Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Competition of Service

I just read this snippet from Matthew 20:

20Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.21And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”22But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”23He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”24When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers.25But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Immediately I began to ask myself, "When is the last time you saw a group of Christians trying to out-serve one another?"

I know serving is serving and not a competition, but really think about that question for a moment.  Think about what Jesus calls His followers to do and then think about what a church might look like if everyone was practicing what Jesus preaches.

How would people treat one another?

What would the church argue about?

What would people focus on?

How different would it look than many-a congregation that exists today.  I mean, have you ever seen a church were people were falling over themselves to build one another up in love?  Have you ever seen a church were people were trying to assist or help out or out give everyone else of time, talent, or money?

Yeah, neither have I.

But I can dream, right?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

If You Don't Like It...


How many times have I heard the suggestion?

More than a few.

And, honestly, at times, it's not such a bad piece of advice.  Don't like the job you are in?  Being mistreated by the boss and co-workers?  Look for another job.  Don't like how a particular organization you belong to is handling their funds and the decisions they are making?  Pull your stakes.  Have a circle of "friends" who use you and make demands upon you without taking your needs into consideration?  Leave.  Find new friends.

Many times, it's better than being miserable in such places.

I wish I could say these were the circumstances I've heard the phrase, "if you don't like it, leave" uttered most. 

But, it isn't.

Usually, I hear that phrase mentioned in regard to the church in this fashion:

If you don't like this decision...this policy...this we do preaching...the we reach out...leave!  And don't let the door hit you on your way out!

I understand the temptation to utter these words.  I've run across a few trouble makers in the church who I would like to give this bit of advice to--people who I think the church would be better off without.

But that's the key to the whole issue--people "I" think the church would be better without.

And in the church, it's not "I" that counts but God.  Who does God want in His Church?

The obvious answer is everyone.  God desires everyone to worship Him, be in a relationship with Him, and be a part of His people--not apart from them.  But how difficult is that?  How difficult is it to deal with someone who seems overbearing, opinionated, self-righteous, demanding, pushy, etc.?  Well, look in the  mirror and ask that question again.

The fact of the matter is, at certain points and times, we can all act in this manner.  We can all come across as demanding, pushy, overbearing, opinionated, and self-righteous.  We all have our set of fundamentals that we adhere to, and sometimes we get pushed to where we will not move one more inch.  At that point and time, it would be easy for someone to look us straight in the eye and say, "If you don't like it, leave!"

But I do not think this is at the heart of what Jesus teaches.  I might be wrong, but I do not think Jesus ever asked anyone to leave.  I don't think He looked someone straight in the eye and said, "My friend, I don't think you should be a part of what I am trying to accomplish.  Why don't you head to the local tavern and have a glass of wine and find something else to do?"

No.  Jesus invited folks to come along with Him.  And if someone was being pushy or arrogant, Jesus put them in their place and fast, but always leaving it open for them to continue on in the journey.  (Remembering Peter in the Gospel lesson a week or so back who wanted to tell Jesus He shouldn't suffer and die.  Jesus said, "Get behind me Satan for you are setting your mind on earthly things not heavenly things.  He didn't tell Peter to go away.) 

In fact, as I remember (again, I could be wrong.  I'd have to read the Gospel's again), the only place Jesus suggests inviting someone to leave is if they sin against you and they do not listen to you, you and two witnesses, and then the church.  There is literally a process that bends over backward to keep people in the church and not kick them out.

Such is the nature of being Jesus' disciple, I think.  The easy way is to break fellowship with someone we don't like.  The easy way is to tell them to take a hike.  The easy way is to say, "Find some place where you will be happy and leave us the h-e-double hockey sticks alone."  But Jesus never asks us to do what's easy.  He asks us to do what is right.

"If you don't like it, I'm sorry.  Let's see if we can work it out together.  If we cannot, let us depart in peace so that our relationship may never go to pieces."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sermon Delivered August 28, 2011: What Does Discipleship Cost You?

One day Adam was feeling lonely. So he found God. He said, "God I'm lonely." God said, "Adam,I knew you would feel this way. So I'll make woman for you."

Adam said, "Excuse me God, but what's woman? " God replied and said, "Adam, woman is someone who will take care of you. She will get food for you, bear your children, will love you at all times, not question your judgement, and when you discover clothes, she'll wash and mend them for you, keep your house clean, not argue with you, and give you companionship."

"Sounds good," said Adam. "How much will she cost?" God thought for a while and said, "An arm and a leg.
Adam said, "Hmmmm, that's expensive! What can I get for a rib?"

Funny, I know. No offense to the ladies out there, though. It is a joke, but with a serious little tidbit. And that serious tidbit has to do with Adam’s response to God’s initial offer. Adam wanted a companion who would cater to his every whim. Adam wanted a companion who would never question him and who would do everything for him. It was a dream come true for Adam. But when God told him the cost, Adam balked. He didn’t want to pay the cost. It was much too high.

And how many of us are the same way? How many of us like to be served? How many of us like the perks of our jobs? How many of us like the service we are provided by the government, the church, the city and county, hospitals, nursing homes, shopping centers, and the like? How many of us enjoy a meal out from time to time that we do not have to slave over and cook? How much of us enjoy fire protection and police protection? How many of us enjoy having roads to travel from place to place on? How many of us enjoy having schools that teach our children and teachers who spend hours upon hours doing so? I could go on and on and on. Most of us enjoy such things immensely. In fact, many people want more and more such services.

But here is the kicker. Whenever we are presented the bill, how many of us enjoy that? How many of us like paying top dollar and giving a tip when eating out? How many of us like getting that property tax bill in the mail which pays for so many services in our communities? How many of us enjoy filling out the 1040 ez or the 1040 or having a CPA handle our income taxes? How many of you rejoice when you have to fork over money to pay for such things? Anyone here this morning relish the thought of getting your tax statement in a few months?

Didn’t think so.

There is a truism about us as humans that runs deeply within us. We like being served, but we don’t like paying for it. We like the perks of life, but we don’t like to sacrifice our stuff or our money to receive them. We don’t like paying the cost of what we receive.

The sad part about this truth about us is that it even extends to our lives of faith. Yes, unfortunately, it does. All of us are guilty of it, including the one who is speaking to you right now.

In our Gospel lesson this morning Jesus tells his followers these words, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?"

Now, put yourself in place for a moment in the skin of one of Jesus’ disciples. Don’t hear these words after the resurrection. Hear them before that blessed event. Jesus tells His disciples, "If you want to become my followers, deny yourself, give up what you want, and pick up an instrument of death. Pick up an instrument of torture that you have seen many of your countrymen die upon, shamed, humiliated, beaten and bloody. Take this instrument up yourself and die with me."

How many of you would have volunteered?

How many of you would have taken up the challenge?

How many of you would have jumped at the chance to die with Jesus, especially since you didn’t know the resurrection was going to happen? How many of you would have willingly walked away from your family and friends and job and all that you knew to die with Jesus?


And if Jesus came to you today and asked you to do the same thing, would you? Would you leave your family and job? Would you leave all that you knew? Would you forsake all of this to do what Jesus called you to do and become His disciple?

I cannot speak for you, but I confess this morning that I could not. I could walk away from my job. I could walk away from my possessions, but I couldn’t walk away from my family and friends. I couldn’t leave them to follow Jesus. That cost would be too high for me to pay. I just couldn’t do it.

And if we who are sitting here this morning are honest with ourselves, we would probably say the same thing about something in our lives. We would probably be able to say we could give up several things without hesitation, but there would be that one thing we too would grasp and hold onto. The cost would be too dear.
We couldn’t let it go.

"How much is it going to cost me, Jesus?"

"Your entire life."

"How much can I get for one hour on Sunday?"

So what is the good news this morning for us? If all we want to offer Jesus is a rib when He is demanding we give our lives, what is our comfort? Can we have any? Are we forced to walk through life under a gigantic guilt trip knowing we cannot fulfill even this basic requirement of discipleship?

