Posted by: jefriesen | December 24, 2010

A Christmas Letter to Santa, by Isaac N. Friesen

My wife and I made a conscious decision when we had kids that we would never lie to them.  This made it difficult around Christmas when all the kids at their schools were talking about Santa Claus.  We would teach them about the historical figure of Nicholas, but told them plainly that Santa Claus (as he is pictured in society) doesn’t exist.  Our thinking was (and is) that if they knew we would like to them about the existence of Santa, perhaps we would lie to them about Jesus. 

At the same time, we realize that Santa Claus is part of the American cultural celebration of the winter holidays and all of the fun that can go with that.  Our solution has been to break the celebration into its component parts.  On the one hand, we have the cultural celebration of Christmas.  On the other, the Christian celebration of the Advent of Jesus, the Messiah.*  So as not to seem scroogish about it, we don’t mind our kids enjoying the cultural aspects of the holiday season as long as they understand the difference. 

With that in mind, I would like to share with you the letter our youngest wrote to Santa, as printed in the Hebron Journal Register.  Enjoy, and Merry Christmas

Dear Santa,

My name is Isaac N. Friesen.  I am in third grade and go to Thayer Central Intermediate School.  I have been good almost all year and live in Hebron, in Thayer county. 

My fireplace has a metal plate with tiny holes in it, and even if you pass that you couldn’t get out, because there is a glass door that opens from the outside, so you’ll have to take the front door.  I’ll leave it unlocked.  My sister sleeps out in th eliving room alot and she is a very light sleeper so be very, very, very quiet.

Dear Santa (again),

How do you go around the world in one night?  Do all the versions of you from around cover their entire country or continent?  But North America is a big continent, so the reindeer would probably have to travel at 9,999,999 mph.

Dear Santa (again),

This is what I want for Christmas.  First, I want a model airplane (to be exact, it is a Snap Tite A-10 Warthog).  Next, I want a remote control airplane that flies.  Finally, I want a DS Lite.

Well, I hope that wasn’t too much for you.

Your Friend,


P.S.  You’re not fat, even if Beverly thinks so.

*The same issue occurs in the spring.  For my own family, we have divided the cultural celebration of Spring, called Easter (complete with the fertility symbols of eggs and bunnies) and the Christian celebration of the resurection of Jesus, which I have called Resurrection Sunday for years.

Posted by: jefriesen | December 24, 2010

The Christmas Spirit

As the calendar flies towards December 25th, we can be assured of two things: preachers (plus a few others) will remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” and most of us will ignore them. The reason for this is simple: while we may publicly rant about the ‘crass commercialization of Christmas,’ privately we enjoy it. We like the fact that we can get ‘great deals’ on flat screen televisions and living room furniture (seriously, who buys these items as gifts for others?). We like having an excuse to spend lots of money on ourselves and others. We Americans like it so much, that we spent an estimated 45 billion dollars on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) alone, an amount greater than the annual GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of 115 nations. This one fact may help explain why many in our country have lost or are looking for the so-called ‘Christmas spirit.’

But just what is the ‘Christmas spirit’ and why, if so many people have spent so much time looking for it, is it still lost? The answer to this question is harder to pin down than it seems at first, in part because we have made Christmas more than just a simple celebration of the birth of Jesus. We have not one holiday, but several, consolidated on one day. In fact, it was the celebration of the birth of Christ which was itself the add-on to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. It wasn’t until the year 336 AD that we have the first record of a church celebration of the birth of Christ, called Christ’s mass; and some scholars suggest that December 25th was chosen specifically to bring a Christian influence to the drunken revelry of the Roman solstice party, called Saturnalia. Throughout the centuries, various traditions have been added to the celebration of Christmas; some religious, some cultural, some literary, with a dash of myth and a healthy dose of Madison Avenue and Hollywood until what we have today bears little resemblance to the biblical account of Christ’s birth.

In contrast to Hollywood, the biblical record is relatively scant. In all of the New Testament, a scant 131 verses are devoted to the circumstances around the birth of Christ (in contrast to over 1,200 verses chronicling the last week of Jesus’ life). Figuring strictly from the biblical record, we have no idea of the exact date of the birth of Jesus. Nor do we have any record that the early church celebrated the birth of Jesus at all. The only significant day that the early Christians are recorded as celebrating is the resurrection, and they celebrated that every week. Consequently, the biblical account says nothing about the so-called Christmas spirit.

