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First published in The Washington Times 12/23/13:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/dec/23/celebrating-christmas-without-christ/

Every year we Christians look forward to the cherished Christmas tradition of atheist groups buying gigantic billboards around Times Square to openly advertise their Jesus envy.   They just don’t get why they can’t have their jolly little Christmas minus Christ. This year the American Atheists has a towering sign whose lit-up graphics ask, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A giant hand crosses out “Christ” and writes “Nobody.” Of course most people who celebrate Christmas without Christ are atheists or agnostics. So here they are admitting to all the world on a colossal 40x40 foot sign that they are actually nobodies. Poor atheists -- even when they think they’re insulting Christians, they’re really insulting themselves.

Though it seems impossible for them to top this unwitting self-mortification, it gets even better with the next message on the billboard.  “Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas,” it says and lists helpful suggestions of how to do so. These include ice skating, charity, fun, parties, Chinese food, and the Rockettes.  Although one of my favorite Yuletide films, A Christmas Story, indeed features Chinese food I always thought of it as a fallback to be used only in emergencies like when the local dog pack makes off with the turkey.   

Yet David Silverman, the president of AA, is endearingly intent on making his case. “This season is a great time of year for 100 reasons – none of them having to do with religion,” he asserts.  “This year, start a new tradition: don’t go to church. You hate it, it’s boring; you probably only go because you feel guilty or obligated…” 

Guess he’s describing the new “atheist churches” that reportedly are sprouting up in dank basements practically nowhere.  What is the world coming to when atheists go to church? Sounds like more evidence that they yearn to be just as religious as we, but without the actual religion part.  They’re even trying to co-opt our day of worship by calling their day of non-worship “Sunday Assembly.”   

And just what do they do in these assemblies?  According to a Washington Post article, at one meeting they had a rock music sing-along with a live band. How derivative of them:  we do that in today’s Christian churches, too. They also watched an atheist poet perform a piece on his idea of life after death. But how entertaining is some guy stretched out in a box clutching a bunch of daisies? Or did he magically disintegrate himself and Become One with the Cosmos?  

Obviously atheists are looking at happy church-goers and asking, how can we get some of that?  They’re tired of being isolated and angry and much more likely to attempt suicide than God-believers (according to the American Journal l of Psychiatry.)  They think that getting together and singing some tunes and maybe eating Chinese food and watching old Rockette videos will make them less miserable.  Maybe they’ve read the studies -- hundreds of actual scientific studies and surveys over the last 40 years or so -- that say practicing Christians are mentally and physically healthier, live longer, and are twice as happy as unbelievers.  And so naturally much less likely to commit suicide.

When people are asked, “how happy are you, really?” the folks sporting bigger grins than anyone else in America are Evangelical Protestants, committed Christians who attend church weekly. A hefty 49% of them declare themselves “very happy”, while only 26% of the seldom-to-never churchgoers – like atheists and agnostics -- checked the “very happy” box. Numerous Pew Research studies have confirmed these numbers for a very long time.

It’s doubtful that the non-religious will reap these very real benefits even if they become atheist “church-goers.” Because it’s really not about the singing or the pot stickers, it’s about the Jesus. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson in his book Darwin’s Cathedral, theorizes that religion provides people with a sense of transcendent purpose that those with a secular mindset simply can’t match. Seems that God-believers enjoy a zest for life and hopefulness about their future that translates into better health and happiness.

It should come as no surprise that believers are enjoying life more; think about it. If Christianity didn’t improve the day-to-day lives of believers and bring them help and comfort in their darkest hours, would there be over two billion of them making it the most popular religion on the planet? Would nearly 80 percent of Americans declare themselves Christians? (Pew Research)  Who in our modern enlightened and pragmatic age would believe in a God and a spiritual system that just doesn’t work?

So good luck atheists, trying to scrub Christ out of Christmas. That baby in the manger has proven far more powerful than you for over two thousand years now .

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I didn’t actually see my first episode of this much-awarded mega-hit until a few days before the finale.  One episode and I was tragically hooked.  Having never binged on a TV marathon before, I’m embarrassed at all the hours I watched, unable to turn the thing off.  It became an epic overdose that reduced my eyes to tiny red stinging slits. But it was worth it to see ancient Biblical principles of right and wrong hiding in plain sight, brilliantly worked out in this contemporary morality play that was so  adored by our increasingly amoral culture.

Breaking Bad follows the descent into hell of one Walter White, an everyman, blend-into-the-crowd kind of Walter Mitty-esque (gee what a coincidence) guy who over five seasons becomes a raving psychotic murderer and criminal rock star presiding over his very own methamphetamine empire.  As Walter says in the opening of every episode, “chemistry is the study of transformation.”  Yes indeed.

This show resonates with its huge audience because its creator, Vince Gilligan, and his fellow writers are strumming an ancient universal theme that we all recognize in our bones. It’s the story of Lucifer, the beautiful angel who challenges God for dominance.  It runs throughout Greek tragedy and most of Shakespeare’s plays, echoes of a story first set in motion in the Garden of Eden as the fount of man’s endless struggles with his Creator. In Eden’s paradise the serpent hissed, “You can be like God!” tempting Adam and Eve to defy the deity’s supremacy.  In Breaking Bad it’s decent-guy-turned-monster Walter White hissing at his long- suffering wife, “All of this is about me!”  Everyman trying to be Superman.

