Monday, November 26, 2012

Christmas Shopping: Make it Easier on your Wallet

A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver. – Thomas a Kempis

First, although you may hear this every year, it is so basic that it is worth repeating: make a budget and stick to it.

Avoid buying on credit.  Do NOT get into debt over gift giving.  There is no shame in simply admitting to yourself that you cannot afford spending over a certain limit.  In general, we Americans must learn to live within our means.

Note how commercials often encourage you to buy on credit, “charge it,” saying things like: “You deserve it, you owe it to yourself, or you’ve earned it, reward yourself,” etc.  These are psychological excuses to indulge yourself.  Don’t do it!  Remind yourself of the old adage: “If you can’t afford it; you don’t need it.”

Thus, decide how much you can afford.  Then divide and spend accordingly.  That may mean, for example, that some folks on your list will get $10.00 gifts while others will get a $25.00 gift or more.  But you decide how to divide up the amount so that you can stick to your overall budget. 

Also, try to go for meaning over expense.  You can often speak through your gift, without spending megabucks, by buying handcrafted items or by putting together your own little gift package of small but significant and meaningful items.  The ideal gift speaks from, and to, the heart—without causing you financial stress.

What about the Children?

Involve your children in Christmas shopping.  They too need to understand that Christmas shopping and gift giving requires some planning and careful budgeting.  Help them to make lists and to determine affordability.  They will soon learn that there are limits to both giving and receiving.  This may help them to realize that, contrary to what business/commercialism wants us to believe, Christmas is NOT about personal indulgence and getting everything and anything one wishes.

In these days of multiple divorces and remarriage, blended families, extended separations, and weekend parenting, avoid the temptation of using gift-giving as a means of buying a child’s love or respect for you.  Remember, true love cannot be bought and bribing a child into respecting or even liking you will fail in the long run.  Don’t go down that road.  Give genuinely, appropriately, and meaningfully.  No strings attached.  A sincere but humble gift is far richer and far more effective than a lavishly expensive gift that simply says, “I’ve kept my end of the deal, now you keep yours.”

Likewise, contrary to the theme of Santa’s having a Good Child and Bad Child list, avoid threatening your children with the withholding of Christmas gifts as a form of punishment, or promising special Christmas gifts as a means of rewarding your children.  Christmas should never become a bargaining tool for rewarding or punishing a child’s behavior.  Such an approach to Christmas altogether misses the point.

You may want to do some research on the history and development of the St. Nicholas character (Santa Claus) to teach your children about the real spirit behind Santa’s gift giving—the historical “St. Nick” was concerned for the poor and needy.  From there, you can easily segue into the actual Gift of God that is Christ our Lord, Savior for humanity—which is the real heart and soul of Christmas.  See the Gospel according to Luke chapters 1-2.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to One and ALL!

Monday, November 19, 2012

THANKSGIVING: to Whom, for What?

Thanksgiving weekend officially marks the beginning of the Holiday Season.  First we give thanks, and then we jump into a rush of Christmas shopping while anticipating a New Year.

Yes, another year is quickly winding down.

But apart from those for whom Thanksgiving and the Holiday Season is a nice excuse for overeating, excessive partying, and binge drinking, to whom and for what are we exactly giving thanks?

To give thanks to someone is to acknowledge indebtedness.  You received something, were given something that was not owed to you, something unearned by you, and therefore something that the giver was not obliged to give to you.

This is especially poignant and meaningful when the thing given was very much needed or wanted by you, but was neither within your own power to obtain nor something you truly deserved.  It can be humbling.

Few of us relish such indebtedness—to be obliged to a gift-giver for something we could never have gotten on our own.  It means that the gift-giver has the superior position, has the greater privilege or power or status over us.  It means that we feel dependent, needy, and wanting.  In such a position as that, we have a choice of either being secretly resentful or truly grateful to the gift-giver.  Which is it, for you?

This is what Thanksgiving is really about—giving thanks to that Someone who has the superior position, the greater power and authority over us, that someone to whom we owe our very lives: “The God who made the world and everything in it, He who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” [Acts 17:24-25]

So how do we give proper thanks to God?

First we simply acknowledge our indebtedness to God’s mercy and grace.  Without God’s merciful ways upon our lives, we’d have nothing, be nothing, and do nothing of significance: “In Him we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28]  Without God’s grace upon us, we’d have no hope of God’s forgiveness let alone His kindness and goodness over us: “For by grace you have been saved, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  [Ephesians 2:8-9]

Secondly, understand that it is not a right but a gift.  God owes us nothing.  We owe God everything.  God’s gift to us is exactly that: A gift!—unearned, undeserved, and unattainable on our own.

Thirdly, we give back to God our indebtedness of honor and respect to Him and we do so with our very own lives.  We live and act and do in such a way that we honor Him, glorify Him, and demonstrate true gratitude to Him for what He has done and continues to do for us: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”  [1 Corinthians 10:31]

Have a good and happy THANKSGIVING!

