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Spreading Christmas Junk

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Spreading Christmas Cheer Junk

Several years ago I was listening to a Christian radio station.  The setting was Christmas time.  The morning DJs were talking to callers about giving gifts.  One man called in and told a story about how he and his young kids gave gifts to needy children.  He told the christmasgifttochildentire radio audience “We gathered up all the toys the kids no longer played with.  Wrapped them up, and took them to our church.  Then we waited to see which child would pick the toys we brought.  To see the excited expressions on their faces was wonderful.”

The DJs praised this man for doing something so commendable.  But, was what he did really admirable?  From the man’s story, one phrase kept ringing in my ears: “the toys the kids no longer played with.”  Now, I don’t know who this man was, or the disposition of his children.  Yet, this phrase just rang so discordant throughout his whole tale.  The toys the kids no longer played with.  Why did the kids no longer play with those toys?  Did they have too many toys that they had forgotten about them?  Did they have to reach into the bottom of the toy box to get them?  Were they so used to the novelty of getting new toys that the mystique of the old toys had worn off?  Were they broken, worn, missing pieces?  Were they no longer the cool toys?

My mind was drawn to the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  No kid wants to play with a “Charlie in the Box” or a train with square wheels on his Island of Misfit Toyscaboose.  Now this stop-motion movie from 1964 personifies the “misfit toys” so that they are imbued with more worth than actual toys have.  So we can’t transfer our emotions for those fictional toys to the real ones.  The toys this man and his kids gave to those poor children might have just been “misfit.”

The man told of how the faces of the disadvantaged kids faces would light up when they opened their gifts.  To their credit, those kids demonstrated real gratitude in receiving second-hand gifts.  But, what lesson had this father really demonstrated to his children by giving gifts that cost them nothing?

King David refused to give a gift to God that cost him nothing.  In 2 Samuel 24, Gad the prophet brought the word of the LORD (YAHWEH) to King David.  YAHWEH had commanded that David build an altar to him on the threshing floor of Araunah, the Jebusite.  David went to Araunah to buy his land in order to make an altar.  Araunah offered to give David the land, the oxen, the threshing sledges, and yokes for the altar and the offering.  King David, however, would not accept the gift.  He said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price.  I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that costs me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).

I am not saying that giving second-hand stuff is always inconsiderate.  The toys this man and his children gave may very well have been decent, well-preserved toys, but, giving these toys cost them nothing.

In Malachi 1:6, God accuses his people of offering “misfit” animals for the sacrifice.  This offering was nothing less than sacrilege.  In fact, God called it “evil.” (Malachi 1:8).  It is the height of profanity and sacrilege to offer God something that costs us nothing.

In what way do we give God an offering that costs us nothing?  I am reminded of something I observed in church.  My family and I were attending a church that made a big deal about giving God a “hand clap of praise.” (For a perspective on why a “hand clapHands Applauding of praise” may not actually be an appropriate way to give praise to God check out this blog post.)  Every Sunday between the ending of singing and the announcements, the pastor whose turn it was to give the announcements would say, on his way to the pulpit before he started, “Let’s give the Lord a hand clap of praise” and nearly everyone would oblige.  One Sunday after the “hand clap of praise” command was given, I observed another pastor clapping his hands while looking around at his seat, as if he was searching for something.  At that point his focus did not appear to be on God, but on what he was searching for.  Yet, he was still clapping, as if offering God a “hand clap of praise.”  It seemed to me to be more of an absentminded exercise.  Now, he was a good man, but this gesture of worship really cost him nothing.

The Preacher warns us to be careful when we enter the LORD’s house not to offer mindless worship.  “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter I-Surrender-Alla word before God…Therefore, let your words be few…When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for He has no pleasure in fools.  Pay what you vow.”  Ecclesiastes 5:2, 4.  Words mean things.  When we sing “I surrender all” do we really mean it?  How many times have we made that vow and broken it?  “Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?”  Ecclesiastes 5:6.  Better to be silent before the Almighty God than to utter mindless words we have no intention on fulfilling.

I know this post is not the warm, fuzzy, feel-good message people like to hear around Christmastime.  But, what I say rings with truth.  In our gift giving this year, let us not offer gifts to God and spread Christmas junk to others that costs us nothing.  After all, the gift that God gave the world that first Christmas morn cost him the death of His Son.

 

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Why Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving

first-thanksgiving-at-plymouth1The Pilgrims stood on the deck of the Mayflower, exhausted from a three-month ordeal at sea.  With every breath of fresh air came the hope of a new beginning for the devout Christians who left all they knew for the sake of God’s call.  But, that raw, cold wind brought with it a bitterness that foretold of hardships to come.

