live her life nor give up her life for the sake of ours.

Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling; Naked come to Thee for dress, helpless look to Thee for grace; Foul I to the fountain fly, wash me Savior, or I die! (Augustus Toplady)

A final thought: how would Ayn Rand’s virtue of selfishness affect our own generosity at Christmas or at any other time? “The Salvation Army bell ringers are out in force at this time of the year, and each day brings mail requests for donations. I have no objection to charity as long as it isn’t viewed as an altruistic duty and isn’t a central issue in one’s life. …Imagine trying to celebrate Christmas by taking altruism seriously. Instead of buying gifts for your children you would be obliged to spend that money on needy children in, say, Bangladesh. Instead of buying yourself a new suit for the holiday, you would have to go around in sackcloth because of your duty toward those who have less than you. Is that what the Christmas spirit is supposed to mean? Does an obligation to sacrifice for the sake of others sound like a prescription for goodwill among people or for resentment and conflict?” (Peter Schwartz, distinguished fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and author of the forthcoming In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive)

We would become Scrooge! O the beauty of self-sacrifice and generosity! O the Blessedness of the Incarnation!

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence…

let all mortal fleshI have never repeated any of my blogs- until now. On this Friday before Christmas, I wanted to bring this one out of the Archives and offer it to you to meditate upon as you keep silence before the One who has come and is coming…

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence is from the Liturgy of St James (4th century), one of the earliest extant liturgies of the Christian Church. Orthodox Christians often recite it on the Sunday after Christmas, or as part of the Christmas Eve service. It is a beautiful Advent hymn, which focuses our attention upon the King of kings and Lord of lords, and His descent to earth to vanquish the powers of hell. Biblical references upon which the hymn is based include John 6:51; John 1:5,9; Isaiah 6:1-3; Revelation 4:8; and Revelation 19:1-6. Listen in awe and wonder as you prepare for the Coming of Jesus Christ:

God of the Stars, God of the Brokenhearted…

The Incarnation: God became flesh and dwelt among us. The infinite, eternal God became one of us and fully entered into our human situation so that he might redeem us. I think we still have this mythological notion that if we are facing difficulties, feeling depressed and experiencing life’s unfairness then our Christmas will be ruined. I’m going to make a bold statement; it isn’t until we do experience these things that we will understand the true nature of the incarnation; that the God of the Stars has become the God of the brokenhearted.

The birth of Christ was revealed to the outcast, the old, the brokenhearted, and the dispossessed. This is the truth of the Christmas Story: God stooped so low in Jesus that no one is excluded from his grasp.

I want to take you back to Christmas Eve 1944. The place is the Dachau concentration camp where a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, has been held prisoner for seven years because of his involvement in the Confessing Church. Niemoller was the man who wrote the now famous “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a Trade Unionist. The they came for the Jews and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.” Listen as Pastor Niemoller preaches to his congregation of skeleton-like figures huddled around him in their cold-dark bunk room:

God, the eternally wealthy and almighty God, enters into the most extreme human poverty imaginable. No man is so weak and helpless that God does not come to him in Jesus Christ, right in the midst of our human need; no man is so forsaken and homeless in this world that God does not seek him, in the midst of our human distress…This is what is so singularly peculiar in the Christian message of salvation, which tells us, “You need not go to search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the man who, as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in a manger. All your need is so far from being alien to him that on the contrary he gave himself freely to bear it with you.” Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.

It is the people who walk in darkness who will see a great light. It the people who live in a land of deep darkness who will have a light shine upon them. (paraphrase of Isa. 9:2). O Blessed Incarnation!

Disappointed?

feeling-disappointed[My blog is a little longer than usual. It is based on my Christmas Eve (2013) meditation preached after a dramatic presentation of the book of Ruth.]

Perhaps some of you were a little disappointed with the content of our service tonight. It may have seemed strange that we told the story of Ruth and Boaz instead of Mary and Joseph. “Didn’t seem very ‘Chrismassy’ to me; not what I expected” you might have said.