Culturally speaking, the phrase ‘Christmas spirit’ is used on one level to describe simply a festive mood. On another level however, the words seem to evoke something deeper; a longing for something substantive in an increasingly intransitive world; peace in the midst of chaos. It is experienced in that fleeting moment of satisfaction when we give to others, when we are kind instead of rude and when we go out of our way to help others, even at personal inconvenience or expense. At its best, the Christmas spirit represents what we could be in an ideal world, which may help explain the appeal of Christmas, even to those who aren’t Christians. I would submit that we have this longing for a reason; that the desire we have corresponds to a fulfillment of this longing.

In the Old Testament, this idea roughly corresponds to the theological concept of rest. Rest was both a state of divine protection for the nation of Israel and a sense of security and satisfaction in God’s provision. Ultimately, the concept of ‘rest’ spoke of God’s undoing of the curse which resulted from man’s decision to rebel. To this, we could add the New Testament’s picture of peace, both peace with God and peace in the midst of an uncertain world. But from the bible’s perspective, rest and peace are not found in a celebration of a holiday spirit, but in a real relationship with God in Christ. He is our peace, the bible teaches, and in Christ we have the rest that God has promised. The virtues of generosity, patience and kindness which are heavily promoted during the yuletide season are everyday commands for Christians, and peace in the midst of uncertainty is an everyday reality for those who know Jesus. This is the peace of which the angels sang to shepherds on the hillside so many years ago.

So keep searching for that ‘Christmas spirit;’ If we follow all the way to where it leads we might find ourselves, like the shepherds in the bible’s account, kneeling at the side of a manger.

Posted by: jefriesen | December 23, 2010

Will the Real St. Nick Please Stand Up?

I’ve recently become an expert on the search for the ‘real meaning of Christmas.’ This is a result not of years of theological training, but from watching approximately 234 1/3 sappy movies on the Hallmark channel describing the search for said meaning of Christmas, along with three different renditions of Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.” These, along with the merciless Christmas ads that now begin sometime in May, can leave us with many questions about how Christmas came to be this way. Part of the answer is that what we celebrate collectively as “Christmas” is a conflation of many different cultural celebrations, from many different countries and from various religious traditions. So where did these traditions come from? Who is the real Santa Claus?

Many elements of our Christmas celebration, such as mistletoe and holly, have roots in pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. According to Norse mythology, mistletoe was connected with the goddess Frigga, whose son, Baldur was killed by an arrow tipped with mistletoe. Afterwards, Frigga declared that mistletoe should only bring love and peace, and thus kissing underneath the mistletoe came to be a symbol of both.

The Christmas tree first became popular in 16th century Germany. Evergreen boughs had long been used as winter solstice decorations, because they remain green all winter. However, Martin Luther encouraged the use of trees as Christmas decorations, describing the tree as a symbol of the trees in the garden of Eden. The trees were decorated with apples (symbolic of the fruit of the tree in Eden), nuts and paper flowers of all colors. According to legend, Martin Luther was also the first to decorate a fir tree with candles, as they reminded him of the stars shining through the evergreen boughs outdoors.

But what about Santa Claus himself? To be sure, the Saint Nicholas of history bears little resemblance to the man described by Clement Clark Moore as a “jolly old elf” in the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” In fact, so many legends related to Saint Nicholas have arisen that it is difficult to discern truth from error. What we do know is this: Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a seaport located on the southern shores of modern day Turkey. He was born around the year 280 AD and died on December 6th, 343 AD. By many accounts, he was the heir to a large fortune, but decided to follow the teaching of Christ in giving his wealth to the poor and enter into a life of ministry. He was, by all accounts, a man of piety and generosity.

From here, the history becomes fuzzy. Legend has it that Nicholas heard of a poor man who had three daughters and no way to provide a dowry so that they could be married. Nicholas decided to help the poor man by tossing a bag of gold coins through his window by night, providing a dowry for the man’s oldest daughter. When it came time for the other daughters to be married, Nicholas repeated the gift. Some accounts say that Nicholas dropped the bags of coins through the chimney, and that they landed in the girls’ stockings that had been hung to dry over the fireplace, giving rise to the tradition of hanging stockings above the fireplace on Christmas eve.

