Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Praise of Christmas Materialism


‘Tis the season. As we get into the full ritual of Christmas, we will hear the yearly sermons against our materialism, sermons about the real reason for Christmas, sermons calling us to meditate on heaven. We will all feel the momentary pangs of guilt as we continue to shop, wrap, and place presents under the tree. We will feel the frustrations in locating the right toy or gadget, and pretend that this Christmas will be different. We will alleviate our distress by donating to a local charity. Last Christmas was the first of the Great Recession. What have we learned?

Black Friday was still busy, with its yearly injuries, or when we get lucky, a death, that lets express our moral indignation, making us feel better than the people that get so wrapped up with the materialism of Christmas. We will think about the people out of a job, and maybe we will lay low about our Christmas plans. We will watch TV programs about the real meaning of Christmas, and denounce the materialism that has infected Christmas.

There will be lone voices calling out against the materialism of Christmas, calling us to remember the Spirit of Christmas, asking us to go beyond the daily life and pointing to the heavenly realm. The meaning of Christmas, they cry, calls us out of this mortal coil, out of our electric lighted haze and into the glow of the world to come. They call us to be greedy about the spiritual. We will agree with them, and feel ashamed out how much we have become enamored with earthly treasure and forgotten heavenly treasure. We will promise to straighten out our paths next year. And this is our business cycle every year: over-buying, regretting the over-buying, saying we will transcend the materialism, and then over-buying the next year. How do we break the cycle?

To all of this, I answer that I believe in the power of Christmas’s materialism. That materialism is the reason for the season, and it can lead us out of the spiritual malaise of consumerism. For this is the season that God become flesh and lived among us. The Son of God became material out of love for us. Our children can be reminded that God, the creator of the stars, galaxies, and the whole universe, was a child just like them, whether they are 3, 4, 11, 12, 17, or 18. This is the season to help meet the material needs of others, because God met the material needs in the Man, Jesus. The God, Jesus, fed the hungry, touched the sick, spoke to the unwanted, and lived with the sinners.

The first step out of Christmas’s consumerism is to recognize it as an illusion. Christmas is not about materialism; it is about our desires and greed, whether that is a either greed of stuff or spiritual greed. Greed pulls us into ourselves either to unchecked desires, guilt, or self-righteousness.

Greed is the illusion.

It is our greed that makes us empty. Most of us are empty around Christmas because we sense the emptiness of our own greed and have forgotten to see otherd. We cannot reject the greed of Christmas, as that is a trap that keeps us empty. We can only find Christmas in the other, face to face, as God came to us in Jesus. If we focus on the needs of the other, rather than our own consumer or spiritual desires, we will find Christmas. Only by loving others and God do we transcend our greed. This Christmas, meet the other, and God will meet us with the baby Jesus.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Christian must reach into the Virtual World

The call to proclaim Jesus in the virtual world is getting louder. That was the message that emerged at the Evangelical Alliance’s Digimission conference in London. Evangelism must go online. Recently, I have heard similar calls to do bible studies on Facebook, and even do church online. The truth is that we do have reach out in the new online world. This is where people are spending their time. I write this blog for that very reason, but there is dangers.

We reach out to pull people out of that online world, where they have trouble connecting with their fellow human beings and back to the life. Connections can be made on online, but is Love online possible? I am not so sure.

The original sin was trying to be the master of our own universe without God. The Virtual World has gotten good at creating Virtual Worlds in which man can relive the original sin, creating worlds where the individual can be the master. Being the master, like a god, of a world made of photons shimmering on the screen makes us run away from life, and love, and others and ultimately God. It promises power and delivers loneliness. It tempts by seemly offering an enormous world, while make the actual world smaller. We think we will be larger, when, in fact, we are reduced. It can make the King of Illusion, but it can't help play and have relationship with my son, my wife, my friends, my church, my Lord.

