Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Pentecostals in the Park

Sunday evening, my wife and I took our kids out to eat, and after dinner, we went to the Sealy Park.  My kids are old enough to enjoy the playgrounds on their own, so my wife and I decided to walk as the kids played.  We knew we were in for a rather different sort of walk when we pulled up to the park.

Under the pavilion, a group had gathered with musical instruments, microphones, and plenty of chairs.  As we exited our car, we heard them singing praise songs.  Obviously, a local congregation had gathered this evening to worship. 

I observed a few intriguing things as I walked:

1. The congregation was essentially oblivious to everyone else in the park.  They simply did their thing perhaps hoping doing their thing would rub off on the rest of the people in the park that afternoon.

2. The rest of the folks in the park were basically oblivious to the congregation which was worshiping.  Several groups continued to play volleyball.  A father and his sons threw a football.  Numerous kids played in the splash pad--all with no concern for this group gathered to worship.

If evangelism and getting folks to worship with them was a goal, it failed.  My wife and I walked around the park about 10 times or so passing this pavilion each time.  No one asked us to join.  No one invited us to sing and be a part of the gathering.  Apparently, this Pentecostal group and most Lutherans have at least this in common...

Now, at this juncture, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I admired this church for taking its proclamation public.  I admire them stepping outside of their four walls and gathering in the open air where others gathered.  I admire them leaving the safety of their sanctuary to risk ridicule in a culture that has become more than a few voices saying, "You can have faith; just keep it private."  Too often, we kowtow to those voices instead of allowing our deep trust in God filter into our everyday lives.

I needed to put all of that out and admire their courage because as I heard their proclamation--their articulation of "the gospel"--I cringed.

Not that I had any right to cringe.  I mean, two or three years ago, I might well have been saying the same basic things just in a different manner.  But that was before my conversion.  Now, I see things in a totally different light.  I see how I was a modern-day Pharisee, and I heard modern-day Pharisaism plain as a bell.

The preacher lifted his voice in that perfect Pentecostal rhythm, cadence, and accent, and each time I cringed.  Several times, I responded out loud. (My responses will be in italics.)

"Gawd wants to bless yuh, today-ah."

He already has.

"Gawd wants to heal yuh, today-ah."

He already is.

"Gawd wants to bring yuh peace, today-ah."

He already does.

"Yuh just have to follow Him and give your life to Him, today-ah."

He's already claimed it.

"Gawd wants to bless our nation, but we must turn to Him first and repent-ah."

Didn't I just preach about this today?

From yesterday's post:

The Pharisees taught over and over and over that the people of Israel should purify themselves.  And if the people of Israel would purify themselves, God would look down upon their purity; their holiness, and be moved to action.  What sort of action?  Well, to establish the Kingdom of God–that kingdom where all of Israel’s enemies were overthrown, a new king who was a king of justice and wisdom would ascend the thrown and lead the people in righteousness, and the Israelites would become another world power growing in wealth and prosperity and power.  The Pharisees believed that if they followed the holiness code contained in the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament–then God would be forced to act in such a fashion. 

How was the proclamation I was hearing in the park different from the proclamation of the Pharisees so long ago?

It wasn't.  And it isn't.

And there's an awful lot of this proclamation going around.

There's an awful lot of folks preaching that we've got to get our collective acts together for unless we do, God will not bless or God will punish.  Many folks say this is the Gospel, but there is one problem.

It's not the Gospel. 

The Gospel is about what God has ALREADY accomplished through Jesus Christ.  The Gospel is about how God has ALREADY blessed us, forgiven us, justified us, and prepared our salvation for us WHILE WE WERE STILL SINNERS.  There is no "repent and God will bless you."  It's "God has blessed you, no repent." 

Just this past Sunday, I took my adult Sunday School class through this--through the wonder of the Gospel.  A class that usually had lots to say--that raises many comments and questions--sat in almost stunned silence.  I asked why.

"This is deep.  It's tough to get your head around."

I agree.  I told them, "Don't feel bad.  I've been preaching for 14 years.  I have eight years of formal theological training.  Before that, I was born and raised in the church, and I am only now beginning to get it."

It's not surprising the response out of those adults.  It's not surprising the proclamation I heard in the park.  For every philosophy and religion teaches the exact opposite of the Gospel.  We are immersed in a culture and in a world which tells us--do the right thing, and you will be rewarded.  Work hard in school, and you will get good grades.  Do your job correctly, and you will be compensated fairly.  Follow the rules, and you will be treated well.  This is pounded into our being from day one.  Theologically, this train of thought is put forth in this manner, "Do what God says; be obedient to Him, and He will love you; you will attain salvation; you will be blessed; etc."

And the Gospel turns it upside down.  The Gospel says, "You are loved; you are cherished; you are saved by Jesus' actions, now be obedient to God." 

It's radically different, and I couldn't help but wonder--would the proclamation of the Gospel have reached across that park and touched those playing volleyball, throwing the football, and splashing in the water?  Would the proclamation of what God has ALREADY done receive a welcome in their ears and in their hearts?

I don't know.

