Santa Claus, Rudolph, The Virgin Birth, The Lies & “TMI’s” We Tell Our Children

Every time I see a picture like this of Jesus and Santa Claus together, I go out of my way to say “Season’s Greetings” to a fundamentalist.  I get asked quite frequently what we tell our children about Santa Claus. Our kids are a  bit young so we only give them the 101 – Santa lives at the North Pole, he’s got reindeer that pull his sleigh and he gives good boys Christmas gifts and takes “Blue Bear” and “Elmo” away from the naughty boys (each family has their own traditions you know).

Every so often, someone either politely implies (or states matter of factly) that we are lying to our children. Perhaps in some sense this is true but when we are talking about toddlers and pre-schoolers, their reality is a bit clouded so much of the scope of truth is often irrelevant for them. However, I did see Talladega Nights and I am committed to telling them before they become race car drivers praying to the Baby Jesus (fortunately, it will be easier because they’re not being raised in the South) ;)

Still, I find myself thinking about this. We “celebrate” pretty much everything in the Ghali house because generally, it’s fun. Halloween? Absolutely. I’ve said it numerous times – getting dressed up as your favorite superhero and getting free candy from your [Read more…]

Reflecting On What Ben Witherington Might Say to Lady Gaga – Part 2

To my new readers, thanks for taking the time to entertain some of these thoughts. To long-time readers, know I’m grateful for your continued clicks. My web-traffic has been increasing as of late so I’m trying to make some changes here.  Know that I am grateful for your time – hope some of these posts are helpful to you.

As some of you may know, I have an appreciation for theology and pop-culture, and I admittedly, I get a little nerdy when the two intersect (or when I make them intersect). This is the second post in this series based on a lecture on I attended of Ben Witherington at Gordon Conwell Seminary this past fall. As he lectured on the topic of “humanity being created in the image of God”, I thought of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”. [Read more…]

Reflecting On What Ben Witherington Might Say to Lady Gaga – Part 1

“It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M
Just put your paws up’
cause you were born this way, Baby”

A couple months ago, I got to hear Ben Witherington lecture at Gordon Conwell Seminary about humanity being created in the image of God. As you would expect, it was an excellent presentation but halfway through, I started thinking about Lady Gaga. It’s not that Dr. Witherington’s outfit resembled one of hers (your welcome for that mental picture), it was that as he was sharing of the high place that humanity is set, it reminded me of “Born This Way.”  I find myself thinking about that again.

As you may know, I find Lady Gaga compelling. In fact, my last sermon at Montvale was entitled, “What Jesus Might Say to Lady Gaga.” It was awesome, our church organist got all dressed up and ascended from the baptistry (just kidding, we don’t have a church organist).  Anyway, there are several reasons I find her compelling, all would likely sound petty to insert them here and so I’ll spare you from that. But like her or hate her, she has captured the attention of millions and it’s not just for the spectacle. For many, Gaga inspires people to be themselves.  In some sense, what’s not to like about that?

I love theology and I love music and I’m always fascinated when the two overlap each other. Christianity places such a value on the place of humanity and a careful reading of the Genesis account tells us that humanity is the pinnacle of creation.

[Read more…]

Reflecting on Penn State, Joe Paterno and the Pain of the Abused #Paterno

I cannot imagine how life feels like for these men (and their families) who were terribly abused nearly a decade ago by Jerry Sandusky. I’m guessing it’s a mix of emotions – perhaps satisfaction that the law is being enforced against those who violated and failed to protect. I imagine also that there is some anger and sadness from the complicated public reaction. If I understand it correctly, everyone grieves for the victims but I’m seeing a blame-shift taking place and that is terribly unfortunate.

Though I am not a Penn State Football fan, I am a sports fan and have always felt that Joe Paterno was an easy guy to admire. Through the years he’s carried an aura, he’s tough, he’s classy, I believe him to be a good man. it also seemed every season there were a set of stories where he went further than the game and challenged, disciplined and inspired his players to do the right thing. His discipline included public service, cleaning up the stadium after a game and benching star players on important games.

