The Year Without a Secret Santa Claus

It was my seventh grade year. Middle school – that time in a young man’s life when everything revolves around going unnoticed. At least, that’s the way I remembered it. You kept your head down, closed your eyes, and prayed to God that no one noticed you’re alive, because if they did, they’d likely remember you’re a colossal nerd and they’d make fun of you. Or worse.

It’s not often that a young man dreams of being Sue Storm, but my seventh grade year certainly was one of those times.

Up until November, my plan for complete avoidance of all human contact had worked. Nobody paid attention to me, nobody picked on me, nobody remembered my name, let alone that I was small, skinny, and liked to draw and read comic books. But that all changed just before Thanksgiving.

“We’re going to draw names,” my teacher announced, “and whomever you draw, you’ll be their Secret Santa.”

I don’t remember whose name I drew. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything about this at all except for the fact that, on the last day of school before Christmas break, in the middle of our class holiday party, I was the only kid who didn’t receive a gift.

My Secret Santa stiffed me.

I didn’t cry, though I felt like it. I knew what tears would do: draw attention to the fact I was an utter loser. So I simply sat at my desk in shame and ate my candy. Eventually one or two kids came by to stare at my nothing. I think one of them even tried to apologize on my Secret Santa’s behalf. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I think maybe they knew the identity of my Secret Shamer. I do recall my teacher came by and tried to say something comforting to me, even promising to make up for my loss when we returned from break (she did not).

But mostly I remember feeling like an outcast, an unworthy, unloved hunk of human disgrace who not only didn’t get a present but probably didn’t deserve one anyway.

I can’t say it didn’t affect me – its been over decades since it happened and I can still revisit the mind of the little boy seated at my desk that day. I remember the loneliness. I remember the embarrassment. But I also remember thinking very deeply about what might compel someone to be so cruel to a classmate, especially a classmate who never did anyone any harm in any way.

Why would someone hate me so much for no reason?

I still wonder about that, especially when I read stories like the Peshawar massacre or Ferguson. I wonder what it is inside some human souls that makes them seethe with so much disdain and disregard for the life of another.

25 years removed from that middle school classroom, and I’m still searching for answers.

He’s The President…And Human Too


I haven’t been political in a while. There’s just not much return on it. Every time I write about politics, I get nasty comments and emails, and I’m just too tired to put up with crap like that. Besides, there’s nothing major going on now that wasn’t going on under previous administrations – the only difference is that everyone expected this president wouldn’t act like previous presidents. We were wrong.

But today I saw a picture that was supposed to be funny – I say supposed to be because the primary purpose of the pic was to share the pun caption. It was a picture of our president, Barack Obama, with a grossly exaggerated lower lip and the caption: “Apefirmative Action.”

I almost threw my computer across the room. Seriously? In 2013?

The gross, crass nature of the pun bothered me. First of all, it’s not even remotely funny. Second, it shows the derogative imagination of an emotionally damaged teen. Third, it bothered me to know that there are still people out there who haven’t realized the stunningly obvious truth about humanity: that regardless of race, we’re pretty much all the same. None of us is better or more special than another – and the fact that someone posted that picture pretty much makes that point. If you denigrate another race, you’re merely showing the inferiority of yours.

I was also bothered by the fact that the presidency isn’t worthy of respect anymore. Once upon a time people respected whomever sat the in the Oval Office because they understood that no matter what a particular president’s agenda might be, he was constrained by his oath to protect the American people. They knew of the burdens that weighed on the holder of the position and didn’t envy him.

Nowadays we treat our presidents as punch lines. I’m guilty of it too. After all, no matter what, he’s just a man, and men are not sacred. But while the occasional joke is fine, the persistent and pernicious assaults on the past few presidents in office reveal something deeper. A lack of respect. A sense of entitlement. A society of selfish people, clamouring for their way over the will of the People.

To be honest, we now treat the president as if he’s a C.E.O. and America is a company. We want him to maximize our profits, do whatever will make us the most happy. Forget what’s good for the company, forget what makes us stronger in the long run, we want what we want not. Gimme, gimme, gimme. And if you don’t, we’ll scream and yell and call for your ouster because we want bigger and better dividends, we want you do what we say.

But the truth is that President is not the same as C.E.O.; the ramifications are too big, too powerful. And there’s no way he could satisfy everyone with his performance because we’re too big, too diverse, too easily swayed about what matters to us at his moment. He has to do what he thinks is right; if we don’t agree, we have our legal revolution every four years at the ballot box.

All of this to say, disagree with the man if you want (and on many things, I do – same as with W), but when you stoop to posting racist pictures as a way of expressing your displeasure, you’re crossing a line and revealing an ugly truth about yourself: that after years of learning the truth about race, you’ve simply chosen not to listen. You are willfully ignorant. You make an active choice to be less than intelligent.

Which is why no rational person will listen to your screed. It’s as nonsensical as a baby’s babble.

And it’s why I won’t go any farther. You’re human too. You have a family, a life, hopes and dreams. You have a heart and a brain and lungs just like me, and while you may infuriate me with your rhetoric, you will not make me hate you. You are not a character, not an object; you are a real life flesh-and-bone person with a story that I don’t know. I don’t agree with what you’ve said, but I won’t go so far as to demonize you because you don’t fit my worldview, because that’s part of what it means to be human. I can’t be in control of what the other 7 billion people on this planet do, a fact I’m learning one painful bit at a time.

I think I’ve kind of typed myself into a circle here, so I’ll bring this in for a landing. Respect the person who’s different from you. Don’t be quick to demonize. Don’t allow your heart to descend into the depravity of racism and hate.

By the grace of God, we can be better.