I just don't know.

But perhaps a lesson can be learned from those Pentecostals in the park.  Perhaps the Gospel needs to find public proclamation.  Only when it is taken outside the four walls of a church will we find out.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Blind Leading the Blind

    No one likes to be told they are wrong.  I mean, really, I don’t think I have run across anyone who when confronted with wrongdoing says, “Well, geez, I am so happy that you told me I am wrong.  Thank you so much for correcting me and pointing out my flaws.  I just don’t know how I could have missed being so wrong about this stuff.”

    Anyone ever heard such commentary?  Anyone ever said such a thing?  Perhaps you have at some point, but most of us don’t really react in such a fashion.  Most of us become defensive.  Most of us become more entrenched in our points of view.  Most of us, when confronted with someone who points out a flaw or tells us we are wrong, seek out someone else who will give us confirmation of our own particular beliefs and understandings. 

    I thought about this a lot this week in light of the events in Ferguson, MO.  As this story unfolds, there has been much finger pointing and blame.  There have been many accusations of wrongdoing.  Each side says the others is wrong, and each side seems to have difficulty understanding why the other side is so worked up.  There seems to be an endless cycle of anger because of the mounting accusations.  It's a problem which is not new to our time.  It was around even in Jesus' day.  There were just different groups.  The Pharisees are the classic example which appear in our Gospel lesson.
 
    It is little wonder the Pharisees took offense to what Jesus said regarding what defiles a person.  Let’s set the scene for a moment.  Jesus tells the crowds following Him, “Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

    The disciples come up to Jesus and say, “You know, what you said just ticked off the Pharisees.”  I’m not exactly sure why the disciples came up to Jesus and said this to Him.  Maybe they thought Jesus needed sensitivity training.  I mean, maybe even at that time you were supposed to be tolerant of others’ beliefs.  You didn’t want to go around insinuating someone might be wrong in what they taught.  I mean, what works for you works for you, but what works for someone else works for that person.  You shouldn’t try and impose your beliefs on anyone else.  Oh, wait, that’s the way many folks think today, and we’ll discuss such matters in a minute or two.  But for the time being, let’s move away from why the disciples might have brought this to Jesus attention and think about why the Pharisees were offended.

    Jesus had just stepped on their toes in a major way.  The Pharisees taught over and over and over that the people of Israel should purify themselves.  And if the people of Israel would purify themselves, God would look down upon their purity; their holiness, and be moved to action.  What sort of action?  Well, to establish the Kingdom of God–that kingdom where all of Israel’s enemies were overthrown, a new king who was a king of justice and wisdom would ascend the thrown and lead the people in righteousness, and the Israelites would become another world power growing in wealth and prosperity and power.  The Pharisees believed that if they followed the holiness code contained in the Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament–then God would be forced to act in such a fashion. 

    And so, the Pharisees lived and breathed and taught the holiness code.  They ritually washed their hands according to what the Law proscribed.  They only ate certain kinds of food.  They abstained from associating with certain types of people.  They very much became Biblical literalists according to the Laws of Moses.   They were trying to do all the right things.  That’s important to hear, so let me say that again, they were trying to do all the right things according to the Laws and Commands of God written in the Bible.  And those commands were intended to make a person holy and pure before that person came before God.

    So, do you find it as interesting as I do that when Jesus receives word from His disciples that the Pharisees are offended, Jesus isn’t contrite?  He isn’t understanding?  He isn’t tolerant?  He doesn’t say, “Oh, the Pharisees have their way of doing things and believing things, I have my way.  They are both different paths to the same place.”  Jesus doesn’t apologize.  Instead, Jesus blasts the Pharisees.  I mean, read what Jesus says, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

    If Jesus was around today to say such a thing, He’d be sent to sensitivity training!  How dare Jesus be so closed minded and offensive!  Why would Jesus say such a thing?  Why would He be so confrontational?

    We get an indication as Jesus explains to Peter the meaning of what He said, “Are you also still without understanding? 17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

    Here is the point Jesus is making in regards to the Pharisees: they are doing all the right things externally.  They are following the Law to a tee.  They are following the holiness codes and being good examples of people who follow the Law.  Externally, they are clean, but internally, they are filthy!  Externally, they follow God’s commands, but internally, they are sinful and broken.  And they don’t even realize it.  How is this the case?

    Let me pull another story from scripture to illustrate the point.  The story comes from Luke chapter 7.  36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ 40Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ 41‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ 44Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’

    Do you see what is going on in this story?  Do you see why the Pharisees were considered the “blind leading the blind?”  With all of their attention paid to purity and the holiness code, with all their attention given toward following the Law to perfection, they became self-righteous.  They thought they were spiritually and morally better than other people.  They felt like they could look down their noses at others and judge them as inferior; loved less by God; as sinners.  They felt like they could hold others in contempt and say, “I am following the Law, and with effort this person could too.  They should work harder to be as holy as I am.”  In their hearts, the Pharisees had no compassion; no love.  They held many of their neighbors in contempt.  They were breaking God’s Law by doing so, for as Jesus pointed out, the two greatest commandments were loving God and then loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  You cannot hold your neighbor in contempt and love them.  The two are antithetical.  And because the Pharisees were contemptuous, out of them flowed spite and anger and division.  And they were absolutely blind to this.  They thought they were being holy.