Through the years, various miracles were attributed to Nicholas and he was widely revered as a “Saint.” In Italy, he became the patron saint of sailors; in France, the patron saint of lawyers (a group that needs a patron saint); in Russia, Nicholas became a prominent Saint, often depicted wearing a red cape and bishop’s mitre. In the Netherlands, the name “Saint Nicholas” was shortened to Sinterklaas. On December 5th, the eve of his feast day, boys and girls would set their shoes outside. Sometime after the sun set, Sinterklaas would come through town putting gifts in the children’s shoes. In Germany Saint Nicholas, called “Father Christmas,” would do the same, rewarding children with gifts in their shoes on the eve of December 6th If they had been good during the year. If not, they awoke to a pine bough stuck in their shoe instead.

During the middle of the 19th century, these traditions coalesced in America, the great melting pot. The feast of Saint Nicholas was combined with the church’s celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25th. The representation of the historical Saint Nicholas was replaced with Moore’s depiction of a chubby man wearing the red of Russia’s saint, but now a suit, instead of merely a cape. He traveled from house to house on Christmas eve, distributing gifts down chimneys.

The modern image of Santa Claus was made complete in the 20th century, coincidentally enough, by advertising: first with Coca-Cola’s 1931 Christmas ad campaign that gave him the now familiar look and followed by the modern legend of Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer, which began as a Christmas advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward. The rest, as they say, is history – or not. And as far as the real meaning of Christmas? Stay tuned.

Posted by: jefriesen | November 9, 2010

Prison Wall or Farmer’s Fence?

Three weeks ago, Delaware candidate for the United States senate Christine O’Donnell, who lost in last Tuesday’s election, was roundly criticized for making the statement that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the constitution.  The crowd, made up of law students at Widener University Law School tittered in reaction to O’Donnell’s apparent ignorance of such a basic premise of U.S. law.

 The thing is, O’Donnell is right.  The phrase “separation of church and state” is not found in the constitution.  It is instead found in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote on January 1st, 1802 to a committee of the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut.  It is in this letter that Jefferson penned the words that have now become famous.  It wasn’t until 1947 that the U.S. Supreme Court first invoked these words in a court case involving public funding to transport children to religious schools.  So, we might ask, how has a private letter written to a group of churches become so important to our country in the past 60 years, from when it was first cited as a legal precedent? 

 The answer is intent.  The courts regularly look at the issue of intent when helping to establish the boundaries of the laws enacted.  The question that the courts seek to answer is ‘how did the lawmakers intend a given law to be understood?’  For the answer to this question, judges and attorneys look beyond the written code to the statements of lawmakers themselves about what they intend a law to do.  Usually, looking at the intent of lawmakers brings a bit of common sense into the court proceedings.    In the case of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson’s words help to establish the intent of the founding fathers behind the establishment clause of the first amendment.  Here is Jefferson’s statement:

 “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

 Here Jefferson clearly ties the establishment clause of the first amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof) with the intent of the founders, to build “a wall of separation between Church and State.”  The question is, what does it mean to have a wall of separation between church and state?  I would submit that Jefferson’s ‘wall,’ as originally intended, was not a high prison wall, but more of a low-slung farm fence of the type that used to crisscross the New England landscape.  This type of wall allowed for a friendly chat between neighbors while clearly defining the boundaries, allowing influence, but not control. 

 During the past 60 years, however, Jefferson’s wall has grown tall.  In practice court rulings have prevented not only control, but even ac

Perhaps this is the type of wall Jefferson had in mind

cess to the public square, creating the appearance of an a-theistic state.  In 1962, school sponsored prayer was ruled unconstitutional.  In recent years, individuals and groups have sued to remove crèches from courthouse lawns and displays of the Ten Commandments in public places.  In 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional because it includes the words “under God.”  From a layperson’s perspective, the courts have tried so hard to eliminate possible favoritism for any one religious position that they have, in effect, elevated non-religion to a favored position in the government.  What the court has failed to understand that what appears to be a theological non-statement (‘we will ban all religions from the public square’) is a theological statement (‘non-religion will be the preferred religion’).  In taking this approach, argues University of Nebraska Law professor Richard Duncan, the court “promotes the evil it seeks to avoid,” by giving non-religion a favored status among government.

 The question remaining is this: did Jefferson intend to picture a high prison wall?  Did the founders of our country intend to create a religion-free, or purely secular state?   Though many of the founding fathers were not Christians (more about that next week), they definitely believed that religion has an acceptable and respectable place in the public square.  John Adams wrote that “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  Benjamin Franklin, himself a deist, insisted that the doctrines of Christianity were taught in the public schools he chartered.  It is clear that the founding fathers did not intend for any reference to religion to be excised from the public square.  In the past sixty years, the courts have built Jefferson’s wall much higher than he intended.  Perhaps it’s time to tear down the prison-type wall and replace it with a farmer’s fence.

