Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why are Christians So...

Whew!

I just returned from a yearly theological conference put on by the three ELCA synods in Texas and Louisiana.  This year's topic was preaching, and we were blessed with a dynamic presenter Len Sweet.  Of course, I didn't agree with him on everything.  In fact, we are quite divergent in our methodologies.  Yet, I do know he wants very much for our churches to thrive.  I know he wants us to follow Jesus as Jesus' disciples.  I commend him for that.

But I disagree with some of his methodologies--most particular, I disagree with what he considers the Gospel. 

Perhaps early on in his first presentation, I became jaded, and here is why:

Early on in his presentation, Sweet used a Yahoo! search bar clip to present his case that we as Christians are viewed negatively by the surrounding culture. 

You can see the comments are not so flattering--to say the least.

"This is what the culture thinks of you..." Sweet elaborated.  Most of us simply sat and stared at this without challenging it.  And, of course, it is true that there are Christians who are judgemental, hateful, mean, stupid, self-righteous, intolerant, easily offended, annoying, ignorant, and arrogant.  There are more than a few adjectives we could add to this list.  Many pastors deal with congregation members who fit these adjectives, and sometimes we tend to be a bit too agreeable when someone shoves something like this in our face.  (Full disclosure: there are a few congregation members out there who believe their pastors can indeed fit these adjectives as well!!!)

But being the type of person I am, I did not readily swallow Sweet's assertion.  In fact, the presentation bothered me, so later that evening, I decided to have a bit of fun on Yahoo!  I didn't do what I did because I don't believe Christians can't be this way--they can and are!!--but I wondered just how accurate such a thing could be?  I wondered if there wasn't something else to be discerned from Yahoo! searches.  Here is what I discovered by simply changing one word in the search query:

Why are atheists so...
Why are Muslims so
Why are Jews so
Hmm.  Are we discerning a pattern yet?  So, being who I am, I started doing a little more:

Why are whites so
Why are blacks so
Why are Mexicans so
Why are women so
Why are men so
Take a look at each and every one of these screenshots and look them over carefully once more.  Look them over and tell me what you see.  Do you see honesty?  Or do you see a caricature?  Do you see reality, or do you see someone emphasizing the less than savory "blemishes" of all these folks?  Do you see reality, or do you think someone is trying to warp reality?

Timothy Keller says this in his book Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (emphasis mine):

Religion, generally speaking, tends to create a slippery slope in the heart.  Each religion informs its followers that they have "the truth," and this naturally leads them to feel superior to those with differing beliefs.  Also, a religion tells its followers they are saved and connected to God by devotedly performing that truth.  This moves them to separate from those who are less than devoted and pure in life.  Therefore it is easy for one group to stereotype and caricature other ones.  Once this situation exists, it can easily spiral down into the marginalization of others and or even to active oppression, abuse, or violence against them.  (Kindle Location 331)

See any stereotyping and caricature in the screenshots above?   But I would argue, it's not just religion that causes this.  It's any person who believes he or she is above reproach and morally superior to another.  And if these screenshots are an indicator of culture--or an indicator of those who put together the algorithms at Yahoo!--then, there are some folks whose hearts are traveling down that slippery slope of the heart.

The cure for such a slippery slope is the Gospel; however, I think it is enough to stop here and let it simmer for a while.  I think it is enough to stop here and reflect upon that which has been seen for unlike Sweet, I will not see what Yahoo! is doing as a reflection on Christianity because if Yahoo! is doing what I see it doing, it tells us more about Yahoo! than it does about reality.








Monday, January 26, 2015

How Can We Love our Enemies?



    One of the things that troubles me greatly about our society these days is how we seemingly have no qualms about drawing a sharp division between us and them.  What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s draw from the experience of the State of the Union Address the other night.  These addresses have essentially become pep rallies for the President–a time to have supporters cheer raucously and for detractors to sit and scowl.  And, here is the kicker, it doesn’t matter if the President offers up an idea that is supported by the majority of people; it doesn’t matter if the President offers up an idea that both parties support; because it is the President, and at this time a Democrat, detractors, the opposite Party, Republicans will generally still sit and scowl. 

    Why?  Why scowl if it is a suggestion everyone can get behind?  Generally it’s because we don’t want anyone else to get credit for something we like.  We don’t want anyone else to steal our thunder.  We want all the credit for things that go well, and we don’t want the other guy or gal, to receive anything we thing should be ours.  I mean, it would be like me standing up here and saying, “We can’t help St. John Lutheran Church of Bellville with their Chicken Fried Steak Fundraiser today because we didn’t come up with the idea.  It doesn’t matter what they are trying to do with the money; it wasn’t our idea, so we should not support it.”  Do you see how childish that comes across?  I hope you do, and yet, yet, in our society today such an attitude is rampant!

    For some reason or another, it has become very, very permissible to draw an almost permanent line between myself and anyone who disagrees with my perspective.  It has become acceptable to demean and almost demonize those who take a different political or moral stance.  It has become common place to surround ourselves with those who agree with us and associate with those folks alone and exclude anyone who might challenge us or our way of thinking. 