However, life doesn’t always happen the way we expect, does it? Naomi never expected her husband or her sons to die. Ruth never expected her husband to die and to have her life become entwined with her mother-in-law Naomi. No one prepared them to live as widows in a culture where one had to have a husband or a son to protect her. In addition, no one expected Naomi’s distant relative (Boaz) to fulfill the role of redeemer; marrying Ruth and providing protection and care for Naomi, as well as a grandson, who became the grandfather of the great King David, and the 24x great grandfather of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed. -Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. -Linus

Poor Charlie Brown; life is like that though, isn’t it? There is often a gap between what we expect and what really happens, which is what often leads to disappointment. Maybe some of you are disappointed in your marriages because they are not what you had hoped they would be. Still others of you are disappointed in what your life has become; it is not anything like you had dreamed about when you were young. Maybe for others, like Charlie Brown, Christmas has become a disappointment because you have recently lost a loved one, or you are going through economic hardship, or maybe you just think that God no longer cares for you.

Our disappointments, on the one hand, are an ever-present reminder of the brokenness of life. On the other hand, our disappointments are a reminder that we need a redeemer. One website psychologist offered this advice for dealing with disappointment: “We might try and prepare and devour some delicious food, with our favorite beverage… in the company of family, of lover, of friends. Also, we might try and do some magic breathing exercises of power, or we might try and do some more social sport, some swimming, or go and diligently till a garden, so that we may forget that our life is so boring, or so disappointing.“

However, like most of us know, escapes are momentary, but brokenness stays until we are put back together again. Boaz redeemed the brokenness of Ruth and Naomi by his action. The word redeem means more than just to buy or take back; it also means to repair, to restore, and to help. It is a beautiful word; and so Boaz was a redeemer to these poor women.

What we want you to know on this Christmas Eve 2013 is that the brokenness of your life can be restored by the One who is greater than Boaz—Jesus Christ. We are not saying that He prevents bad things from happening—like Sandy Hook, just a year ago—because our world is broken. We are saying, however, that Jesus can restore, repair, and help you in your brokenness. He has promised to those who trust in Him, “‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5)

This is the essence of what Pastor Martin Niemoller (himself a prisoner) preached to a bunkroom of skeleton-like prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp on Christmas Eve 1944: This is what is so singularly (unique) in the Christian message of salvation, which tells us, “You need not go to search for God; you should not imagine that he is far from you and is not concerned with what crushes you! He is here and is close to you in the man who, as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, was lying in a manger. All your need is so far from being alien to him that on the contrary he gave himself freely to bear it with you.” Whoever can grasp this in faith is not forsaken in prison and in death; for in the worst darkness he may say, “Thou art with me; thy rod and staff they comfort me.”

An incredible message of hope embedded deep within a world of despair! Is Jesus Christ your Redeemer? Have you come to him in all your brokenness and sin and asked him to forgive you and help you? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

I close with this quote from J.C. Ryle, a 19th century Anglican Bishop and lover of God: Oh, you who want unfailing comfort, I commend you to Christ! In Him alone there is no failure. Rich men are disappointed in their treasures. Learned men are disappointed in their books. Husbands are disappointed in their wives. Wives are disappointed in their husbands. Parents are disappointed in their children. Statesmen are disappointed when, after many a struggle, they attain place and power. They find out, to their cost, that it is more pain than pleasure, – that it is disappointment, annoyance, incessant trouble, worry, vanity, and frustration of spirit. But no man was ever disappointed in Christ.

Chick-fil-A Revisited…

eat more chickenDo you remember the controversy last year that began when a Chicago Alderman did not want Chick-fil-A in his neighborhood because of what he perceived as “anti-gay” sentiments of its president Dan Cathy, a committed Christian? Well this week there was a very interesting article in The Huffington Post written by Shane Windmeyer, a national leader in the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Transgender) movement.

Windmeyer wrote, “Like most LGBT people, I was provoked by Dan’s public opposition to marriage equality and his company’s problematic giving history. I had the background and history on him, so I thought, and had my own preconceived notions about who he was. I knew this character. No way did he know me. That was my view. But it was flawed… On Aug. 10, 2012, in the heat of the controversy, I got a surprise call from Dan Cathy. He had gotten my cell phone number from a mutual business contact serving campus groups. I took the call with great caution… The first call lasted over an hour, and the private conversation led to more calls the next week and the week after…”

“His questions and a series of deeper conversations ultimately led to a number of in-person meetings with Dan and representatives from Chick-fil-A… Through all this, Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness… Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective… Throughout the conversations Dan expressed a sincere interest in my life, wanting to get to know me on a personal level. He wanted to know about where I grew up, my faith, my family, even my husband, Tommy. In return, I learned about his wife and kids and gained an appreciation for his devout belief in Jesus Christ and his commitment to being ‘a follower of Christ’ more than a ‘Christian.’ Dan expressed regret and genuine sadness when he heard of people being treated unkindly in the name of Chick-fil-A — but he offered no apologies for his genuine beliefs about marriage.”