The answer, of course, is no. God does not desire our guilt. He desires our love. He desires our praise and our worship. He desires to be our God and for us to be His people. And because of this, He has willingly paid the entire cost of our discipleship. And it cost Him dearly.

When we wanted to offer a rib, God offered His Son.

When we refused to die to ourselves, Jesus died in our place.

When we looked at the cross and said, "I don’t think so." Jesus stretched out His hands and received the nails.

When we couldn’t and wouldn’t, Jesus could and did and opened up the path for each and every one of us.
And He showed us the result. He showed us what awaited us the other side of the grave. He showed us that in dying, we will truly live. He showed us that in losing our life, we will truly find it.

One day, God came to humanity and said to us, "I want you to be my people. I want you to show my love to the world. I want you to be my chosen people. I will establish my Kingdom among you during your life now, and when you die, you will not go out of existence. You will have eternal life with me."

We responded, "That sounds fantastic, God. What will it cost?"

God said, "It will cost you nothing. It will cost me the life of my Son. I love you that much."

And we paused. We weren’t used to getting something for nothing. After thinking deeply, we spoke, "Thank you, God. Is there anything we can do to show our thankfulness for what You have done for us?"
God said, "Be my Son’s disciples."

Again, we paused before saying, "That’s difficult. Do we have to?"

And God said, "It’s your choice." Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pastoral Frustration

Sometimes, I feel impotent.

Standing at the bedside of a child who won't wake up.  Searching for words of hope for her parents.  Words that will ease their anxiety and instill a sense of hope.  There are no words.

Holding the hand of an elderly woman who can't talk because of a stroke.  Having her squeeze and looking into eyes filled with frustration, with hopelessness, with tears.  Wanting to do something, say something that will tell her, "You will be o.k." even though you have no idea how this thing will turn out.

Standing in ICU watching a team of nurses move a man who had quadruple by-pass surgery from one bed to another.  Seeing pain.  Seeing shortness of breath.  Hearing his monitors beep warnings as blood pressure spikes, oxygen levels descend, and breathing becomes irregular.  Listening to the respiratory therapist tell him to cough to get rid of phlegm so that his lungs don't fill with fluid.

Watching the landscape here in Texas turn from lush green to dirty brown in a number of weeks as rain has refused to fall.  Every day and sometimes twice on Sunday beseeching the Lord to send rain to break the drought as I watch farmers and ranchers lose livestock and livelihood.

Prayer is appropriate in each of these circumstances.  Prayers were prayed each time, but sometimes those prayers feel like lead weights instead of incense.  They don't feel like they get anywhere.  I don't see any results.  Frustration mounts.  Faith wanes.

Yeah, you heard me right.  Faith wanes.  That same faith that if it were the size of a mustard seed would enable a person to tell a mountain to get up and go into the ocean and it would.  I wish I had a mustard seed faith, but at times it seems like it disappears--or becomes so minuscule it is less than the size of an atom.

I resonate with St. Paul, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." --Romans 8:26.

Sometimes in the situations listed above, I wish I could just shut up.  I wish I had the option of telling people, "I don't know how to pray in this situation!  Nothing seems to be working!  Just let me sit and be and wrestle with what to say!  Because I got nothing!"

Maybe in that moment of frustration, the Spirit will begin His intercession.  Maybe He will do His marvelous work despite what is going on inside me and inside all those around who are even more frustrated than I am.  For in each of these cases there are those who are closer to these situations than I who are even more frustrated.  Maybe we all need to recognize this--recognize our weakness--recognize our inability to put together the words, to articulate our frustration in not receiving what we ask for.  Perhaps we just need to sit in silence and let the Spirit work.

At the very least, perhaps our frustration will dissipate.

And maybe, just maybe our faith will grow.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Has Religion Become?

Religion was once life's central mystery, its worship life's most awesome experience, its belifs life's broadest canopy of meaning as well as its deepest guarantee of belonging.  Yet today, where religion still survives in the modern world, no matter how passionate or committed the believer, it amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare-time hobby, and a leisure pursuit.  --Oz Guiness: The Last Christian on Earth, p. 72.
True or false?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They Don't Know What's Causing the Drought in Texas

Read this in the Houston Chronicle this morning on the SciGuy's blog:

They have no idea why this blocking high won't move, break down, etc. Science is clueless.

Which gives further credence to why I believe things have been so miserable:

The Devil has opened the vents of hell to let the hot air out right underneath Texas.

'Nuff said.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sermon Preached August 21, 2011: Whose Will Do You Follow?

The stage was set.

All the actors and actresses had gathered for rehearsal. Each had memorized his or her part, and excitement was building. The cast was told that one of the best stage directors in the business would be directing their play. This director had been known to be able to work with very amateur talent and produce spectacular productions. For the sake of this story, we will call that director Oscar.

Oscar arrived at the theater precisely at 7 p.m. He walked in and took a look at the cast, the crew, and the orchestra. He had seen better. He had seen worse. He now knew the task before him. Turn this rag-tag bunch into a fabulous ensemble which would wow the crowds. And Oscar had six weeks to accomplish the task.

All of the cast was in awe when they heard Oscar would be directing them. They knew his reputation. They knew his ability. They knew what he had been able to do in numerous cities and towns. They knew how crowds flocked to see one of his casts perform. Each and every one of them knew that because of Oscar’s presence, he or she would be put in the spotlight even if only for a short while. Nothing could cause them less excitement. The entire cast was ready for rehearsals to start.

The first act moved along swimmingly. Everyone was on cue, listening to Oscar’s instructions. Seamlessly everything moved along as his directions were carried out precisely and to a tee by the actors and actresses. Act two began, and then a crucial scene played out. At a critical time, the star performer was called upon to utter a profound line. The actor belted out the line with gusto!

Oscar yelled out, "Stop! Wait right there! That’s not how the line needs to be spoken! It must be subtle. It must be uttered almost under one’s breath. Emphasize it with subtlety. Make the audience lean forward in their seats straining to hear it so they will grasp its importance."

The star actor shook his head. "No, that’s not the way it should go. The line should be shouted for all to hear. They will grasp it. They will catch it because they have no choice but to grasp it!"

A collective gasp went up throughout the crowd. How dare one of the cast challenge the director! Especially one so thorough and so accomplished as Oscar. Did this guy even realize who he was challenging? Did he even realize how stupid he looked in trying to impose his will upon the will of one as renowned as Oscar?

The title given to Oscar as director was given to him for a reason! Oscar directs. The performers act and put together the will of the director. And with such a powerful track record, why in the world would you challenge the director?

"I want to do it this way!" was all the actor would say.

The rest of the cast just shook their heads in bewilderment.

Long ago, in a region called Caesarea Philippi, another scene played itself out. This one with earth shattering implications. Jesus gathered his followers around him and asked, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

The disciples now had a chance to tell Jesus the things they had heard and the things they had been taught throughout their lives.

"Some say the Son of Man is John the Baptist!"

"Others say he is Elijah!"

"But I’ve heard some say he was Jeremiah!"

"And I’ve heard it was one of the prophets."

No consensus could be formed by the group. Each shared what they had heard, and the more they spoke, the more confused they became. They knew Jesus had a point. Perhaps He was about to reveal to them who the Son of Man really was.

But rather than tell them straight out, Jesus asked them a much more pointed question, "But who do you say that I am?"

There was one of those pregnant pauses. Silence. Everyone knew much depended upon how they answered this question. Was Jesus just a good teacher? Was He a prophet from God? Was He a simple carpenter who just happened to have the ability to heal and preach and teach? Who was Jesus really? The disciples knew their entire lives rested on the answer to this question.

Within Peter something began welling up. It was as if his thoughts were being driven by something outside of himself. His brain traveled down avenues connecting the dots: the blind were seeing, the deaf were hearing, demons were being cast out, good news was being proclaimed to the poor, great multitudes were fed with little food, water was walked on, wind and waves were calmed. There could only be one answer to the question. Only one thing brought it all together.