    Let’s return for a moment and talk about sensitivity and Jesus’ lack of it.  You see, Jesus was insensitive because He refused to kowtow to hypocrisy, and the Pharisees were full of it.  While trying to be holy on the outside, they were sinful on the inside.  Jesus points this out.  And while many cry for sensitivity and tolerance today, it turns out such folks are oftentimes just as hypocritical.  How so?  Ever known a person who preaches tolerance to freely embrace a bigot?  You see a “tolerant” person oftentimes cannot stand someone who is “intolerant” and thus by refusing to be tolerant of the intolerant, the tolerant become intolerant.  I’ll pause for just a moment because that can be a little tricky to wrap your head around.  The reality is, we are all intolerant at some level.  We all are a bit blind.  And we don't like it.  Can you see why there is such trouble in Ferguson? 

    Now.  Hopefully, you’ve gotten your head around this, and hopefully you understand why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees.  Hopefully you see why He says they are the blind leading the blind.  Hopefully you see why Jesus says it’s not what you put into a person that defiles, but it is what comes out of a person that defiles a person.  For if someone is broken and sinful inside, they will produce broken and sinful fruit.  If a person is holy inside, they will produce good fruit.

    But that begs the question: how can I make sure I am good inside?  How can I make sure I do not hold my neighbors in contempt?  How do I avoid falling into hypocrisy?   How can I love my neighbor when I don’t agree with them about religion, politics, or whether to root for Bellville or Sealy?  How can I make sure that I am producing the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control? 

    The answer is believe in the Gospel.  Believe in what God has done for you.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.  And God did this not when you were perfect; not when you were following His commands; not when you were holy, but precisely when you were none of these things.  Jesus died for you while you were sinful.  He clothed you with His righteousness when you were wearing the rags of sin.  He covered you when you were least deserving of it.

    And when you understand this deep in your heart, you are humbled.  You know you can’t hold someone in contempt because they don’t follow God’s commands.  You weren’t and still don’t follow them completely either.  You can’t blame them for being intolerant because you know you are intolerant too.  You can’t say they should try harder at being a better person because you know you can’t be a better person without the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Your salvation and redemption was not achieved by you.  It was achieved by Jesus on the cross.  You have no reason to boast in your efforts, but you have every reason to boast in Jesus’ work.  And that work changes you.  It changes your heart.  People were head over heels this last year about the Disney movie Frozen, and the classic line from the story is, “An act of true love melts a frozen heart.”  Christ’s act of true love on the cross not only melts our hearts, but it changes them–it makes them good, so that out of us flows that which is good.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Russell Brand, Robin Williams, and the Gospel

I was not going to comment about Robin Williams' suicide.  Many have, and I have nothing to add to their commentary.  Much of what has been shown to me on my Facebook feed has been relatively well thought out, but none of it truly made me think deeply.

Leave it to the Drudge Report to link an article in The Guardian written by Russell Brand.  This article truly drew me in and made me wrestle because it links Williams' death with some of the big questions in life.

I didn't know much about Brand until I read his Wikipedia page--assuming Wikipedia is reliable here.  I found out he and Williams shared much in common.  Both are/were very much tortured souls.  Both, I think, struggle/d with some very tough questions regarding life.  From the article:

It seems that Robin Williams could not find a context. Is that what drug use is? An attempt to anaesthetise against a reality that constantly knocks against your nerves, like tinfoil on an old school filling, the pang an urgent message to a dormant, truer you.

Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times? No academic would co-sign a theory in which the tumult of our fractured and unhappy planet is causing the inherently hilarious to end their lives, though I did read that suicide among the middle-aged increased inexplicably in 1999 and has been rising ever since. Is it a condition of our era?

...


What platitudes then can we fling along with the listless, insufficient wreaths at the stillness that was once so animated and wired, the silence where the laughter was? That fame and accolades are no defence against mental illness and addiction? That we live in a world that has become so negligent of human values that our brightest lights are extinguishing themselves? That we must be more vigilant, more aware, more grateful, more mindful? That we can’t tarnish this tiny slice of awareness that we share on this sphere amidst the infinite blackness with conflict and hate?

That we must reach inward and outward to the light that is inside all of us? That all around us people are suffering behind masks less interesting than the one Robin Williams wore? Do you have time to tune in to Fox News, to cement your angry views to calcify the certain misery?

What I might do is watch Mrs Doubtfire. Or Dead Poets Society or Good Will Hunting and I might be nice to people, mindful today how fragile we all are, how delicate we are, even when fizzing with divine madness that seems like it will never expire.
I found an echo of this thinking in his stand up show "God Complex" (warning: raunchy and quite blasphemous) when Brand said the following:

Why are they doing this to us?  Why are they positioning our heroes in these meaningless landscapes?  Why are they creating a cultural malaise in which nothing has nutrition; where our food lacks nutrition; where there's an emptiness in my stomach that can't be filled by drugs or fame or money?  Who is it that benefits from this system?  Who benefits from us having a void within ourselves that can never be filled?  Who is it that claims they can fill this void?

