Thursday, December 17, 2015


“And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 
     Matthew 18:3-4 

I just started reading Mary Eberstadt’s “How the West Really Lost God.”  I’m finding it very sobering. Christianity seems to be in steep decline in the West. A recent British survey concluded that “only two in five British people now identify as Christian.” The survey also noted that “the proportion of people who do not follow a religion has risen from just under a third in 1983 to almost half in 2014.” Not too long ago, Keith Wood, a staff writer for the Independent, got to the heart of what more and more Britons are thinking – “It is undemocratic for these representatives to make laws binding on a population that largely considers religion to be irrelevant.”

The story in the United States is much the same.  

The prospects for Christianity in the West do indeed seem grim. Unbelief seems to be waxing; belief seems to be waning. If Nietzsche were alive today he just might be crowing with delight - “See, I prophesied it over a hundred years ago. The great Christian cathedrals have become tombs.”

Not long after I wrote the op-ed about Advent, two “radicalized” Muslims killed fourteen and wounded twenty-one at a Christmas function in San Bernardino, California. Terror is once again afoot in America. The threat of more attacks should unify us, but we’re polarized. Some say they’re praying for the victims, while their detractors tell them to shut up. “God isn’t going to do anything!” they say.

It’s really strange. Prayers are being scoffed at, just when they’re needed most.

This coming Sunday is the final Sunday of Advent. In many churches, a fourth Advent candle, representing peace, will be lit. Christians will be thinking of Jesus, who came to us as the Prince of Peace. It was a peace that some tried to cut off as it was being born into the world. Herod and his inner court, fearing that they would lose their grip on power, ordered the killing of all of Bethlehem’s male children two years old or under.

It seems like things have always been this way. Terror, in one form or another, all too often tries to snuff out the message of peace.

The terror and fear are very real and they seem to be growing in strength. There doesn’t seem to be a way out, particularly at a time when unbelief seems to rule the day. Given the state of the world and America’s polarized society, peace seems more like a pipe dream than a promise.

At the end of his earthly life, Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

The words, while comforting, also beg two questions. Can we truly believe them? How do we put them into practice? 

A few months ago I came across an interview on YouTube of a 10 year old Iraqi Christian girl named Myriam. You can access the video at the following URL -

Myriam and her family fled their home in the Iraqi city of Qaraquosh when ISIS captured it in 2014. She was living as a refugee in the Kurdish city of Erbil when the interview was conducted. When asked what she would like to do to ISIS she replied, “I will only ask God to forgive them.” She was also asked if she was angry with God because she’d lost her home. She answered, “I’m not angry at God because we left Qaraquosh. I thank Him because He provided us, even if we’re suffering here. He provides for us…If you are a true believer, He will never forsake you.” Then, the interviewer tried to cheer her up by telling her “I hope you go back to a home that’s better than your first home.” She responded, smiling and looking heavenward as she did. “If God so wants.”

At the end of the interview, the reporter asked Myriam if there was a song she’d like to sing. One short stanza from that song follows:

“How beautiful is the day on which I believed in Christ; my joy was made complete at dawn, and my voice sang with gratitude… A new life, a joyful day, when I reunite with my Beloved.”

As we Western Christians ponder the possibilities of living in peace and expressing vibrant faith in an unbelieving world during this Advent season, Myriam’s powerful testimony speaks to us. Even at her tender age she’s shown us what it means to be a true believer in times of unbelief and great tribulation.  

Thursday, December 03, 2015


Last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, one of the most important seasons on the Christian calendar. In many Christian churches, the season is commemorated by keeping an advent wreath, with its four candles, in the sanctuary. On the first Sunday before Christmas, the hope candle is lit. On the second Sunday, the Bethlehem candle, a visible reminder of the manger and prophecies of Jesus’ coming to earth, is lit. The third Sunday in advent is called Laetare (Latin for “rejoice”) Sunday. Biblical accounts of the shepherds’ joy at Jesus’ birth are read and the third Advent candle is lit. On the fourth Sunday, the Angel’s candle is lit. In many churches, the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1) is often read. Some churches also have a fifth candle, called the Christ candle, which is lit at traditional Christmas Eve services.

Advent meant absolutely nothing to me for many years. From the time I was about fourteen till I was twenty-five, I considered myself to be an atheist, an angry one at that. I lashed out at religious people. I mocked them all, especially Christians.  I believed they were hypocritical or intellectually weak. It wasn’t until 1965, when I was serving a tour of duty in Vietnam, that the walls of hate I’d built over the years began to crumble. I’d come to Vietnam believing that, when all is said and done, life doesn’t have much meaning. You live…you die…then you rot. With that as a guiding philosophy, I had no room for God. I was too strong for that. Then, a fellow soldier told me about Jesus and said he was praying for me. I mocked him like I’d done to so many other religious people, but, this man was different. No matter how much I mocked him, he kept telling me that God loved me and he did too. “I’m praying for you, Phil.” In early December of that year, his prayers began to haunt me. “What if he’s right about this Jesus?” “If there is an after-life, what does that mean to me?” “Was I really going to be judged in the end?” Just before Christmas I got to watch Bob Hope’s annual Christmas show at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. When the show concluded with Anita Bryant singing “Silent Night,” I began to silently plead, “Are you real?” “Did you really come to earth to save us?” “If that’s true, does that include me?” “If you’re really there and you’re really alive, please show me the way.”

Over the next two years, events proved to my complete satisfaction that what my fellow soldier had told me was, indeed, true. I became a Christian in August of 1967.

It’s been almost fifty years since my conversion and I still find the Advent season one of the most meaningful in my life. Jesus’ advent two thousand years ago opened the door to an advent in my life.
I’ve tried my best over the years to tune out the noise that tries to overshadow the meaning of Advent to me. I wish I could say that I always succeed, but that wouldn’t be true. There’s always a lot in this world that can be distracting and I’m always tempted to get into the fray.

This year is no different. There are, as there always have been, wars and rumors of war. We’ve got church scandals galore. Our political and civil discourse has become a sewer. No one seems to care about bringing us together. As author Brad Gregory put it in his most recent book, “The Unintended Reformation” – “Neither politicians nor journalists nor academics nor celebrities appear to have any answers about how to reverse the trajectory of polarization. Instead, the American public square seems to grow ever coarser and angrier.” In terms of faith and belief, we are witnessing what author Mary Eberstadt recently described as “a sea change from a civilization that widely fears God, to one that now often jeers him.”  It’s true. The ranks of the faithful are thinning. 

With belief on the wane, many pundits, humanists like James Haught (the November 27th edition of the Gazette), and even atheists are now trying to squeeze Jesus into their political or philosophical mold at this special time of the year? Why are we endlessly bombarded with Jesus the radical, Jesus the defender of the status quo, Jesus the Democrat, Jesus the radical, or Jesus the Republican? What’s their agenda?

The truth is, the real Jesus can’t be pigeon-holed. The Christian advent is about Jesus, God wrapped in human flesh, not his politics or philosophy. He’s unique in human history.  His mission wasn’t politics. It was salvation for humanity. That’s why the prophets longed to see him and it’s why the angels, the Magi and the shepherds worshiped him. And, that’s why, in spite of the distractions, I intend to focus on him during this wonderful season.