Like Walter, most of us act like little gods, arbiters of our own highly fluid, guilt-and-judgment-free morality that’s ruled by the code of feel-good and hubris.  Breaking bad is all about the destructive power of this most original sin: human pride.  

Walter starts out as a sympathetic character, even more so after he learns he’s got advanced lung cancer and only two years to live. A high school chemistry teacher who moonlights working in a car wash to support his family, he’s desperate knowing he has no funds for expensive cancer treatment and nothing to leave his family after his death.  But his pride won’t let him accept a lucrative job at the firm he helped found because he thinks he was dissed by his former partners.  Walter decides that a better course of action is to cook meth, first in an old trailer, and later in a sophisticated lab supplied by a maniacal drug overlord.

That initial decision triggers the downward spiral of the entire epic. Walter’s first murder victim is Krazy-8, a drug dealer who Walt and his young assistant, Jesse, keep in the basement chained to a post.  Walt just can’t stomach killing him, and delays the inevitable. He brings Krazy-8 sandwiches and as they chat, finds out Krazy-8’s family owns a furniture store where Walt and his wife Skyler bought the crib for their new baby.  Walt’s ethical aversion to homicide plus this growing personal connection stay his hand, until he discovers that Krazy 8 plans to stab him to death the moment he’s unchained. Angry and betrayed, Walt brutally strangles the man in the basement. There’s a kill-or-be-killed aspect here that justifies Walt’s savagery, and then too, the guy was a p.o.s. drug dealer. So the audience is still rooting for Walt even as he crosses over to killer.

As he realizes he can make mind-boggling millions with his chemical expertise, Walt gets high on the drugs of power and greed. The bodies and the unintended consequences pile up. When instead of saving Jesse’s heroin-addled girlfriend Jane, he watches her die choking on her own vomit, he’s protecting his money stash and thus protecting his family from ruin. But now he’s killing for reasons disconnected from his own survival. His cruelty leads to Jane’s grieving air traffic controller father making a mistake that results in two planes colliding, killing 167 people.  Walt stands looking up as flaming parts of planes and bodies plummet into his back yard, much as the Lord rained fire and brimstone down on the sinful inhabitants of the wicked city of Sodom.

Decades ago the enlightened high-foreheads of Western culture rejected stuffy Biblical morality for the “it’s all good” philosophy prevalent to this day. If bad behavior such as alcoholism, drug addiction, even gambling, or homicidal tendencies couldn’t be rationalized away by an errant gene, it was the fault of a toxic environment or uncuddly parents.  Guilt and shame weren’t just downers, but unfair punishment because our lives are determined by fatalistic forces beyond our control.

Jesse, the druggy punk who’s so much smarter than Walt in all the important ways, is the only character showing remorse over his dastardly deeds. At his addiction group therapy meeting, feeling guilty after murdering on Walt’s orders, Jesse invents a story about killing a dog. When the group’s I’m-okay-you’re-okay leader trots out the need for self-acceptance and non-judgmentalness, Jesse angrily calls bullshit, reminding the leader that he accidentally killed his own daughter when high on cocaine and vodka.  How can we really accept anything and everything we do? 

Walt’s evil acts place him squarely in the grim crosshairs of – not fate, not destiny -- but the results of his own vicious behavior. This also is biblical – you reap what you sow. At the end, Walt gets the illusion of control by forcing the Schwarzes to funnel his ill-gotten $80 million to his family. But he doesn’t win. In the end, his family despises him and he dies alone, caressing a cold steel meth-making tank. In the ultimate irony, the bullet that finally finds him is shot by a machine gun of his own clever devise. At the end, Breaking Bad rejects conventional moral squishiness to say: your life is what you do to yourself.

This piece was first published at Breakpoint.org: http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/23567


 
 
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My last atheist fixed me with a look through his Harry Potterish glasses: “So you believe in God?” I nodded. “Well, do you also believe the U.S. government brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11?”

Somehow I knew this would not end well. “I don’t appreciate being insulted,” I answered. “You’re saying that if I believe in God I’m a nutso conspiracy theorist.”  
Temporary denial and backpeddling ensued, but then came his next salvo: “You believe in one God, right?”  I clarified, “Three Gods in one, actually.”  I knew this was personal for him because we had both just emerged from a memoir and nonfiction workshop he taught at a big annual writer’s conference. In the class, he had revealed that he was raised Catholic and having a hard time writing his memoir owing to his miserable childhood.

“If you believe in one god, then why can’t you believe in a thousand, or even ten thousand gods?” he asked. Long pause as I just stared at him……….. ”Why would I believe in ten thousand gods?” Of course he meant that the same addled mind gullible enough to buy any form of god could easily believe in any idiotic thing at all.  That sort of mind could believe in mobs of Gods, unicorns, azalea bushes that talk, any old kind of Disney phantasmagoria. So here’s the first thing about atheists: they use loopy arguments to prove us believers loopy. We must restrain ourselves from reacting with anger or sarcasm, though it can be difficult not to do unto them as they do unto us.

Sensing he had some personal angst, I asked him about his experience with Christians and as I expected he said some had been vicious to him, unbelievably mean.  So this was an opportunity for me to be his ally while offering genuine sympathy. I said I was truly sorry that they had treated him badly, but they were obviously fallen-away Christians since they weren’t following Jesus’ commandment to love your fellow human and treat your neighbor as yourself.  

Momentarily thrown off balance, he asked how I had become someone who was writing a book about Christianity.  This is how: I was raised Christian like he was, but when I moved to the Colorado countryside I found a gaggle of Christian horse-owners with whom I shared many a horsey camping and riding adventure. These were believers with a depth of personal commitment I had never encountered. Although heartache and tragedy and the resulting doubts about God had often stalked their lives, they’d come back with a faith even stronger, forged in the furnace of many trials. And they were so much fun!

My atheist’s response to my story of deepening Christian life was to ask: if my neighbors were Muslim, would I have become a Muslim?  I would think even a nonbeliever should know the answer.     

Then our conversation bounced from evolution to the Big Bang theory and swerved to whether God needs to “prove” that He exists. When I said I believe God created everything fully formed as the Bible describes but maybe He invented evolution to tinker with specifics, he flung out a wide arc with his arm and accused me of a circular argument. When I quoted Nobel Prize winning cosmologists and physicists who say the Big Bang is the very picture of nothingness exploding into everythingness just as originally described in Genesis, he said some scientists disagree.  Even when I offered up Albert Einstein’s wisdom: “I want to know how God created this world…I want to know His thought, the rest are details,” this atheist was unmoved.

Whenever I made a point, he stabbed his finger at me while sneering out his response. The finger was getting quite the workout by the time we reached the “proof” issue: if God exists, this atheist demanded He give us an explanation, as if the Creator of the Universe were a perp in a CSI episode. I said, “God isn’t interested in proof -- He’s interested in faith. If He made His existence totally obvious, there would be no need for faith; everyone would believe. That would rob God of the ability to work the hearts of humans to trust in Him.”    

From my conversations with atheists, I can divide them generally into two categories: those who can’t believe because they’ve been damaged by “religious” people; and those who won’t believe because their massive logical brains tell them God is a silly fairytale. Some, like my last atheist, are a winning combination of the two.

The atheists in the first group got a grim lesson in God from folks who wielded religious rules and regs like a lash. Early on, they learned about a dark and forbidding God who was seriously considering sending them to hell. Or the future unbeliever, like my last atheist, may have been mistreated by religious hypocrites who cheated or abused them. This ungodly behavior by people who pretend to be godly can permanently ruin a person for God.  The mistreated atheists deep down think they were rejected by God way before they rejected God yet they’ll still insist their unbelief is based entirely on “intellect.” Really, it’s nothing but raw emotion and festering hurt.      

The second variety of atheists thinks they’re smarter than God. They often write books ridiculing the very idea of belief in anything as irrational as an unseen Deity. I recommend not standing next to these people in a lightning storm. You can quote all the Einsteins and astrophysicists and Nobel Prize winners you want at them and they’ll just give you a superior smirk. (Physicist Steven Hawking: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have begun in just this way (the Big Bang) except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”)

Sadly, the arrogant, big-brained atheist probably can’t be reached because his hubris will always be a dark cloud between him and a God who demands humility.  But there’s hope for those like my last atheist.  As Christians we must reach out with heartfelt compassion for them. We must show them Jesus’ words of love and renewal in the Bible, proving that the people who wounded them got the message of Christ exactly backwards.  Gently, we can offer assurance that Christ came for the very sinners that we all are.  

I probably wasn’t all that gentle with my last atheist. Now I regret sometimes reacting sharply when he pushed my buttons instead of asking him more about his experiences. I missed an opportunity to start breaking down his hurt and his misunderstandings about Christianity. Still, I know how powerful is Christ’s message of faith, hope and love. And I know the Lord is even now planning to bring him others who can help him find his way to back to his Father.     

How have you responded to atheists who attack your faith?



 
 
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It’s been a popular dance for decades in America among militant unbelievers who get their exercise by trampling vigorously on Jesus Christ.  But some ingenious new moves surfaced recently with the story of the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) student who says he was suspended from his “intercultural communications” class when he refused to stomp on a piece of paper bearing the name “Jesus.” Junior Ryan Rotella, a devout Mormon, said the assignment made him feel “deeply offended” according to reports from dailycaller.com and mediaite.com.

Predictably, the choice of Jesus’s name was deliberate. The teacher’s manual that comes along with the course textbook actually suggests telling students to write JESUS on the paper. The manual notes, “This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.”  

How is this a revelation? That symbols take on emotional meaning is so obvious as to probably not require college classroom time to demonstrate. But also the premise is glaringly disingenuous.  It’s ridiculous to say Jesus’s name is in any way “arbitrary:” after all, He is the source of and reason for the Christian religion, the faith of more people on the planet than any other. His name is sacred to the dominant culture in America and worldwide, so stomping on His name is far more likely to generate student refusals and thus suspensions than any other. Maybe Rotella should have written the name “Martin Luther King” on a piece of paper and asked his professor, who is black, to stomp on it. That would be a handy “intercultural” way of demonstrating to Prof. Poole the meaning of disrespect.  

It’s no mystery why Jesus was selected: textbook writers and liberal professors know that Christians don’t fight back. If the exercise had involved doing the tango all over a picture of Mohammed, there’s always the risk of beheading.

These Christian-stomping activities have been going on for so long that they’ve become simply asinine. Religion-hating atheists are forever suing to remove a Christmas crèche scene, to erase In God We Trust from our money, to stop a valedictorian from thanking Jesus in a speech, or a football team from praying before a game. Memo to anti-Christians: yawn.  You are incredibly boring and have been insufferably so for decades.       

Two thousand years ago Jesus warned us this would happen; after all it happened to Him: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. “ John 15: 18, 19   

Christ is saying the world despises us because we don’t buy the materialistic values that most everyone else live by. Instead, Christians try to live “out of the world” -- by God’s values as articulated in His Word -- which inevitably puts us in conflict with the I’ll-do-it-my-way culture of Christ’s day, and ours.  Christians mostly disapprove of adultery and sexual immorality while the world revels in it – every single hour on TV and on the big screen too.  Christians believe God created each human uniquely in His own image and so don’t favor abortion and suicide, also putting us at odds with much of the world.

Our moral beliefs somehow “offend” unbelievers. But anyone who reads the news online or in the paper or watches TV or films can see that Christianity’s moral influence on the culture is dwindling.  Everything is going the secularist’s way. Why then do atheists seem to be ramping up their stomping attacks on our faith?

I think they’re just jealous.  Jealous of our Jesus and the peace of mind He gives us with His perfect love.  We’ve got a champion who has promised never to leave us, but to guide us with His Spirit while we live and then take us to be with Him when we die. What do the atheists have but a cruel and random universe, a body and brain that are just a hash of cells, and when they die -- the cold, black nothingness of the grave. No wonder they are much more likely to commit suicide.

What are our lessons from the latest Jesus-stompers?  First, don’t send your college-age kids to FAU. In fact, chose their college very carefully since about 51% of college professors say they’re Democrats, who are much less likely to believe in God than are Republicans according to Pew Research Center surveys.  Only about 14% of college teachers are Republicans. As a result, for decades institutions of higher education have been liberal propaganda factories working tirelessly to turn our children away from traditional Christian values and into secular “progressives.” True to form, FAU’s Professor Poole is in fact the co-chair of his local Democrat Party.   

The other lesson is to turn even more jubilantly to God this Easter, rejoicing in His redemptive grace through His Son, who is also Him. We are very blessed to worship a God who loves us so much He sacrificed Himself so we could be with Him in eternity.  We have everything and the atheists have nothing.  Their silly little God-stomping dance will always be found out and exposed for the pathetic nihilistic exercise it is.


You can also read this piece at Breakpoint: http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/articles/entry/12/21841


 
 
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The epic History Channel series, The Bible, started a couple of Sundays ago. It was quite good I thought, though everyone’s teeth sure looked white and sparkly in those pre-toothpaste days, and I'm always annoyed to hear ancient Israelites speaking in plummy British accents.

Also the first episode left out little details like the Ten Commandments re-play the Lord was forced to do when Moses smashed the first copy of the Big Ten upon discovering the Israelites worshipping a golden calf the minute his back was turned. Oh, and the film also left out even a mention of the 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and why that happened.  

But editing the Bible seems to be rampant these days since so many of us carbon-based life forms are so much smarter than its Author. Bill O’Reilly set himself up as Biblical editor when he had the film makers on his show recently and freely opined that the Good Book is chock full of allegory. How, he asked the movie folks, could they possibly believe stories like Jonah being swallowed by the whale and surviving, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead? Obviously couldn’t have happened so you can’t take the Bible literally, insisted O’Reilly, a devoted Catholic.

Based on O’Reilly’s editorial standards, nearly everything in the Bible is suspect. If God is just being metaphorical about Lazarus, what about the resurrection of Jesus, the central faith tenet upon which all of Christianity is based? If Jonah and the whale are just a campfire story, doesn’t the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus), being saved from devouring lions (Daniel), felling a city’s walls by marching around blasting on trumpets (Joshua) and lots more fall into the same ya-gotta-be-kidding category?

These events seem to be outside what we know of how the natural world operates, and that’s why some who pride themselves as rationalists object to them. But if God created the natural world, doesn’t He make the rules and can’t He break them if He wishes to achieve the results He wants? And if He can’t how could He be God?

Many can accept His miracles but they want to edit God because they disagree with His moral judgments. Think of that: people actually think God is wrong about right and wrong. Personally, I try not to stand next to any of these audacious types in a lightning storm.
Yet I know committed Christians who say they believe the Bible is mostly God’s inspired Word, but still feel entitled to cross out certain chunks because they disagree with God’s morality.  For example, friends have told me I’m a bigot for noting that through the Apostle Paul in the New Testament (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Tim. 1:10) as well as the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the visiting angels,(Gen. 19:1-5) God clearly says homosexuality is an abomination (Leviticus18:22).

So is God a bigot? Is Paul, Christianity’s one-man public relations firm who wrote nearly half the New Testament, a bigot? Neither God nor Paul ever said that homosexuals themselves are an abomination, just that this behavior violates God’s morality. Since Christianity is all about forgiveness and reaching out to sinners, those who say God hates homosexuals couldn’t be more wrong.
Editing God has gone so far that some religious “leaders” even write very popular books decrying hell as a total fiction; just another fantasy from the crowded stable of God’s metaphors.  But hell comes up so often in the Old Testament and Jesus talks so specifically about hell as an actual place where unbelievers suffer eternal punishment (Matt. 5:22, 10:28; Luke 12:5; and more) that it’s hard to wish it away, even to entice new churchgoers in the door.