So I guess that’s why it surprises me that Paterno did not voluntarily resign therefore forcing his board of trustees to dismiss him. He’s already admitted that he regrets not doing more (“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more”). I get that the authorities are not pressing charges against him and that he technically met the minimum legal action required of him but let’s be real here – he heard about a this evil act being done on his turf, told his athletic director, they told him they’d look into it and then he … went back to work. As a moral human being, he failed those boys. As a leader, he failed the great obligation that was warranted. It’s forgivable because all things are, but please, let us stop with the non-sense of coaching legacy, it’s now irrelevant to the conversation.

His supporters are saying that the trustees and the media have tarnished his long and amazing legacy but I tell you the truth, he tarnished his own legacy the day he didn’t follow up on a 10 year old boy that was being sexually abused in his shower room. Anyone can try to spin this whole legacy angle any way they want but regardless of the number of epic wins he had since then, the day he did nothing more was the day he forfeited this legacy.

Sports are microcosms of life, players and in this case, coaches, are the heroes (and sometimes villains) of the drama but we have to remember – we’re not talking about “games” here – we are talking about an aspect of our human existence. The role that sports plays in our lives is enormous and therefore these moments are of utmost significance. As spectators, we are reminded of our failures, our own moral shortcomings and perhaps now it’s appropriate that we should remember our own cover-ups. It’s amazing to me how many times sports reminds us of such things.

Now realize my anger is not just towards Paterno however – everyone who had knowledge and a voice is included. There was a culture of cover-up there in what is ironically called “Happy Valley”. They sold out those young boys to preserve their reputation, their brand, their revenue (which brings in approximately $72 million to the school and $24 mil to the Athletic Dept.).

To the Penn State family, alumni (some of them are very close to me, like my brother) and fans, realize that many are overwhelmed at the number of young boys who were abused under the Penn State flag. It’s not an attack on you or your loyalties, but many (including myself) are shocked and outraged (and that’s a healthy response under these circumstances).

To the victims of this scandal and to the many that arel still in silence, know people truly care about you and we pray that God will continue to give you the courage to stand up for what’s right, surround you with people who will support and that He would bring healing to your hearts.

To the rest of us, as these heated events continues to unfold for the next few weeks, let’s be wise in our outrage, patient with those who disagree, and humble in our prayers.

Do You Love Tim Tebow Because He’s Your Type of Christian and Reject Mitt Romney Because He Isn’t?

Uh oh.  I just took three sacred things, college football, politics in a coming election year and our faith and mashed them together.  Well, it’s probably a good thing.

A few “cut to the chase” thoughts here.It doesn’t matter to me if you like Tim Tebow or not.I am not trying to persuade you of who to vote for (or not vote for).  And in all honesty, I am quite a while from making up my mind.This post is concerned with the inconsistencies I see within the evangelical culture in whom we choose to pour our love over, whom we reject and our motivations.

I happen to like Tim Tebow, though I couldn’t care less about the Gators and have a hard time keeping up with college football (but I love the highlights).  Even more importantly, my father-in-law is a huge Gators fan, so Tebow gives us something to talk about.  What I do find surprising is that so many people have been talking about Tebow for years – he’s quite the figure.

Now, I’ll admit, initially I was a bit suspicious of Tebow’s outspoken Christian faith.  My suspicion was further fueled by the media’s love for him – “He must be their type of Christian.”  As time went on, I was quite amazed by Tebow’s public persona.  He seems to me very genuine and I find myself not only respecting him, but concerned for him and every so often, I include him in my prayers.  It’s clear that many cannot wait for him to fail and by fail I mean morally and that’s regrettable.

I often wonder if Tebow wasn’t an outspoken Christian, would he be as popular?  Would he be as popular to Christians?  It’s safe to say that he wouldn’t be, right?  Would he more appealing to those that currently disdain him if he had a few DUI’s and was as womanizing as others in professional sports?  Popularity brings many things, fans, endorsements, cameos, beautiful girlfriends/boyfriends, book contracts and many critics/detractors/enemies  Celebrity is a strange thing you know.

The interesting thing to me is that Tebow is becoming part of the culture war and this is not a fair thing to him.  Christians are upset that people hate him because of his faith and they’re responding by being even more zealously in love with him and propping him higher on the cultural stage.  With that will come a world of expectation on him and these things usually don’t turn out well for the person in Tebow’s position. Undoubtedly, there will be a Tim Tebow controversy playing all over Sportscenter and cable news and it will have nothing to do with his on the field performance.