Peter spoke, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."

The grin on Jesus’ face could not be concealed. Peter got it! "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

At that moment Peter’s stock soared, not only within himself but in the estimation of all the other disciples. Peter got the answer right. Jesus had commended him. Peter was the star pupil. All seemed well and good. Things were progressing along swimmingly.

But then Jesus threw the curve ball. Jesus began to teach some troubling things. "I will be going to Jerusalem, and I will undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes. I will be killed, and on the third day, I will rise again."

At first, the disciples thought Jesus must be joking with them, but he kept teaching these things. Kept repeating them. Kept insisting on their truth.

Finally, the star couldn’t take it anymore. Didn’t Jesus get it. He was the Messiah, and the Messiah was not supposed to die. The Messiah would lead them all to glory. The Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel. Power from on high would rain down and destroy the enemies of Israel, and the kingdom would be restored to its rightful place. Jesus had that power. Peter knew it. Peter had seen it. This was what Jesus needed to be doing and thinking about. Forget this suffering and dying and rising garbage. Jesus needed to be set straight!

"God forbid it Lord!" Peter spoke. "This must never happen to you."

And Jesus replied in one of the harshest ways he could. Jesus held nothing back, "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!"

The Director had to put the star back in his proper place. For the star tried to exert his own will when in reality it was the will of the Director that truly counted. For the Director sees the entirety of the play; He sees the subtlety of lines; He sees how everything is supposed to fit together to reveal to the audience the whole story. And it is not wise to challenge the Director who knows what He is doing. Do you not agree? Do you not agree that the Director knows what is best for the overall performance? Do you not agree the Director knows how the actors and actresses should perform their parts and how the story should go?

And if we agree on this. If we agree the Director knows how things should play out, and if we agree we have asked Jesus to direct and guide our lives, how often do we challenge Him? How often do we try to exert our will and what we want to do instead of seeking to follow His will, His direction, and His guidance? Are we surrounded by others who shake their heads at us for our refusal to listen to Jesus? Are we confronted by His words that we too are setting our mind on earthly things instead of divine things?

As people who are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus, we know we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation. We can go about our merry way seeking to do whatever we want to do without fear that God will zap us. But what kind of performance will we show forth if we choose our own will? What will the world see of us if we follow our will instead of the will of the Director? Will it reflect well on the One we are called to serve and show forth? Whose will do you choose to follow? Amen.

Friday, August 19, 2011

I Wish I Could Keep My Mouth (and Fingers) Shut

Some may remember a post some months ago about me logging off a message board I had become involved in.  I gave many reasons, and I stuck to my refrain from posting.  Until today.

For many moons, I resisted temptation as I would check in from time to time just to see what was happening.  Most of the time, I'd be able to beat back any urge to post.

But I couldn't today.

I just couldn't.

One of the posters asked the group to give a non-religious reason why same sex marriage should not be allowed.  For my part, I wasn't interested in the same sex marriage statement.  What drew my ire, and my commentary was the part about offering a non-religious reason.

Why did it draw my ire?

Well, simply put, (and what I asked the person who posted the question) give me a good, non-religious reason people have "rights" in the first place.  Use science or reason to answer why we should honor, respect, and care for our fellow human.  Use science or reason to answer why I should respect those who are different from me.  Use science or reason to answer why those who have little ability or who cannot be productive or who demand more resources than they produce should be cared for and honored as important.

Take your time.

I'll wait.

I'd bet you'd have a hard time actually doing so.  I'd bet the best you could do is looking scientifically at the natural world and seeing something called "tit for tat" WITHIN ONE'S OWN SOCIAL GROUP.  I'd bet you couldn't come up with much to extend ethical behavior further than this.

You might come up with a few arguments that revolve around your own self interest.  Such as, I care for others just in case I need to be taken care of.  Might work very well for you.  Might give you a very good reason for caring for others.  But that doesn't provide another person with certain rights.  That is not caring for others for others' sake.  That's not caring for someone because they are important.  That's caring for someone because you feel like you are important.

Still waiting.

The truth of the matter is, for nearly all people, the idea of human rights; the idea of a person having intrinsic value, is an idea of faith.  It is not based in science.  It is not based in reason.  It is based purely in a statement of belief. 

And how can one check one's beliefs in at the door before entering the public arena?  How can one chop off the very place one gets one's understanding of ethics and human rights before discussing a topic regarding human rights and privileges (same sex marriage)?  Simply put, one cannot and should not. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Let Your Light Shine...Or Not?

More thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount:

14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." --Matthew 5: 14-16

Jesus clearly states in this teaching, a Christian is to perform good works.  He also clearly states those good works are to be seen by others for the purpose of getting others to notice God.  More than a few times, I have encouraged my congregation to do such things.  More than a few times, I have purposely done good in the midst of my daily routine for just such purposes.  One of the ways we show others our lives are different is by going the extra mile to be compassionate, rigorously pursuing justice, and being morally upright.  In doing so, we set ourselves apart from a society which at times over focuses on only one of these areas.  A Christian embraces all three.

But I find it very interesting that Jesus adds these words in his sermon a few verses later:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." --Matthew 6: 1-4

Wait a minute Jesus.  Didn't you tell us to let our light shine?  Didn't you tell us to make sure others see our good works?  Isn't giving alms a public display of what the church is called to do?  How can a public food pantry be secret?  How can giving to a beggar be secret?  Aren't we called to do such good works openly?

Well, yes.  But there are two distinct phrases which Jesus uses which sets these two teachings apart.  In the first from Matthew five, Jesus uses these words, "give glory to your Father in heaven."  In Matthew six, this short phrase describes what is going on, " order to be seen by them."

In one instance, good works are being performed to give glory to God.  In the other circumstance, good works are being performed so that others may see us.  It's a very fine line, and a very fine distinction.  However, I believe it is a very important one.  It has to do with motivation.  It has to do with the orientation of one's heart.

Toward the very end of his sermon, Jesus says this:

 17In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will know them by their fruits.  --Matthew 7:17-20

A good tree bears good fruit naturally.  It doesn't do so to impress anyone.  It doesn't do so to get attention.  It doesn't do so because it wants everyone to see that it is good.  It just bears fruit because it is oriented to do so.  Same with a candle.  It shines light because that's what it's made to do.  It can do no differently.  A person whose heart is oriented toward God naturally produces good works.  There is no thought in doing them, they just flow naturally.  There is no calculation about whether or not a work should be done or not.  It simply flows.  Such things radiate from the one who has his or her heart tuned into God and His will.

On the other hand, when a church or individual thinks about performing a good work to get recognition, there might be a problem.  Now, I'm not saying a church shouldn't contemplate good deeds.  Neither am I saying a church shouldn't actively work for good in the world.  But I am saying if a church is doing good to do evangelism or get members or get its name in the papers, then that church isn't doing those works for the right reasons.  In effect, the church/person is saying, "Look at how good I am and the good things I do.  Don't you want to be like me?"

Wrong thought process.  The right process is to do good without thought of return--without thought of recognition--without thought of getting a pat on the back.  For it is not for ourselves that we do good.  It is for the good of God and Him alone.  It is to point to Him as the Author and Perfecter of faith.  It is to point to His goodness and mercy being carried out through our actions. 

Yes, we should indeed do good works publicly, but they should be so natural to us that we don't even think about it.  And folks shouldn't even see us when they see our works.  They should see God. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Voice for the Voiceless

It was just over a month ago that one of my members had a major stroke.

Her recovery thus far has been nothing short of amazing.  Physically, she looks very good.  Mentally, she's not quite recovered, but when almost 1/2 of your brain was taken out by a blood clot, it's going to take some time.

Unfortunately for her, the stroke was a result of a defective and infected heart valve.  Surgery had to be done to repair or replace the valve.  That surgery was yesterday.