Mayflower pilgrimsThat first winter of 1620-21 was difficult.  Of the 102 passengers, 45 died, including William Bradford’s own wife.  Only four of the couples who boarded the Mayflower still had each other when Spring arrived.  By April 1621, the Mayflower‘s captain determined that he had to return to England.  Even though the ship’s stores were low, he offered to take anyone who wished back to England.  None of the Pilgrims took him up on his offer.

SquantoIn an act of divine Providence, an Indian arrived named Squanto who spoke English, to the amazement of the Pilgrims.  He had been captured in 1605 by an English explorer Captain George Weymouth.  Similarly to the story of Joseph, what these English explorers did for evil, God turned into good.  Squanto was taken to England where he spent nine years and learned English.  In 1614, Captain John Smith took Squanto back to the American shores where he was reunited with his Patuxet people.  However, sailing with Captain Smith was another captain, Thomas Hunt.  Captain Hunt ignored Captain Smith’s orders to trade with the Indians, and instead lured many Patuxet men onto his ship, including Squanto, and shackled them in irons.  Most of the captured Indians were sold into slavery and sent to North Africa.  Squanto, however, was rescued by local friars who purchased him, and taught him Christianity.  Later, Squanto attached himself to an Englishman bound for London.  He found himself back in New England just six months prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival.

The Spring and Summer of 1621 Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels, when to “harvest” fish swimming upstream to spawn, and how to plant corn the Indian way.  In a massasoit.jpgthousand such ways Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive.  The harvest that year was bountiful, and the Pilgrims invited the local Indian chief, Massasoit to their public feast of thanksgiving.  Massasoit arrived a day early and brought 90 of his warriors with him.  Such a large entourage cut deeply into the winter stores.

On top of that, the Fortune arrived in November and dropped off 35 more colonists who had brought no provisions with them.  That winter, known to some as the “starving time,” required the daily rations to be reduced to just five kernels of corn.  Instead of giving into despair and resentment, they continued to put their hope in Christ.  Unlike the Jamestown settlement, not one of the Plymouth colonists died of starvation that winter.  Unexpectedly, a ship arrived, on its way back to England, and gave them trade goods—beaver pelts, beads, knives, trinkets—with which to trade for corn.  The Pilgrims would thus survive 1622.

In 1623, a drought hit the New England area and threatened to destroy the Pilgrims’ second planting.  The Indians performed their rain dances to no effect.  The Pilgrims got on their faces, sought the Lord, and repented.  God opened up the heavens and poured out his mercy for 14 straight days.  The Indians took notice and “admired the goodness of our God towards us” Edward Winslow remarked. The yield of crops that year was so abundant, that the Pilgrims had a surplus of corn which they used for trading with the Indians.

First-Thanksgiving-631Another thanksgiving feast was planned.  Massasoit was again invited and he brought his wife, three other chiefs, and 120 warriors.  Emmanuel Altham wrote to his brother of the feast, describing the abundance of food, from venison, hogs, hens, goats, plums, nuts.  “A better country was never seen nor heard of, for here are a multitude of God’s blessing.”  Before they all enjoyed the feast, however, each plate was provisioned with just five kernels of corn, lest they forget to give thanks to God for bringing them out of such hardship.

Giving thanks to God is what American Thanksgiving is about.  It is about remembering the fledgling settlement, where a small group of Christians began a new nation, conceived in liberty, and with the desire to be a City on a Hill for the world to see God’s glory.  Since then, America has liberated Europe twice, and Asia once, from tyranny.  America leads the world in spreading the Gospel by sending out missionaries.  America is the most generous nation in the history of mankind.  We’ve fought a war that ended slavery in our midst.  We finally embraced our principle that all men are created equal despite some opposition.  Without God’s blessings and the perseverance of the first Americans, the world would most likely have been ripe for global tyranny without the prospect of liberation.

Our Thanksgiving celebration is not just a reminder for us to be thankful for our own blessings, our families, our homes, our jobs, our churches, our neighbors.  It is a reminder that all Americans should give thanks for God’s blessings bestowed on our forebears.  Without them, the world would not know the blessings God provided because of America. 

God’s Not Dead 2: A Movie That Scores on Its Own Net

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God’s Not Dead 2 is the second installment in the popular Christian films series.  The first film, God’s Not Dead, hit theaters in 2014.  The plot of that movie featured a Christian college student who accepted a challenge from his atheist professor to convince the class of God’s existence.  The third film, God’s Not Dead 3, is scheduled to be released in the Spring of 2018.

God’s Not Dead 2 (2016) depicts the persecution of a Christian public school teacher who was sued because of her mention of Jesus in the classroom.  Grace, a dedicated history teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial High School, taught a lesson on how Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi both used non-violent methods to effect major social change in their countries.  A student asked whether Jesus’ statement to “Love your enemies” was similar.  The teacher agreed and mentioned how Martin Luther King, Jr. was heavily influenced by Scripture.  She was disciplined by the school board, and sued by the ACLU for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.  This storyline resonates with Christians in America where bakers, florists, photographers, and the like, are losing their businesses because their convictions clash with the popular secular humanist ethics of the day.