It is quite intriguing that Brand answers such questions in three ways: two in his article and one in his show.  1. Escaping by watching movies which have messages.  To enter stories.  2. To be nice to people mindful of our fragility and delicate nature.  3. Worshiping sexuality.

Unfortunately, none of these things satisfy.  None of them.  Show me one person who has had their hunger filled by entering into story after story after story and/or watching movie after movie after movie.

Show me one person who has become satisfied with being nice to people.

Show me one person who has become satisfied with having as many sexual encounters as possible.

They do not exist.  None of these things brings satisfaction, and they all lead to hopelessness.  There is always another story; another person who needs to receive some niceness; another encounter to be had.  There is always a desire which finds temporary fulfillment, but defies satisfaction.  If you place your self-worth in such things, you will only find disappointment.

But such things are the default setting for humankind.  These are the things we automatically search for.  Brand asks who benefits from this system?  (I'd not call it a system; I'd call it our selfish-nature.)  We all do.  We all seek our own benefit.  We all seek our own will to power as Nietzsche called it.  Our selfish gene dominates as Richard Dawkins would say.  And our selfish gene does not become satisfied.  Our will to power is never quenched.  And if that will to power is threatened; if our selfish gene becomes thwarted as our false idols crumble, what happens?

Despair.
Anger.
Frustration.
Hopelessness.
Escapism.
Depression.

What can bring satisfaction?  What can lead us away from the desires for our own will to power?  What can pound the selfish gene into submission so that it cannot dominate others or be easily exploited?

Only the Gospel.
Only God's action through Jesus Christ.

I have gone through this train of thought numerous times in this blog and in my more recent sermons.  I never realized just how the Gospel truly is the hope of humanity as I was caught up in my own will to power; my own selfishness.  I know I was on the path to despair and even hit a bit of depression.  The Gospel changed all that.

I know Robin Williams was a Christian, but I don't know if he grasped the power of the Gospel.  In his comedic routines, I'm not sure he did.  I think he saw Christianity as a set of rules and regulations.  I think Russell Brand does too.  In my estimation, this isn't good.  It shows a failure on the part of the Church to articulate what God has already done.  It shows the Church has been more concerned with advice instead of proclamation.

That proclamation brings lasting change and satisfaction.  It brings hope and peace and joy.

These are things much needed by the world.  Williams and Brand show us that unequivocally.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Terrible Struggle (for Yours Truly)

Never has it happened to me.

Never.

Whenever I take a vacation and attend worship, I never have wanted to preach.  I have always been content to sit in the pew, worship, and listen to the sermon without any desire to proclaim myself.  Sure, I've been a bit critical of sermons I have heard.  I don't think there is a pastor who doesn't listen to a sermon and think, "Well, I'd have done things just a little different."  It's a natural thing for us to do that, I think.

But until this past Sunday, I had never sat in the pew and said to myself, "I wish I were preaching today!!!"  I had always simply enjoyed my break.

But not last Sunday.  Not at all.  It was a  terrible struggle.  As I listened to the texts read in worship, I desired tremendously to proclaim them.  I wanted to expound upon them because they shouted the Gospel!  And I love proclaiming the Gospel.

For this blog's sake, I will only cover the Epistle taken from the 10th Chapter of the book of Romans.  In a week or so, I will actually be changing the Gospel text for the day so that I can preach on Jesus' walking on the water--that was the Gospel text assigned for this past Sunday.

But onto Romans.  Onto why I wanted desperately to preach!  St. Paul writes:

5 Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that ‘the person who does these things will live by them.’ 6But the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8But what does it say?  ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.

Paul's words struck me like they had never struck me before.  "Moses writes concerning the righteousness that comes from the law, that 'the person who does these things will live by them.'

The person who does the works of the law will live by them.  The person who obeys the law lives.  The person who does not obey the law dies.  It's a rather simple concept.  One that many are all too familiar with.  In fact, they are familiar with it because it is very prevalent in Christianity today. 

"Unless you live correctly, you will suffer God's wrath!"

This is the basic proclamation of many Christian churches today.  Whether they believe it to be so or not. 

Unless you adhere to the correct teachings of sexuality, you are doomed.
Unless you are committed to doing justice and serving the poor, God will frown upon you.
Unless you are pro-life, God views you as a murderer.
Unless you advocate for health care and welfare for the poor, God views you as a law breaker.

Oh, I could go on and on and on. 

Sure, most churches and preachers will throw in a little nugget about how Jesus died to save us from sin--maybe--but in a heartbeat, they turn around and make salvation totally dependent upon our actions.

That's not the Gospel.  That's the Law.  Paul is making that distinction gloriously in these few verses from Romans 10.  Notice that Paul makes a clean break from this line of thought beginning in verse 6:

6BUT (emphasis mine) the righteousness that comes from faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ down) 7‘or “Who will descend into the abyss?” ’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).