And please don’t say the Bible can’t be taken literally because Leviticus forbids shrimp cocktails as Bible-mockers love to point out. (Also not on the menu: oysters, lobster, and any finless sea creatures.) If you’ve ever eaten shrimp on the beach – in Mexico, or in Greece for instance -- you know that God in His mercy created this dietary law to spare us an inevitable 24 hours of gut-wrenching misery and an epic bathroom clean-up. In a steamy hot, refrigerator-less place like ancient Israel, the wily crustacean could even claim human lives.  

When you’re tempted to get out the red pencil and revise the Bible to your liking, first consider:  what exactly are your qualifications to correct and improve the work of the Creator of the Universe? And second: once you start, how do you stop?


 
 
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Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night clasped in the bony arms of worry. Worry about my future and whether I will find an agent for my current book, worry about my friends’ and siblings health and my own, worry about the radiation in those airport scanners, worry about just when deranged government spending will send the economy bucking and plunging once again, and the over-arching worry about a world going into a moral death spiral, a world whose only thought of God is to mock those who believe in Him. These days, it seems everyone is worried about their health and losing their jobs and their homes; indeed, the nation is awash in a tsunami of anxiety.

Worry has become so much a way of life that many actually thought that a vanished people who worshipped jaguars and ripped out still-beating human hearts had the inside track on the very date the world would end. More recently, fear that a rogue asteroid would hit our earth gripped the news talkers, who generously spread the anxiety far and wide.

Christians by and large escape the end-of –the-world fussing and fretting. For us, God’s plan is laid out in John’s Revelation and it doesn’t involve Aztecs or asteroids. But Christians are susceptible to every other flavor of worry, even though the Bible instructs us not to go there. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus  says, “do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Matthew 6:25  Well, yes and no. Jesus then points out that the birds don’t sow or reap, and yet “your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matt. 6:26.  But that’s little consolation to us humans; for the birds, the great outdoors is one big free all-you-can-eat buffet while we must pay for our groceries. Besides, a bird’s brain is too tiny to squeeze in worry while God gave us these huge imaginations so we can envision epic calamity with each new day’s dawn.

Jesus himself, being human, worried when He prayed on the Mount of Olives before facing His fate on the cross. Luke tells us that as He agonized, “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” Luke 22:44.  An angel came from heaven to strengthen Him, and He prayed even harder.

Worrying comes from an inability to trust God to provide and care for us as He has promised. Worry is a test of whether we believe God is who He says He is – whether we really buy that the promises of God are absolute and immutable. If we believe He loves us as He says He does, to worry is basically to doubt the word of our Creator.  Jesus finally said, “Nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Luke 22:42.

But overcoming this very human tendency to anxiety isn’t easy. When I worry about how to banish worry, I find that reading the Psalms helps. Most of them were written by David, a national hero who was hunted nearly to extinction by the very king whose bacon he saved, and then by his own rotten turncoat son. I think of how hard it must have been for David in his misery  to believe that “all things work together for good to those who love God.” Romans 8:28   Yet even as David cries out to his Lord in  despair, he can’t stop thanking and praising God though he’s facing life-threatening danger that most of us will never see. Each of us can find many things small and great to thank God for every day, and as we praise Him for these blessings we will find our worry fading.

We can also tune our hearts to recognize those God Says Hi moments that are little sticky notes of encouragement from the One who says He will never leave us or forsake us. It may be a sky suddenly spanned by a double rainbow, or a neighbor at the door with a loaf of banana bread when you’ve been feeling down, or a phone call from an employer you thought had forgotten all about you. The more we thank Him, the more He will reveal these sweet surprises that say, “I’m here with you – don’t worry.”

But the best salve for worry may be prayer, just as Jesus found. We can pray for God to lift the burden of anxiety and stress and to help us to trust wholly in Him, at the same time confessing how difficult that really is. We can know that God appreciates our candor – after all, He already knows what we’re thinking—and stands ready to help.

Now when I wake up in the dark, instead of ticking through my anxious to-do list, I pray for God to release the worry and give me His peace. And most of the time He carries me away to dreamland.


What do you do to conquer worry? 

Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. John 14:1.          


 
 
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As American Christians, it’s unthinkable that some night our front door might be hacked to splinters by militants who want to kill us for our faith.  For us, the idea of martyrdom is as remote as the ghastly unreality of Christians in Roman times who were actually smeared with pitch and lit as human torches to add festive ambiance to Nero’s garden parties.

Yet a group called Open Doors (www.opendoorsusa.org) which has been helping persecuted Christians since 1955, says an estimated 100 million Christians worldwide suffer “interrogation, arrest and even death for their faith in Christ...”  Our national media largely ignores what’s going on.  In Egypt, since the “Arab Spring” and even before the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, Coptic Christians who thrived in that country for 600 years before the bloody Islamic conquest of North Africa were being murdered and persecuted and their churches burned.  In Syria’s civil war, Christians are being killed and driven out of their homes by both sides. Many news sources have identified the rebel forces as dedicated jihadists who have been exterminating Christians. They often launch attacks from Christian towns so the government army will retaliate by bombing Christian areas and burning their homes. 

