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Archive for December, 2008

It was May of 1988 and I recited this poem before an auditorium full of teachers, parents, and my graduating classmates:

‘Twas The Night Before Jesus Came
Author Unknown 

‘Twas the night before Jesus came and all through the house
Not a creature was praying, not one in the house
Their Bibles were lain on the shelf without care
In hopes that Jesus would not come there. 

The children were dressing to crawl into bed.
Not once ever kneeling or bowing a head.
And Mom in her rocker with baby on her lap
Was watching the Late Show while I took a nap.

When out of the East there arose such a clatter.
I sprang to my feet to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash!

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But angels proclaiming that Jesus was here.
With a light like the sun sending forth a bright ray
I knew in a moment this must be THE DAY! 

The light of His face made me cover my head
It was Jesus! returning just like He had said.
And though I possessed worldly wisdom and wealth,
I cried when I saw Him in spite of myself. 

In the Book of Life which He held in His hand
Was written the name of every saved man.
He spoke not a word as He searched for my name;
When He said “it’s not here” my head hung in shame. 

The people whose names had been written with love
He gathered to take to His Father above.
With those who were ready He rose without a sound.
While all the rest were left standing around. 

I fell to my knees, but it was too late;
I had waited too long and thus sealed my fate.
I stood and I cried as they rose out of sight;
Oh, if only I had been ready tonight. 

In the words of this poem the meaning is clear;
The coming of Jesus is drawing near.
There’s only one life and when comes the last call
We’ll find that the Bible was true after all!

I was one of the student speakers at the 1988 baccalaureate service at Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois. One of the other scheduled speakers unexpectedly couldn’t make it to the service, so I ended up going last. I started my speech by congratulating the Class of ’88 (full disclosure: I should’ve graduated in ’87 but was held back in the fourth grade). Then I shared a little about my faith in God, performed an updated version of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and concluded with a reading of “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came.” It was well received, and I recall many people were moved by the service. But 20 years later, I’m having second thoughts.  

As I reviewed “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came” the other day, in preparation for a reading at a work Christmas program, I was struck by how harsh it must’ve sounded to some of the people in that Auburn High audience back in ’88. Thinking back on that event, I honestly don’t think I recited it with a spirit of judgment or condemnation; I simply wanted to impress upon my classmates and teachers our need for salvation through Jesus Christ.

In retrospect, if I had it to do over, I don’t think I’d use that poem. Instead, I think I’d want to share something that spoke more of the love, mercy, and grace of Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. Or perhaps it’s just that I see more clearly my own desperate need of God’s mercy and grace. In any case, rather than the “fire and brimstone” treatment, I’d like to leave folks with a glimpse of God’s great love.

Certainly, “Twas the Night Before Jesus Came” is a clever little piece, playing off of Clement Moore’s classic story. Jesus is coming again someday, and the poem is a jarring reminder to get ourselves ready. Still, I wonder if there might’ve been a better way for me to share my passion that night. Many of the people in the auditorium that evening didn’t so much need to hear about the Second Coming of Christ as much as they needed to hear about his First Coming—how God loved us so much that he humbled himself to become a man so that he might save us from our sins and give us new life.

On this Christmas Eve, as I think about God’s wonderful gift to us, I pray that we’ll all experience his love and grace anew. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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I’m thinking that, by now, many of you have read ChristianityToday.com’s interesting interview with sociologist Michael O. Emerson on “What Obama’s Election Means for the Segregated Church.” Michael, who is the coauthor of the seminal book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, explored similar ground a few weeks back at my new site, UrbanFaith.com. If you have thoughts on either of these articles, I’d love to hear your comments.

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When NBA coaches lose their jobs, it isn’t quite as shocking or gut-wrenching as when Republic Windows suddenly shuts down or AT&T lays off thousands of ordinary folks. Even so, when I heard yesterday that Philadelphia 76ers head coach Maurice Cheeks had been fired, I felt a twinge of sadness. Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve never been a big fan of the 76ers or any of the basketball teams Cheeks has coached or played for. (I’m a hopelessly devoted Bulls fan.) But Maurice Cheeks has always struck me as a humble and genuinely good man.

My respect for Maurice Cheeks increased back in 2003 when he was coaching the Portland Trailblazers. A 13-year-old girl had won the honor of singing the National Anthem before a big playoff game, but she forgot the words about halfway through. (I have to confess, I’ve never been able to successfully retain all the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” in my head either.) As the young girl stands there with the microphone shaking in her hand, clearly humiliated but not knowing how to regroup, Cheeks suddenly swoops in beside her, feeds her the lyrics, and stands there with her until she completes the song. It was a powerful moment that spoke volumes about what it means to be an American—and what it means to love your neighbor.

I’ll never forget Cheeks’s bold act of compassion and grace. I can only hope that I will have the same presence of mind to help someone in need, in the daily opportunities that I’m given to do so, the way Maurice Cheeks reached out to that young lady five years ago.