The righteousness that comes from faith doesn't focus on saying "Who will ascend into heaven?"  or "Who will descend into the abyss?"   Read that verse again.  And again.  And again.  And then ponder why it is that so much of the stuff we hear coming from pulpits does this very thing.  (Hey, I was pretty good at doing it myself in bygone years!!!)

For when we say in our heart "Who will ascend into heaven?" we bring Christ down.  What?
For when we say in our heart "Who will descend into the abyss?" we bring Christ up from the dead.  What?

Think about this.  When we ask ourselves such questions, how do we normally judge another? 

By their works.  By the things we view them doing or saying.  By their actions.

If a person gets to go to heaven because of their works, this brings Christ down.  He is no longer the exalted Savior.  He is simply a good teacher--an ethicist who revealed a form of morality.  His cross is not needed for salvation. 

If a person is assigned to hell/the abyss because of their actions, we bring Christ up from the dead.  I think Paul is referring to the teaching that Christ descended to the dead to proclaim the Gospel to those who had died.  (Ephesians 4)  There was no need for Christ to descend if we are judged according to our works for it is impossible to attain salvation through works.  There is no need for the Gospel to be proclaimed to those who were dead.  Their fate is sealed--as is ours.  If salvation comes through works.

The righteousness that comes from the Law might ask "Who ascends to heaven?" and "Who descends to the abyss?"  But the righteousness that comes from faith does not.  It says something quite different.

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ 

The Word has convicted you.
The Word has changed you.
The Word has infused you and become a part of you.

The Gospel makes you see that you are incapable of following the Law.  The Gospel makes you see that you stand condemned by the Law.  The Gospel makes you see that if your salvation is up to you at any given point and time, you will never, ever attain it.  Never.  You know you cannot "ascend into heaven."  You know you would "descend into the abyss" were it not for God's saving action through Jesus Christ.  You know you are justified--looked at differently by God--in your heart, and so you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord!

It is the Gospel which brings you to this place.  Plain and simple. It is only the Gospel.

And that Gospel leads you to ask different questions.  You leave the judging up to God.  The former questions are irrelevant.  New ones are needed.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God send the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

That news begs a different question: not who is ascending or descending, but rather who has heard?  Who hasn't heard?  Who needs to hear this wonderful news?  Who needs to hear that God's wrath has been satisfied?  Who needs to hear that their salvation is procured and that we are free from attaining our salvation through works of the Law?

Is it any wonder Paul concludes this snippet with the following words:

14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ 16But not all have obeyed the good news;  for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our message?’ 17So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

Proclamation is at the heart of Christianity.  Proclamation about what God has done--not what we are supposed to do.  Those things naturally flow from a heart transformed by the Gospel--a Gospel which begs to be proclaimed to a world desperate to hear it.

And I struggled to sit and simply listen. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Having a God Complex

On a message board frequented by yours truly, I was accused a couple of times (by the same poster) of having a "God complex."

It would be easy to vociferously deny such a charge.  I think most of us readily would.  But, instead of denial, perhaps it might be worthwhile to think such a charge through.

First, let's ask: what is a "God complex?"

Googling the term brings up some interesting definitions.  Apparently, there is no one settled definition:

This website defines it as Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited.

The FreeDictionaryA popular term for a personality flaw commonly seen in physicians, especially surgeons, who perceive themselves as omniscient—i.e., God-like—and thus treat others as mere mortals.

Definitions: God complex--A god complex is an unshakable belief characterized by consistently inflated feelings of personal ability, privilege, or infallibility. A person with a god complex may refuse to admit the possibility of error or failure, even in the face of complex or intractable problems or difficult or impossible tasks, or may regard personal opinions as unquestionably correct. The individual may disregard the rules of society and require special consideration or privileges. God complex is not a clinical term or diagnosable disorder, and does not appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The first person to use the term god-complex was Ernest Jones His description, at least in the contents page of Essays in Applied Psycho-Analysis describe the God Complex as belief that one is a god

Wikipedia cites the Definitions.net definition.

It's intriguing to think about these definitions and perhaps put them together in some sort of fashion.  I will do this to formulate my own definition of a "God complex."

Definition: An unshakable belief that one knows how the world operates and should operate, and that others who do not share the same thoughts are unintelligent, ignorant, and contemptible.

How's that for a working definition?  If you do not agree with this definition, then the rest of this post probably will not make much sense.  I invite you to offer your own definitions in the comments section.

For those of you still reading, I now invite you to ponder the accusation as I will.  Do I have a "God complex?"  Do I believe that I know everything and how everything should work.  Do I hold others in contempt when they do not share my view of the world?

Immediately, most of us, including myself respond, "Absolutely not!  I do not know everything.  I profess my ignorance!"

(Yet, do you say this because deep down you know this to be true, or do you say this because you know it is the right answer that one must speak in public?)

Despite my initial rebuke of the accusation, I must also give myself pause.  For do I not oftentimes believe I have the answer to what ails the world?  Do I not believe I have the correct interpretation of data?  Do I not believe if everyone else simply did as I did and thought as I thought, then the world would be a better place to live?