Today, I had the privilege of visiting her in the hospital.  Her husband and family were told that my member needed things quiet for today as she recovered from the surgery.  Upon the doctors' advice, they stayed home today.  This is where being a pastor has special privileges.  I can get in.  Even on those quiet days.

This woman's husband expressed to me his worry before I traveled in.  You see, this woman cannot talk because of the effects of the stroke.  She can get one word out.  Maybe two.  She can answer yes and no.  But she cannot express herself well at all.  Her husband was worried she would need to, and no one would be there to help her communicate.

I arrived shortly after 11 a.m. this morning.  From my member's reaction, I could tell she was glad to see me.  It may just be what I saw, but I swear I saw relief in her eyes.  I don't know if she knew exactly why they were doing what they were doing to her.  I don't know if she was worried because her husband and family members weren't around.  I do know her countenance lightened when I said, "Hi."

It only took a moment to see that even though she was glad to see me, something wasn't quite right.  Looking into her eyes, noticing tears welling up, I could tell she needed to express something.  Seeing her expression, I asked, "Are you in pain?"

A feeble attempt to say yes was made with a nod of her head.  She was hurting.  She needed attention.

Luckily, a nurse came into the room at that very moment.  The nurse busied herself with collecting a blood sample, and I struck up a quick conversation.

In the midst of that conversation, I said, "She was indicating she was in pain.  She can't talk because of the stroke."

"I remember that," the nurse replied.  My member was not in this nurse's charge, but the nurse gave her a shot of pain medication anyway and promised to talk to the current nurse and remind her about my member's special needs. 

I thanked her graciously and was reminded what it truly means to be a voice for those who are voiceless and why we as Christians are called to do so.

I didn't ask the nurse to help my member because of some sense of justice or injustice.  It wasn't because my member asked me to help out.  And believe it or not, it wasn't because I felt it was the right thing to do--even though it was.

I have said before in the seven years I have been here, I have truly come to love the people I serve and work with.  They are a joy to be around and come to know.  This particular member I have known the entirety of those seven years.  I presided at her and her husband's wedding, and we laughed through the whole thing. 

We set it off when she asked me, "Pastor, how do I walk down the aisle?"

I replied, "Generally, you put one foot in front of the other."

That was only the beginning.  But there are other moments.  I've sat by this woman's side as her husband underwent emergency heart bypass surgery.  I sat at her bedside when she underwent heart procedures herself.  I've popped in to visit and enjoy their company.  I almost brought home a stray dog they were trying to find a home for.  I give her a hug every time she's in church.  She, among many of my members, is one I love.

And because I love her, I couldn't not speak out when she was in pain after her surgery.  I couldn't stand there and make her feeble attempts to communicate with the nurses go unheeded.  Someone had to be her voice when she was voiceless.  And I had no qualms because I love her.

There is much talk of justice by folks in our society today.  There is much talk about passing certain laws because life is unfair.  There is much talk of becoming active because God demands justice.  There is much talk about giving voice to those who are voiceless because of this sense of duty.

But these are the wrong reasons for doing so.  Everything we do as Christians, we are called to do with love.  Love drives us to alleviate suffering in this world.  Love drives us to end hunger.  Love drives us make the wrongs right.  Love allows us to do such things without condemnation or hatred of those who do not see the world as we see it.  For even as we see people commit wrongs, we know they are people who God wants to become His children.  They are people who God sees as His. 

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.  He sees with the eyes of God.  And He calls us to go and do likewise.

Training in Discipleship

Since reading Dallas Willard's book The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship, I have sought to grow in my own walk with Christ.  My initial foray has taken me to the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7.  For just over three weeks, I have made it a daily discipline to read, study, and internalize these three chapters.  It is my hope to internalize them to the point that Jesus' words become a part of me so that I do not hesitate to practice them as best as I can.  For I have come to realize that part of my integrity as a Christian and as a pastor relies upon it.  For the next several blog posts, I will share some of my own reflections on portions of the Sermon on the Mount and my own ability/inability to put them into practice.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.  --Matthew 7:1-5

Perhaps this is one of the most quoted of Jesus' sayings, not only by Christians but especially by non-Christians.  Usually, it's made when a Christian speaks up about the actions of someone they see who is doing something sinful.

The person on the receiving end of the Christian's diatribe says, "Thou shalt not judge..."

But if we cannot judge, how can we say something is right or wrong?  How can we call out injustice or immorality?

It may sound extreme, but what if a Christian speaks out against a man who is abusing a woman, and the man turns to the Christian and says, "Thou shalt not judge..."  Does a Christian have the authority to judge such a thing?

As I have read these verses and let them sink in, I have become very aware that Jesus does say there is an appropriate time and place for judgment.  There is a time and a place where we can say that something is wrong, something is sinful, something must be stopped.

But to get to that time and place requires some pretty heavy work on our part.

"First take the log out of your own eye, and THEN you will see clearly to take out the speck in your neighbor's eye."

Jesus asks us to look deep into our own eyes.  To confront ourselves first.  To confront our sinfulness.  Our shortcomings.  Our hypocrisy.  Jesus asks, no commands, us to be honest about how we do not follow the will of God in our own lives.  And Jesus asks us to begin the process, sometimes a painful one, of removing the logs from our own eyes. 

This is not a fun process.  And it's hard.  It's easy to see where others fall down.  It's harder to point the finger at ourselves.  It's harder to see our own faults and failings.  Many times we miss what is right in front of us because we have spent quite a bit of time justifying our own behaviors so that we become blind to our sinfulness.  And because we have justified ourselves and our actions, we arrive at a point where we feel righteous in and of ourselves. 

But Jesus confronts us and judges us.  The one without sin says to us, "Whoa buddy!  Don't be so quick on the draw.  You've got a few flaws yourself.  Take a look in the mirror."

A humbling experience if you actually do so.

Very humbling.

So humbling, sometimes, that you realize there are some things you have no business confronting in others.  Because you know you have work to do on yourself.

So humbling, sometimes that when you see others doing wrong, you understand and have compassion upon them because you know they are justifying things for themselves just like you did.

So humbling, sometimes that when you know you must confront someone with the speck in their eye, you do so with a different tenor in your voice; a different manner in your approach--a tenor and a manner that does not speak of judgment or condemnation but instead speaks in terms of compassion and understanding.

There is no harm in judging, according to Jesus.  But one must do so with the utmost humility after truly  and thoroughly judging oneself first.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Heaven vs. the Kingdom of Heaven

A study presented to my adult class after dealing with Luther's explanation to the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as in heaven."

After our last class together, I could see quite a bit of confusion on everyone’s face regarding the kingdom of heaven, how we perceive it, what it’s about, and how God’s will relates to it. I’d like to spend just a little more time on this topic and this petition of the Lord’s Prayer so that hopefully we can end some of the confusion and have some concept of what Scripture tells us about Heaven and its relationship to how we operate in accordance to God’s will.

Defining Heaven

For the most part, folks tend to define heaven as "that place we go after we die where God is." Now, this definition has given people much comfort for generations, but it does beg the question: where is God? If we believe that God is all present (as He is portrayed in the Scriptures), does that mean that God is with us here and now? Does that mean heaven is a reality that we can experience now. The answer, I believe is yes, so I would actually shorten the definition of heaven by taking out the "we go after we die" portion, leaving the definition as "that place where God is."

Yet this definition can become confusing particularly with the imagery we get within Scripture. For instance, the book of Revelation paints a really cool picture of heaven:

From Revelation chapter 7:

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

From Revelation chapter 21:

3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."

Obviously, our world does not look like these pictures. That raises some interesting questions. If heaven is a part of our reality now, why does evil occur? Is evil something we as humans perpetuate on everything? Is there such a thing as natural evil? How does the devil play into things? Is God somehow more present in some places than in others? And the list goes on. Therefore, I believe we must add another definition to our thoughts of heaven and in particular to our understanding of God’s will.