Enter Mitt Romney.  He’s the GOP frontrunner.  If he was smart, he’d let Tim Tebow baptize him in the Mississippi and make him his running mate. (John McCain is thinking, “Now you tell me.”)  The funny thing is that some Christians don’t like Romney because he’s Mormon.  There was a pastor in a big church inTexas who said that was quite outspoken against Romney’s convictions.  Now from one pastor responding to another, I’d say that there are better ways of promoting your candidate of choice and it came across as an attack. It’s generally not good rhetoric that we dismiss candidates based soley on their religious beliefs.  And for the sake of this post, most of us find it unfair that many do so with people like, in this case, Tim Tebow.

Back to Romney, while all of us of have every right to prefer another candidate that better represents him/her, I’d like to encourage fellow believers to be responsible in their thinking and dialoguing.  I am personally not sure who the best candidate is for our country and currently unsure of who best represents me.  I do think it’s irresponsible to reject the Romney-types based solely on their faith.  It implies that one who would have voted for him had he checked the right box, had he been “their type of Christian”.  One issue voting is a dangerous thing.

Make no mistake, I believe faith plays a central role in someone’s life and if they claim to be “nominal” of a particular type of faith, I tend to see that as a humanistic type of faith (like faith in us humans which is a terrible “religion” in my opinion).  But I’m not sure I can reject Romney based on his faith until I see how if affects him.  This reminds me of Bill Clinton’s Bible and his knowledge of Scripture. He could probably walk into a pulpit with his Christian vocabulary and speaking talent and impress many congregations. And while I’d like to think he has grown for the better over the years, the point remains, checking the “Christian box” is a tricky thing.

As the Tim Tebows and the Mitt Romneys pass through our cultural landscape, let us be careful that we not objectify them on the basis of their faith and be careful to not assign their worth to us by because they are not our type of believer.

You are more than welcome to push back, offer clarity and insight – thanks for reading!

What the Church Can Learn From Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”

I know what some of you are thinking, the church must be pretty desperate these days to be taking lessons off of radio hits. Yes and no.

Like most people, I go through swings in my music listening. It ranges from “only new music” to “no new music”, to “only my iPod” to “only lectures and audiobooks”. These days, I’m all over the place and when I’m commuting, I’ve been listening to the radio lately. I usually hit 1 of 5 songs: Adele, a bunch of dance songs (what I call the “Move This” of the day), and Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”.

I only like one Maroon 5 song, “Sunday Morning” and while I can admit that their latest single is catchy, I doubt I’m going to care a short while from now, even with the fantastic singing of Christina Aguilera. But for now, who cares, it’s fun and it means it’s 5 more minutes that we don’t have to listen to Adele (yep, I’m even tired of her new song).

Initially I was bothered that they would use Mick Jagger like this. Then I was relieved that they didn’t use Bono. Then I thought the song was the typical objectifying and short-term gratification message of the day. Then during my 30th listen (which if I produced the math, that’s a week’s worth of station surfing while commuting to work), I thought the Church could take a cue from the creation of the song.

First, forget all the lyrics. All of them. In fact, it already seems that some churches and scandalous pastors have already lived out some of these lines – lol (a sad lol). Second, it’s good every to every so often to point back to an important figure in “music tradition”. And just like the Adam Levine and his producers hoped, old people and young people will like it. In the church, we need more of these types of connection points.

I heard someone complain that there is no originality left in pop-culture, everything is being ripped off. Exhibit A were all the movies that are out now that are either from the 1980’s or sequels. And “Moves Like Jagger” was exhibit B. My friend said, “They got to appeal back to a rock icon to get people’s attention again because there aren’t any icons today …” If I understood him right, I’d have to disagree, we are not short of Rock/Pop/HipPop/Country “Icons” but that can be debated another day.

Here’s what I am saying – this song highlights the moment when inter-generational reference points work well. And we should look for more of these opportunities within the Church. When pop culture connects the generations better than the Church, I think most would agree that’s regrettable.