Posted by: jefriesen | September 20, 2010

What Can I Burn

Recent events proved again the adage that “when all is said and done, more will be said than done.” This past week, a pastor in Gainesville, Florida raised the public visibility of his small congregation to global proportions (literally) when he proposed to burn hundreds of copies of the Quran (the Islamic holy book) to commemorate the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Jones’ plan to burn approximately 200 of the estimated 2 billion copies of the Quran was such a threat to world peace that leaders from around the world asked him not to do it. Indeed, the list of people who took it upon themselves to publicly condemn the Rev. Terry Jones looks like a Who’s Who in world politics today. In the U.S., Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even respected political leader and deep thinker Angelina Jolie weighed in on the issue. Our president, who recently defended the building of a mosque near the site of Ground Zero, citing first amendment rights, took Jones to task. “The idea that we would burn the sacred texts of somebody else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for,” the president said, apparently forgetting that destroying property in a symbolic protest is as American as the tea party (the original one, in Boston, 1773).

On the one hand, what Jones proposed to do (but didn’t) is protected under our constitution. From a publicity standpoint, I began daydreaming about things I could burn to bring world renown to Hebron Bible Church. Perhaps I could raise the visibility of our church by taking on that other great religion in Nebraska, Husker football.

But on a more serious note, Pastor Jones’ actions do raise a question: what is the proper response to those whose beliefs are different than our own? There are a few different approaches.

One approach is to try to pretend that there are no essential differences between major religions. “We are one nation, under God,” president Obama said, but “. . . we may call that God different names.” This is a popular approach, but one that is logically and intellectually dishonest. Specific truth claims do tend to divide us and to ignore that is to ignore reality.

In fact, all truth claims are exclusive. Atheists believe that everyone who believes in a god are wrong (in excess of 99 percent of all people who have ever lived). One group of theists believe that this god is personal, which sets them apart from Buddhists, Hindus and George Lucas, who believe that god is impersonal, like the Force. Jews, Muslims and Christians believe that God is one, separating themselves from polytheists, animists and ancient pagans who believe in many gods. Christians believe that God is tri-personal, three-in-one, which sets them apart from everyone else. Even the statement that “all religions are the same” is an exclusive statement with which most people would not agree. The differences between various world religions are not trivial, and everyone can’t be right. Either Jesus was who He claimed to be or He was not. Either He rose from the dead or He did not. We can’t both be right.

A second response to those who are different is governed by anger. We see plenty of this response in our world. Just in recent weeks, several groups have responded vocally against a proposed mosque that would be within a couple of blocks of the site of the 9/11 attacks. A mosque that is being built in Murfreesboro, TN has been the object of vandalism and the Muslims who attend have been subject to threats and verbal abuse. Many of those vandalizing probably think they are striking a blow for Christianity. This past week, Muslims in Afghanistan responded to Terry Jones’ plan to burn the Qurans by burning the American flag and shouting “Death to the Christians,” which is certainly an helpful gesture from those practicing what we are told is a ‘religion of peace.’

For the Christian, there is a third approach: tolerance, love and respect. Now, let me be clear. By ‘tolerance,’ I don’t mean that we fall back on the first approach by saying ‘every religion is true.’ A better, and more biblical, definition of tolerance is to acknowledge the differences and at the same time show respect for those created in God’s image. We can, and should, try to persuade others that Christianity is true (this is called evangelism). But we shouldn’t get angry, for at the heart of the gospel is a Man dying on the cross for His enemies and we are called to follow His example.

Yes, the differences between religions are real and substantial; and it does matter whether you are right or wrong. But our approach to those who practice other religions should be governed by the love of Jesus. Our interactions shouldn’t leave either one of us looking for something to burn.

Posted by: jefriesen | September 2, 2010

A Major Remodel Needed

I was lying down the other day in a room designed for relaxation. The walls are painted a darker hue, the lighting is less intense and the shades are closed. The space is relaxing, quiet. It is a nice place to go and hide when the phone is ringing and the kids are playing loudly (is there any other volume at which children play?) and I need a break from the general noise of life. And that is what I was doing. Relaxing. Perhaps napping. Either way, I was in what some would call my happy place. All of a sudden, my state of calm was rudely interrupted by my wife, who walked in and offered an opinion on the state of the room’s cleanliness. Actually, she didn’t offer an opinion, she issued a judgment. “This place is a mess!”

