Busy times

The last couple of weeks have been busy. Most of the busy-ness was unavoidable, but the net effect has felt (at times) overwhelming.

Most important, of course, were Holy Week and Easter. Special services for Good Friday and Easter are to be expected. We observed the anniversary of the Lord’s death in our place, conquering death and granting forgiveness and eternal life. Then we celebrated the anniversary of his resurrection, announcing his victory and establishing the guarantee of our resurrection to live in a new and perfect world.

On the morning of Good Friday, a member of the congregation died. He had been ailing for some time; given his faith, it even seemed appropriate for his to die on such a day. He was seventy-three years old, a lifetime member of the same congregation. One of the other members called him “a pillar of the church.” After the funeral service, one of his sons remarked to me, “Finally Dad got to fill the church.”

On top of that, a historical exhibition that I was assigned to create and assemble opened at my workplace the night of Good Friday. As soon as I realized that the opening date was a holiday, I alerted the other people involved that I would not be present for the opening. For them the date was set—the second Friday of the month is a given for such events, because of other plans involving the place where I work and its neighbors in the community. With help, I put together the elements of the exhibit on Monday afternoon, and a “soft opening” was held Wednesday night prior to the official opening. A “soft opening” is only advertised within the workplace, and there are no refreshments. Four people came into the exhibit during the hour of the “soft opening,” and two of them were casual visitors unaware that there even was a “soft opening.”

I had decided in March that my First Friday Fiction would be a story taken out of a novel which I started writing more than thirty years ago. When I made that decision, I did not realize that I would end up posting the story in six installments, bleeding into Holy Week. Nor did I anticipate that typing and updating the story would inspire me to complete it in two more parts. My draft of the six installments actually ended with discussion questions, intended to gather responses that might shape the rest of the story. Instead, I began answering the questions myself, which led to writing the final parts of the story.

Embedded in these busy times were three landmarks for this Salvageable blog. I passed the second anniversary of the beginning of the blog on April 14. Somewhere in there I published my four hundredth post (one of the story episodes—I haven’t bothered to see which of them was #400). Around the same time, I reached one thousand different visitors who have looked at least once at Salvageable.

That mark of one thousand different visitors might not seem impressive, but I am happy about it. After all, writing anonymously, I have not promoted the blog on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media. In the past two years I have made many good friends, even though we know each other only through WordPress. I am grateful for all my readers, and I also enjoy reading your writings.

Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come! J.

More about the last enemy

One week ago I attended the funeral of a friend. He had battled severe mental health issues for the past ten years. In the end, he ended his life by his own hands.

The church was filled to capacity. Like most of the people who came, I tried to say a few words of comfort to the family of the deceased. His father remarked to me that they had nearly lost him this way on two earlier occasions. I think that, even in his shock and his sorrow, the young man’s father was able to treasure the time the two of them had shared.

What does one say at the funeral of a person who has committed suicide? The preacher was magnificent. He began his sermon by expressing his own regrets, his own fears that he had not been a good enough pastor, not persistent enough in reaching out to the deceased. He went on to say that he expected that many of us—family members, friends, co-workers—felt the same sense of guilt, of not having done enough. He assured us that whatever mistakes we had made, whatever sins we had committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He then also assured us that the same is true of the man whose death we mourned. Whatever mistakes he made and whatever sins he committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He reminded us (and quoted to us) the Scripture promises of unconditional forgiveness and of a resurrection to eternal life in a better world—a perfect world.

Christians find it hard to talk about suicide. We never want to appear to approve of suicide, to treat it as less than sinful. We want to discourage any person from committing the sin of murdering one’s self. At the same time, we want to be careful not to speak of suicide as an unforgiveable sin. The only unforgiveable sin is refusing to repent and rejecting God’s forgiveness. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God and his blessings to bring people to repentance and to faith.

How can one repent of suicide after succeeding in the act? God’s forgiveness is not limited to the sins we remember to list when we repent and confess our sins. Like the Psalm, we pray, “Forgive my hidden faults.” In the model prayer Jesus taught, we pray for forgiveness; and God’s forgiveness, won for us at the cross, covers all our sins.