Defining the Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God

A subtle but important distinction must be made between heaven and the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Heaven/Kingdom of God is the place where God’s will is practiced at all times and in all places. It is literally the reign of God or the reign of heaven. No longer does evil hold any sway. No longer does hunger impose it’s might. No longer does human selfishness govern–God does. The Kingdom of Heaven is the time when all is set right–when the vision portrayed in the book of Revelation becomes a reality on earth. We aren’t there yet.

But does that mean God is separate from our reality? Does that mean God doesn’t have His hands dirty in our world? No. He’s here, living and moving and acting. His Kingdom just hasn’t been established in full. Heaven is here now, but the Kingdom of Heaven is not yet. This is why I said last time we live in the now but not yet. Heaven is a reality in which we get snippets of, when our hearts and minds and eyes are attuned to it, but it has not fully come. And we long for its coming.

As Christians, we believe we have been exposed to the reality of God’s reign. We believe we have been given a vision of something glorious and worth living in. We believe we have seen a place of peace, harmony, joy, worship, and justice. We believe we have been given a picture of the way things are supposed to be like, and we believe we should not be satisfied until things down here look like they do up there. (Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) We long and hunger for the way things should be, and we feel a passion to work toward such things in the here and now.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sermon Delivered: August 14, 2011: What's Inside You?

I remember reading a story a while back about two kids who came to their father asking him to take them to a particular movie that was very popular. It was rated PG-13, and they begged and begged him to change his stance on not allowing them to see any movies that were not PG rated.

"But dad," they said, "there’s no violence or nudity or anything like that in the movie."

"Then why is it rated PG-13?" the dad asked.

"There just a few cuss words," they replied. "Nothing big. It’s just a little bit of stuff in a really good movie."

Dad replied, "Just a minute and let me do some thinking."

With that, he got up from his chair and went into the kitchen. The kids proceeded to play around with heightened spirits. They had never managed to get this far with their dad before. He had always shut them down without even a debate. Time passed, and suddenly, they smelled the wonderful aroma of chocolate chip cookies. Their mouths began to water.

After a few more minutes, their dad called them to the kitchen. Before them was a plate of delicious, homemade chocolate chip cookies. The kids couldn’t wait to dig in. But just as they were grabbing, their dad said, "Wait a minute. Before you grab one of those cookies, I need to tell you something. I put a special ingredient in the mix this time. There’s only a little, tiny bit in it, mind you. Just a little bit."

"What’s the special ingredient, Dad?" the kids asked.

"Dog poop, but it’s just a little bit. I’m sure the cookies taste fine, and after cooking it, I know there aren’t any germs or anything left. Go ahead. Eat some cookies."

The kids refused to touch the cookies, and furthermore, they understood their dad’s point. Even though it was just a little bit of cussing, even though it was just a little bit of dog poop, the inside wasn’t totally clean.

Now, don’t think that I’m going to get on a high horse this morning and tell you that you can’t go to movies that are rated PG-13 or higher. Don’t think I’m going to tell you that you can’t eat cookies with dog poop in them. Such things are your choices, and it is blatantly obvious this morning that Jesus says it is not what goes into us from outside that defiles us, but it is what comes out of us. This is a very important teaching that Jesus gives.

As you may know by now, during Jesus’ day there were several religious groups roaming around. One of these such groups was the Pharisees. This group prided itself is holding to all the Jewish ritual commands. They only ate the foods that were considered clean foods in the Bible. They did not eat pork or shellfish or any other items in the long lists in the book of Leviticus which talk about clean and unclean animals. And when they did eat, they ritually washed the bowels and utensils and their hands before dining. They wanted to make sure they were pure and holy while they did this, and they were convinced their actions made them right with God and holier than those who didn’t wash.

But there was a problem with what the Pharisees were doing. Yes, they were following all these Jewish laws to a tee–and several others, but these folks had selective memories. Or rather, they had selective thoughts on which laws they thought they should follow and which laws they thought they could ignore. Sure, they washed their hands and ate the right types of food–this was all well and good, but they didn’t care for those who were poor and shoved out of society. They gave their 10 percent to the temple treasury, but they didn’t take care of the widow and orphan. They prayed when they were supposed to and fasted on a regular basis, but they did so not to give attention to God, but they drew attention to themselves.

And Jesus, being who He is called a spade a spade. The disciples came to Jesus to tell Him that his teaching on food had angered the Pharisees, but Jesus replied, "13He answered, ‘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."

Jesus calls them blind. They are blind to the reality of what God expects out of them. They believe that keeping ritually clean and giving their tithes and not associating with sinners and by looking holy and moral and upright, they will win God’s favor. But Jesus calls all these things superficial. These things are just the surface stuff. They have nothing to do with whether or not a person is good or bad. As Jesus says this morning, "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."

The Pharisees were going through the motions of acting holy, but they themselves were not holy. The Pharisees were putting on a great facade. Their outward appearances showed they were acting like Godly folks, but Jesus saw something different. With the eyes of God’s Son, Jesus saw these folks had hearts that were not oriented toward God but were oriented toward themselves. Do you wonder why Jesus called them hypocrites? It’s because they were.

And it is so easy for us to look at the stories found in the Bible and nod our heads along with Jesus. It is so easy for us to see what Jesus says about those Pharisees and agree with His judgment. Those Pharisees are just so ignorant. They think they are so religious and so holier-than-thou. It’s so good to see Jesus putting them in their place.

Ah, but would we think the same thing if Jesus came to us to put us in our place? Would we think the same thing if Jesus showed up in our midst one day and challenged us and told us that we too were hypocrites? What if Jesus showed up and told us, "You have all the external stuff down. You go to church. You put a little bit in the offering plate. You give a dollar or two to charities every once in a while. You talk about others who are not following my commands, but I know your hearts. I know what you think. I know what you desire and how much you truly invest in trying to be my follower. I know which way your heart is pointed, and it is not totally toward me!"

Do you think we here this morning would appreciate Jesus saying such things to us? Do you think we would say, "You are right, Lord. Our hearts are not in accordance with your will. We indeed are selfish. We indeed look after ourselves first and do not honor God as well as we should. Teach us how to be more like you."? Or would we become angry, just like those Pharisees did?

I guess the answer to that question can be given with a question, "What’s inside you?" What is in your heart? Do you know yourself well enough and have you examined your heart well enough to see where it is oriented?

A couple weeks ago, I made a conscious decision to spend more time in prayer and study. On the advice of a book I read, I have daily read the Sermon on the Mount trying to internalize the message Jesus gives His followers. I have a long, long way to go before my heart is oriented rightly. How do I know such a thing?
On the way back from a hospital visit, I took my Bible with me into Taco Bell on Fry Road. I was reading through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and I had just finished reading Jesus’ command, "Give to everyone who begs from you..." Yes. You will find Jesus indeed says that in chapter 5 verse 42. That’s a direct quote, and He doesn’t mince words.

Not two minutes had passed since I had read that passage when someone left two pens in front of me. I looked at them. They had a piece of paper taped to them. It read, "I am deaf. Please take this pen and give $2 or $3 to help me care for my family."

Do you know what my instantaneous reaction was? It wasn’t pleasant. I had no desire to give money to this guy. None what-so-ever. I’ve dealt with such things before. I know he probably gets more cash per year than I do, and he doesn’t pay taxes on it. I know if he really, truly needed help, he’d go to a local shelter or agency and he’d be able to get it easily. There is no need for me to reach into my wallet and give this guy any money at all. If it had been up to me, I’d have left those pens right there, ignoring them and walking out with them still sitting on that table.

But I had just read Jesus’ words. His command. His teaching of how His followers should be. "Give to everyone who begs."

I reached into my wallet and left money without taking the pens. And I realized how far I still had to go with growing in faith. If my heart were oriented rightly, I would have given and joyfully. I wouldn’t have thought twice. I just would have done what Jesus said.