She turned on the lights and opened the shades in order to prove her point. My dimly lit happy place was flooded with light. After taking a few moments so that my eyes could adjust to the light, I realized that she was right. The odd thing is that the room seemed clean enough when I went in. It could have been the dim lighting; some would suggest that the particular combination of x and y chromosomes played a part; but simply didn’t notice the dust dragons, cobwebs or the small mountain of laundry in the corner. It wasn’t until the lights were on and the shades opened (that, and my wife pointing it out to me) that I realized that the room was, in fact, in need of a thorough cleaning.

The same thing is true in our lives. We go on quite comfortably with the dust and cobwebs of our lives, not seeing (and not wanting to see) that there is anything wrong. Over time, we get used to our own imperfections, passing them off as ‘no big deal.’ If we wrong others, it is easy for us to pass it off as ‘a mistake’ or an ‘error in judgment.’ We usually use phrases that imply non-intentionality on our part. Even when our actions towards someone are intentional, we make excuses for ourselves: ‘she started it.’ ‘he had it coming.’ A moment’s reflection would reveal that excuses that don’t work for our children won’t work for us either. When judgment comes, we will be found wanting.

We don’t like to talk about judgment in our culture. Judgment implies that something, or someone, is wrong. We would much rather try to smooth things over with the idea that ‘everyone’s okay,’ and ‘every person has a right to his or her own opinion.’ This may work well on the playground, but in the real world, everyone can’t be right; and there are consequences for being wrong. In the case of our standing before God, God is right and we are wrong. This means judgment. For one of the most elementary truths of Christianity is that God, as Creator, has reserved the right to judge His creation according to His standard.

A question that naturally comes from this is ‘how do I stack up against God’s standard?’ This is not a question we are used to asking. Usually, when evaluating our own behavior, we compare ourselves to ‘our neighbor,’ meaning ‘the rottenest person I can think of’. Against the standard of my neighbor, I probably stack up pretty well. Perhaps I don’t lie, cheat or steal as much as he or she. I like to think that I am pretty kind and generous (and good looking). Compared to someone else in town, that may be true. But we aren’t measured against the standard of ‘our neighbor,’ we are measured against the standard of God’s holiness. According to His standard, I’m in trouble. For God not only sees all of our actions and hears all of our words, He also knows the motives of my own heart. “Nothing in all creation can hide from Him,” the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “everything is naked and exposed before His eyes.” When God’s light shines upon the darkened corners of my life, everything is exposed. And it is not just me. “We have all fallen short,” the Bible says, of God’s standard of absolute holiness. God will one day open up the shades of our life and turn the light of His holiness upon us. We will then see clearly how dirt-filled the room of our life actually is.

On the negative side, this realization will probably take us from our ‘happy place.’ There is no joy in an honest evaluation of our failures. But the full evaluation would reveal that our lives are so dirt-filled that a thorough cleaning will not do. What we need, is nothing less than a major remodel, performed by the Master Builder.

Posted by: jefriesen | August 17, 2010

Peppermint Memories

School starts this week for many families in the land of the Oregon Trail and for many junior high and high school students, this means one thing: drama. In addition to the normal hassles of actually having to study for classes, our junior high and high school students may face the embarrassment of wearing the wrong shade of nail polish or (if you are an upper-classmen) actually treating a freshman as a real person. But back in my day, we really knew how to embarrass ourselves. In fact, I was an expert at it.

You see, when I was in junior high and high school, my brother and I trapped. That is to say that we intentionally placed spring loaded mechanical devices in private wildlife management areas with the express purpose of catching the potentially overpopulated furbearing wildlife animals and . . . um . . . killing them and removing their hide so as to line our pockets with cash (I tried, but there just isn’t a politically correct way to describe trapping). We weren’t particularly good trappers, but we were diligent. Every day during fur harvesting season we would drag ourselves out of bed at five a.m., stumble to the car and drive to the small pond where we had placed our traps. By the time we got to the edge of the pasture, the eager anticipation of a beaver, muskrat, raccoon or mink waiting in our traps was, as the song says, “dancing in our heads,” so as to remove all of the morning cobwebs. For a 13 year old boy, It was like having Christmas every day for three months.