Meanwhile, in the recent  Benghazi hearings it came to light that top American officials Defense Sec. Leon Panetta, then- Sec. of State Clinton, then-CIA Director Petraeus, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had all endorsed a plan for the U.S. to arm and train the Syrian rebels, ignoring that they’re dominated by Christian-hating al Qaida fighters. So far, the White House has denied supporting the plan, but World Net Daily’s Middle Eastern sources say we’ve been shipping arms to the rebels for months.  http://www.wnd.com/2013/02/more-holes-in-white-house-denial-of-arms-to-jihadists/#pUhp3uaHPoeoCcH0.99  

If so, this means that we Americans are aiding the persecutors who want to drive Christians from the very birthplace of Christianity.   We may feel helpless to stop the annihilation of our brothers and sisters in the faith. Realistically, we can do little to influence the decisions made behind the marble pillars of power.  But maybe we can save the life of at least one Christian under threat of martyrdom in Iran.

His name is Saeed  Abedini, and he’s an American citizen who was recently sentenced to eight years in a brutal prison for “threatening Iran’s national security.” Is Abedini  a terrorist militant, a bomb-throwing traitor to the Iranian government? No, he’s a pastor whose crime is helping to build an orphanage in the Iranian town of Rasht.  Originally from Iran, Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity some 13 years ago and became active in creating a network of Christian “house churches” in a land where the government has forbidden construction of brick and mortar churches since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Because in Islamist countries, the religion and the government are one and the same, converting to Christianity (apostasy) is a crime against the state.  Under threat for “attempting to sway Iranian youth away from Islam,” Abedini, who denies evangelizing, moved to the U.S. in 2005 and became a citizen in 2010. In the fall of 2012 he returned to Iran, began building the orphanage, and was arrested.  His arrest violates Iran’s own constitution as well as international human rights treaties the nation has signed.  

You may have seen Abedini’s wife in interviews on Fox. The couple has two heartbreakingly small children who may never see their Dad again. Jay and Jordan Sekulow at The American Center for Law and Justice have taken up their cause, asking the UN, European Union, and Council of Europe to require Iran to honor its treaties and its constitution.  

Outcry from people around the world has worked miracles in other cases like this, most recently in the case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity. After spending three years in prison, the Iranian pastor was subsequently acquitted only due to a campaign of intense international pressure. He was released in Sept. 2012, about the time Pastor Abedini was arrested.  Abedini would likely not survive his prison sentence; according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, political prisoners like him suffer routine torture and denial of basic medical treatment often leading to death.  

We can save this man’s life if we act.  This is what we need to do:
1.    Go to http://aclj.org/iran/save-american-pastor-from-iranian-prison-sentence  and sign the petition asking the United Nations, European Union and Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene.  
2.    Though new Secretary of State John Kerry has called on the Iranian government to release the pastor, we also need to email the State Department:  http://contact-us.state.gov/app/ask/session/L3RpbWUvMTM2MDQ1MjE4MC9zaWQvKjIybXJzaWw%3D  and tell them to make Abedini a priority – after all, he’s an American citizen.   
3.    Email the White House at http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments
4.    Promote this blog post to your network on Twitter and Facebook and use hashtags #PastorSaeed and #savesaeed
5.    Pray for these Christians and for all people who are denied our precious right of religious freedom.




 





 
 
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I’m sure you know the story of Les Miserables, now an epic film in which Wolverine of X-Men fame (Hugh Jackman, now playing 19th Century Frenchman Jean Valjean) outs himself as a committed Christian. So let’s review.

The opening scenes are riveting, as the prisoner Valjean strains to haul a gigantic ship into dock, his face a mask of animal misery.  The brutal egomaniac Inspector Javert taunts him, threatening a lifetime of persecution even as the convict is about to be released after 19 years at hard labor for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew.  

Finally free but broken and rejected by all, the filthy, hopeless man stumbles into a church where the priest gives him a good meal and a bed. But Valjean repays this kindness by running off in the middle of the night with the church’s precious trove of silver. He’s caught by the local law, dragged back to the church and bashed in the head a few times as punishment for claiming that the priest actually gifted him with the valuable silver. But the priest smiles and tells the gendarme that yes, he did give the silver to this cowering bundle of rags -- he was only surprised that Valjean neglected to take the best of the lot. And he puts into Valjean’s dirty hands the elegant silver candle holders adorning the table.  

Next we see Valjean alone in the chapel, tears flooding his face as he confesses his entire being has been consumed with hatred. Now struck with this thunderbolt of the priest’s outrageous love, he vows to transform his life, to break free from the psychological bondage that has crippled him and to treat his fellow man with love.

When we see him again, years later, he’s literally unrecognizable. The “miserable” has become triumphantly successful; “the last has become first” as Jesus promised.  Now a town mayor and prosperous entrepreneur, he seems invincible, beloved because of his kindnesses to all. But he’s unaware that his lecherous foreman has fired the lovely Fantine, a worker who’s resisted his advances.
Now Fantine, another miserable, is reduced to prostitution and selling her own teeth for a few coins to support her small daughter.  Discovering this tragedy, Valjean blames himself for failing in his Christian duty, rescues her and takes her to the hospital. But it’s too late and as Fantine dies, he promises to care for her little girl, Cosette.  When Valjean takes off to find the child, he’s pursued by the evil Javert who has tricked him into revealing his true identity.      