Be honest with yourself.  Brutally honest.

How many of us are guilty of doing exactly these things?  How many of us would like to write a prescription for the world and have it followed to a tee?  How many of us become angry or upset when others refuse to consider our prescription or point of view?

No one that I know escapes doing this.  No one.  

Do I have a "God complex?"  I most certainly do.  I would argue every one of us does, and our self-righteousness is deadly to our relationships, to our society, to the world.

The Christian view of humanity starts with the notion that each and every one of us are trapped by this innate selfishness--this innate desire to be God ourselves.

It was not the action of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden which was the Original Sin.  Rather, it was the desire to be "like God," and not in a good kind of way.  Being "like God" in our ability to love unconditionally, forgive when spit upon, be creative, and so on is a good thing.  But wanting to be "like God" and function as the be all and end all is not.  It is the latter which gets us into mounds of trouble and has gotten us in trouble for generation after generation after generation.

But is there a way out of such behavior?  Is there a way for us to escape our "God complexes?"

Not if you aren't willing to see that you have one.  Not if you aren't willing to see that you try to place yourself as God and tell everyone what to do.  Not if you aren't willing to acknowledge that you at some level believe you know what is best and believe everyone else should be just like you.

Only when you are willing to acknowledge this and believe that it is wrongheaded--and that you are broken in this selfish desire are you ready to hear the message of grace.

And that is another lengthy post. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Being Satisfied

    Perhaps some of you may remember a story I told a year or so ago about the time I was sitting at Taco Bell in Katy after doing some hospital visitation.  I was reading the Bible as I ate, and I had just finished reading from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5.  I kid you not, I had just finished reading Jesus say, “Give to everyone who begs,” when a guy laid a pen with a piece of paper attached to it.  The paper read, “I am deaf.  Can you give $3 for this pen to help me and my family?” 

    At that moment, there was one emotion that ran through my head.  Can you guess which one?  It wasn’t love or charity or joy.  It was quite the opposite.  It was anger.  Yes, it was anger.  I got angry at quite a few things.  I was angry at this guy for doing what he was doing.  There was S-C-A-M written all over him.  I was then angry at Jesus for saying, “Give to everyone who begs.”  I thought to myself, “Why in the world would you say such a thing?  Don’t you know there are tons of people out there who game the system?  Who seek to make a fast buck?  Who get cash and don’t even report it to the IRS?”  Oh, yes, I was mad at Jesus.  Then, I was mad at me for getting mad at Jesus.  I mean, that’s not exactly how a Christian acts toward the person who died for him, you know?  It was an amazing set of happenings that all lined up.  And yes, I reached into my wallet and gave the guy $5–not because I joyfully wanted to give, but out of begrudging obedience to what Jesus said.  I will let you know right now, my actions were sinful because of this.  My heart wasn’t aligned correctly when I gave.  It was out of whack.  If the same scenario happened again, it might be out of whack again.  I’m not sure.  Maybe I’ve grown.

    For, in a very real way, I now know why Jesus gave that command.  I know why he looked at that crowd 2000 years ago and said, “Give to everyone who begs.”  Why?  Because of what Martin Luther said on his deathbed.  Reportedly, his last words were, “We are all beggars.”  What did Luther mean by that?

    I want you to think about yourself right now.  I want you to think about many of the things that bring you satisfaction and joy.  Think about some of the things that bring you happiness and a sense of purpose.  What are those things?  Perhaps I can list a few, because I think many are shared by humanity.  We like getting money.  We like buying things.  We like working and our jobs.  We love our children.  We love traveling and vacations.  We like doing things which are a little out of the ordinary.  We love reading.  We like getting information.  We like to eat and drink.  We like to escape from the ordinary trials and tribulations of life.  We like sex.  We like exercising and staying in shape.  We like hunting and fishing.  We like sports, boy do we like sports.  We like helping others.  We like doing things which give us a sense that we are making a difference in the world.  That’s a long list–we could add more, but I want to stop for a minute and ask you: do these things ever fully satisfy us?

    Think about that for just a minute or two.  Do these things satisfy us to the point where we feel at peace about our lives?  Do these things satisfy us to the point where we look at others who have such things or who do such things and have only joy for them without having any pangs of jealousy?  Do these things satisfy us to the point where we walk through life with a sense of joy and wholeness, or do we always crave more?  I think you know the answer to that last question.

    And let me take a little tangent for a minute and say, there is nothing necessarily wrong with doing any of the above things.  Nothing at all.  In fact, many of the things I listed are necessary for our very being.  If we don’t eat and drink.  We die.  If we don’t take care of our children, they die or turn into little hellions.  If we don’t exercise, our bodies break down faster and fall ill quicker.  If we don’t earn money, we cannot fulfill our financial obligations and put food on the table.  Keeping kids active in sports gives them a sense of teamwork and teaches them how to handle losing.  You get the point.  Many of these things are necessary for life, and they are good.  So what is the problem?  Too often, we take these things, which are good things, and turn them into ultimate things.  Let me say that again, we take these good things and turn them into ultimate things.  And then problems begin.