    And in reality, it’s a very old problem.  A very old problem.  You might at this point go so far as to say, “Well, what is the problem?  What’s so bad about hanging around people who agree with me?  There’s no fighting.  There’s no arguing or bickering.  We get along with one another.”  Point taken, but let me ask you a couple of questions: number one: how will you then grow?  How will you then allow yourself to think through things if you are never challenged by anyone else?  Are you telling me you have everything in the world figured out and there is no longer any need to learn?  Second point: are you absolutely sure you and those you hang around with agree on everything?  Are you sure that your relationship isn’t just superficial–for a real relationship to occur, there must be some sort of difference between you and another person.  If there is no difference or if someone simply agrees with you at all points and at all times, then you would have what is called a Stepford Relationship.  That is to say, if you remember the movies “The Stepford Wives”, then you remember how the husbands in a small town programmed their wives to be absolutely obedient and never challenge them on anything.  While that does indeed remove conflict, it also removes a relationship.  In fact, there is no relationship at all.  So, if you just surround yourself with people who agree with you, you are limiting your growth and you really don’t have real relationships.  Does this sound like an agreeable thing?  Some of you might think so.  Okay.  This sermon isn’t for you.

    But for those of you who do want to grow and who do want authentic relationships, the issue now arises: how do you interact, get along with, respect, and even love someone who is different than you are?  How do you come to respect and love someone whose ideas and actions have even hurt you in the past and are hurting you now?   How do we live together with others who are completely and utterly different?

    Let’s begin trying to answer these questions by looking at our Old Testament lesson from the book of Jonah.  We have all of chapter 3 in front of us this morning, and it begins in an intriguing way, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time saying, ‘Go to Nineveh and preach what I will tell you.’” A little background: the book of Jonah is the story of a reluctant prophet who does not like the Ninevites.  Nineveh is a city in Assyria, and the Assyrian empire had been threatening the Israelites with invasion.  Essentially, the Assyrians were enemies of Israel.  Furthermore, the Assyrians were brutal.  We have a notion today of how one’s enemies should be treated with some amount of respect and dignity during war.  This is why we have war crime tribunals.  No such thing existed in those days back then.  Assyrians were particularly nasty in treating those whom they conquered.  I will not go into the gory details here, but please know, they make ISIS look like saints.  Nineveh was a large city in Assyria, and they were known for their debauchery and evil.  They were violent, and apparently there were all sorts of sexual perversions going on as well.  They were not nice people.

    The word of the Lord came to Jonah and told him to go and preach at Nineveh–telling the Ninevehites that the Lord’s anger was kindled against them.  But Jonah didn’t want to do this.  Jonah didn’t want to go to his enemies.  Jonah didn’t want to give them the chance to repent, so Jonah went in the exact opposite direction that the Lord told him to go.  For those of you who know the story, the results of Jonah’s disobedience were not pretty.  Jonah ended up spending three days in the belly of a fish for his disobedience; he repents of his behavior; the fish vomits him out on shore, and the word of the Lord comes to Jonah a second time, “Go to Nineveh and preach what I tell you.”

    So, fearing something worse than before, Jonah heads to Nineveh, and I find it interesting what Jonah says.  I mean, he walks a day into the city and says, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  That’s it.  That’s all he says.  There are commentators who suggest that this is a condensed version of what Jonah really said.  They find it incredulous that this would be all that Jonah would say.  I don’t particularly find it incredulous.  In fact, I think Jonah says exactly what the Lord tells him to say and nothing more.  What do I mean by that?  Well, if you read through all the Old Testament prophets, I believe it is almost 100% of the case that the prophets always begin their proclamations with, “Thus says the Lord.”   I think every prophet begins their proclamation in this fashion so that everyone knows where the proclamation comes from.  Everyone knows this isn’t the prophet’s own words.  Everyone knows this word comes from God.

    Jonah does not use that phrase.  Jonah does not say, “Thus says the Lord.”  Jonah just blurts out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  He doesn’t tell the Ninevehites where this proclamation comes from.  He doesn’t tell them God is angry with their transgressions.  He doesn’t expound or explain.  Why?  He still wants Nineveh destroyed.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

    But the more intriguing thing is the effect Jonah’s message has.  The folks have no idea that it comes from the Lord–at least by Jonah’s proclamation; however, they seem to figure it out very fast.  There must have been something that cut to the hearts of the people in that proclamation.  There must have been something which aroused within them a deep sense of their brokenness and sin.  For even though Jonah doesn’t mention God, the people begin fasting and praying.

    Word even reaches the king of Nineveh, and he makes official what the people started unofficially.  The king proclaims a time of fasting and repentance.  The king himself dresses in sack cloth and sits in the dust, and he utters these words, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

    And God does change His mind.  God does not bring down punishment upon the Ninevehites.  Theoretically, this should be a cause of great joy.  This should be a cause for celebration.  Repentance occurred.  People changed their ways.  They stopped committing evil. 

    But Jonah does not rejoice.  Let me read to you a snippet from Jonah chapter 4.  “But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’”

    Jonah wanted to die when he saw that the Lord allowed his enemies to live.  Think about that a minute!  Did Jonah’s foray into the belly of the fish have any effect on Jonah’s heart what-so-ever?  No.  None.  None at all.  Jonah was still as self-righteous and self-centered as ever.  The punishment God gave to him did not transform him and did not lead him to love his enemies.  The punishment did not bring about any change at all.

    But, you may say at this point, the threat of punishment changed the Ninevehites.  They repented.  They changed their ways.  I ask you, “For how long?”  Do you think their change was permanent?  Do you think they stopped being violent and bloodthirsty?  Do you think they permanently stopped their sexual perversion?  I wouldn’t ask you the question if I didn’t already know the answer.  The book of Nahum a little later in the Old Testament gives us the answer.  In chapters 2 and 3 the prophet Nahum rejoices in the Lord’s destruction of Nineveh.  He talks about how the Lord visited punishment upon the city for its violence and sexual perversion.  Sure, the Ninevehites changed their ways, but it wasn’t a lasting change.  Why?

    Because punishment or the threat of punishment will not change a heart permanently.  It just will not.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes punishment is necessary.  It teaches that there are consequences for actions.  It can serve as a deterrent, but it will not affect the deepest parts of a person’s heart.  It will not lead a person away from self-centeredness and self-righteousness because even if a person does not commit a wrong for fear of getting caught, that person is only doing so out of self-interest.

    I mean, this should be common knowledge to most of us.  We should get this, but for some reason we don’t.  We should learn this with raising our children and how we were raised.  I mean, when I was a kid, I was scared of my dad.  I was scared of the consequences of disobeying him.  I dreaded the sound of his belt coming off.  I followed his advice and teaching because I was afraid that if I didn’t, I would receive punishment.  But as I matured, I came to a very different place.  I began following my dad’s advice and teaching out of respect for him.  I should include my mother here as well, but dad was kind of mom’s enforcer.  I wasn’t as afraid of my mom.  But that is beside the point.  As I grew up, I began listening to my mom and dad not for fear of punishment but because I loved and respected them.   Fear no longer governed things.  Love did.  And it changed the dynamic of the relationship.

    And if we understand the love of God, it changes the dynamic of the relationship as well.  If we understand how God operates with us through Jesus Christ, it transforms us deeply.  If we understand that God loved us in the midst of our self-righteousness, in the midst of our sin, in the midst of our brokenness; if we understand Jesus took our place on the cross and removed the threat of punishment; if we understand that Jesus took the punishment meant for us, then we see how our heavenly parent sacrificed for us; how He gave Himself for us; how He truly and desperately loves us; then we are indeed transformed.  Because we know that Jesus died for us when we were enemies to Him.  Jesus died for us when we were acting completely opposite to what He taught and did.  We were enemies to God because of our sin, but instead of punishing us, God died for us.

    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 how can you be self-righteous if you know God did this for you?  How can you be self-righteous if your salvation was given to you when you were an enemy to God?  How can you think highly of yourself when God had to die to reconcile you unto Himself?  Simply put, you can’t.  You can’t keep your head held too high because you were like those Ninevehites.  You were like Jonah.  You were in rebellion to God, but instead of punishment, He gave you Jesus.  He loved you with a mature love–the only kind of love that can transform your heart.  And when it does, you can look at those who disagree with you and say, “I do not agree with you, but I love you because God loves you like He loves me.”  Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Saying Goodby to an Old Friend

When I attended my last Bowen Family System's class, I had one of those moments of clarity--one of those moments which made me see the transformation which had occurred in my own life since getting a better understanding of the Gospel.

As I sat in class, I heard again the words I have heard so often over the last 14 years, "Self-differentiation; knowledge of self; changing one's position in one's family of origin; changing one's position in a particular system; working on one's self to the point of not reacting to another's position; being able to state one's own position without trying to convince another of one's "rightness."

I started dabbling in Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) while on internship.  I read the book Generation to Generation by Rabbi Ed Friedman.  I was hooked.  BFST seemed to offer a different way of looking at things--a way separate from the left/right; Democrat/Republican; liberal/conservative way of thinking.  It seemed to offer a path of transformation and leadership based, not on making people do something or convincing them right from wrong, but on the presence of a leader and being clearly defined in what one believes.

But there were several things which began rubbing me the wrong way over the years.  There was a subtle but important thread which stated a leader concentrating on self-definition didn't worry about talking about what was right and what was wrong.  Those things were evidence of someone who was not well differentiated.  And I asked myself, "So we cannot call murder wrong?"  BFST focused on what in a particular system led to murder and not the act of murder itself.  While I do appreciate the powers at work that influence people, I simply cannot stop.  I have to point out the wrongness of murder.

There was also a recent discovery as I read Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought.  When I read Ferry's following words, I realized that BFST was really nothing new under the sun: 

For the Stoics, the structure of the world--the cosmic order--is not merely magnificent, it is also comparable to a living being.  The material world, the entire universe, fundamentally resembles a giant animal, of which each element--each organ--is conceived and adapted to the harmonious functioning of the whole.  Each part, each member of this immense body, is perfectly in place and functions impeccably (although disasters do occur, they do not last for long and order is soon restored) in the most literal sense: without fault, and in harmony with the other parts...

For if nature as a whole is harmonious, then it can serve as a  model for human conduct, and the order of things must be just and good...

(Kindle locations 322 and 367)

There is more that could be quoted, but one of the tenets of BFST is to look at nature; how nature operates at the systemic, cellular, and other biological levels and apply it to human relationships.  BFST is essentially Stoic thought revisited!!!

Ah, but then there is the clincher, BFST's incessant call for self-definition; self-transformation; self-management.  It believes human beings have the power to transform themselves by their own actions and thought processes.  It teaches a person to put his or her trust in his or her own abilities--own ability to be non-anxious; own ability to be differentiated; own ability to stay connected; own ability to manage anxiety; own ability to retain clarity; etc.  It's all about how a person handles and transforms his or her self. 

This is in direct conflict with the nature of the Gospel!

Transformation does not occur in one's life because of one's own actions.  If we could transform ourselves and could do a good job of it, self-help sections in bookstores wouldn't be so huge!

As Christians, we believe transformation comes from without.  We believe and articulate that transformation comes from Jesus--from His actions as He lived the life we are called to live and died the death we deserved.  This good news cuts into our hearts as we come to understand it and it grasps us.  It alone challenges us and comforts us.  It alone gives us the ability and strength to change.

Case in point.  Yesterday, there was some discussion regarding the shrinking mainline church in relation to pastors and how pastors are paid.  The suggestion was made that clergy might ought to think about finding employment outside their congregations so that "they are not trapped by those who pay their paychecks."  "It would make things cleaner," was another argument.

I responded, "I disagree.  I think, if we are indeed talking about emotional processes, money is just an symptom of a deeper problem.  It wouldn't make things cleaner at all.  It just depends upon where you put your trust.  Do you put your trust in Jesus or do you put your trust in yourself and in your congregation?"

The Gospel brings us to the place where we put our trust in Jesus.  We are able then to say what needs to be said.  Might we get toasted by our congregations?  Sure.  Especially if we come across as self-centered and arrogant.  However, the Gospel doesn't allow you to do that either.  It humbles you, and so when you point out sin--that which is right and which is wrong--you are doing so as a sinner yourself; you are doing so who is under the same condemnation as those who are being called out.  And so, you don't arrogantly go around telling people what to do, you humbly point out what God has done through Jesus and how we can be different by putting our trust in Him.

It all comes back to Jesus.  At least for the Christian, it all comes back to Jesus and what He has done for us on the cross and in the resurrection.  Change comes through this good news.  Transformation comes through this good news.  It comes from no other place.

And so, I say good by to an old friend at the end of this year's class period. 

There are those who have remarked, "Rabbi Jesus saved my soul, but Rabbi Friedman saved my ass."  Sorry, what Jesus did accomplishes both, we have just failed to see how.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Importance of Shared Context

Monday night, I sent my youth director a text.  "Missing you...," it said.

My youth director sent me a text back, "Are you texting the right person?"

She informed me that she believed I had really messed up.  She wondered just how it was possible for me to have sent such a thing to her.  Obviously, this sort of text was meant for my wife.  How could I possibly get the names totally and completely confused--my wife's name starts with D.  My youth director's with C.

I responded, "Yes.  Sitting around council missing my youth director."

I won't print her response here, but she did inform me she was on her way.

She had a rough day and had forgotten that we had council meeting.  Being the farthest thing from her mind, my initial text had caught her off guard.  It seemed strange, indeed, misplaced.  However, with a shared context, the meaning became very, very clear.  It was not misplaced.  It was not inappropriate.  It was the right words to the right person.

Too often, such misunderstandings govern our relationships with others.  Too often, the lack of a shared contextual understanding lead to all sorts of problems and arguments.  Fortunately, my youth director was willing to respond and ask.  Once we had a common ground of understanding one another, all became clear.

Unfortunately, many do not take the time to seek shared contextual understanding.  Many base their positions and understandings of another and that other's commentary solely on their own experience and contextual background.  This oftentimes leads to major conflict.

And it's not enough just to tell everyone, "You need to get a larger perspective on life.  You need to travel the world more and come in contact with others.  You need to get an education and have your mind broadened."

Why do I say this is not enough?

For the simple reason that I have come across more than a few souls who have a larger perspective on life; they have traveled the world; they have an education, and they are extremely contemptuous toward those who do not have that experience.  More than a few with such a broad perspective call those without such experiences, "narrow minded", "ignorant", and "myopic."  But in their name calling, are they not disregarding the experiences of others, no matter how small those experiences might be?  Of course they are.  They are projecting their own experience upon another even though it is broader.

Which leads me to ask: what then is the problem and is there a solution?

I think the problem is a very old one: self-centeredness.  It's the idea that my experience, my thought, my view of reality is the only one that counts.  It's the only one that is True.  It's the only one that reveals the reality of the way the world really works.

Postmodern thinkers point to this and say, "Therefore, there is no objective reality.  We are all governed by our perspectives.  No one perspective can contain reality and is always warped."

There is something to be said about the second two conclusions, but not the first.  The fact that each person has a different perspective on reality does not mean there is no objective reality.  For if there is no objective reality, then we cannot call things "right" and "wrong."  We cannot call someone "selfish" or "narrow minded" or "ignorant" or "myopic."  You have no basis to judge, and in the end, the only thing that makes something "right" is whether or not the surrounding culture considers it "right."  This is not a good path to be on.

And very, very few people actually walk it--at least with consistency.  Very, very few people walk a path of relativism.  The vast majority of people live as though there are objective truths in the world and that we can know them.  The vast majority of people believe and try to practice the concepts of justice and fairness.  They believe and practice the idea there is a right and a wrong thing to do.

But if this is the case, then why can't we seem to get along better?  Why can't we seem to bring about peace?  And justice?  And harmony?

We are too self-centered.  We tend to be more than happy to work for justice as long as we don't have to give anything up.  We are more than happy to work for fairness as long as it doesn't affect what I have.  We are more than happy to call for society to change as long as it is the other person who is changing and not myself.  My context is still the right one--after all.

And we are right back to where we began.