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It’s not a great time to be from Illinois. Yesterday a friend of mine, a native Chicagoan who now lives in New Jersey, IM’d me with this: “Geez, what’s wrong with your politicians out there?” She seemed to happily forget that she, too, is from the Land of Lincoln (and Blagojevich).

Anyway, just as I felt proud to be an American on Nov. 4, I’ve been feeling embarrassed about being an Illinoisan today. What in the world is going on with a state that has not one but two consecutive governors who are immersed in corruption? And to think that, in an earlier post, I embraced the idea of extending grace to former Governor George Ryan for his transgressions. (Can you imagine what Ryan must be feeling right now in the wake of these revelations? Probably doesn’t exactly bolster his chances for an early release.)   

Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged actions have left everyone feeling either sad, mad, or stunned. Why on earth would someone who has been the subject of Federal investigations for the past five years attempt to “sell” a U.S. Senate seat, among other things? The astonishment and hyperbole that’s been used to describe this latest scandal, from the mouths of Federal investigators who have seen plenty of corruption, speaks to the tragic and unfathomable nature of these events.

Not only do Blagojevich’s alleged actions speak of unparalleled hubris, one has to think that, given the cloud of suspicion that he’s been under for a long time, he must be suffering from some form of mental illness. (Of course, sin is a mental illness that we all contend with daily, right?)

My first reaction was to call the guy a “total idiot.” How could he be so stupid, greedy, and vindictive? This bum needs to resign—or be impeached—sooner rather than later. Lock up he and his “pay to play” political cohorts. But then I saw video of his wife and two young daughters walking out of their home on the news, and I was reminded of his humanity. And I thought, Lord, have mercy on this man and his family. 

Then I started to think about my own instances of actions that border on unethical at best and illegal at worst. Aren’t we all engaged in some manner of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” behavior from time to time—in the workplace, in our personal relationships, in our finances? Which led me to think, Lord, have mercy on me.

I haven’t had time to read many commentaries on this scandal yet, but I did find Eric Easter’s comments over at EbonyJet.com quite challenging. Easter asks the question, “Are we all corrupt?” And suggests that there may be a thin line between what Blagojevich was doing and stuff that we do each day.

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You probably never thought you’d be reading about girls’ dolls here at Reconciliation Blog, did you? However, the recent court case that sent MGA Entertainment, makers of the notorious Bratz dolls, down in defeat to the toy giant Mattel forces me to go where no RB post has gone before. I’m sure you heard this news last week, right?

In a long-simmering legal battle, the courts finally sided with Mattel, maker of the Queen of All Dolls, Barbie, and ordered MGA to stop producing the Bratz line and  recall all of its product after Christmas. Apparently, the original Bratz designer was employed by Mattel during the period when he came up with the idea for the Bratz dolls. When Mattel rejected it (fearing it would distract from its sacred Barbie line), an ex-Mattel employee took sketches of the concept up the road to the upstart MGA. And the rest is doll diva history. The Bratz line became a multibillion dollar sensation almost overnight.

Now Mattel is in the driver’s seat. Will it vanquish Barbie’s arch foe once and for all, or will the company be gracious to MGA (and its 1,500 employees) and find a way to work with it to keep producing the Bratz line? With billions at stake, I find it hard to think that Mattel will just erase the Bratz altogether.

But is this just a battle between two toy companies or something bigger?

Here’s the angle that draws my attention. The Bratz have long been viewed by parents as a skanky and materialistic alternative to Barbie—sort of a Bizarro version of Mattel’s classy and demure icon. Many parents probably celebrated when they heard the news of the Bratz’s potential demise. There’s one less worldly item to attempt to keep their little girls away from. (As a father of a 9-year-old daughter, I can attest that I was always a little uncomfortable with the Bratz—the same way that I’m uncomfortable with Sponge Bob; there’s just something about them that makes me suspicious.) And clearly, the Bratz’s blatant diva-ness and questionable attire are things any parent should be wary of.

One blogger, known as Noble Mother, did not hide her elation that the Bratz dolls might soon be off the shelves. However, I was most struck by the comments beneath her post, and one in particular by a mother named Suzanne. Here’s what she said:

I don’t particularly like the Bratz dolls, either, but I do allow my daughter to have some, and here’s why: my daughter is mixed (I’m white, her dad is black) and there just aren’t many dolls on the market that she can identify with. In fact, my daughter IS a Bratz doll…she has the doe eyes, the full lips, the big butt and she’s a knockout at 9.

Until the Bratz dolls came on the market, my daughter just wasn’t really interested in dolls of any kind. She and I have lots of conversations about ‘what she is’…and she’s decided she’s not white, she’s not black, she’s brown. She’s often asked why there are never any brown babies in the stores? There are white and there are black, but not brown. And I’m sure she’s not been the only little girl asking this question.