It’s good to look back. It’s good to look ahead. It’s good to mix the two and create.

Does Apologetics Have a Role in Postmodern Culture?

Primary Audience – My post-evangelical friends who have abandoned apologetics.
Secondary Audience – Those who have no idea what I mean by post-evangelical and perhaps place too high of an emphasis on apologetics.

Like many Christians, I went through an apologetic phase. I got excited about people like Lee Strobel, handed out Case for Christ, the sequel Case for Faith, and the lesser known but probably his best work Case for the Yankees to everyone I knew. I also had a life-size poster of Ravi Zacharias wearing a No. 23 jersey dunking over Nietzsche. It was pretty cool.

What I liked about apologetics is that it allowed a place for philosophy and the sciences. For me, it encouraged thinking, logic and dialogue. Further I found the proclamations and defenses helpful in understanding and sharing my Christian faith.

But over the years, my appreciation for apologetics lessened because I found that at times, it was actually a counter-productive way of sharing the Christian faith. Further, it often led to unhelpful arguments, and frankly many times, most people didn’t really care about it. I hated the endless debating, the “us versus them”, the posturing, etc. I remember hearing things like, “When an atheist says this, counter with this …” Later I found it to be objectifying of people and it dehumanized those Jesus called me to love.

Over the years, I have met many different types of atheists/agnostics/skeptics. Most of them are hurting people and I believe many of them, despite what they say, are searching. I often wonder if sometimes our arguments actually have an adverse effect and push them further away from God. Now certainly, I don’t think skeptics are going to be nearer to God if we answer questions with blank stares and shrugged shoulders and this among the reasons why I have not given up on the discipline of apologetics.

I sometimes feel surrounded by people (physically and online) who perhaps over-emphasize the importance of apologetics and those who have dismissed it entirely. To the former it seems we may have to reconsider the importance, the practice and the ethic that it should be complimented by. To the latter, I wonder if it’s because we have been beat over the head so many times with it that we are simply too turned off to appreciate it’s helpfulness.

It’s important to remember that there is a lot of goodness in discussions that place a Christ-like value on the person you are discussing such matters with. Conversation is essential and the “us dialoging with others” and others with us, and the positioning of being in a time/place where we can share our hearts.

I think it’s important that believers have an understanding of what we believe and be able to articulate why we believe. It’s something that we try to do in our student ministry. We say regularly, “Don’t inherit your parents’ faith, it will fail you. Faith must be owned by you …”. Apologetics, theology, social justice practices, corporate worship, spiritual formation are all necessary in the nurturing of young disciples.

From where I sit, there is a another population in the Church that could really benefit from refuting things like the “Swoon Theory” and “The Legend Theory” or understanding the critiques and responses to the new atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. Throughout the centuries, there has always been an intentional undermining of the resurrection of Jesus, and while we cannot ever prove that Jesus rose from the dead, I think in this postmodern era, it is beneficial to present a case that says at the very least, “It could have happened and in faith I choose to believe it did.”

Everything has a context and I think apologetics has a place too. No one can prove “faith”. That’s exactly what faith is. In fact, “proving faith” is an oxymoron. The moment you prove faith you contradict Hebrews 11:1 – one of the most quoted passages of Scripture.

I think some of my fellow seminary-trained, well-read, post-evangelicals get frustrated with apologetics because too much stock has been placed on it. I submit that we are tired of it because we have gotten so much of it. Could it be that we are suffering from an apologetics hangover? I think it’s time we consider its benefits and perhaps invest energies in reframing this discipline of study in our postmodern culture.

As always feel free to disagree/pushback/etc. What do you think – is there a place for apologetics today?

Can We Drink Starbucks and Not Donate to Japan …

or to Haiti or to the local agencies near us like in Paterson, Harlem, or even Camden? I’ll be the first to admit that questions like this are difficult and perhaps even unfair. I think the goodness is more in the process of answering this question than in the question itself and it’s something that I ask our youth group students reguarly. What should we be doing in times of crisis, dirty water and disease epidemics, global poverty and so forth?

We got serious about these topics a few years ago when we did a series that focused on poverty, suffering, entitlement and how we are called to serve the world. We talked about how 2.3 billion people live on $2 a day and asked is it godly for us to buy a drink that costs more than that? Should we boycott Starbucks? What about our many friends that work there (like our PT Jr. High Youth Pastor, a couple youth leaders and others whom we love and value)? Do we tell them to get new jobs that might not provide health insurance? Should we provide it? I remember someone saying, “I’m getting a headache” and someone saying, “Well, coffee helps with that but don’t do it” – lol.

Our youth group has a little coffee bar in the back of the youth room. We used to charge for the coffee, tea and hot chocolate but then we thought better that it should be a “Freely give, freely receive” tip jar. Some are extremely generous with it and some are still working on it. We know things like this are small tokens in comparison to the needs of the world but I am hoping that these little things help us in seeing how things like money control us and will continue to until our generosity liberates us from that control.

This conversation goes in so many directions. Tithing, missions, mission trips, volunteering, vocational ministry, non-vocational, bi-vocational, suburbia, urban ministry.
Other practicalities like what about our schooling? Can we go to the movies, can we go on vacation, what about things like prom, birthday parties and weddings? Jesus went to weddings right?

We said things like, you can’t watch action movies and romantic comedies and not watch documentaries. There’s a time for vacations and mission trips, going and sending, celebrating and serving. We talked about how even Jesus didn’t heal everyone during His earthly ministry and nor does He now. We talked about being faithful, Jesus-like, compassionate, and prayed that we would learn what it mean to be humble and self-sacrificial.

I believe there is a time to wash dirty feet and a time to feast. It’s very biblical. But the moment we think we have done enough is the moment our entitlement and self-righteousness overwhelms our generosity. So back to the original question*, the answer is yes to both. May we seek the Lord’s wisdom and may we desire to do more for others than we do for ourselves.

*Btw, we can’t just donate money to Japan and expect that to be enough (even if it’s a generous amount). They lost more than homes and buildings. Similar to Haiti, New Orleans and countless other tragedies, supporting the rebuilding of Japan will require much and we should spend time reading, researching conversing and doing. May the Lord give us strength.

A Youth Pastor Watches His First Season of the Jersey Shore – Part 3 – If Christ Has Not Been Raised, You Might As Well Live the Jersey Shore Life

One of the most important passages in the entire New Testament is I Corinthians 15. In it Paul talks about the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus, how it defeats death, and offers forgiveness for all humanity. He also has this little line in there, “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our preaching is useless and your faith is in vein. Later in the chapter he says, “We might as well eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” (vs. 32). He’s quoting that line from a motto in his own culture. Paul was writing this letter in Ephesus then, if he were writing it from almost the same distance away, like maybe Philadelphia today, I wonder if he’d say, “If Christ has not been raised, you might as well live the Jersey Shore life.”

What I mean by that (and I think what Paul means) is that if Jesus isn’t who said He is, you need to find a new religion or a new philosophy of life, because you don’t really have much of one here – after all it all centers on Jesus being alive again. It’s always been interesting to me that Paul says this. He’s a Jewish rabbi and while he broke his allegiances with the traditional Jews, he could have hidden out in a small village, tentmake, return to his pre-Christian Jewish perspectives and wait for the real Messiah. After all, they’ve had failed messiah-figures before.

Now I don’t want this post to get too long but want to mention that the people he is writing to in Corinth are not Jews, but Gentiles. For them, if Christ has not been raised, they are likely not going to convert to Judaism but probably return to the governing philosophies of the day. This makes what he’s saying to them a bit more clear.

In undergrad, I had a theology professor who said, “If Christ has not been raised, then it’s just like that beer commercial, ‘You only go around once – grab all the gusto you can.'” I find this to be a very revealing statement of the entire scope of our Christian faith. Our obedience to God, our morality, our generosity, our kindness to the stranger, etc. is a response to a God who is real and offers life. As Christians, we don’t do these things to secure His favor, mind you, we already have His favor, but rather we live our lives after His example as a reflection of His love and favor.

It’s like Paul saying, “If Christ has not been raised, nothing else really matters except for whatever it is you want to matter”. It’s a huge statement because it puts down other religions and in some ways, if we were to follow the logic, it exalts social darwinism – the strong, the beautiful, and the popular are the ones who who “make it” in this world.