So, how does one break out of the contextual shell without giving up on the idea of Truth?  How does one welcome the opportunity to learn about another's context and become closer to the Truth?

I would make my case here for the Gospel.  For the Christian Gospel says that you are a broken individual.  You are self-centered.  You are myopic.  You think the world should bow down to your experience.  You would like to be God.

This is not something to be celebrated, by the way.  The consequences of someone believing this about himself is not good.  Such a person does not play well with others.  :-)

The Gospel confronts this attitude and calls it sin.  It calls it rebellion against God.  It calls this attitude a failure.  You are a failure.  Sometimes, it takes people a while to become convinced of this, but there is much more evidence that could be provided.  Once you realize you are a failure, it devastates you.  It brings you low.

And if you stopped here, you might become a bit depressed.

However, the Gospel tells you that in the midst of your failure, Jesus died on your behalf.  He lived as you should live, and He died the death you deserved.  Someone who is willing to die for you shows you that you are worth something.

You are a failure, but you are accepted.

This, theoretically, brings you to a place of humility--not too high; not too low.  Not feeling self-important, but neither depressed.  Not thinking you are perfect or your context is all important, but acknowledging it is limited and that others have such limited perspectives--and that one can grow by interacting with others; including those we perceive as "ignorant", "myopic", and "narrow minded."  For we realize we are narrow minded, ignorant, and myopic as well.  We don't share their experience, and when we interact, we expand our experiences and have a shared context.  And, of course, when we have a shared context and a shared understanding, we have much better odds of understanding one another and living together in harmony.

The Gospel may not be the only way one arrives at this conclusion; however, I am convinced it gives us the best ground and foundation for doing this.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Truly Satisfied



    How many of you made New Year’s resolutions this year?  How many of you have already broken them?  How many of you didn’t even bother making New Year’s resolutions figuring you would break them anyway?  Yeah, I’m guilty of that last one.

    Among the many things I find fascinating about the human condition is that we seem to be caught in this tug of war–a tug of war between forces which try to tell us “you are perfect just the way you are” and forces which tell us “you will never be happy or satisfied until you change and do this.”  Perhaps you have not noticed this trend in our society and culture, but I assure you, it is there.

    I mean, you don’t have to go very far to hear voices saying things like, “I don’t have to change anything about myself.  I’m fine just as I am.”  Or “You don’t have the right to tell me what to do, I can do whatever I want as long as I’m not hurting anyone.”  If you scroll through the news feeds any given week, you will see at least a story or two about accepting all sorts of body types; accepting people no matter what color they are; accepting people no matter their religion; or accepting people no matter their sexual orientation.  These things are front and center, a lot.

    And yet...even though this is being articulated over and over and over, we are also constantly bombarded with advertisements and even stories which tell us the exact opposite.  I mean for every story on accepting your body type, you probably see two or three stories about appropriate diets; what foods will get you a flat belly; what exercises will tone all your muscles.  For every story you read about how women are beautiful just the way they are, there are more than enough ads out there trying to sell make up and other items to cover up flaws.  Men are challenged to be rugged, handsome, and well cut while at the same time being caring, compassionate, and “in touch with their feminine side.”  And we can’t seem to escape this.  We cannot seem to get out of this back and forth, back and forth reality of folks telling us we are okay and fine; and then other voices telling us we need to improve ourselves and get better.  It can be maddening.

    Those of you who remember Mark Chapman remember that he was a poet, and in one of his books of poetry, he wrote this poem entitled Dis-satisfaction

Take a look–I’ve got it all
A great wife, health
Bank account that’s not small
Yet what is that sporadic, niggling burr
that nestles underneath my saddle?
Is it the ebbing of the physical
or a flaw in my gear box?
Maybe nature’s perverse trick to ruffle my feathers
Or one last long squall before the water calms.
I wrestle with this wisp of unease
It pins me more than not
A twinge of craziness asks
Am I a gerbil on a treadmill?
A captive in a cosmic joke?
A malcontent without a cause?
Is my chain being yanked because I care?
Maybe it is a plague of self absorption?
Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline
But for whatever reason no solace there.
Is the question unanswerable?
A maddening changing of the guard
Truth unacceptable
An accelerating slide down a slope
To a place I don’t want to go.

    What was Mark saying in that poem?  I think, he was saying that despite all the things in his life that he had; despite having wealth and love and possessions; despite living the American dream, there was still something nagging at him.  There was still something causing him discomfort.  There was still something eating at him which could not find satisfaction.

    I think all of us know this feeling.  I think all of us have that gnawing deep in our core–for despite all we have and every time we’ve been told that we are fine just the way we are, we don’t believe it.  We don’t think we have achieved any sort of perfection.  There is still something within us that desires transformation, but we don’t often know what that transformation is.  “Blind faith would–could–be a lifeline, but for whatever reason, no solace there.”

      Here we enter an interesting twist in Mark’s poem, and in the world around us.  For we in the church proclaim a path to deal with such dissatisfaction.  We in the church proclaim a path to solve this back and forth bouncing between feeling fine about ourselves and yet knowing there is something missing.  We in the church believe we have that answer, and I would argue it’s not blind.  It’s tangible, but I will get there in a minute.

    First, I would like to say what the answer is not.  The answer is not come and see what our church is doing.  The answer is not come and see how well our pastor preaches.  The answer is not come and see all of our programs that we have for youth.  The answer is not come and see how good a people we are.  The answer is not come and see all the good things we do.  The answer is not come and see us.

