"'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.'" --Matthew 2:2

Our children's Christmas Eve pageant this year is entitled "The Star of Bethlehem" and it's got me seeing stars and other luminary bodies...

Did anyone see last night's full moon? Amidst bright city lights, we rarely have occasion to focus on stars and the moon--but last night was unmistakable! That moon was so bright it lit up the Flatirons and behind them much of the Front Range. Looking up and catching the moon last night was wondrous--it made me feel small and at the same time somehow safe and secure.

The moon, the stars, they lift our eyes up and above ourselves and our smallish worlds. On a cold winter's night, when we scan the skies and look up, we're reminded that we're not the center of all reality--that there's a big world up there and out there, a world that's ancient and vast beyond measure.

I was looking the other day at the star on top of our Christmas tree. I don't know about you, but I'm a bit of Scrooge when it comes to Christmas decorations. I've learned to entrust them to my wife and oldest son. Particularly those ornaments that require ladders! Anyway, I was looking at our Christmas tree star and thinking how much I appreciated it. There it stood, high above the rest of the ornaments, high above the Christmas presents and other decorations beneath. That star had pride of place above everything else in the living room. It was a sentinel, solitary, and solemn, lifting our eyes above the trappings and traditions and reminding us of that first star over Bethlehem.

There's something about a star at Christmastime. Something that lifts up our gaze beyond the crowds and parking lots. Something that reorients us and redirects us. It makes me think of the lit-up star on top of Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder. Every time I drive to Boulder at night and crest the Davidson Mesa heading west, there's that big 5-pointed star illumined over Boulder and its busy streets. That star looms large over the city and its residents, reminding us of that first star, quietly beckoning seekers to the deeper meaning of Christmas.

Stars were tools of navigation in the ancient world, points of reference, nightlights for nocturnal travelers. It was an unusual star that caught the attention of the wise men and led them on a journey of discovery to the true star of Christmas, the one called by St. John, the Morning Star, the one in whom was life and that life was light of all people.

This year's Christmas Pageant is all about a little homeless girl named Star who learns that she is not the center of her life and reality. In her Bethlehem encounter she meets the one true star who has the ability to bring her life light and direction and peace and joy. May we have eyes to see the true star of Bethlehem tonight!

The Parable of the Bread

Once upon a time, in a small town, at the edge of the fields, stood a bakery and in it a baker. The baker was known throughout the town for his craft: as the townspeople would bring in their grains from the field, he would artfully grind them respectfully on the stone mills handed down through his family. The grain was treated reverently and preserved whole whenever possible, full of goodness, nutty, earthy, naturally organic. Out from the baker’s ovens would emerge hot bread, the smell of which wafted over the town and drew in hungry folk from far and wide. Large loaves and small, rolls and cinnamon buns, pumperknickel and sourdough--these and more bore the signature of the baker, a wondrous reverence for the gift of grain, its goodness and nutrients, its ability to feed and warm and bring loved ones together around a meal.

Over time, an industrial bakery grew up on the opposite side of town. It was the local expression of a national brand of bread—a bread white and fluffy, mass-produced, and, frankly tasteless. But due to good marketing efforts, standardization and mechanization, efficient production techniques, and word of mouth, this bread—bland, uniform, and ubiquitous—became the rage throughout the town and indeed, the country. Gone was the relationship between baker and people, between field and oven, between craft and nutrient. Though the baker kept open his store and a few patrons refused to buy the mass-produced bread, the vast majority of the townspeople were swept up in the rage of the giant bread manufacturer across town. “It’s quick and dependable—there’s no waiting for a loaf,” they marveled. “It’s efficient and, if not tasty, at least it’s cheap and easy to get,” they said. Truth be told, this bread was quite unlike the bread made by the baker. Indeed, it involved the same basic ingredients—water, yeast, and flour. But that’s where it ended. The bread from the factory came from grain that was subjected to a strange new process of hulling, bleaching, milling, and the extraction of all that made it healthy and appealing. For this reason, another process was deployed: artificial enrichment. The bleached, bland, sterile flour was sprayed with vitamins, minerals, and other things naturally lost in the efficiency of mass-production. In would come a rich diversity of whole grains and out would come the same enriched, bleached flour. Each and every time, the same.

Slowly, the majority of the townspeople forgot what good bread tasted like. Gone were the variety of breads originally available from the baker. Even the smell of bread had changed with the arrival of the factory. Few remembered the original grains grown by their grandparents in the field, lovingly harvested, and brought for milling and baking to the baker. Whatever grains used by the factory were quickly subjected to the “Process”—the bleaching, the sifting, the mass-production. And out came uniform commercial bleached white bread. The same loaf, the same shape, the same taste (or lack thereof) time after time after time. It was efficient, it was dependable and predictable, it was orderly and organized—but it was bland, sterile, lifeless, tasteless. White bread for the masses.