True Piety

So yesterday, I asked for some folks to submit questions or topics for the blog. I got a good response (exactly three!) and wanted to tackle one today. The question was simple:

Is the pious pious because God loves it, or does God love the pious because it’s pious?

I’m not entirely certain what the question is referring to (whether an individual or an action or some notion of piety), but my best guess is that the inquiring party is curious to know if something is holy because God loves it, or if God loves something because it’s holy. I’m assuming it’s a question of intrinsic/extrinsic worth – whether something is valuable in and of itself, or whether it’s value is derived from an outside source.

full-holyI could be completely wrong on this, but I’m going with the answer of A: something is holy/pious because God loves it, which would be extrinsic value. It is because God says so. This applies across the board, which will be a point of contention for some people.

See, many folks believe that humans have intrinsic worth – that is, by virtue of being human, they are valuable. This is a notion that has long been affirmed from the pulpit: how many times have you heard a preacher say that humanity is “God’s special creation”? Heck, I’ve said it (and typed it) because it’s something I think most of us want to be true. That we are somehow different from everything else in the world, because God made us special.

But stop for a moment and take a look at the very definition of what we call “intrinsic” value: we are special because God made us that way.

We’re not special just because. We’re special because that’s how God made us. He gives us our value; it’s His mark within us that makes us special, so in a sense it’s understandable that we would consider that intrinsic value; but it’s still extrinsic because the value is only there if God puts it there. Take him out of the equation and what are we?

Perhaps there’s no better example of this than Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees and scribes in the New Testament. Over and over again, they sought to have their righteousness upheld before Jesus, to have their personal holiness labeled as “worthy”. And yet time and again Jesus told them that they had missed the point:.

Take this passage from Luke 11 for example:

37 When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

39 Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

43 “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

44 “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

45 One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

46 Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

47 “Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. 48 So you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. 49 Because of this, God in his wisdomsaid, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

52 “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

The Pharisees thought that their piety was worthy of being loved by God, but Jesus pointed out just how woefully unlovable their pious deeds were. He pointed them to a higher standard than their understanding and execution of God’s Law. He pointed them to a life that was found worthy because God loved it, not because it was earned. Piety without grace is impossible; it takes the grace of God to make us capable of any kind of pious living. The moment we forget that – the moment we assume that we hold the keys to godliness within ourselves – that’s the moment we become well and truly foolish.

In Scripture, anything that was considered holy was only considered such because God said it was so. It begins with the acts of creation – “God saw that it was good” – and continues: Abel’s sacrifice, Noah’s character, Abram’s faith, Moses’ obedience. On and on and on. Those things were holy/pious because God blessed them, not the other way around. And the same is true today. We are not made right with God because we are righteous, we are made right with God because we receive His righteousness as our gift. Or as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

Yes, it’s true that God died for you, but He didn’t die for you because you were special. He died for you because He was merciful, forgiving, compassionate, good, gracious. We are who we are only because He Is Who He Is.

And we should never forget that.

We, Icarus

rubensfall-of-icarus-1637-grangerI assigned Ecclesiastes 1 to my Christian Learning Center class for homework. We’re discussing the four fundamental questions that every worldview must answer (Origin, Meaning, Morality, Destiny – thank you, Ravi Zacharias), and I thought Ecclesiastes would be a great place for us to begin on the Meaning question. They read it, and as we discussed it this morning, one of my students pointed out the last verse:

For with wisdom is much sorrow;
as knowledge increases, grief increases.

The student pointed out that when we’re young, we get to see the world through a limited lens, and thus we’re shielded from some of the great tragedy this is human existence. To wit, she pointed out that when her grandmother died, she didn’t know enough about death to really be sad; so when her family made a trip up to Canada for the funeral, she was super excited about getting to travel and see her cousins. That sounds crude, but from a kid’s perspective, it makes perfect sense: when you don’t know what you don’t know, not knowing it doesn’t bother you.

But once you know…it changes everything.

I think Solomon’s point with the statement wasn’t so much an appeal to ignorance (which would’ve been ironic) but an understanding of the burden of knowledge. The more you know, the more you realize that knowledge alone doesn’t solve anything; it’s what you do with that knowledge that really matters. Knowledge = Responsibility. But in our modern world, we can see that even those actions aren’t enough – we know what causes many of our societies gravest ills, and yet we still fall into them time and time again. Education helps to a degree, but education isn’t enough. Behavioral modification works to a degree, but as anyone who’s studied the recidivism rates amongst addicts and certain classes of criminals can tell you, changing behavior isn’t always enough. Brilliant minds have suggested countless improvements to the human species, but the one thing they’ve never been able to change is the depravity of the human heart. Knowledge, action, human effort never has and never will release us from the sin that saturates our souls.

We’re sort of doomed to being Icarus.

That is, we would be if not for something else, something beyond knowledge to which we can appeal. Or, more accurately, to Whom we can appeal. Solomon knew this. Being the wisest man in the world does proffer some benefit. At the end of Ecclesiastes, after taking his reader on a walk through the sheer insufficiency of human effort to satisfy the human soul, Solomon comes back to the One that gives this life its meaning, the One through whom we “all live and move and have our being.”

In the end, Solomon says:

When all has been heard, my son, be warned: there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body. When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.

We cannot save ourselves. Our brightest minds, our grandest notions, our best ideas are limited in their power to affect the change needed within the human heart. It’s why we see people running from one fad to the next, from one fix to the next – nothing we can do in and of ourselves will ever release us from our condition. And if anyone was in position to know the exhaustive nature of human gifts, it was Solomon. Having seen and thought and tasted it all, he came back to the truth of his childhood:

Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Only God gives this life meaning. Not money, not power, not sex, not success, not any of the numerous vanities that Solomon and our human race have tried and found wanting. Only in God, only in His Son, Jesus Christ, do we find the fulfillment of our hearts.