On one particularly crisp December morning, we waded through parts of the small beaver pond, from trap to trap, checking to see if we had caught anything the night before. We hadn’t. But as we walked up from the water to check one of our land traps, we heard something rustling in the leaves in the direction of one of our spring-loaded mechanical fur harvesting devices. Our eyes lit up. A catch! We crept up on the location, hoping to get a glimpse of the raccoon we were sure that we caught. A raccoon pelt in good condition at the time paid from thirty to seventy five dollars, and we were already spending it in our minds. But as we got close enough to see the animal clearly, it became evident that it was not a raccoon. The animal with the long black tail and white stripes was clearly a Mephitis mephitis (Latin for: “an offensive stench”). In other words, a skunk.

Nor was that our only skunk of the day. Apparently, there had been a mini skunk convention in our wildlife management area, and all of the skunks who stayed long enough to dance on tables and swing from the chandeliers decided to step in our traps as well. In all, we caught seven skunks that morning. On the positive side, it was our largest catch ever for one day of the season. That was the only positive side. There were a few negatives, the least of which was the fact that on the market, skunk hides weren’t worth anything. So our main concern was how to get rid of the skunks and reset the traps without becoming targets of critters’ anxiety, so to speak. There was only one efficient way to do this and it involved our .22 caliber Ruger and a steady eye.

Now normally, skunks are clean animals. They don’t like wasting any of the 15 cc’s of the odiferous fluid that serves as their last defense. Scientists say that skunks are reluctant to use this weapon, but there’s something about being killed that makes them lose their discretion. So when we dispatched the first skunk, the smell was immediately obvious. Anyone who has ever driven within a mile of a dead skunk on the side of the highway is familiar with the distinct aroma. But something curious happened by the time we finished taking care of the seventh skunk: we didn’t notice it. As a matter of fact, we both agreed that we smelled rather like peppermint.

We got home late that morning. Seven catches was a large catch for us. Thus, we didn’t have time to take a bath before school started. But that was okay, because WE SMELLED LIKE PEPPERMINT. However, just to be safe, we traipsed upstairs, opened the medicine closet and lathered ourselves in dad’s cologne before heading to school, because it ought to be obvious to the average observer that English Leather and peppermint smell better than peppermint alone.

I got to class and sat down. First period was science class and that morning we were watching a film. Within ten minutes, I was alone in my darkened corner of the room and the rest of the desks were scooted as far as possible from me. The instructor stopped the film, turned on the lights and said “Jeff, I’m sorry, but it’s getting a little intense in here. You’re going to have to go home and take a shower.” He gave me a pass and I took it into the principal’s office. Amazingly, the secretary didn’t even ask why I needed to go home. It was obvious to her. By now, my peppermint illusions had been shattered; even more, I had publicly embarrassed myself in front of girls who would later turn me down when I asked them out on dates.

So kids, as you enter school this year and realize you’re wearing the same shoelaces as your rival, remember: it could be worse. You could smell like ‘peppermint.’

Posted by: jefriesen | August 14, 2010

Questions That Matter

This last week, I posed a question on Facebook, on our church’s website ( and through email to a variety of friends, relatives and acquaintances.  I asked them to share their questions about what Christianity is all about.  The answers will be incorporated into a series of messages that I am beginning at our church, titled “The ABC’s of the Christian Faith.” The responses I received ranged from the intentionally frivolous (“what is it with the guys in the turbans?”), to questions about the life of Jesus to questions about why God works the way that He does.  Some of the questions were specifically doctrinal in nature: Can I trust the Bible? How does one get saved?  Through many of the questions, ran some common threads: how am I able to trust God when I experience or see suffering all around me?  Is God really watching?  Ultimately, the questions center around the meaning of life: Does life really matter?  Any brief survey of history would reveal that ours is not the first generation to ask this question. 

In his 1942 book, The Myth of Sisyphus, French philosopher Albert Camus wrote “I conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.” 

 His philosophy began with the presupposition that God does not exist and that therefore, life ultimately has no meaning.  And since, in his perspective, life has no meaning beyond our temporary existence, “there is,” he wrote, “but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  Camus came to the point where he realized that if God doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t matter what I do, how I live, who likes me, who hates me and who I run over in the process.  The only thing that matters is trying to secure my happiness at this moment.  The idea is to live ‘in the moment,’ without thought to any wider ramifications.  The philosophy that is built around these lines is called ‘existentialism,’ the philosophical grandfather to today’s ‘post-modernism.’  Camus ultimately came to the conclusion that even though life doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t commit suicide, that you should live in defiance of the meaninglessness of life. 