This morning, Jesus asks us to examine what’s inside our hearts. He asks us to examine ourselves deep down to wrestle with where we too are falling short of His teaching. And He is inviting us to move deeper into a relationship with Him–to walk beside Him on a daily basis so that our hearts become more in line with what His purpose is for our lives. Are you ready for such a journey? Amen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

May Your Feet be Beautiful: Sermon Preached August 7, 2011

As I read through the first and Gospel lessons for this Sunday, I saw a common thread between the two of them. Very important characters in each of these stories exhibit the exact same emotion: fear.

In the first lesson, God finds Elijah in a cave. Why is Elijah there? He himself says, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." In other words, "Lord, there are folks looking to kill me. I don’t want to die. I am hiding because I am afraid." Fear leads Elijah to run and hide in a cave.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus’ closest followers are heading across a lake. They are having a rough go of it because the wind is in their faces. The waves are battering the boat, and the disciples are not in too good of a mood. Early in the morning, as they are struggling to make headway, they see someone or something walking on the water toward them. Fear takes over. They believe it is a ghost. They cry out! Luckily for them, it is not a ghost intent upon sinking them or stealing their souls. It is the Lord, and He eases their minds, but the ordeal is not over.

Peter, perhaps because he’s trying to show he’s braver than the others sitting in that boat says, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

Jesus says, "Come."

So Peter climbs over the rail, and begins walking on the water! I can only imagine what was going on in his head at that moment. "Holy cow!" he probably thought to himself. "I’m actually doing this. I’m taking steps on water. This shouldn’t be happening. People don’t just walk on water."

And that’s when things turned serious. Peter, in the midst of walking on the water feels the wind. It’s very strong, and fear begins welling up inside him. It paralyzes him, and Peter begins to sink. Fear leads Peter toward certain death.

How many of us at some point and time have found ourselves like Elijah? How many times has fear led us to run and hide, to shut out the world, to seek safety and security above all else? How often have we looked at the economic indicators, the proliferation of weapons, the news stories of crazy people committing violence, the pollution which will destroy our planet and every living thing, the chemicals and cholesterol and saturated fats in our food, and all the other things which threaten our livelihood and well being, and because of their overwhelmingness, we have sought to shut everything out? To hide from it all? To find a place of absolute safety and security so that we no longer have to deal with it all?

Or, how many of us have found ourselves paralyzed with fear? How many of us have found ourselves in a toxic work environment where we are humiliated by bosses or coworkers and the stress is causing us mental, physical, emotional, and relational problems? And yet, we are afraid to do anything because at least we have a paycheck? And how many of us have found ourselves dealing with a major medical situation, either with ourselves or with a family member? The future is uncertain, bills are piling up, things need to be done, but the stress, the anxiety, the unknowing, the fear keeps us from doing anything and everything? And how many of us have been thrust into a conflict between coworkers or friends or family that we had no intention of entering? We see both sides of the issue, and we don’t want to hurt either side by taking sides, and so we are paralyzed wondering just what we should do because we fear that any action will be the wrong action?
Fear drives us to hiding. And fear paralyzes us. Both of these responses are evident in our Bible lessons this morning. Both of these are common to you and to me as we deal with fear, but do you see how God addresses each of these?

First, in our Old Testament lesson, God comes to Elijah. He doesn’t arrive in a great wind, or in an earthquake or in a great fire. God doesn’t arrive in mighty, attention getting ways, but in sheer silence, God comes to Elijah. And God speaks to Elijah. God tells him, "Get out of this cave. I have work for you to do. If you really want to know safety, if you really want to know security, just do what I tell you to do. I’ll take care of the rest." When Elijah wants to hide because of his fear, God comes to him, and kicks him out into the world to do God’s work.

Christ’s response is very different in our Gospel Lesson. Peter is sinking. His fear has paralyzed him. Without assistance, Peter will drown. Peter cries out, "Lord, save me!" And Jesus does just that. Jesus offers Peter His hand, lifts him out of the water, and takes him back to the boat. Jesus takes Peter from his place of fear, and leads him to the safety of the boat. And, for extra added measure, Jesus calms the wind. When Peter is in over his head, Jesus rescues him and leads him to the place he needs to be.

Think about both of those stories and hold them in your heart and mind for a few moments. Think of how God acts in each of these stories and what they tell us in this time and this place. Think of where you are at in the midst of your life and in the midst of your own fears. How do these stories hit you?

Are you like Elijah, seeking safety above all else? Are you worried that all the stuff happening in the world is too overwhelming and that all you want to do is get away? And do you, like Elijah need to seek God in utter silence? Do you need to turn off the television, the computer, your radio or MP3 player? Do you need to ask someone to take care of your children for a few hours or a day to sit in sheer silence to hear God’s call? Is God calling you to set aside your fear because He has a plan and a purpose for you? Is God calling you and saying, "I have work for you to do. Stop hiding. Stop trying to escape reality. Engage it. Cast your fears aside because I am with you."

Or, on this day do you find yourself in over your head? Do you find yourself sinking in the midst of the storms of life? Are the waves crashing? Is the wind blowing? Are you crying out to Jesus, "Lord, save me!"? And are you trusting that He is reaching out His mighty hand to you? Are you trusting that He will put you on solid footing? Are you trusting that He will lead you to the place where you are safe and that you can continue your journey in the sea of life? After all, Jesus didn’t take Peter to the safety and security of land–Jesus took him back to the boat which was still traveling. Yet, that doesn’t negate the fact that Jesus saw Peter through a very difficult situation–and He does the same for you and for me.

As we look at these stories we see that depending upon the particular need, God will either push us out or reel us in. God will let us know if we are seeking too much safety, or if we have wandered too far out and become overwhelmed with the circumstances. We have the assurance that God has been, is and will be with us throughout all of these things. Indeed this is good news for us all.

But, I must ask, is this good news just for those of us who live in a relationship with our Lord? Is this just good news for those who follow Jesus? Or do we believe we have a precious gift that must be shared? How many in the world need to know God meets them in silence and sends them into the world with confidence? How many need to know God rescues them from the wind and waves in life? Are we not called to overcome our fears and share this news with others?

As St. Paul writes in our second lesson, "14But 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!"

May you realize this day that God saves us from our fears, and now He sends us out to share this news with others. May your feet be considered beautiful. Amen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Happened to Healing?

No, really.

I mean it.

What happened to the ability of the church to cure disease with prayer?

Benny Hinn and some of those other folks not withstanding.

What really happened to folks being able to lay hands on the sick, the lame, the deaf, the blind, and having all things restored?

I've been having this Q & A with Jesus recently about this situation.  Many things have led up to it.

1. Reading and re-reading the Gospels (and the book of Acts), I am struck by how much of Jesus' ministry proclaiming the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God is also tied to His healing of the sick and the casting out of demons.  Folks flocked from miles around to have Him touch them and cure their diseases.  The evidence of the Kingdom was overwhelming and Jesus' proclamation was backed up by His actions. 

2. Jesus also, in no uncertain terms gave this power to those who followed.  Healings continued after He was taken up into heaven.

3. It seems the Church has abdicated authority in this arena.  I am struck by how many times the Gospel writers wrote about Jesus' teaching with authority "and not like one of the scribes." 

4. The reality of a hurting world that could use good news of the healing of diseases.  I have gotten to that point in my ministry where my heart longs for such healings to take place.  When I see the images in my head of a 12 year old girl who suffers from arrhythmia who has had a heart attack and died only to be brought back by defibulation...who is still hooked up to wires and hoses...whose parents sit in a state of shock and bewilderment...

When I see the picture in my head of a baby, four to six months old with a mask on his or her face crying and a mother desperately trying to comfort her child without being able to pick him or her up because of the wires and tubes...a mother whose eyes are filled with grief and agony...