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Election Is Over: Now What? Or... Boehner, It’s Your Move.

Finally, it’s over!  No more “Robo-Calls”!

Enough of party volunteers knocking at our doors, enough of hearing misleading ads, enough of fact-checks and righteous indignation to the contrary.  Enough of ‘my way is better than yours.’  Or so we wish!

John Boehner and Barak Obama are already at it.

Both say that they want to reach across the aisle.  Both say that they are working for the American people, not just one party, one side.   And, both are already setting themselves up for gridlock, impasse, stalemate, or an out-and-out, head-to-head fight.

In other words, in this immediate post-election season, nothing seems to have changed.

However, math is math: Two plus two is four (2 + 2 = 4), and ten is greater than nine (10 > 9).  That is to say: Numbers do not lie.

Boehner please take note.  You need to give credit where credit is due.  Obama won with a clear and unquestionable margin.  And Obama’s economic campaign message was clear: we need to raise revenue as well as cut spending.  That means, among other things, that the very wealthy need to pay more taxes.  They can afford it.

Boehner, stop defending the super wealthy and start accepting the fact that we all must pitch-in what we can.  And, the super wealthy are certainly in a position to pitch-in much more than they have, of late.

Boehner, stop treating the president as if he’s America’s second choice and a third rate president.  Mitt Romney did NOT win the presidency.  That means that Romney’s proposed economic policies were not acceptable to the majority of the American people.  Hence, Obama’s economic policy proposals are.  And remember: this particular presidential race was and is very much about the economy!

Yes, Boehner, it’s true that both sides can be guilty of digging in their heels and becoming obstinate and recalcitrant.  But when Obama first came into office four years ago, Boehner, it was your side of the aisle that dug in its heels more tenaciously and more obstinately than Obama’s side ever did.

Boehner, with respect to economic policy, it is your turn to move toward the middle and work with and not against Obama and his side of the aisle.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Is Christianity only about Money, Power, and Power-Politics?

Recently I heard a critique made about Christianity that did not surprise me, though it did sadden me.  Many people view institutionalized Christianity (including the Christian leaders who are at the head of the institutionalized Church in North America) as being interested only in Money, Power, and Politics.

People, especially the younger generation, are turning away from formalized ‘religion’ and are happily embracing their own personalized spiritual journeys.  They feel no need for institutionalized religion.  They have little respect for religious clergy.  They have no interest in religious formalities.  And they reject outright many traditional religious teachings, perceived to be as nothing more than outdated, irrelevant rules and regulations.

First I must note: There is nothing new under the sun.  Every generation seems to be one step away from total disbelief and rejection of all traditional values and practices.  The Elders of any given generation are always fearful that the up-and-coming next generation is about to throw away everything that their Elders dearly hold as sacred and holy.  This was as true in 4th century BC Athens Greece, as in 4th century AD Rome, as it is today in 21st century America.

Nevertheless, the point is well taken.  It certainly does look as if the only thing that today’s Christian leaders are worried about is whether they have sufficient money coming in to fill their coffers, and whether they have sufficient personal prestige and influence to sway the outcome in a political campaign to get what they want and to maintain political clout.  This is not good.

This is why it is always good to go back to the root source of a religious movement and practice.  For Christians that means going back to the person of Jesus.

I am a pastor.  That means that I am a part of today’s institutionalized Christianity.  I have a title, a position, an office, a salary, and all the quirks and benefits that go with said office and title.  But that doesn’t mean that I have a corner on the market of spirituality or even godliness.  Nor does it mean that people actually take me seriously.  (Poor me—do I hear anyone playing a violin in my behalf?)  But that’s the point.  I am not the subject or object of concern.  Jesus is?  Is anyone listening to Jesus?

It’s about Jesus!  It’s not about religious teachers, priests, pastors, preachers, prophets, patriarchs or popes.  Pretty much everyone will agree that Jesus stands out in history.  Jesus is special, uniquely different, a man above everyone in all generations.  So, if you want to be mentored, taught, and guided by someone that knows, I mean really knows God—go to Jesus, directly!

Yes, institutionalized religion can be god-awful.  But, the sad fact is, whenever two or more people get together out of a common belief, faith, or shared set of rituals and practices—you have institutionalized religion.  We can’t help but to formalize and institutionalize what we believe and practice as our faith.  The challenge is to keep it fresh and new.  But that challenge does not only rest with us.  God and God’s Spirit must have a role in our spiritual awakening, which brings me back to Jesus.

I dare you to call on Jesus and give Him a challenge.  Seriously and sincerely challenge Jesus to come to you or to address you or to do whatever it may take, to get your attention—internally, spiritually, where your heart and soul are most open and vulnerable.  If Jesus is what the Biblical Testaments claim Him to be, Jesus will answer.