 Camus’ philosophy was novel in 1942.  Today, the philosophy he espoused has become so much part of the fabric our the thoughts of our lives that we don’t, for the most part, even notice.  Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer compared this philosophical shift to “suffocating in a particularly bad London fog.  And just as fog cannot be kept out by walls or doors, so this consensus comes in around us, until the room we live in is no longer unpolluted, and yet we hardly realize what has happened.”  A moment’s reflection (that is all the time we will give for reflection, because we are very, very busy) would reveal that we are no longer thinking about questions that matter. We are too busy trying to be happy now. We flit about from one unsatisfying job to another, from one temporarily happiness-inducing relationship to another, from one guilt-inducing dessert to another. We are seeking to be happy now, and the result is that we give little thought to more important questions.

But the questions won’t go away. Many of the questions that I received after my inquiry last week focused on the meaning of life. Often, the question was formulated along these lines: “if God exists, how can I know that He cares for me?  I’m trying as hard as I can, but it seems as though God is either ignoring me or laughing at me or worse, allowing me to be kicked when I am down.  How can I know that God is going to love me, if all I seem to see in my life is pain?”  On the surface, it seems to be a question about suffering.  In reality, people want to know that they matter to God. 

Our very being rebels against the idea that life has no meaning. Intuitively, we know that Camus was wrong. Perhaps the reason for this is found in the book of Ecclesiastes, where Solomon makes the statement that God has “planted eternity in the human heart.” Church father Augustine stated it this way: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” Though we make little time for it, we do want to know and to answer important questions, questions that matter.

So I am putting it to you. What are your questions? What are your questions about Christianity? What are your questions about the bible? What questions do you have about things that matter? Send your questions to and I will address them (if appropriate) in this space. I look forward to hearing from you.







Posted by: jefriesen | August 6, 2010

Range Maggots

Range maggots. That was the most affectionate term that my father used for those wooly quadripedal ungulates often called “sheep.” Other words that my father used to describe sheep could not be printed in a family newspaper, except for one: “dinner.” My father also used to say that sheep were so stupid, that if one sheep died, four would die in sympathy. Nevertheless, my father belonged to that school of parent who believed that the afflictions of one generation should be faithfully inflicted on the next; so each year, he would purchase three or four of the brutes so that we could “have fun.”

The ostensible reason for purchasing said animals was that we could show them at the Tri-state fair, held in Amarillo each year. But I secretly thought that he had another reason: he wanted us to suffer. Every day, it was our responsibility to go out to the small pen behind our home in the suburbs of Amarillo and feed the wooly-headed monsters. A little bit of grain, a little bit of hay and a water bucket that had to be filled several times a day, because they would keep knocking it over.

We were also supposed to work with the sheep, putting on their halters and leading them around the arena behind our house until they learned to follow like . . . well, the proverbial sheep. To understand what a chore this was, you need to know a little about the Friesen household. We were a family of five kids, two dogs, three horses and, at any given time, about twelve calves that my dad kept for roping. We lived in the suburbs of Amarillo, surrounded by hundreds of homes with kids roughly our age. The Friesen home became the gathering point, it seemed, for every stray dog, cat and child within twelve miles. In addition to the constantly barking dogs, we had kids jumping off of sheds, creating ramps for bicycles, roping dummies, digging pits in which to catch pirates, looking for horned toads and tarantulas and nearly every other activity we thought to do before the advent of gaming systems and before Al Gore invented the internet. The Friesen home was busy, and it was loud. This was not the ideal environment in which to teach idiot sheep how to follow and how to stand.

Yet we tried to work with the sheep. I would climb into the pen and look straight into the eyes of the lamb that was looking straight into my eyes and say a few soft words to the sheep. Then I would lunge towards the animal, wrapping my short arms around its neck and holding on as I was dragged and butted and stepped on. Sheep whisperer I ain’t. After a few more words, probably not as soft, I would get the halter wrangled on and the lead rope attached, cheered on by my brother, who was always glad to see me in the pen instead of him. Come to think of it, he was always encouraging me to climb into the pen first. Any time he could see me get a good thrashing and not get in trouble for it was a good time for him.