But some began to tell stories of the baker and the rich emanations that came from his ovens. They remembered the intimate connection between the earth, the grain, and the craft. They recalled the labor of love of the artisans, who humbly and creatively devoted themselves to the baking. Above all, they remembered the bread—the powerful, inviting smell of freshly-baked loaves, the crisp crust and soft, steaming centers. They reminisced about the laughter, the stories, the times they would enjoy as they ate bread around their tables and shared in life’s goodness together. Slowly a dissatisfaction arose among the townspeople—many chose to forego the commercial bread from across town. Some began to bake their own loaves. Some rediscovered the little baker, who was now quite old, in his bakery on the edge of town. Many began to realize that efficiency and mass-production, marketing and advertising, standardization and even science—though all good gifts in their own way—were not helpful in the making of quality bread. A revival of bread-making, of a slower, more purposeful, and more relational approach to this wondrous food source, began to arise—and with it, came a people more open to one another and to the wondrous gifts around them, the goodness of which they were just beginning to taste and see.

Santa Claus Theology?!

Hum this with me, will you?

(J. Fred Coots, Henry Gillespie (c) 1934)

Oh! You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He's making a list,
Checking it twice,
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!

Oh! You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

I was humming this little ditty in the shower the other morning and I burst out laughing: this unassuming Santa song is theology for many people!

Think of it: there’s the thinly-veiled threat of God’s punishment—“You better watch out.” There’s the anthropomorphic projection of an angry parent—“You better not cry, you better not pout.” There’s overwhelming preoccupation with the Day of the Lord, coming soon to mete out punishment to the unrighteous—“Santa Claus is coming to town!” (Sounds a bit like Clint Eastwood riding into town on his horse to get revenge on the bad guys, but that’s beside the point…)

We also hear reference to the names written in the Book of Life, opened on judgment day (Revelation 3:5)—“He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice.”

As if that weren’t obvious enough, we get frightening reference to God’s omniscience, that “all seeing eye” spying out every manner of transgression—“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” All of this followed by the overtly shaming and legalistic—“So be good for goodness sake!”

This Santa sounds kinda scary! And that’s unfortunately how a lot of people view God: for them, God is someone who’s carefully keeping count of their sins, ready to put coal in their stocking…or much worse. And so, “Buck up,” they tell themselves, “get your act together; put on your ‘A game’—or else!” I think many people default to this kind of theology.

Amidst my chuckles, I’m glad to be reminded that the God revealed in Scripture--and supremely shown in Jesus Christ--is one who keeps no record of wrongs, but freely forgives (Psalm 130:3-4). I’m grateful that in Jesus God comes a first time into our world not to punish or to judge but to save sinners (1Timothy 1:15). Santa Claus theology is bad theology—but it’s awfully prevalent. “Better watch out,” indeed!

The Golden Compass

Things on the church staff email are heating up these days about the soon-to-be-released movie, The Golden Compass. Seems it's a children's fantasy flick whose aim is to undermine Christians, the Church, and ultimately God. According to, this is no urban legend burning its way through cyberspace; this is apparently the real deal. I confess that when these types of movies come out (see below with The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ), my eyes glaze over and I groan a bit. "Here we go again," I mutter. Too often, I feel, Christians respond reactively, combatively, and frankly, obscurantly (I think that's an adverb). Once more, we get known for what we're against, rather than what we're for. And often, we don't get the hearing we deserve. I'll wait to render a verdict on this latest challenge (and opportunity).

For the time being, let me just make one observation: if The Golden (my fingers keep inadvertently typing "Godless"!) Compass is all it's cracked up to be, then we have one more very powerful example of the way popular culture, particularly the realm of movie-making, is now being used to attack Christian values and wage spiritual warfare. The main battlefield is no longer the university or print media; it's the movie theatre. This raises a question: how well are we Christians responding in this arena? I'd say fairly well, actually: The Passion of the Christ, the Nativity Story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of the Chronicles of Narnia, these are all significant and worthy efforts--ones which may've heated up this recent salvo in response.

Popular culture is the place to engage, don't you think? Certainly, we keep after things in other areas, but this key realm is a golden opportunity, isn't it?

Let's watch how we Christians respond to this latest challenge...will we be known for our reactionary, strident responses--or something more creative and thoughtful? For a solid assessment of The Golden Compass from a philosophical viewpoint, check out: