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Noted journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens passed away on December 15 at the age of 62 from complications of esophageal cancer.  Through his writing, lectures, and debates, Hitchens was neither timid nor tempered in expressing his views about God.  Believing that the term “atheist” might erroneously suggest some room for ambivalence about the notion of Deity, he preferred a stronger and more definitive description of himself as an “antitheist.”  Hitchens, who identified the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as being “the real axis of evil,” offered a thorough presentation of his thoughts about religion in his 2007 book, God is Not Great.

As odd and counter-intuitive as it might seem, the fervor of Christopher Hitchens’ belief system and the tenacity with which he held to it offer a commendable model that Christians would do well to imitate in regard to their faith in Jesus Christ.

There was no mushy middle ground for Hitchens when it came to the existence of God and the deity of Jesus Christ.  “Hoping so” or “wishing so” was completely irrelevant to the discussion, and there was no room for sappy sentimentalism.  Either God is, or He isn’t.  Either Jesus is the divine Son of God and the world’s only hope for salvation, or He was a complete fraud.  Of course, for Hitchens, it was a certainty that God isn’t; he staked his life, his reputation, and his intellect on it.  He was sold-out, all-in, and unyielding in his convictions.  He would challenge anyone on the subject, no matter who it made uncomfortable, angry, or indignant. 

Am I as committed in my Christian faith as Hitchens was in his antagonism against it?         

As his cancer worsened and death grew more imminent, Hitchens preemptively ruled out any possibility of a death-bed conversion.  He warned friends not to believe him if, under the influence of palliative pain medication,  he seemed to waffle about his disbelief in God.  It would just be the drugs talking, he insisted.  A terminal disease would not be allowed to undermine the foundation of his belief system.  

Would I allow it to alter mine?

One of the qualities that made Christopher Hitchens so fascinating and frustrating to people was his deftness at being an equal-opportunity offender.  His opinions about issues and personalities were truly his own, defying established conventions and simplistic labels.  He was both vilified as a socialist liberal and ostracized for neo-conservatism and support for the Iraq war.  He not only offered scathing critiques of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but also Bill and Hillary Clinton and Michael Moore.  Even Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama could not escape his pointed pen and tongue.

It would have been far easier (and would have cost him fewer friends) if he had completely cast his lot with one “camp” or the other by clearly pledging his singular allegiance in partisan, “them” and “us” ideological conflicts.  He would have known where the safe ground was and which targets were strictly off-limits.  However, Hitchens would not allow himself to be confined within parameters and expectations that were determined by others.

Christians, also, should resist allowing their faith to be determined and their spiritual thinking limited by the imposition of the artificial boundaries of sectarian partyism, regardless of whether it is traditional or progressive, right or left, conservative or liberal.  One should seek to be Biblical, no matter how untidily it may fit into the prefabricated theological boxes of others.

Though the basis and object of our belief could not be more different, Christians should seek a “Hitchens kind of faith”: bold, courageous, unwavering, unapologetic, and uncompromising.          

What are the chances that a member of the British royal family would show up at your front door, just for the purpose of sharing some conversation and afternoon tea?  What are the chances that your favorite rock group (or country band, for some of you) would park their tour bus in front of your house, set up in your backyard, and cater a barbecue dinner for you, your family, and a group of friends while you enjoyed an impromptu concert.  Slim?  None?  Would never happen?

Multiply those remote odds by several billion exponents and you would arrive at a fraction of the chance that the Creator of the cosmos would come to earth in the form of human flesh.  And yet, He did; not to gain anything, but to give everything. 

Following are a couple of excerpts from an excellent article by Michael Horton, “The Good God Who Came Down,” which appears in the current issue of Christianity Today.  

We prefer to climb up to God through argument, experience, and activity.  But God has climbed down to us, meeting us not in the “high places” we erect, but in the lowest places; in a barn, in suffering our scorn, fellowshipping with sinners, and hanging on a cross.  We don’t ascend from particulars to universals.  Rather, the source of all universal truth has descended to us in the concrete particulars of human history.” 

“There is no passable route from us to God.  We cannot climb the ladder of mysticism, speculation, or merit.  In pride, we try to rise to heaven through reason, but God descends to us in humility and self-sacrificial generosity.  We seek the truth within ourselves or in universal laws derived from our moral intuition, but God surprises us – and his name is Jesus.”

“When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).

“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

“Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:22-23).

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people: for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in a cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

“For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).

“Although He existed in form of God, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift” (II Corinthians 9:15).

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

On Christmas Day, the NBA is kicking off a shortened, 66-game regular season for 2011-12.  With the expiration of the league’s collective bargaining agreement on June 30 and the ensuing lockout that lasted until December 8, this was almost “the season that wasn’t.”  The work stoppage saw the cancellation of the original schedule of training camps, preseason games, and regular season match-ups through December 24.

I did not closely follow the labor dispute.  I occasionally heard news coverage with quotes from NBA Commissioner David Stern, National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter, and Lakers guard Derek Fisher who serves as the president of the NBPA.  While I was not well-versed on the specifics, I knew that the bottom line disagreement between the team owners and the players was about money.  It’s always about money:  “Who gets what number of slices of the multi-billion dollar NBA pie?”      

The thought hit me during the lockout that I should organize a fan boycott that would keep fans away from the arenas for the same number of games that were lost during the labor dispute.  Don’t attend any games.  Don’t buy any jerseys, caps, sweatshirts, or other team merchandise.    Where did the fans figure into the negotiations?  Who represented the season ticket holders, the “family night” attenders, and those who never miss a game on TV.  As the owners and players arm-wrestled over percentages of Basketball Related Income, did they stop to consider where BRI comes from?  I thought it would be a good idea to remind them.

But, alas, I am no activist.  I don’t even have a Twitter account, an absolute necessity these days if one is going to lead any kind of successful social revolution.  

In reality, a fan boycott would have had a negligible impact on the “bigs” of the league.  Only the little guys would have just continued to suffer, the vendors, concession workers, security personnel, and area restaurants that depend heavily on game day customers. 

A boycott would have been an epic failure, primarily because of fans like me.  Despite my disgust with the corporate greed of NBA executives and the incessant whining of obsenely compensated athletes, when the whistle blows on December 25, I’ll be sitting there like some Pavlovian dog in front of the television.  My family and I will be faithfully tuned in at 1:30 CST on Christmas Day, watching the Mavericks raise their first championship banner and urging Nowitzki to “Dirk the Halls” on the Miami Heat. 

If only I were an activist…

 

I am a Christian.

Many who read this blog would be willing to unapologetically and confidently make the same statement.  The basic meaning of the name “Christian” is simply “a follower or partisan of Christ,” that is, someone who willingly identifies himself or herself with Jesus.  Given our familiarity with the term and our frequent usage of it, many are surprised to learn that the name only appears three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:27; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). 

In our modern language and culture, the name “Christian” is used in a multitude of ways and has been infused with a wide spectrum of meanings.  These range from “anyone who acknowledges any level of faith in Jesus Christ as opposed to following the tenets of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc.” to “only those believers who precisely agree with every aspect of my own understanding and practice of faith in Christ.”

In re-examining the first occurrence of the name “Christian” in the book of Acts, I found it very instructive to note the timing and context of its inaugural use.  It was not a name that was immediately claimed on Pentecost, when the Spirit-enabled apostles first proclaimed the message of the crucified and resurrected Christ and thousands were baptized (Acts 2).  It wasn’t when the number of disciples grew to 5,000 men (not including women and children) in the Jerusalem church (Acts 4:4).  It wasn’t when the Gospel spread beyond Judea and gained an overwhelming reception among the Samaritans (Acts 8:1-12).  Nor was it when Peter first proclaimed the message of salvation to Cornelius and the rest of his Gentile household in Caesarea (Acts 9).

“Christian” was not used as a synonym for disciples of Jesus until after the conversion of many Gentiles in Antioch of Syria (Acts 11:19-26).  It was not a distinctive name for Jewish believers or a separate name for Gentile believers.  The name Christian was a “shared” name and an “inclusive” name that transcended all man-made barriers between Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, men and women, young and old, slave and free, rich and poor, educated and uneducated (Galatians 3:27-28).  It was a name that celebrated the oneness of all baptized believers in Jesus Christ.

I am a Christian.

 

A friend told me a joke several years ago, the punch line of which included the question, “Is that your final answer?”  I didn’t laugh.  My failure to respond prompted him to say, “You haven’t seen the show, have you?”  I had not.  The show that I hadn’t seen was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  My friend was incredulous.  Everyone had seen that show!  How could I live in such a state of cultural depravity, and how dare I ruin his perfectly funny joke?

I eventually did see the show a time or two, but never became a regularl viewer.   However, Regis Philbin’s question “Is that your final answer?” became deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness.  The question is reminiscent of a parable of Jesus in which a father asked something of his two sons.  Each of the sons answered their father differently; and, in each case, it was not their final answer. 

The parable is recorded in Matthew 21:28-32.  The chief priests and elders in Jerusalem had just attempted to entrap Jesus with a trick question.  As usual, Jesus quickly turned the rhetorical tables on them and silenced them with a question of his own.  He then told them this parable which contrasted their rejection of the good news of God’s kingdom with the joyful reception that it was gaining among tax collectors and prostitutes whose hearts were being touched and led to repentance.

In Jesus’ story, a man approached the first of his two sons and directed him to go and work in the family’s vineyard.  The son flatly refused.  “No,” the insolent little cuss replied to his father; rude, brash, disrespectful, and disobedient.  However, the young man later rethought his answer, regretted the shameful way in which he had spoken to his father, and went to work.   “No” was not his final answer.

The father approached his second son with the same instruction to work in the vineyard.  “Yes, sir!,” he replied.  “Right away; I’m on it; no need to ask me twice; I’m always happy to do my part and carry my share of the load; it’s never a burden or a bother; I count it a real joy to do what you ask of me.  Love ya, Dad!”  Nice words; but only words.  He didn’t go to the vineyard.  “Yes” was not his final answer.

Jesus asked his critics which one of the two sons did the will of his father: the one who said he that wouldn’t and then did, or the one who said that he would and then didn’t.  They answered His question correctly. 

By outward appearances, the scribes and Pharisees were talking a good game by their ability to quote long sections of the Law and the Prophets and by sporting broad phylacteries and long tassels.  But, by their traditions, double-standards, self-righteousness, and hypocrisy, they were ultimately saying “no” to God.  On the other hand, the tax collectors and prostitutes who had been saying “no” through their dishonesty and sexual immorality were sincerely and penitently saying “yes” to Jesus, just as they had positively responded to the message of John the Baptist.

No matter how deeply we have fallen in sin or how far we have wandered away from God, “no” does not have to be our final answer.  God graciously allows us time to rethink our response to His grace and mercy. 

If you have said “yes” to Jesus Christ, let that be your final answer!

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