The Virtual World can never be the eternal life found in Jesus. It can only become another idol to reduce us, and make us run away from our own lives, leading us to a death of sorts. It is a tool to deliver information, and too often we turn it into a tool to run away from God.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

God's Politics Three Ways to Remind Hospitals Why They Exist

Here is my latest post on www.sojo.net

What to do as a Christian when presented with an injustice? I missed. After sharing my story about how outrageous our local hospital charges were, the comments were very supportive and gave good advice as to what and where my family and I could do and go for help. Talk to the radiologist, one advised. Another gave the suggestion that we should go to our faith community and they could help us with the hole that others’ greed put us in. All of the advice was helpful, but I failed in what I intended. I aimed for the conscience and hit the heart.

While I would love to go home for Christmas, I also recognize that is a luxury. My son’s health comes first. The medical bills are being paid and my church did great job of helping us. Your thoughts and prayers have been helpful, and I know Christ has been with us through the process. We will make it through. Yet few commented on the larger point of a broken system. A radiologist, admitting that many in his profession run up the bill, commented that he wished his colleagues could see the damage their greed causes. The questions hanging in the air: Why are they playing the profit game with people’s lives in the first place? What has happened to the Hippocratic oath?

Many people have been willing to help us in the particular, but what about the general? What about those people who are unfortunate enough to lack a large forum and space to tell their story? Give a man a fish, the saying goes, but teaching a man to fish translates into justice.

I also shared our good experience at Seattle Children’s Hospital. That hospital I have nothing but praise for, and they are profitable, as well as being one of the most innovative. It is an example of the how great medicine is less expensive than the less than mediocre medicine that is the norm in our country. One of the major challenges of our health-care system is how do we get more hospitals to function as the jewels of the system and less like the money-loving, fat-filled hospitals that are killing the system.

The real problem is one of purpose. Most modern hospitals are now more concerned with the bottom line than they are in healing; they’re more concerned with taking care of the insurance companies than the “revenue generating units” (what were formally called “patients”). Several proposals could help in refocusing hospitals back to their reason for existence. These proposals would be more in line with capitalism.

First, transparent billing. What does the hospital charge for an MRI? If I knew I could go shopping and get the best deal. Currently, it is more like Mystery Meat Monday. You can never be sure until the bill comes. Second, transparent rating of the medical staff. I can find more ratings on the latest movie. How can we utilize competition to regulate the system when competition is not the practice? Third, provide incentives for the hospitals to have salaried doctors rather than doctors who charge based on services. It is common sense that if there is no incentive to perform needless procedures, then there will be less of them.

A common definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. We know of a great working model for hospitals and one that is not so good. Is it insane to demand that all hospitals become more like the Mayo Clinic, Seattle Children’s, and similar outstanding hospitals? It is insane to put up with $1180 per gallon sugar water, while watching families get ruined. Injustice rules when good people choose to be inactive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Taking the Lord's name in Vain

After every financial bursting bubble, the bitter end always includes tales of fraud that come to light after the music stops. This downturn is no different with the Madoff case being the most prominent. The one that interests me today says how some people view Church. Capital Investments of Hamilton, a suburb of Cincinnati is accused of stealing more than $7 million from clients. It was a classic Ponzi scheme. The promise of quick riches evaporate as the weight of the pyramid collapses. Toxic mix of greed and lies feeds the thorny bush, which grows in a muck of thr worst desires until light reveals it as poison. It was not the biggest scheme, but it caught my attention. Kevin Millerwill now face charges dubing 80 people to the tune of millions.

One of their major ways of obtaining his victims was through the contacts he made by going to Princeton Pike Church of God. I do not believe that Princeton Pike Church of God was guilty or culpability in the case. I have known many people to see Church as a great place to do business. The logic goes if they are Christians, they have to be looking out for us. Unfortunately, Church doors are open to all, and simply claiming the term "Christian" does not make one a Christian. The Church has a long history of people using its power for their own gain. Does that mean, we should never trust another person in Church? If we cannot trust a fellow Christian, who can we trust? Actually, the poison was beyond the person breaking trust, but what was promised.

While the contacts were made at church, the promise was for cheap money. Greed is something that has become less a sin in our culture, but a virtue. Dollar signs have replace the cross in many people's minds despite what is preached. Just becuase we walk through the doors, doesn't mean we check our critical thinking. We are always called to test the spirits, whether the spirit is offering us a cheap way of making money or our own in wanting a easy money. It is the fruits of the Spirits we must discern.