When I think of a child in the community who at three suffered an attack on her brain which has rendered her incapable of controlling her movements or talking...but who has one of the most angelic smiles...and who should be running and jumping and playing...

When I think of two elderly gentlemen who are suffering with cancer...who I have eaten with...who I have worked beside...who I have had deep, meaningful conversations about faith and life with...who are undergoing the pains of chemotherapy and dealing with the uncertainty of what the future holds...

My heart longs and yearns to do as Jesus did...

To say, "Talitha cum," and have little girls rise.

To say, "Because of your faith, your child is healed."

To say, "Go, your faith has made you well."

I do not know why I have not seen such things happen.  I don't know if my faith is insufficient.  I don't know if such gifts are not imparted these days.  I don't know if such things would only serve to raise up individuals instead of point to God the true Healer. 

And please spare me the "God gives doctors the knowledge to heal these days" speech.  Furthermore, don't give me the "Healing is more about wholeness than curing" business.  Jesus didn't just make people have a sense of well being.  He didn't just send folks to doctors and help doctors cure diseases.  He healed folks.  Touched them.  Spat in their eyes.  Rebuked evil spirits.  Made illness flee.

And evidence of such things today is sparse.  What has happened?

I just don't know.

And so I wonder. 

What happened to healing?

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Quote that Resonates with Me

From Richard John Neuhaus' book American Babylon:

...the churches that had been a primary bearer of the American story have been of little help in restoring a politics of democratic deliberation about how we ought to order our life together.  Those Protestant churches that were once called mainline, and are not viewed as oldline or even sideline, have in recent decades planted the banner "Thus Saith the Lord" on the cultural and political platform of the left.  The evangelical Protestant insurgency has planted the same banner on the cultural and political platform of the right.  It matters little that those on the right have greater political potency.  With notable exceptions, both undermine a religiosly informed public philosophy for the American experiment; both contribute to the political corruption of authentic politics; both have forgotten that, as it is said in the Letter to the Hebrews, we have here no abiding city.  p. 54
I am chewing on this one because it is offering some pretty substantial meat.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Is it a God Thing?

Can God's hand be discerned in something as mundane as the repair on a vehicle? 

Nearly a month ago, I took my prized Ford Mustang GT to the shop for regularly scheduled maintenance.  These days, if you slap a warranty on one of those boogers, you are required to get the maintenance done, or you'll invalidate your warranty.  I wouldn't have taken it in otherwise, but the 48,000 mile stuff was due.

I took it in the Friday morning before my family and I were scheduled to leave for vacation.  The fuel filter was on the to do list as was a 15 point inspection.  I also informed the guy a the counter, Brad, that the speedometer had been acting up on me.  I hoped they'd check it out.  Unfortunately, I was told that unless it was doing it currently, there was nothing they could do.  (I think that's how some of these auto companies try to get out of stuff covered by warranty, but that's beside the point.)

That afternoon, I received a call from the dealership.  Nearly everything had checked out O.K. except the tires.  I knew they were going to be a problem before too long when I bought the vehicle.  I could tell they were pretty worn, but I was trying to stretch it a while.  No such luck.  They were beginning to dry rot.  Four new wheels were suddenly on the agenda.  However, the tires I needed were not in stock.  They had to order them, and they wouldn't be in until sometime early the next week.

I said, "I'm going on vacation, so it will be at least a week before I can pick it up.  Is it O.K. to leave it there while I'm on vacation?"

I was assured there was no problem.

After a week of vacationing at my parents', we stopped at home for one night to pick up our dogs and do some fast housework before heading to my in-laws.  Since my car was ready (and so were a pair of new eyeglasses), I decided to postpone our leaving until a little later Monday morning so that I could pick up these things. 

I had my wife drop me off at the dealership, and thinking everything would be O.K., I had her head back home to finish up travel prep.  I went it, settled my account, received my key, and headed out to the car.  I unlocked my baby, and climbed in.  I looked over at the passenger door and said, "Uh oh!"

There is a vinyl panel on both the driver side and passenger side door.  Assuming it was because the car sat in the hotter that hell heat for a week, that panel had peeled off on the passenger door and was peeling off some on the driver side door.  I marched back inside the office, asked Brad to come with me, and showed him the problem.  "It wasn't that way when I dropped it off," I said.

The folks at Ryan Ford in Sealy graciously made amends and said they would fix it, much to my happiness.  But here's where things get even more interesting.  While in San Antonio, I received a call informing me the lady who does such things would fix the car on Friday. 

Friday rolls around, and I receive another call.  The lady can't make it.  She'll hopefully be there Saturday.

No call Saturday.

At the office on Monday, I call the dealership and check the status.  I ask if the lady made it in.  The response was in the negative, so Brad then informs me they will send the car to Katy to have the upholstery taken care of down there.  He tells me it should be done on Thursday.  No problem, I assure him. 

More waiting.

Thursday rolls around.  I call to check status once again.

Brad says, "Yes, the upholstery is done, but on the way back from Katy, my tech told me the speedometer was really acting up on him and there is something wrong with it.  Do you want us to check it out?"

"Praise God!" I thought.  "I am so glad it acted up on you," I replied.  "Get 'er done!"

I had to wait another week for parts and stuff to get in, but now the car is ship-shape with a new set of tires, a new fuel filter, and a new console that doesn't go goofy on me at certain times.  And thanks to the warranty, I'm only out $50 on a console that normally cost close to $700. 

So, the question, seeing all the "coincidences" that led to the speedometer finally acting up and being replaced, is it a God thing or something else?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Disappearing Women

Article here:

In my opinion, this is the result of rapidly advancing technology without the moral framework in place to deal with said technology.

At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, uncouth, and ultra-conservative, the world has an ethics problem when it comes to the sanctity of life--born and unborn. 

We live in a day and age defined by the relativization of truth.  Some believe all truth is relative, but that suggestion is a cop out and a refusal to deal with the reality of right and wrong.  If one says truth is relative, one is making a statement of truth which is automatically relativized.  It simply does not follow. 

Secondly, those who believe truth is relative, I believe, have no experience of evil.  If you have ever dealt with parents who have had their child kidnapped or murdered, you know evil exists.  Six million people dying at the hands of a madman and those who followed him prove evil exist.  If everything was relative, we could not make a moral judgment upon such issues.  Kidnapping a child, murdering a child, murdering another human being, taking that which does not belong to you, all such things are wrong.  Plain and simple.

Somewhere in the grand scheme of things, real truth does exist, and it demands a response and accountability from us as people. 

Oh, yeah, I know the argument: I probably would not be saying such things had I been raised in another form or fashion or culture which felt differently.  Granted.  I agree with such a statement.  But would that make such actions right?  If I were a part of a culture that practiced human sacrifice and was raised to believe such sacrifice was necessary, would that still make it right?  Only in my mind, but not in reality.

The selective act of aborting females to ensure a couple has a male child is wrong.  Morally, ethically, and otherwise, it's wrong. 

From a Christian standpoint, I cannot imagine Jesus condoning such behavior.  His teachings on children were revolutionary for their time.  Children then were considered property.  Their lives were meaningless to the vast majority of people.  They were expendable because unless they could contribute and work, they were simply one more mouth to feed--with resources that were already stretched thin.

But Jesus said, "Unless you accept the kingdom of heaven as you accept a little child..." 

(You can take that a couple of ways.  You can understand this to have a childlike faith, or you can understand it as literally accepting the kingdom of God as you would accept someone who was considered expendable.  Of course, I am accentuating the latter.)

Astounding the number of children who have been aborted in this piece for no other reason than they did not have a penis and a set of testicles. 

Hello, where is the moral outrage?

We've finally reached a point in history where most folks consider it an abomination that a person could be killed or discriminated against because of the color of his or her skin.  We have made massive headway in conferring equal rights because of gender.  But if the unborn is not the correct gender...

Does this make any sense what-so-ever?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Problem of Suffering?