The movie has a few side plots to go along with the main story.  A female reporter/blogger, Amy Ryan, a former antagonist to Christianity, discovers her cancer is in remission.  (See God’s Not Dead for more on this storyline.)  Now, she is struggling with godsnotdead2athoughts that her new-found faith was merely an emotional response to her cancer.  She begins a journey to explore this faith now without the interference of that crisis.  This subplot of a miraculous cure for cancer after conversion and prayer has the tendency to perpetuate the thinking that prayer will always be answered the way we want, and that all you have to do to be healed is to believe hard enough.  As any Christian who has been tested will tell you, that is not the case.  (Here is an example of what I mean from my own life experience.)  The subplot, however, is not too over-the-top with Christian emotionalism that leaves sound doctrine in the shadows.  The movie awkwardly gets free-lance reporter, played by Trisha LaFache, involved in the lawsuit when her niece, played by Sadie Robertson of Duck Dynasty, asks for her help.  Her role was supposedly to get the word out that a Christian school teacher was being persecuted for her faith.  This part of the movie has no real flow, or believability.

Pastor Dave Hill, played by David A.R. White, seems to be going through a slump.  He stubs his toe at breakfast, has iced coffee spilled down the front of his shirt, and he inadvertently dumps his coffee when trying to unlock the church office door.  The slump continued with the mail: bills, bills, bills, junk mail, and, to top it off, a jury summons.  In his rut, he seems to be questioning God’s purpose for his life.  As the lawsuit moves on, that purpose is to be Juror No. 12.  He is a pastor with a cynical outlook on life, as portrayed by his reading the newspaper instead of paying attention to his online jury orientation.  He figures, as 1 of 300 jurors summoned, he has a better chance at getting godsnotdead-davidarwhitestruck by lightning than being assigned to the jury, so why should he waste his time.  (Incidentally, according to National Geographic News, the odds of getting struck by lightning in the U.S. are around 1 in 700,000.  So, Pastor Dave would be incorrect that his 1 out of 300 odds to be paneled on the jury is a longer shot than being struck by lightning.)  Instead of lightning, he is struck with acute appendicitis while in the courtroom.  He again wonders what the purpose for his jury service was.  He saw the opportunity to make a difference for God by being on the jury, but now he is in a hospital, recovering from surgery.  His friend encourages him to have faith, God’s plan is at work.

God often orchestrates events that do not make sense to us.  We can see only partly.  We do not have all the necessary information to understand events or motives.  But “[W]e know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.  Do we really trust God?  That is what faith really is about: trust.  Not believing hard enough that something is true.  Faith is about trusting what God said, even when our circumstances tell us otherwise.  (See my post A Celebration of Life.)  Our approach to our faith in God is often with the same cynical nature as Pastor Dave.  (I am looking me straight in the mirror.)  We come to expect disappointments from God because he seems to so often answer our prayers with “No” or “I have something else for you.”  But, this cynicism really stems from both ingratitude and mistrust.  We are ungrateful for what God does give us and we do not really believe God’s plan for us is for our good.  God does not always orchestrate our healing from cancer, or our winning court cases against secular humanists that seem to permeate all levels of government.  But, trust God we must.

The central struggle in this movie is certainly plausible.  An anonymous tip to an anti-Christian organization brings a team of angry atheist lawyers against a school teacher or school policy.  Organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU all are antagonistic toward God, and therefore to his family.  We have seen them persecute Christian bakers in Colorado and Oregon, a florist in Washington, photographers in New Mexico.  The list doesn’t stop there.  Military personnel, monuments, high-school coaches, college students, government mandated abortion coverage.  I could go on.  So, the plot in God’s Not Dead 2 is not only believable, it is already a reality.

Despite the plausibility of the plot, the storyline really has some glaring problems from a legal perspective.  Although the case is styled as a civil lawsuit, Thawley v. Wesley, it comes off as if Grace is a criminal defendant.  First, she is the only defendant.  The school gods_not_dead2courtroom1district is not on trial.  While this is not unusual for a state employee to be personally liable for violations of the Constitution, a lawsuit almost always includes the “deep pockets” as a defendant because that is how lawyers make their money.  In the movie, however, the school board attorney stated that the ACLU was not interested in suing the school, only the teacher.  This point is later contradicted by the ACLU attorney, but a second lawsuit against the school board may go nowhere because the plaintiff’s failed to join the necessary party for the first lawsuit.  A second reason the case comes across as a criminal trial stems from Grace’s first meeting with her union appointed attorney who was hired from the public defender’s office.  She insists to him that she is not a criminal.  Her attorney said “Don’t be so sure about that.”  Third, when Grace is called to the stand she questions the judge whether she is required to testify, as if a civil defendant has the same Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination as a criminal defendant.  Fourthly, after the examination of Grace as a witness, the judge asks her attorney if he would like to change her plea.  He answers “No, your Honor. I say she is innocent of all wrongdoing” which sounds a lot like discussion about a criminal defendant.  Several aspects about this script make the nature of the case unclear.