In this world, the Jersey Shore life not only makes sense but arguable is a great way of life. As many have pointed out, celebrities born out of reality tv are fascinating because majority of them are not talented in the same way as our other celebrities like actors, musicians, models, and athletes. So instead of being accountants or working retail, they get paid to do what they like the most – party. What separates the cast of the Jersey Shore from the random people you meet a bar or a club? In some ways – not much. This fame-lottery winning cast was able to capitalize on the buzz of their show and continued in getting people to watch by more or less acting crazy and living it up. They are rewarded for drunkenness, getting arrested, womanizing (and the opposite) because their philosophy of life (their religion) is “get rich and get famous.” (they opening song, “Get Crazy” says as much). And in a world where there is no risen Jesus, not only can we not blame them, but we must congratulate them.

Thoughts? Part 4 Soon …

A Youth Pastor Watches His First Season of The Jersey Shore Part 1

In some ways, seminary puts you in a time-warp. It’s hard to keep with everything and since finishing last year, I’ve been trying to catch up on some of my pop-culture. I remember where I was when I heard someone say, “Jersey Shore is awesome!” (I was driving the church van). Having seen bits and pieces of the first season and consequently changing the channel, I had thought that everyone knew it was lame but were watching more out of a “guilty pleasure”. In the parts that I saw, I caught the egotism of “The Situation”, heard Snooki’s voice and saw how they danced – I really assumed that everyone was laughing at them. Again, I could not believe that some thought they were cool so this season, I decided to see what I was missing.

I watched every show of this third season, including this past week’s reunion show. It was all pretty regrettable with bits of entertainment. Now, I sleep at night believing these people are not real, but rather, characters based on caricatures they created out of their personalities. I am often told that I am wrong about this but this is how I see it.

I am not sure anything could have prepared me for just how egotistical “The Situation” really was (and what a terrible friend). I could not believe how much respect Snooki actually got (She’s on the cover of Rolling Stone!!). Her friend, Deena is unstable to put it mildly. JWoww seems to be the most “normal” but I lament the way she objectifies herself. Vinny has the personality of a mannequin and I am not even sure what to say about Ronnie and Sammie. Someone said they reminded them of the high school couple that would break up and get back together. I’d like to apologize to every high school couple that was included in that comparison but let it be a warning, this is what people think you look like :). Had I known to eat a cannoli every time one of them said “I’m *&$%#@ done with this!!!”, I’d be bigger than Vinnie Pastore (Sal on the Sopranos). No wonder people are always trying to beat them up when they go out – they’ve watched the show and it’s terrible! About halfway through, I found the show funny. But not funny because of their humor (although if you can get past the hair and the fact that he’s 30, Pauly D is funny and I liked his fake voicemail prank – that was the highlight of the season), but funny that this has become such a popular feature of pop-culture. I can’t get over it and I’m obviously curious.

I also thought that by watching the show, it would create some conversation with some of my students (I already knew many could not have cared less but I have quite a few that genuinely enjoy it). What it really did was create a reference point counterbalancing the Christ-centered self-sacrificial humility with than exaggerated super-ego creating drama for the sake of self-fulfillment (more on this part later).

Now for those watching because it satisfies a need for entertainment in the way that movies and sports do for me – hey, to each his own. But the problem for me is that in everything we “consume”, there is a trade-off, in many cases, a worldview that we are being exposed to and my goal is to attempt to interact with some of these ideas in future posts.

One of my hopes is that the all the cast members are really brilliant at making themselves look “this way” (interpret that however you like). And the only reason I say that is in the beginning, they all pull up in BMW’s, Benz’s and a Lincoln. In the last scene they all leave in their great cars reminding the viewer that you, the viewer, is the real loser. Not because you don’t have a car like this, (hey you might), but because the viewers created the audience that created the revenue that allowed for this dysfunction that created a series of paychecks. In some way, we created this and I truly hope that these people are self-aware enough to capitalize on society’s voyeurism; not because money is the ultimate reward, but because it would demonstrate some self-awareness. Please tell me that these people don’t “really” exist. Again, I know many of my friends think I am very wrong about this.

Got a bit more to say but feel free to comment – are these people real? is this show any good?