By the day of the fair, the bruises had mostly healed and we loaded our sheep into the trailer and headed into the fairgrounds. We were dressed in our best 4-H clothes, long sleeved white button-up shirt, jeans, boots, cowboy hat and a bolo tie, appropriate attire for the 110 degree heat of a west Texas summer. When it came our turn, we took our sheep into the show pen and walked them around and tried to make them stand like they were supposed to. There I stood, a Weeble-shaped kid, tethered to a white, wooly animal with an attitude. As we waited for the judges to look at . . . whatever it is that sheep judges look at, the sweat leaked out every pore of my body. For my efforts, the judges awarded me with a red ribbon. But the show wasn’t over, yet. At the end of the show was an auction, during which time someone would actually pay real money for the four-legged headache that had occupied our back yard. Not only would I get money, but I would also have the satisfaction of knowing that my sheep would soon be someone’s dinner.

To say the least, I was what they call in the real estate business as a “motivated seller.” And sell I did. I wandered around the show ring, doing my best to look like a child who needed to pay for his mother’s surgery, talking to people and asking them to bid on my lamb. And they did. At the end of the day, I received the highest price possibly paid for a red-ribbon lamb in Tri-state fair history.

And what, you may ask, did I learn from my foray into sheep husbandry? That I’m not buying any of my children sheep.





Posted by: jefriesen | July 21, 2010

Measured In Light

At the end of the 18th century, a revolution was brewing. No, I am not referring to either the American or French revolutions, which both took place during this time period, but another revolution that has quietly impacted nearly every country in the world (except for three). This revolution began in the 1790’s in France, when French scientists proposed replacing the hodgepodge of weights and measures with standards that would apply consistently everywhere. In terms of length, scientists proposed that a new standard length should be equal to one ten-millionth of the distance at sea level from the pole to the equator.

In order to figure out how long that should be, the scientists commissioned a team to measure a significant portion of the distance and use mathematics to figure out the rest. This team of scientists spent the next several years completing a measurement from Dunkirk to Barcelona. They labored through the French revolution and most of them escaped being guillotined. At the end of their survey, they compared notes and calculations and established mathematically the exact distance of a meter. They then obtained a bar of platinum 4 mm thick and 25.3 mm wide and exactly one meter in length. This bar was deposited in the National Archives on June 22, 1799 and has since been known as the Metre des Archives. From that time until 1983, when a meter was redefined as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in exactly 1⁄299,792,458th of a second, if you wanted to measure something against the standard unit of length, you could travel to the National Archives and see for yourself how your meter stick measured up. But what if we wanted to see how we measure up?

Well, last month, I took time to highlight the teaching of the bible on the depravity of man, which is simply a theological techno-geek way of saying that we are not perfect. Most of us would readily agree with this statement. In fact, we often use it as an excuse for our actions. We either use in the first person, (I’m not perfect) or in the third person impersonal (no one’s perfect). Spoken in this way, these statements aren’t so much an apology as a justification. But the statement that we aren’t perfect begs the question “perfect in relation to what?” The statement implies a mostly unspoken standard out there that we call ‘perfect.’ Somewhere, like the meter, there is a model of perfection to which we can be compared.

But before we begin looking at the standard, there is one implication that must be addressed. The very word standard implies ‘standard for everyone.’ This means, for example, that just as there is one metrical standard for length, that there is one standard for us as moral agents. A standard applies across national and cultural boundaries. A standard also applies even when no allegiance to that standard is declared. There are three countries that have not adopted the metric system: Burma, Liberia and the United States (we are in worthy company); however, if we in the US want to describe a given object’s length in meters, we do so according to the universally recognized standard. All that is to say that when we describe ourselves in negative terms in relation to that which is perfect, we are agreeing that there is a moral standard out there that we would call perfect.

So now, the question: Where do we find such a standard?

This is, in fact, how the Bible describes God. God is perfect. The word in both the Hebrew and Greek carry the idea of completeness and wholeness. But this is only part of what we mean when we use the word perfect to describe our moral choices. To this, the Bible adds the words ‘holy’ and ‘pure.’ These words convey the teaching that God is absolutely free from any moral error ever. The Bible teaches that only God is morally ‘good’ in the absolute. He is also holy, that is ‘set apart,’ from everything that contains even the least imperfection. The Psalmist declares that God is too pure to allow those who are evil into His presence.

Another word picture the Bible uses to describe God’s absolute moral perfection is light. This is a helpful analogy, because we can see things by the light that are hidden to us otherwise. The brighter the light, the more clearly we can see where we have fallen short of God’s perfect standard. Compared to the blazing white light of God’s perfection, even the smallest imperfection is revealed. And we have more than small imperfections. Where this leaves us is the subject for another day. Until then, we have a standard, not in a National Archive, but measured in light.

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