    For when we take something good like eating and make it an ultimate thing, that leads to gluttony; over eating; obesity; and failing health.  When we make sports an ultimate thing, we obsess over every detail of what is going on in the life of a team; if our children are involved, we micromanage their careers oftentimes yelling and screaming at them if they do not meet our expectations; we criticize unmercifully the coaches and umpires or referees.  We spend copious amounts of money without even realizing it, and when the season is over, we can only think about the next season.  And when our kids eventually stop or say they no longer want to participate, a huge gaping void is left that leads us to become depressed, anxious, or angry until it is filled.  If sex becomes ultimate, we spend tons of time trying to look better and make our bodies better looking.  We spend hours in the gym and watching our diets to look good.  We adore pictures on magazines and camera angles in the movies, and we compare ourselves to those others and desire to be like them–this same sort of thing also happens to those who become obsessed with making their own bodies look good.  If helping others becomes ultimate, we are constantly seeking to help someone, and we feel down in the dumps if we can’t help or if there is no one to help.  And if we get to the point where we can no longer help, we then feel worthless ourselves. 

    And this is not the least of what happens to us.  Not at all.  Because when these things take hold, self-righteousness begins to settle in.  If someone doesn’t share our craving for food, we look at them as if they are strange.  If someone doesn’t share our desire to look good, we call them obese, fat, and all sorts of other names.  If someone doesn’t share our love of sports, we figure something must be wrong with them.  Our gods demand total allegiance from us–including forsaking others who do not feel the exact same way that we do.  Oh, and by the way, if we get caught up in religion–the idea that we have to work our way to God, the same exact things happen.  And we are never, ever satisfied.  We are never, ever filled with joy.  We are never, ever full of peace.  There is only the next game; the next person to help; the next sexual encounter; the next cause to get behind; the next worship service.  We are constantly begging for more.  We are all beggars.

    And Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs.”  But it is so hard to give.  It is so hard to joyfully help out someone when we are inconvenienced or we feel like they are gaming us.  Why should we help when folks don’t seem to change at all?  Why?  It’s because this is exactly what Jesus did for us. 

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”  Jesus poured Himself out for the world.  Jesus pours Himself out for you and me–even when we don’t change; even when we continue to sin; Jesus loves us and forgives us and empties Himself out for us giving us gift after gift after gift.  Why?

    Think about this for a moment.  What kind of people do you think were following Jesus around in Galilee all those many years ago?  Do you think those folks were the wealthy?  The healthy?  Those who had it all together?  Our Gospel lesson this morning says, “14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”  The folks had plenty of sick with them, and we know that in ancient Israel, the vast, vast majority of the population were poor and lived day by day.  It is these folks who followed Jesus and who ran ahead to be with Him.

    The disciples didn’t want to have anything to do with them.  The disciples wanted to sent them away to get food for themselves.  “There’s too many of them, Jesus. They might take advantage of us, Jesus.  Send them away, Jesus.  Let them fend for themselves and take responsibility for themselves, Jesus.  We only have enough for ourselves, Jesus.”

    But that’s not the way things work in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus knew this.  Jesus knew the disciples weren’t focused on Him.  He knew they were focused on “the problem” instead of the solution.  Physical and spiritual hunger would both be met this day.  We know what happened next.  Five loaves and two fish fed the multitude with a little bit of help from Jesus.  This event would cause massive amounts of hope to break into these people’s lives.

    And this feeding foreshadows another outpouring of satisfaction which would happen later when Jesus would hang on a cross.  Jesus would intercede on our behalf and face God’s wrath for sin.  On the cross, Jesus would reconcile us unto God, and the resurrection would instill within us hope.

    For we were sinners, and Jesus poured Himself out for us.

    We still sin, and Jesus pours Himself out for us.  Why?

    So that we may see what He has done.  We may understand that we were saved by His love.  So that we may know that as we beg, Jesus continually gives over and over and over again.  So that we may see His love for us; see His mercy for us; be humbled by that mercy; and be inspired to live and move differently because of that love.  How so?

    Let me share a final story.  Last week, I took a little bit of money and some food to someone we have helped repeatedly through our Community Care Fund.  We’ve literally given over a thousand dollars in assistance to this woman, and she has come back repeatedly for more.  Many times, I have wished to cut her off.  Many times, I’ve wanted to say, “This is it.  We will not give you anymore.”  And Jesus’ words haunt me, “Give to everyone who begs.”

    This last time I took assistance to her, she met me.  And she went on and on and on.  “Thank you, Pastor Haug for helping me.  I can’t miss my dialysis–I was giving her money for transit.  I haven’t missed in a long time, and I’m feeling better than I have in a long time.  I haven’t been sick in a long time.  I’m getting better.  I’m keeping this place up until my fiancee gets out of jail.  I’m working really hard on that.  I didn’t want to bother you, Pastor Haug, but I didn’t know who else to turn to.  Things are getting better.”