As I was walking yesterday, my thoughts turned to the problem of suffering--you know, that long standing rebuttal against the existence of God which goes:

If God is all-powerful, and
If God is all-good, then
why does suffering/evil exist?

It stands to reason that an all-powerful, all-good God would eliminate suffering and evil from our midst.

But is there an assumption being made by this argument?

Is there an assumption that suffering/evil shouldn't happen in the world or to us?  Is there an assumption that evil/suffering is outside the norm of reality, something to be controlled, lessened, or eliminated altogether?

One of the recent books I read (wish I could remember exactly) says something to the effect of those who believe they shouldn't suffer in life are living at the height of arrogance.  They believe they are above such matters.  "Everything I experience should be good," they seem to say.


Is anyone truly above suffering or the reality of evil?  Perhaps if you believe you shouldn't suffer, then suffering truly is a problem.  Yet, if you believe suffering is a part of our existence here on the planet earth, it is not a demonstrable problem.

Especially for a Christian.

Christians know we suffer.  We know we are not above this reality of life.  We know so because of who our God is.

For one of the scandals of the cross is knowing our God suffered too.  Our God experienced evil too.  Our God was unjustly condemned, beaten, tried in a kangaroo court, humiliated, and suffered death on a cross.  Name me one other faith tradition where God suffers in such a manner.

It is one thing to believe that God is above suffering and that He should do something about it.  It is quite another thing when God suffers as well.  And if God is a suffering God, one who deeply understands the plight of humanity and has promised to bring about positive results from suffering (check out the resurrection on that one), then is suffering really a problem?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Give Them Something to Eat: Sermon Delivered July 31, 2011

2000 years ago, a man was informed about his cousin’s death. He was grieved by the news. He wanted to spend a little bit of time in reflection, a little bit of time in mourning, so he boarded a fishing boat and headed across a lake so that he might slip away to a deserted place. He had been spending quite a bit of time in the spotlight, and people were coming miles to see and hear him speak. But now, he needed a little bit of time. He needed some time alone just to be.

However, his time alone was short lived. When you heal the sick, cast out demons, and give hope to the hopeless, you are much in demand. A rumor had spread as to where this man was headed, so the crowd went by land to seek him out. And they found him. As he exited the boat, through his grief, through his weariness, he observed the crowd. He saw the pain they had been bearing, and he saw the hopeful expectation in their eyes. He knew he had given that hope to them. He knew his words and teachings were having an impact. He knew they looked to him for a word from God. They needed more. And he was the only one who could give it to them. Compassion filled his heart, and he moved about them healing them and curing their sick.

This was the outcome of the vision and teaching he had given them months ago. He had stood on the top of a hill and said these words:

3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. These words had challenged the very assumptions of the religious order of the day. Everyone knew that God loved those who were rich, wealthy, and had status and friends in high places. Everyone knew if you didn’t have such things, God was punishing you for your sins. But this man had dared challenge those thoughts. This man had dared to say, "God loves you and you are blessed when you are poor, when you mourn, when you hunger and thirst, and when you are persecuted." Those who heard those words marveled at them for they were poor. They hungered. They thirsted. They were persecuted. And they felt lower than dirt because of it. They felt like God had abandoned them. But this man dared to tell them that God had not abandoned them. Far from it, God had actually blessed them.

And this man had backed up his words. He not only told them God loved them, but he performed great signs and wonders that affirmed his teachings. This man said the Kingdom of God was coming into the world and it would reach into their very lives. And it did. Their sick were cured. The lame walked. The blind saw. The deaf heard. And hope grew.

But in that deserted place, hunger was growing. The crowd had traveled long distances to come to Jesus. They had traveled fast and light. The day was ending, and their stomachs pained. "Blessed are you when you hunger and thirst for righteousness," Jesus had said. And now, they hungered for bread. Bread the disciples thought was not available.

"Send the people home," they told Jesus.

"You give them something to eat," He replied.

"We have only five loaves and two fish," they said.

"It is enough."

And Jesus broke the bread and blessed the fish and there was enough to feed the multitude. There was an abundance. Jesus showed the Kingdom indeed was breaking into the world. Hope flowed in even more abundance as Jesus’ words came true, "You will be filled." In the Kingdom of God, you will be filled.
This text this week has taken on special significance for me following the past two weeks of vacation. For in this past vacation, I did something I hadn’t done in the past eleven years since I was ordained. I took a half a dozen books written by Christian authors with me.

Nearly every day, I found myself immersed in their writings. I devoured their insights into the faith. I found my toes being stepped on repeatedly as they exposed to me some of my shortcomings as a pastor and as a follower of Jesus Christ. Some of their commentary literally brought me to my knees. And even though there was pain involved, I kept reading. I kept delving into these books because I realized something as I read. I was being fed. Yes, there was confrontation, but there was also forgiveness. There was also affirmation. There was grace, and such grace nourished my soul which was longing for this spiritual food.

Those of you who follow my blog and who sit on council know that I have spoken of a dryness in my spirit. I felt fatigued. It felt a little like burn out as well as depression. Something within me wasn’t right, and I knew it. But little did I know what the problem really was until I began delving once more into the study of God’s Word and it’s application to my life as a pastor and as a follower of Jesus. For you see, I had neglected to dine on Jesus’ word. I had neglected to take time to be fed by Jesus himself. I had neglected my own spirit, and it needed to be filled.

When Satan was tempting Jesus after Jesus had fasted for 40 days and nights, Satan said, "Use your power and turn these stones into bread."

But Jesus replied, "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
I was not hungering for lack of bread, but I was hungering for God’s Word. I had not been spending sufficient time in that Word. Some of you might be surprised at that comment since I preach every week, and every week I wrestle with and read three Biblical texts. Yes, I do this, but it wasn’t enough. Little did I know but my spirit needed more. Why?

Because Jesus says, "You give them something to eat."

In our particular situation, there are not many here who are physically hungry. Most have enough to eat. Most are not like that crowd gathered on that hillside whose tummy’s were rumbling and churning. Most have plenty to eat even if they have a few cravings from time to time. So, the hunger I am called to address in my profession is a little different. It is the spiritual hunger–the longing for meaning–the longing for hope– the longing for purpose–the longings that can only be satisfied by walking with Jesus Christ, by dining on the Word of God.

I had been trying to give folks something to eat, but I found out this past vacation, that I wasn’t eating enough myself. I couldn’t give what I wasn’t receiving. It was burning me out. It was dragging me down. I was losing energy and vision, and so I have discovered that I must eat on a more regular basis. If I am to "give them something to eat," I must be willing to dine as well.

Oh, and did I mention to all of you who are gathered here this morning, this isn’t just Pastor Haug’s calling? Did I mention to you that you are disciples of Jesus Christ as well? Did I mention to you that you are called to "give them something to eat" as well? Yes, this is a shared calling that Christians across the globe have, and I must ask each and every one of us here this morning, are we taking the time to live on every word that comes from the mouth of God? Are we taking the time to dine with Him so that our spirits are fed and we can feed others? Are we growing in faith so that we have the strength, the energy, the purposefulness, and the power to offer this food to a world that is hungering deeply for it?

Think about that for a moment as you consider your life of prayer, of worship, of study, of silence, and of solitude. Do you make time in your daily life to dine?

"But, Pastor," you may say, "I come to church at least once a month."

Do me a favor. Next month, pick one day in the entire month. You can eat as much as you want for one hour during that day, but then you cannot eat the rest of the month. Would you have the strength to accomplish what you needed to do?

Oh, and if you like, you could try that for a week as well. Pick one day during the week, and you can eat for an hour all you like. Would you be able to accomplish your tasks?

Jesus says, "Give them something to eat." It’s our calling as a church and as disciples of Jesus. But how can we give others something to eat if we are not feeding on the richness and abundance of God that is poured out for us on a daily basis? Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that I couldn’t. I now am making time to dine more often. Will you join me? Amen.