    That might sound strange to your ears–especially since I have been known in my previous years to tell you that we should be doing all sorts of things, and that when people see us doing good things, they will want to do those things too, and then they will join the church.  (How’s that for a run-on sentence!!!)  Yes, I have said such things in the past, but I was wrong.  People do not have life changing experiences–experiences which literally transform a person inwardly and outwardly by coming in contact with a church.  They only have such transformational experiences when coming in contact with Jesus.

    I mean, take a look at our Gospel lesson today from John.  It’s the story of how Jesus began assembling His group of disciples.  Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow me.”  This is all we have regarding the encounter, but it must have had quite the effect on Philip.  Whatever transpired between Philip and Jesus, it was enough to cause Philip to rush to Nathanael and say, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  Think about that.  From a simple encounter where Jesus says, “Follow me,” Philip rushes to Nathanael with words about Jesus being the Messiah!  Something deep happened to Philip.  Something very deep indeed.

    And what is Nathanael’s reaction to Philip?  How does Nathanael respond to this change in Philip?  Does he say, “Wow, Philip. I can see that your life has been transformed. I can see that God has done something to you, and my meeting with you has changed my life.  I want to follow Jesus so that I can have the same transformation as you.”?  Was this Nathanael’s reaction?  No.  Not in the least.  Natahanael is skeptical.  Nathanael doesn’t believe Philip.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

    Philip responds with the only thing he can, “Come and see.”  Come and see what though?  Well, the answer is obvious.  Come and see Jesus!  The invitation Philip ends up giving is not, “Come and see me.”  The invitation is to come and see Jesus!

    Ah, now, only now, can we see the potential for transformation.  Only now can Nathanael’s skepticism be met.  Nathanael actually does go.  He actually has an encounter with Jesus, and what happens?  What happens when Nathanael comes in contact with the Messiah?  Well, his life is changed.  He comes to believe.  He becomes a disciple.  Philip pointed the way, but Jesus brought about the transformation.  Jesus brought Nathanael to belief. 

    This is important to realize–very important because you and I will never transform anyone.  You and I will never be able to help anyone overcome their dissatisfaction.  You and I will never be able to solve the dilemma of being caught between the forces which tell us we are okay and we need to change.  It is only Jesus who can solve that problem. 

    And how does He do that?  How does He transform us and bring us to a place of satisfaction?  Here is how: by loving us while we are sinners.  By dying for us when we are broken. 

    You see, when we accept that we are sinful, that we are broken, then we know we need to change.  We know that we need to be transformed.  And hopefully, we discover that no amount of material possessions, money, sex, food, clothing, or activities can bring about that transformation.  Many of you know this.  Mark articulated this brilliantly in his poem.  These things will not bring about the deep change necessary.  There will always be that nagging piece deep within that says, “I’m not there yet.  These things haven’t really changed my character.  I am still deeply flawed.”

    But when you encounter Jesus with this frame of heart, something changes within you.  When you have an encounter with Jesus and He looks deep within your heart and He sees your flaws; He sees you as you are, and He still embraces you and loves you, you can’t help but marvel at His love and compassion.  You can’t help but be deeply affected because you know that He is the Messiah.  He is what we should be.  He is what we were made to be before our selfish nature took over.  And He was willing to offer himself in our place to die the death we deserved.  It’s like the child who was caught and knows he’s in trouble.  Who knows he’s done wrong.  Who knows he’s disappointed his parents to no end.  Whose shame is tangible and who expects to receive punishment but instead receives forgiveness along with the words, “You have done wrong, but we will love you because you are our child.”  At that moment, nothing else matters.  Nothing else will ever bring that kind of satisfaction.  You are loved in the midst of your brokenness, and you need nothing else.

    I remember vividly the Sunday before Mark suffered his stroke.  When I asked for prayer requests, he said, “That we may come to understand what you are preaching.”  I hope and pray that I am preaching Jesus.  For it is He who we must point to.  It is He whom we invite people to come and see.  It is He who transforms us and all those whom He comes to.  It is He who came for the sake of the world to bring us such satisfaction.

    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 so that the world may be saved through Him.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Intriguing Questions

Yesterday, I received some very intriguing questions from a congregation member.  They made me think quite a bit.  I answered as best as I could, but thought I'd share with you as well.  There is a lot to chew on, I think.   The questions and comments by my member are in italics--copied by permission.  My answer is in regular print.

Pastor: I just finished a book “Holocaust Survivor”. It’s a book about a young man who became a Rabbi before he was 20 years old. That was during the early part of WWII. Being a Jew he later was put into concentration camps where he was severely punished. He said that the only thing that kept him from giving up was that he believed that one day those who were dishing out the punishment would eventually be punished. He told of once when they were transported from one prison camp to another. They were put in overcrowded boxcars, shoulder-to-shoulder, standing room only. One night a lady gave birth. The baby was crying because of hunger and the severe cold. When they arrived at their destination they were hurried out of the boxcar and the baby was crying even more. One of the guards took the child by its feet and slammed its head against the side of the boxcar and that stopped its crying.

More and more I’m buying into what you are preaching. I can understand that Jesus died for that guard who slammed the child’s head against the boxcar, too. But I also believe there has to be repentance. 