    As she talked, I noticed something different about this woman.  There was something there that hadn’t been there before.  There was hope.  There was a glint in her eye that thought the future could be better.  That things could change.  That she could change.  It was not brought on by something she did, but by the love of others.  The love that we poured out was changing her.  Just as the love Jesus pours out changes us.  May our hearts be tuned to Jesus so that we can be changed and experience the fulfillment only He can provide.  Amen.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Israel and Hamas

It's a poor analogy, but one I sometimes feel.

I feel as if I were watching a spectator sport and people are arguing about why you should support one side over another--which side is better--which side is more in the right than the other.

And then, there are others who claim a stance of neutrality is more appropriate.  "I don't have a dog in the fight.  Why join in?"

We must also add the voices of those who say, "Why the battle at all?  What is the need for the game?"

In this case, the game is a game of life and death; grief and destruction.

Yesterday, I sat on the porch of a house built in the 1860s.  A pastoral visit had turned into an entire afternoon of hospitality, fellowship, and revelation--revelation in the sense of getting to know you better.

The 89 year old man was a World War II veteran who participated in the Battle of the Bulge.  He has witnessed entire towns blown to rubble.  He couldn't help but feel for those who might have been in those towns.  "You have to think that those are men and women and children over there.  They are supposed to be the enemy, but they are humans.  There is no glory in war; there is only pain.  The politicians get us into war, and its the young people who suffer."

This man has had many years to reflect upon what he saw and heard and participated in.  Such wisdom tends to be missing in many of the conversations I hear about ongoing conflicts around the world.

I wonder what it is to be a pawn in someone else's game.  For that is what mostly tends to happen in such situations.  Civilians become pawns in the games of those who seek power--for is that not what war truly is?  Is that not what ultimately politics really is?  A striving for power?  A striving for control?  And if I have enough power, no one will mess with me--through power, safety and peace are achieved.

I remember an empire which expanded with the same sort of ideals (does the Pax Romana mean anything to anyone?).  It was an empire which eventually crumbled.  As do all of them.

All empires eventually crumble.  Historically, all nations eventually fade.  Maps are redrawn all the time.

And it will not change.  It simply won't. 

Because there is a part of us which desperately desires safety and control.  And the best way to ensure safety and control is to draw boundaries.  Within these borders, I am safe.  And to maintain that safety, I must be strong.  I must be powerful.  I must be willing to defend those borders, and if expansion of those borders offers me more opportunity to be safe, then so be it!  And if I show the slightest amount of weakness, then my safety is diminished.

Power and safety.  Hamas.  Israel.  The pawns: the Palestinian people.  The battle rages.  There is no glory.  Only pain.

And there will be only pain for generation after generation after generation. 

Unless something can diffuse that which dominates the human heart.  Unless something can turn us away from the hunger for power and safety.

Oh, we try to put all sorts of treaties into place.  And we always appeal to self-interest, but self interest leads straight back to power and safety.  All the time.

What can break us out of such a thing? 

Christianity offers a path--a path not based upon power and safety but upon powerlessness and risk.  It centers upon Jesus who, though being full of the power of God--God incarnate--did not choose equality with God as something to be exploited, but He gave up that power to empty Himself on the cross.  He died to reconcile the world unto God AT GREAT RISK!

What does that mean?

Jesus died for us while we were still sinners.  He died for us and offered us forgiveness before we even asked for it.  He reconciled us to God while we were and still are unlovable.  Why?  Why would He do such a stupid thing?

Because it is contrary to power and safety.  It's contrary to the nature of our own hearts.  If God can die for us and love us while we were sinners; if God can give up power and control; if God can risk it all on us to love us when we were unmerciful; if God can show that He has already given His all for us; then that can change our hearts. 

I remember reading The Cross and the Switchblade many years ago.  I can remember a powerful moment when an evangelist spoke these words to a gang banger, "You can cut me into a thousand pieces, and every one of them will scream, 'I love you.'"  At that point, one of a couple of things will happen.  You will cut the person to pieces regardless and continue on your merry way, or you will be forced to consider why it is someone would willingly offer themselves up for you.  How can someone face death and destruction so willingly?  How can someone allow another to inflict pain and suffering without seeking power and safety?

If someone takes the time to contemplate, the Gospel begins to take root.  The Gospel begins to show a different avenue to power and safety.  It's the route to love and risk.  You still may be killed.  You still may be subjugated.  But you have no need of power and safety because you know of something better--something infinitely more powerful and something infinitely more secure.

It's still very easy to jump back to the default.  I mean, I know if someone were going after my family and children, I wouldn't hesitate to use power to bring them to safety.  That default position is very, very strong.  But I hope I wouldn't demonize the one antagonizing my family.  I hope my heart has been at least changed that much by the Gospel.

That Gospel, I believe is the hope for the world.  For Israel.  For Hamas.  For the Palestinians. 

Don't ask me to be a cheerleader for any side in this conflict.  Don't ask me to be neutral.  Don't ask me why folks just can't get along.

They can't until sin is confronted.  And the only remedy for sin is the Gospel.  And the Gospel commands me to be on both sides and against both sides at the same time.  And to pray like hell for peace.