The Bratz dolls, while I have major issues with many other factors about them, have given my daughter a sense of validation of her color. Now, there are dolls on the store shelves that look just like her. She no longer has to decide whether she wants a white doll or a black doll…she can get one that looks just like her.

Very interesting insight, as is Noble Mother’s humble response. Please check it out.

So again, this Bratz vs. Barbie mêlée seems to be about much more than two toy titans clashing to protect their precious market turf. In fact, this whole situation could raise the larger question: Does Barbie represent an increasingly outdated notion of what “normal” mainstream culture looks like, while the Bratz signify a more multiethnic (or urban) aesthetic that is underrepresented among children’s dolls today? Even millionaire celeb Angelina Jolie, who adopted an African daughter, spoke up on this recently.

So, as much as it pains me to ask this, do we need the Bratz dolls? What do you think?

 

 

 

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I’m always a little intrigued by how easy it is for us humans to instinctively demand justice, yet how deep we have to dig in order to muster up any inclination toward mercy or forgiveness. What’s up with that? I understand that God has wired us with that desire for righteousness, to see “the crooked made straight and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:4). But I also know how much trouble we get into when we presume to dispense judgment without mercy. Wouldn’t it be something if, instead of righteous indignation, our first instinct was one of grace and mercy? What would that look like?

I say all this because I’ve been fascinated by the response to a situation here in Illinois. Many of you probably know that our former governor George Ryan was sentenced to a six-year prison term for a variety of corruption charges that stem from his tenure as secretary of state. Probably the most notable and tragic result of Ryan’s crimes were the deaths of the six children of Scott and Janet Willis, who were killed in a fiery traffic accident caused by a trucker who obtained his driver’s license illegally from one of Ryan’s secretary of state offices. Consequently, many people view Ryan as an accomplice to murder.

Dick Durbin, one of our U.S. senators, recently sent a letter to President Bush requesting that Ryan’s prison sentence be commuted to the one year he has served already. (Coincidentally, Durbin is a Democrat and Ryan is a Republican.) In a truly gracious display that, unfortunately, has been drowned out by the cynical cries of favoritism and “politics as usual,” Durbin writes that the 74-year-old Ryan “has lost his state pension benefits and a commutation will not restore them. He would emerge from prison facing economic uncertainty at an advanced stage of his life.” He also notes that Ryan’s wife, Lura Lynn, is in declining health and would benefit from her husband’s presence. Durbin continues:

“For those who would argue that a commutation makes light of his crimes, it is clear that he has already paid a significant price and will continue to do so as long as he lives. Justice is a sword that should be tempered with compassion. Further imprisonment will not, in my opinion, serve the ends of justice.”

For this, Durbin has taken a major lashing from the public. On the Chicago Tribune website, one commenter opined, “Whatever good opinion I have had of Senator Durbin has just diminished to zero. He has just added to the belief that politicians stick together no matter what the crime. It is time that they not be considered untouchable where justice is concerned.” Responding to the criticism, Durbin said he had been “raised in a tradition of redemption” and that he believed Ryan has already paid a great price.

However, the overwhelming majority of folks seem adamant that Ryan should not be given any special treatment. Again on the Tribune site, in a survey that asks: “Should President Bush set Gov. George Ryan free?,” out of 1,977 respondents (when I last checked), a whopping 1,617 said “No,” while only 360 folks said “Yes.” That’s 82% whose natural and abiding impulse is to go by the letter of the law versus 18% who think the old guy has suffered enough.

Ironically, Gov. George Ryan’s other great controversial act was the moratorium he placed on Illinois’s death penalty because of several dubious cases where individuals were unfairly tried. Then, before leaving office in 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of every inmate on Illinois’ Death Row—167 in all—to life in prison.

What do you think? What’s the proper balance between mercy and justice? Would commuting Gov. Ryan’s sentence send the wrong message, or would it send exactly the kind of message our society needs to witness more of—one of compassion, forgiveness, and grace?

In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey writes:

Because it goes against human nature, forgiveness must be taught and practiced, as one would practice any difficult craft. “Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: it is a permanent attitude,” said Martin Luther King Jr. What greater gift could Christians give to the world than the forming of a culture that upholds grace and forgiveness?

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UrbanFaith.com posted a short article about the “Huxtable Effect.” This is the notion that the middle-class African American family portrayed in Bill Cosby’s famous ’80s sitcom, The Cosby Show, had an impact on the way Americans voted in last month’s presidential election. The theory is that the show helped normalized black people in the minds of white citizens to the point that they felt comfortable voting for an African American candidate. In other words, Cosby was Obama’s Jackie Robinson.

Or perhaps it’s not baseball or sitcoms but, rather, golf that helped lay the groundwork for Obama’s victory. Some commentators have suggested that it was actually Tiger Woods who paved the way for Obama’s breakthrough.

What do you think? If you have an opinion, please head over to UrbanFaith and leave a comment. And, of course, you’re welcome to chime in below as well.

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