God’s forgiveness and our faith are not a series of events. They are a continuing relationship. A Christian who dies in his or her sleep is not lost because of the inability to confess faith while sleeping. A person who slips into senility is not lost, no matter what words or actions occur during the months or years of sickness before death. A Christian battling mental illness who, in a minute of weakness, causes his or her own death is not lost to God forever. The act of suicide is a sin, but Jesus paid for even that sin by offering his own life as a sacrifice on the cross. As the letter to the Romans assures us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the beginning of the sermon to the end of the service, tears welled out of my eyes. (I cannot remember the last time I cried in public—it was a long time ago.) I grieved, but not like those who have no hope. Death is our enemy, but death is already a conquered enemy. Jesus has defeated death, and he shares his victory with us all. I will see my friend again at the resurrection on the Last Day, and both of us will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

Know your enemy–the world

Although some people blame the devil for all the problems of the world, he is not capable of causing that much evil. He is not almighty like God, nor is he present everywhere like God. However, the devil has help in his rebellion against God and against all that is good. Traditionally, Christians speak of three enemies that work together to oppose the will of God. They are the devil, the world, and our flesh.

In the Bible, the word “world” can be used in different ways, just as the word “heaven” has several different meanings. The world that works with the devil and opposes God’s will is not the same world that God loves so much that he sent his Son to redeem the world. The world that needs redemption consists of sinners, and so does the world that opposes God’s will, but the sinners who oppose God’s will are using what they have to tempt other people to sin.

This sinful world includes politicians, entertainers, and many other kinds of people. The world confuses selfishness with love and composes poems and songs that talk about love as a feeling people can catch or lose. The world also includes schoolchildren who encourage one another to steal from the store or to try illegal drugs. The world includes parents who set bad examples for their children. The world even includes children who shock their parents by repeating profanities that they heard at school or on television or from the mouths of their parents.

Any material thing that might tempt you to sin is part of this sinful world. We cannot avoid temptations, so we must resist them. Even Jesus was tempted in every way, as we are, but he did not sin. A saying about temptation has existed for hundreds of years: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Whenever a Christian enjoys temptation and keeps returning to situations where he or she might be tempted again, that Christian has already crossed the line into sin.

We resist temptation from the world in the same way that we resist temptation from the devil: we stand on the Word of God. God’s Word tells us what is right and what is wrong; God’s Word teaches us what we should do and what we should not do. God’s Word also promises forgiveness to sinners. Tempters from the world might say, “Why don’t you do this thing that you used to do?” The power of God’s forgiveness sets us free from sinful ways; we do not have to remain slaves of sin after God has set us free.

In some places the world’s powers persecute Christians. In many more places, the world’s powers tolerate Christians while trying to seduce us away from faith. Jesus wants us to stand firmly on his Word, and he gives us the power to remain firm. The world may be stronger than we are, but the world is not stronger than God. Through him we are always safe, even while living in the world. J.

Know your enemies

Jesus commanded his followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Yet the book of Psalms contains many examples of hating enemies, wishing bad things to happen to them, and calling upon God to judge and punish those enemies. Is there a contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and the Psalms?

Viewed in their historic context, the “imprecatory Psalms” at first seem to relate to human enemies. David, the author of many of those Psalms, had many human enemies in his lifetime, including the Philistines, King Saul, and David’s son Absalom. When we read in I & II Samuel about the David’s career, though, he does not seem to glower with hatred against his enemies. Although he exchanged trash talk with Goliath before striking him down with a stone and cutting off his head, on other occasions David was gentle with those who chose to be his enemies. Twice he spared Saul’s life when Saul was vulnerable while pursuing David. He begged his soldiers to be gentle with his rebellious son, Absalom. Before he became king, David even lived among the Philistines and offered to fight with them against Israel. David’s attitude toward those enemies seems more consistent with the teachings of Jesus than with his own poetry.

David seems to have known already what the Apostle Paul would later put into words: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). By tradition, Christians identify our true enemies as an unholy threesome opposed to the will of God: the devil, the world, and our flesh. The devil is Satan, a rebellious angel who tried to take control of the universe away from God and who tempts people to sin, then accuses them of their guilt. The world is the sin that surrounds us during these lifetimes, the many sources of temptation that confront us daily and try to disrupt our Christian walk. The flesh is the sinful nature still within us, ready to cooperate with the devil and with the world by choosing sin over righteousness.