For years and years we used the (ALC Service Book and Hymnal) and during the public confession part the pastor would say, “As a minister of the Church of Christ, and by his authority, I declare unto you who do truly repent and believe in him, the entire forgiveness of your sins.

“On the other hand, by the same authority, I declare onto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not forgiven their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquities upon them, if they do not turn from their evil ways and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended.”

The repentance part is deeply engrained in me and it’s hard for me to understand otherwise. Most of the people I know believing like the Rabbi about the eventual punishment for our sins.
 
The repentance one is the most difficult, and I am going to have to give you a slightly nuanced answer to it.  Remember first, that we are not saved by any work that we commit--that includes repentance.  You cannot turn repentance into a work.  You just can't.  Jesus' action even overcomes our un-repentance.  My evidence: Jesus' own words from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do."   Forgiveness for an unrepentant sin.  

That being said, is the wording from the previous confession service wrong?  No.  Not in the least?  Why?  Remember, God does not condemn us to hell.  It is God's desire to save everyone.  Only those who choose separation from God receive it.  If you do not repent of your sins as someone who has been exposed to Jesus and His action, then you are purposely choosing to separate yourself from God and remain estranged from Him.  Thus, you are condemning yourself and still in your sin.  This means the confession and forgiveness spoken in the previous hymnal is only, only mind you, for those who have professed to follow Christ.  This cannot be pointed at those who are not Christian. 

(This was the end of my emailed reply.  I have a few further thoughts.)

I do believe we will somehow be held accountable for our actions, although I do not know exactly how this will take place.  I don't know if we will be made to relive the event and then feel the pain we caused.  I do not know whether or not we will stand before the Father in judgement and feel a deep sense of shame--so deep that it will inflict a terrible pain upon our hearts.  I just don't know.

But what I do know is that the punishment we deserved fell on Jesus.  That's one of the radical claims of Christianity.  We proclaim:

 "But he was wounded for our transgressions,
   crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
   and by his bruises we are healed."  Isaiah 53:5

Just as that little baby's head was crushed, so was Jesus'.  Just as the German guard deserved to have his head crushed in return; Jesus took that punishment for that guard so that the guard would receive forgiveness and be reconciled to God.  

This may be hard to accept because we like to say that one sin is greater than another.  We like to think our smaller sins do not measure up to someone bashing an infant's head against a train car, but remember, Jesus equated anger with murder!  Anytime we become angry with another, we commit murder!!

Why would Jesus equate the two?  

I think it is because they have the same root cause: a sense of superiority.  That German soldier believed he was superior to the Jews and that little baby.  Whenever we become angry, we believe we are somehow morally superior to the one who we are angry at (I would never do something like that to anyone!).   Whether it is moral, mental, or physical, the idea that we are somehow superior to another person leads us to anger, contempt, frustration, and the like.  If we have no sense of humility or shame, atrocity follows.  

This underscores the importance of grace and what Jesus did for us on the cross!  For as I have proclaimed in my sermons--passed down to me from others--the Gospel does not allow you to have any sense of moral superiority at all.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  All need Christ's redemption on the cross.  Big sin.  Little sin.  No matter.  It is the heart that counts, and all hearts are messed up in some way, shape or form.  

Thanks be to God for Christ's work which redeems us all! 

Also: In confirmation we were taught that gambling was a sin. Today it seems that gambling is so common place, raffles, football pots, scratch offs and casinos that most folks no longer regard that as being sinful. Where do we stand on that?

Secondly, gambling.  I do not believe the ELCA has a position on this.  I know our congregation does not.  I personally do not regard gambling as a sin as I do not believe there is any biblical law speaking out against it.  Are there other things to use one's money toward which are better than gambling?  Absolutely.  Would it be a sin for a person to gamble instead of putting food on the table?  I believe so, strongly.  Is it right for the state of Texas to have a lottery given that mostly poor people buy tickets?  I don't think it is.  There are better ways to get funds.  Again, there are no biblical prohibitions or admonitions here, but I think I would be on firm theological ground here.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Oh That You Would Tear Open the Heavens 2



    Right before Christmas, I preached a sermon with the exact same title as this morning’s sermon.  The sermon was based on Isaiah 64:1-9, and I will read a snippet of that to you once again, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—2 as when fire kindles brushwood    and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”

    There is a longing in this verse for God to reveal Himself to us.  There is a longing for God to come and make things right–to convince those who do not believe–to convert those who scoff and commit injustice–to affirm those who have faith in Him.  It’s a deeply moving cry on behalf of the believer.

    Christians believe that God indeed tore open the heavens and came down in Jesus, and today’s Gospel lesson from the book of Mark shows this rather starkly at Jesus’ baptism.  Please look at it once again beginning in verse 9, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

    “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down...”

    “He saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on Him.”

    Do you see the connection being made here?

    It’s an important one.  A very important one.  One that grows in importance as we wrestle with the reality of life and the reality of our relationships with each other.  You may wonder how, but let me press onward.

    Today, there will be many who will focus their attention on that last sentence uttered by God to Jesus.  It will be changed in many congregations as pastors and priests tell congregation members, “You are God’s children, beloved by Him, with you He is well pleased.”  And to an extent, these pastors and priests will be right.  I mean, I have proclaimed this to you in my years here as your pastor.  I have said this very thing to you, but I didn’t flesh it out completely.  I didn’t proclaim this in its fullness.

    What do I mean by that?