Without getting into an esoteric discussion about the dynamics of the way voir dire (jury selection) was conducted (eg. attorneys do not object to jurors in front of the jury), or the fact that the godsnotdeadvoirdirelawyer for the defendant went straight into closing argument while his client was still on the stand, this trial scene was hard to watch as an attorney.  It makes for good theatre, but the movie script was very sloppy surrounding the trial.

More problematic for this movie than the sloppy script was the huge violations of the rules of professional conduct by Grace’s attorney.  Let’s start with their first meeting.  Grace meets with her new attorney in the non-confidential, public place of a coffee shop.  According to Arkansas Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.6 (c) (the setting of the movie is in Arkansas) states “A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.”  By meeting in a public place where anyone could overhear their discussion, the lawyer might be violating this rule.  Also, he may lose the claim for Attorney-Client Privilege for the discussion in the coffee shop because the communication was not kept in confidence.

The most egregious violations, however, occurred when Grace’s lawyer put her on the stand.  First, in putting her on the stand against her will he violated Rule 1.2(a) where a lawyer shall abide by a client’s decisions concerning the objectives of representation, and, as required by Rule 1.4, shall consult with the client as to the means by which they are to be pursued.  Rule 1.4(a)(2) requires the attorney reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished.  By surprising his client with his antagonistic tactic, he failed to consult with her on the objectives of the representation.

Second, in his questioning of his client on the stand he asks her to apologize and to admitgodsnotdead2perjury she made a mistake.  She told the court that she couldn’t do it because she did not believe she did anything wrong.  Her attorney then said “As your attorney, I’m advising you to do it anyway.”  By advising his client to lie under oath, he violated Rule 1.2(d) “A lawyer shall not counsel a client to engage, or assist a client, in conduct that the lawyer knows is criminal or fraudulent….”  Perjury is a crime.  Advising his client to testify to the court something that she believes to be a lie is counseling her to commit a crime.

Third, he revealed confidential communications of his client to the court without consulting her in violation of Rule 1.6(a) “A lawyer shall not reveal information relating to representation of a client unless the client gives informed consent, the disclosure is impliedly authorized in order to carry out the representation or the disclosure is permitted….”  Grace had told her attorney that God had spoken to her when she encountered a church sign that read “Who do you say that I am?”  In his witness examination of her, he revealed the existence and nature of that conversation to the court.  Thus, revealing information relating to the representation of his client without consulting her.

godsnotdeadlawyerGrace’s attorney is more of a clown than an attorney.  He comes across as incompetent when it comes to the rules of conduct he must uphold (which would violate Rule 1.1).  His behavior would certainly warrant disciplinary action from his state bar.

The most disappointing part of the movie was, however, the whole trial strategy employed by Grace and her attorney to transform the case from being about religious expression in the classroom to merely a discussion on what is or is not historical fact.  Grace tells her attorney “Listen, this isn’t about faith.  This is about history…Their whole attack is about me preaching in class, but I didn’t do that…We can separate the history based elements of Jesus’ life from the faith based element.”  No longer was that case godsnotdeadvoirdire2about her being persecuted for expressing her faith in school.  It became a trial on whether Jesus Christ existed.  Who is even arguing that Jesus never existed?  I suppose for a movie called God’s Not Dead, the existence of God the Son would be central to the plot.  However, the movie portrays her as a martyr who was persecuted for her faith, when in the end her defense was simply “Nuh-uh, I didn’t express my faith in the classroom.  I simply talked about an historical figure.  See, Jesus is an historical figure just like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.”  The implication is that expressions of faith still do not belong in the classroom.  The movie pretends to champion religious liberty.  But in the end it just reinforced the “separation of Church and State” myth by making the case about history instead of faith.

For a Christian movie, it was rather disappointing.  If this movie sought to inspire the own goal giffaithful to endure such persecutions, this movie was a dud, a swing-and-a-miss.  In fact, the true metaphor for this movie is to compare it to scoring on your own goal.  Instead of slaying a giant (the prohibition of religious expression in the classroom), the movie settled for knocking down a straw man (that Jesus Christ did not exist as an historical figure).  In doing so, this movie perpetuates the myth of separation of Church and state.  (And there goes the ball into our own net.)

I hope God’s Not Dead 3 is better.