Our problems come from these three enemies. Since they work together, we cannot always say which of them is the source of any particular problem. I know Christians who blame all their troubles on demonic forces. I know others who blame all their troubles on the bad influence of the world. I know still others who blame themselves for every bad thing that happens to them. Most of the time, though, we cannot know the source of our problems. We know only that God has permitted his enemies to bother us, and that he will also never abandon us to their attacks.

Christians need to remember that our enemies have already been defeated. Jesus battled them on the cross and prevailed against them. The devil, the world, and even our sinful natures were beaten when Jesus bore the weight of sin and evil on the cross. When He announced, “It is finished,” one of the things that was finished was the power that our enemies have over us.

Even when we do not feel like winners, we remain more than conquerors through Jesus—more than conquerors because we share a victory we did not fight to achieve. Our enemies are still trying to harm us—not that they care much about us, but because they oppose the God who loves us. During this lifetime we live on a battlefield. We can rejoice with David, though, knowing that our enemies have lost. They are judged and condemned, and God has guaranteed their loss and our victory.

For those other enemies—the members of the other political party, the advocates of social changes of which we cannot approve, the bullies and insensitive neighbors who steal our peace and comfort—we are still expected to pray. We are expected to love them and even to forgive them. Even Muslim terrorists remain missionary opportunities. Our proper prayer for them is that God will show them the error of their ways and lead them to genuine repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice, not in earthly victories over flesh and blood, but in the eternal victory Christ won over the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

 

Christ in Genesis

My writing project for 2016 was a series of studies of Christ in Genesis. I want to publish it all in one place, but now that I have time to work with it, WordPress is being uncooperative. Therefore, as one reader asked, here are links to the twenty-two pieces of the work as published.
Introduction

  1. In the Beginning
  2. In the Garden
  3. A Tale of Two Trees
  4. The Better Garment
  5. Confession and Promise
  6. Raising Cain, Raising Abel
  7. Noah, the Ark, and the Flood
  8. The Tower of Babel
  9. The Promise to Abraham
  10. Melchizedek
  11. Abraham, the Father of Faith
  12. Miracle Babies, and the Rights of the Firstborn
  13. The Sacrifice
  14. The Bride
  15. Birthright and Blessing
  16. Jacob’s Ladder
  17. Wrestling with God, and Seeing the Face of God
  18. Joseph & Bros.
  19. At the Right HandAt the Right Hand
  20. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah
  21. “Am I in the Place of God?”

 

More important than the Great Commission

This statement is likely to stir up a virtual storm, but I’m going to write it anyhow: the Church pays too much attention to the Great Commission.

Yes, Jesus did say that we should make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus said it, we should do it. He said it at a pretty prominent time, too, meeting with his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew chose to close his Gospel with the Great Commission.

But, as far as I can see, Jesus only stated that commandment once. The word translated “make disciples” is used four times in the New Testament–thrice by Matthew and once in the book of Acts. It is stated as a commandment only in Matthew 28. Christians making disciples could hardly be considered Jesus’ top priority. On the other hand, Jesus seems obsessed with the topic of forgiving sinners.

Three times–twice in Matthew and once in John–Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Some Christians call this power to share Christ’s forgiveness the Office of the Keys, because the first time Jesus says those words, in Matthew 16, he precedes them with, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” John quotes Jesus talking about forgiving sinners on the very first opportunity he has to speak with his apostles after his resurrection. To me, that shows a higher priority on sharing forgiveness than on making disciples.

In his model prayer, Jesus directs his followers to make one promise. The promise is not to make disciples; the promise is to forgive those who sin against us. I remember several parables of Jesus that describe forgiveness. I cannot recall a parable that describes making disciples.

Can we make disciples without sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins? No, not really. When we share God’s promise of forgiveness and that promise is believed, is the believer also now a disciple of Jesus? Yes, that is true. What is the difference, then, between sharing forgiveness and making disciples?

The difference is in emphasis. A congregation that focuses on making disciples, on teaching discipleship, may forget to share the forgiveness of sins. A friend of mine who was a pastor (but not of the church I attended) once said, “My calling is to share the Gospel, but I don’t do that Sunday morning. The people in church Sunday morning already know the Gospel. I tell them how God wants them to live their lives.”

I’m glad he was my friend, but I’m also glad he was not my pastor. Every time God’s people gather, they all need to hear that Jesus has redeemed them and forgives them their sins. As one professor taught future preachers, “Consider the possibility that someone in front of you has never heard about Jesus before. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved. Consider the possibility that someone in front of you might die that week, and this might be the last sermon he hears. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved.”

When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should not be to change someone’s behavior. (Christian parents teaching their children are sometimes an exception to that statement.) When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should be to show that we are all sinners who need a Savior. The apostle Paul once called God’s Law a mirror. We look into that mirror to see how far we have fallen from God’s plan for our lives. Then we understand the vastness of God’s love and the enormous price that Jesus paid for each of us by suffering and dying on the cross.

By all means, the Church should continue making disciples by baptizing and by teaching, just as Jesus said. Instead of telling each other that we are obeying the Great Commission, though, we should remember that we are the body of Christ. We continue his work, challenging sinners by the Law, but seeking always the opportunity to say, “Don’t be afraid; your sins are forgiven.” J.

Christ in Genesis: “Am I in the place of God?”

After Jacob died, his sons feared that Joseph may have been delaying his vengeance until that time. Their guilty consciences made it hard for them to believe that Joseph sincerely and whole-heartedly forgave their sins. Therefore, they sent a message to Joseph. They claimed that, before he died, Jacob had demanded forgiveness from Joseph for his brothers. We cannot tell whether or not Jacob said such a thing. No record of Jacob’s message about forgiveness appears in Genesis, aside from the quote given by Joseph’s brothers. Their guilt and fear may have tempted them into lying to their brother. It did not matter, though, because Joseph had already forgiven his brothers all their sins.

Before he died, Jesus commanded his followers to forgive those who sin against us. He even put into his model prayer a promise to forgive those who sin against us. Jesus spoke so firmly about forgiveness that some Christians believe that forgiving those who hurt us is a requirement for salvation. They think that the Bible says that we must forgive first so that God will forgive us. They forget that God always goes first. We forgive others only because of the forgiveness of God. We forgive others, passing along the forgiveness won by Jesus on the cross. Refusing to forgive someone who has hurt us calls God’s complete forgiveness into question. If a sin against us is too big for God to forgive, how can we be sure that he has forgiven all our sins? But we do not forgive sinners out of the goodness of our hearts. We forgive sinners because Jesus has already purchased their forgiveness by his blood, his suffering, and his death.

Why does God allow sins to happen, knowing that we will be hurt by the sins of others? In the abstract, Christians can find answers to that question. Dealing with a specific sin, we do not always know which answer applies. In the case of Joseph, he was allowed to know the answer to that question. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph reports, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, so that many people are alive today.” God permitted the sin of Joseph’s brothers so Joseph could sit at the right hand of Pharaoh and run Egypt, saving the lives of the Egyptian people and of their neighbors, including Joseph’s family.

Sometime God allows sin and evil so we can see the true nature of sin and evil and reject them, preferring what is good. Sometimes God allows sin and evil because he has a way of turning them into a greater blessing, as he did in the case of Joseph. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to provide an opportunity for his people to do good things, forgiving the sinner and helping the victims of sin. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to remind his people of the suffering of Christ on the cross. The devil persecutes God’s people, intended to make us doubt God’s goodness or love or power. When our troubles remind us how God saved us through the suffering of his Son, the devil is thwarted and God’s Kingdom remains victorious.

God does not cause evil, although even evil things come from his creation. Evil is not equal to good; evil is good that has been twisted and misused. God placed metal in the ground and gave skill to a craftsman who makes a knife from that metal. When that knife is used in a murder, God is not at fault. He permitted that sin for a reason, and he provided the ways that sin could take place. If he allowed that sin and did not intervene to prevent that sin (and only God knows how many times he has intervened to prevent evil), then he had a reason to allow that sin. God is under no obligation to tell us all his reasons.

“Am I in the place of God?” Joseph asked his brothers when they came to Joseph looking for forgiveness. The way he phrased the question, he expected the answer to be “no.” Yet as a picture of Christ, his forgiveness was Christ’s forgiveness. He had authority to punish his brothers or to forgive them. He was indeed in the place of God, and his forgiveness was a vivid picture of God’s forgiveness given freely to sinners.