    Well, let me ask you these questions: what would you be like if no one ever criticized you?  What would you be like if all you heard throughout your life is that you were okay just the way you were?  What would you be like if no one ever pointed out your wrongs and tried to steer you in a different direction?  What would you be like if all you ever heard were positive comments?  What sort of person would you be?

    How many of you remember Hakeem Olajuwan?  If you were a Houston Rockets basketball fan back in the 90's you remember him.  He was a fantastic player–a dominant center who led the Rockets to back to back championships.  He was originally from Nigeria, and his parents hadn’t seen him play in a game.  I remember hearing a sports cast one night talk about how Hakeem had sent his parents many highlight videos.  Of course, you know what is in a highlight video–all the good stuff.  None of the bad.  When Olajuwon’s parents finally saw him play a game, they were shocked that he didn’t make every basket.  On the videos, he never missed!  Perfection was an illusion brought about by selective editing.

    The same thing tends to happen with people who never deal with criticism; who are constantly told they are special; who never have to deal with adversity or failure.  They get big headed and think they are ├╝ber-special.  And what usually happens to this person’s character?  How do they usually act toward other people? 

    Well, you know as well as I do, they tend to become very self-centered and arrogant.  They tend to think they are always in the right, and they have very little regard for anyone else’s thought or stance.  They tend to be uncompromising and have little or no compassion for anyone else.  If someone is always told they are special, great, awesome, or what have you, without any corrective, they end up in a very dangerous place.

    And yet, on the other hand, what happens to someone who never is affirmed?  What happens to someone who is always criticized; who can never seem to get a positive thing said about what they say or do?  What happens to someone who constantly runs into negative comments and actions over and over and over again?

    Well, these folks generally become depressed and down trodden.  They feel worthless and believe they have no ability to contribute to the world around them.  They feel no sense of self-worth or achievement.  They are totally ashamed of who they are and what they have done.

    Now, most of us at this point would say that there needs to be a balance here.  There needs to be just the right amount of criticism and just the right amount of praise to turn out well adjusted people.  I would tend to agree, but is that what actually happens?  If you look at the cultures of the world, does this actually get played out?

    No.  It does not.  Cultures and societies tend to practice an either/or kind of discipline.  Either they work diligently to build up a person’s ego and raise their self esteem, or they tend to shame them and make them feel worthless.  We particularly see this in our educational system.  Many, many years ago, there was more the shame approach.  If someone wasn’t doing well, they were shamed and made to feel bad about themselves.  Now, the opposite is the truth.  If someone isn’t doing well, we try to affirm them and make them feel better about themselves thinking if they felt better about themselves, they would do better.  The pendulum has swung.  And it will keep swinging.

    The question is: can anything stop the pendulum?  Can we arrive at a happy medium where there is the balance of discipline and affirmation?

    “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down...”

    “And He saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”

    These things might not seem to address the issue too much until you keep following the rabbit hole.  For, there is one more scene we need to see.  There is one more tearing we need to hear about.  You see, Mark, in his Gospel, uses a very particular Greek word to talk about the heavens being torn open.  It’s the word schizein.  I know.  I know.  You didn’t come here this morning to get a lesson in ancient Greek, but bear with me a moment.  Mark uses this word only twice in his Gospel, and I believe he is very, very intentional.  Here is the rest of the story, from Mark chapter 15:

    33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn (schizein) in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

    The heavens are torn in two at Jesus’ baptism.  The temple curtain is torn in two at Jesus’ crucifixion.  Mark links these two events purposefully to show that they go together.  Why do they go together?

    Because of why Jesus had to die.  Jesus died because we were not perfect.  Jesus died because we were self centered.  Jesus died because the world was broken.  Jesus died because we were broken–and still are broken.  We don’t like thinking about such matters today because we like to think we are okay.  We like to think the one’s with the problem are those out there.  That crime and stuff is out there in the cities.  Yet, in our own community, Austin Berger was shot and killed.  Those people out there get up in arms and angry about people getting hurt and killed.  Well, people here have it happen too.  Well, it’s just those people who are getting angry and upset, I’m not.  But have you ever?   Of course you have.  If each and every one of us delves deeply enough, we will all have to face our own imperfections.  We will have to face our own brokenness.  We will have to face our own mortality.  We cannot hold our heads too high despite those who want to tell us that we are fine just the way we are.  Jesus had to die because of us–because of our broken, self-centered nature.  We killed Jesus. It’s enough to depress you. 

    But we do not hold our heads down in a permanent state of depression.  We do not focus completely on our brokenness because Jesus died for us so that we might become God’s beloved children.  Jesus died so that we may know how much God really and truly loves us.  Jesus died so that we are not overtaken by our brokenness and separated from our creator for eternity.  You can’t hold your head down in shame forever when you know that God went to these sorts of lengths for you.  You cannot wallow in misery when you know you were important enough for Jesus to die for you.  You are God’s beloved child!

    And so, you are broken but loved.  You are sinful, but redeemed.  You are cursed but forgiven.  You are shamed, but accepted.  You cannot be too haughty because you know you are broken.  But you cannot be too depressed because you are bought with great price.  The pendulum comes dead center–all because of the Gospel.

    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 so that the world may be saved through Him.

    At your baptism, God redeemed your brokenness.  God made you an accepted failure.  The heavens have been torn open for you not because of what you have done but because of what Jesus did.  And now, you have been made God’s beloved child.  May you be as humbled by this as I am.  Amen.