As the years pass and Cosette grows into a comely young woman, the two are constantly on the run, still hounded by Javert. Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary whose pals are intent on overthrowing the King. Moved to protect the life of this Marius because Cosette loves him, Valjean joins them at the barricades and is handed the opportunity to execute Javert who has been captured as a spy. But instead Valjean lets him go in a dramatic gesture of forgiveness. But Valjean’s mercy just refuels Javert’s savagery, and the Inspector spits out his pledge to keep trying to destroy the man who has just spared his life.

As the French troops charge the barricades and slaughter the revolutionaries, Valjean carries the wounded Marius into hiding in the sewers of Paris.  Emerging into the light, he encounters Javert;  Valjean begs his nemesis to let him take the unconscious Marius to the hospital and the Inspector grudgingly agrees. But when the two have left, Javert agonizes, trying to make sense of why this man he had so cruelly pursued didn’t kill him when he had the chance. In Javert’s world, the normal human eye-for-an-eye world, such behavior is simply incomprehensible.  
Javert realized that he deserved death, not mercy, even as we know we deserve the same fate at the hands of a just and holy God.  But many of us have great difficulty accepting God’s life-giving mercy, unearned as it is, just as Javert found it impossible to accept Valjean’s gift of life. Such boundless, irrational love just doesn’t fit the ordinary scheme of things.  The Inspector puts it in song:

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?

It’s impossible for Javert to live in a world governed, not by punishment and vengeance, but by radical love and forgiveness.  Refusing to accept this terrifyingly new irrationality, he throws himself into the Seine, with the majestic shape of Notre Dame hulking meaningfully in the background.    

Jean Valjean’s entire life, following his conversion in the chapel, is a skin-in-the-game demo  of the Christian way that  Jesus laid out for all of us to follow in Matthew  5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person…. whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also….If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also.”  Christ’s instruction turns the ME-first law of humanity upside down and replaces it with “everybody else first.”

And it’s not just about slaps and cloaks. Even worse, he instructs us to “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5: 44-45) Jesus is saying:  do the exact opposite of what you would ordinarily do. This is the near-impossible mission of forgiving grace to which Christians must aspire, and which Jean Valjean extends to his mortal enemy, Javert.  As Valjean was inspired by the priest’s godliness to emulate his loving example all his life, so are we asked to follow the all-forgiving example of Jesus Christ. Valjean gave Javert’s life back to him, knowing he was risking his own life to do so; Jesus gave us our lives back, knowing it would cost him his own.

This loving forgiveness is so hard to do because it’s the reverse of what comes naturally to us. But think how less miserable the world would become if we all really tried it, day by day.
 



 
 
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This is that most glorious time of year when we celebrate God’s great and unprecedented gift to His human creation: the gift of His Son, the Baby in the cattle trough. This is when we also bestow gifts upon each other, to reflect God’s love back to our family and friends in our own small way. It may have gotten a bit out of hand, but the original idea was to pass on the giving spirit, or pay it forward in today’s parlance.   

In various surveys, about 80% of Americans say they are Christians. But a significant chunk of those folks also say they don’t believe that Jesus Christ was God come in a human disguise to redeem us from sin and death. Rather, they call him a great moral teacher, a wise prophet or a religious agitator but certainly not someone who was divine in any way – how could a mere mortal possibly be God?   

I once had a friend who thought like this. He too called himself a Christian because he believed in God and agreed with Jesus’ rules for living – do unto others, don’t covet or steal or kill people or commit adultery.  But this friend was adamant that Jesus couldn’t possibly be the actual Son of God and anyway, he didn’t need “this Jesus” muscling in between him and his relationship with God. For my friend Jesus was just an unnecessary go-between – a meddling middleman.  He rejected Christ as God, yet he insisted he was a “Christian.”

It never fails to astound me that an ordinary person, someone who would never presume to tell a doctor which scalpel to use, and never dare to school a rocket scientist on the best route to reach Pluto, actually thinks it’s well within his personal expertise and pay grade to tell the Author of the Universe how He should run things.

People like this become annoyed and even irate if you calmly try to tell the truth:  sorry, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe Jesus is God. That’s just the way God set it up. He planned this whole redemption process to bring us at long last into harmony and favor with Him through the power of His Son’s sacrifice. Without Jesus to pay our price, there’s no sacrifice, no redemption, no eternal life.  Jesus is not an option, He’s the whole deal.

Still, many can’t accept He was who He said He was. But how could anybody believe that Jesus was one of the wisest most perceptive moral thinkers who ever lived, and at the same time think He simply invented some crazy story about His true identity?

Jesus said many times, as clearly as words can express, exactly who He was. Most famously in John 14: 6, 7: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him.”  
To recap: Look at me and you see my Father. I and My Father are one and the same: I am God and God is Me.  

For those who still don’t get it, in verse 9, Jesus spells it out for Philip and also explicitly answers my friend and anyone else who questions the Heavenly Who’s Who: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” To recap:  the Father = Jesus; Jesus = the Father.  

Jesus also very clearly said that God has given humanity only one option: belief in Him.  In John 6:28, 29:
“Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”
Again, John 6:40: “And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”  

And the stakes?  Our very lives.   
John 5:21-23: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.”
To recap: the Son gives life, just as the Father does.  The Father has even given His Son authority to judge us and give life to whom He will – to whoever believes in Him.   