When Peter declared his faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus congratulated Peter on that declaration and added, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven, and whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19). Later, Jesus said the same words to all his apostles (Matthew 18:18). After he had died and had risen from the dead, Jesus said the same thing a third time. John says that Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever you forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven, and whatever you do not forgive on earth is not forgiven in heaven” (John 20:22-23).

Who has the keys to heaven? Who has the power to forgive sins (or to withhold forgiveness)? Everyone who has received the Holy Spirit has this power. Since we know that “no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12: 3), everyone who confesses faith in Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Everyone who, like Peter, knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is able to share his forgiveness with sinners.

Why would Jesus also give the power to lock heaven, to refuse forgiveness to sinners? He tells us not to give dogs what is holy and not to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). We do not speak words of forgiveness to people who boast of their sins, who refuse to admit that what they are doing is wrong, who do not want to be forgiven. God calls sinners to repent. Because we have the keys to heaven, we also call sinners to repent. Our goal is always to lead sinners to repent so we can forgive them. Yet our words of forgiveness would have no meaning if we said them to everyone, even to sinners who proudly continue to sin and who do not care whether or not God has forgiven them.

“Am I in the place of God?” Since he was a picture of the Christ, Joseph should have been answered “yes.” “Am I in the place of God?” Jesus says, “Yes, you are.” He could bring forgiveness to sinners any way he chose. After purchasing full forgiveness on the cross, Jesus chose to bring forgiveness to sinners through the work of his Church. Every member of that Church has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. Every person on earth is either a missionary or a mission opportunity.

Like Adam, like Abel, like Abraham and Isaac and Esau, Joseph was a picture of Christ. Today, in a different way, every Christian is a picture of Christ. (That is why we are called Christians.) God wanted ancient people to know his plan of salvation, and he wants people today to know the same plan. He chooses to work with us–his will be done. J.

Christ in Genesis: At the right hand

Throughout history, certain kings and emperors and other executive authorities have enjoyed the privilege of rule without accepting any of the responsibility of rule. Sometimes they were considered too important to do the work of government. Sometimes they were incompetent. Sometimes they were merely lazy. In every case, someone else was found to do the real work of governing the land. Joseph became such a man in Egypt. After interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh, predicting seven years of bounty followed by seven years of famine, Joseph was put in charge of Egypt, collecting supplies during the good times to take care of people during the bad times. Joseph ran Egypt, while the Pharaoh sat on the throne and enjoyed the worship of his people. In a similar way, in the book of Esther, first Haman and then Mordecai took royal authority in Persia. The real emperor sat on the throne, but his prime ministers did the work of running the empire.

We call such a power a “right hand man.” As the right hand of the king or emperor, he does the work to run the country while the chief executive gets the credit. Medieval France had a “mayor of the palace” doing the real work while the Merovingian kings got all the credit. Medieval Japan had a Shogun doing the real work while the Japanese emperors got all the credit. Modern corporations and universities often have a President who receives all the credit while a presidential assistant is doing the real work that brings success to the business.

After his resurrection, Jesus told his apostles, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). The apostle Paul shared the same message in a different way, saying that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father (Ephesians 1:20 and Colossians 3:1, among others). The right hand of the Father is not a ceremonial position. Sitting at the Father’s right hand means doing the work of the Father. Because Jesus has been given power and authority by the Father, Jesus is the only Way to approach the Father. Those who try to come to God the Father through their own good deeds, or because they were created by him, cannot reach the Father. Only through Christ can the Father be approached.

As the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Joseph had power to reward people and power to punish people. Though they did not recognize Joseph, his brothers placed themselves under his power when they came to buy food in Egypt. Joseph, unlike Jesus, was not sinless. He could not resist the temptation to toy with his brothers before he finally told them who he was. Like Christ, though, Joseph forgave his brothers all their sins against him. He provided generously for his family without accepting any payment from them. In the end, he brought them to live with him, as Jesus brings his people into Paradise and into the new creation. Our sins caused Jesus to suffer, as the sins of his brothers caused Joseph to suffer. Yet Jesus does not hold a grudge against any of us. He forgives us, he provides for us now, and he has guaranteed us a home where we will live with him forever in peace and joy. J.

On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.