“In many ways, getting to know Dan better has reminded me of my relationship with my uncle, who is a pastor at a Pentecostal church. When I came out as openly gay in college, I was aware that his religious views were not supportive of homosexuality. But my personal relationship with my uncle reassured me of his love for me… His beliefs prevented him from fully reconciling what he understood as the immorality of homosexuality with the morality of loving and supporting me and my life. It was, and remains, an unsolvable riddle for him, hating the sin and loving the sinner.”

“My relationship with Dan is the same, though he is not my family. Dan, in his heart, is driven by his desire to minister to others and had to choose to continue our relationship throughout this controversy. He had to both hold to his beliefs and welcome me into them…. In the end, it is not about eating (or eating a certain chicken sandwich). It is about sitting down at a table together and sharing our views as human beings, engaged in real, respectful, civil dialogue. Dan would probably call this act the biblical definition of hospitality. I would call it human decency. So long as we are all at the same table and talking, does it matter what we call it or what we eat?”

I am so impressed with Dan Cathy’s initiative to build a relationship with Shane Windmeyer. It really reflects the love of the Lord Jesus. How can the gospel spread in a culture where it’s us vs. them? Where would Christianity be today if Peter had refused to sit down and eat with Cornelius (Acts 10)? May God give us the wisdom and boldness to love others in such a way.

Reverse the Curse

Reverse_the_curse For those who missed my Christmas Eve message, here it is in brief: The Curse of the Bambino was a superstition evolving from the failure of the Boston Red Sox baseball team to win the World Series in the 86-year period from 1918 to 2004. The curse was said to have begun after the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth (The Bambino), to the New York Yankees in the off-season of 1919-1920. The curse was reversed in 2004, when the Red Sox came back from a 0-3 best-of-seven deficit to beat the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series and then went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals to win the 2004 World Series. That was a thing of beauty!

Folks in Chicago are more familiar with the Curse of the Billy Goat which was supposedly placed on the Cubs in 1945 when the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern brought his pet goat with him to a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers at Wrigley Field. The goat’s odor bothered the other fans so much that he and goat were asked to leave. The tavern owner was outraged and declared, “D’em Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs have not won a National League pennant since 1945 and as of 2012 have not won a World Series in 104 years (so apparently the curse covered the 37 yrs before 1945).

Why all this talk about a curse at Christmas? Some of you may think I am going to talk about Christmas shopping. However, in Romans 5 Paul tells us that “Through the disobedience of one man sin entered the world and death through sin…so the obedience of one man brought justification and life for all.” Paul also says in Gal 4, “When the time was just right, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”

The Coming of Christ is seen in the Scripture as the way by which God dealt with the curse of sin and death originated by our forefather, Adam. Many disagree with the doctrine of original sin, but it is the only theological truth that can be experimentally proven. How else do explain the horrors of concentration camps and the random killing of children in an elementary school? Explain the pain of divorce or the damage of abuse; explain addictions and the inability to curb our self-destructive behaviors apart from sin.

This is why the message of Christmas is singularly such good news. “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be for all the people. For today is born in the City and you of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2). Jesus fulfilled the promise of God spoken to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed, for HE will crush your head and you will bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). Jesus was bruised for our iniquity and wounded for our sin, but He crushed the head of Satan and reversed the curse for all who claim him as Lord and Savior.

Wait, there is more— He is Coming again and will reign in power and glory in a kingdom of perfect righteousness and peace. The third verse (which we tend to skip over) of Joy to the World speaks to this: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the CURSE is found, far as the CURSE is found.”

The curse of the Bambino- 86 yrs. The curse of the Billy Goat- 104 yrs and counting. The curse of sin and death- reversed! First, in the lives of those who trust in Christ for the forgiveness if sins; second, in the New Heaven and Earth inaugurated at His Second Coming. Such is our hope…MERRY CHRISTMAS!