Nowhere does Jesus say “Hey, you can believe in me or not – I am just one option among many.”  No. He says very explicitly it’s Him or nothing.
The word “Christmas” comes from the old English Cristes Maesse, or Christ's Mass. On Christmas we honor the Son and at the same time honor the Father. It’s a package deal that’s the most sparkly, lovingly wrapped present under your tree.  Open it first...and Happy Jesus’ Birthday!


 
 
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To the accompaniment of gentle splashing and maybe a few moans, the mom-to-be gave a final push that propelled the tiny newborn into the warm water of the birthing pool. Her husband scrambled to catch the small bundle and hand it over to the new mother whose mouth had dropped wide open in amazement.  In something of a daze she held the slippery  package to her chest a moment and then hoisted her up so they could both see that she was a she: welcome to the world, little mermaid!

And so my niece Angela and her husband Joey had their first child and named her Aria! It wasn’t an easy birth.  Angela endured about 28 hours of labor, and found out why they call it labor, as in hard work. There’s a lot of pain and effort and sheer will involved in expelling a medium sized watermelon through an opening the size of a walnut.

I had a candid chat with Angela a few days before her due date because I wanted her to be prepared. Since she’s a perfectionist type, mostly I wanted to warn her that in the altered state that is baby-having things can get a little messy and extremely imperfect. That although throughout her life, her considerable brain power has always had the upper hand, in childbirth the physical imperatives of her body would overpower her brain like a killer whale swallowing up a penguin. In other words, unexpected events may cancel out her “birth plan,” so stay flexible.

When I had my daughter, Lamaze and the Bradley Method were all the rage, and we had husbands, not “birthing partners.”  Both these childbirth gurus taught that by focusing on something distracting, breathing deeply, and then later doing shallow fast panting, “discomfort” would be minimized. Euphemisms like discomfort were rampant; perhaps for the first time in history, labor pains were instead called “contractions.” In the throes of “contractions” in mile-high Denver, my shallow fast panting caused me to hyperventilate, and suddenly I was on the ceiling looking down at this woman on the bed.

Too late I realized it’s a mistake to take birthing advice from someone who is physically incapable of giving birth – that is, a man named Lamaze or Bradley. And specifically a man who actually believes you can go to your happy place when there’s a freight train barreling through your body. Happily my husband had followed Lamaze instructions and brought along a paper bag for me to breathe into, landing me back on the bed. And I had thought it was in case I threw up.

I felt it my duty to clue Angela that Lamaze was a crock, unaware that she and Joey had signed up for a current version, called “HypnoBirthing, “a unique method of relaxed, natural childbirth education, enhanced by self-hypnosis techniques…as new as tomorrow and as old as ancient times.” Or as old as Lamaze.  BUT – good news, it turns out it worked for Angela, whatever it is. Or semi- worked.  And she was able to follow her birth plan: birthing center not hospital, no drugs, no stainless steel slab, and no thanks when they asked if she and Joey wanted to eat the placenta. Nevertheless, my Mom steadfastly recommends her own birthing experience:   “When I had you kids, they just knocked you out and when you woke up they brought you your baby. And they let you stay in the hospital for a week! ”   

Angela is forever changed by giving birth, as are we all. She calls it a “transformative” experience that blew her away. Indeed, having a baby baptizes a woman into a different realm of life, a sorority that includes all moms everywhere. If there weren’t so many of us, it might be a secret society.  I wonder if this is why so many more women than men are religious, according to surveys.    

Physically, the process of giving birth is a marvel of complicated bio-mechanical events that occur in precisely calibrated stages to move that medium-sized watermelon down the inner tunnel toward the light. It all happens in a step-by-step synchronicity like dominos falling in sequence, each hormone or enzyme triggering the next stage.  It’s clear that this human reproductive computer program had to be in place from the very beginning, or it wouldn’t result in a living baby.

And so it challenges Darwinian theory that requires random mutation and natural selection; essentially, trial and error through eons of time.  As Darwin himself said in Origin of Species,

                “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not
                 possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory
would absolutely break down.”

The same is true of a system like childbirth, composed of interacting parts, “wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning, “as bio-chemist Michael Behe explains in his remarkable book, Darwin’s Black Box.   

And this is how God says hi: “look at the intricate way this works – look at how obvious I have made my plan – do you get it now?” Again, Behe, “Since natural selection can only choose systems that are already working, then if a biological system cannot be produced gradually it would have to arise as an integrated unit, in one fell swoop, for natural selection to have anything to act on.”

Or as God says in his biography:

For You formed my inward parts;
You covered me in my mother’s womb,
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works,
And that my soul knows very well.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written,
The days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.

Psalm 139 13-16

All blessings of our great and amazing God to you, Angela and Joey and little Aria.


 
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    Joy Overbeck says hi !

    I'm a Colorado-based journalist and author who has written articles for national mags like Redbook, Reader's Digest, Parents, TV Guide, Cosmopolitan, Health and others, as well as local pubs like 5280 Magazine, Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine, LUXE, Vail Valley Magazine, and others. I've also authored three books, two of them humor books published by Pocket Books, Simon&Schuster. I have a couple of horses and ex-husbands, a lovely cat, and a huge curiosity about God and politics, all the stuff we're not supposed to talk about.

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