Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Being a Shepherd

Really, there is only one Good Shepherd of the flock.  Those who are wise acknowledge it. 

There is a reason Jesus said, "11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." --John 10: 11-16

There is a great reluctance within me to acknowledge others when they call me a "shepherd" of the flock here in Cat Spring, TX.  I am a far cry from the Good Shepherd.  I try to imitate Him.  I try to follow His commands, but I am a poor, poor imitation. 

I've heard it said more than a few times that we clergy are more like sheepdogs instead.  Faithfully herding the flock for the Shepherd.  Perhaps a better analogy, but I confess, a canine is usually much more obedient to his or her master.  A canine is usually much more loving and less rebellious once trained.  Alas, in my sinfulness, I am not quite so obedient.  Neither am I as forgiving or loving as a dog.  And neither am I instructed in Scripture to be like a dog.  I am commanded to imitate, as best as possible, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, I am stuck with being called a shepherd who works under the Good Shepherd.  (I am also a sheep, BTW.  One must truly admit such a thing as a Christian.)

Yesterday, I posted about the grief I am experiencing at the loss of an Associate Member of my congregation.  Some will shed no tears at his leaving, and I doubt he would have shed any tears if certain others would have decided to leave the church as well.  Sometimes, we sheep just don't get along too well, and we certainly don't imitate the Good Shepherd too well when it comes to such matters.

It is Jesus' desire and heart to gather all the sheep together.  It is His desire to go out and find other sheep which are not of the flock and bring them in as well.  It is His desire that all His sheep know, hear, and respond to His voice.  It is His desire for His sheep to desire the same thing.

And how do things usually play out?

If someone is just a little (or a lot) controversial; or if they stir the pot; or if they are a perceived troublemaker, we tend to rejoice as they go.  Now, I am not saying that the church at times doesn't need such things to happen.  Sometimes new growth can only occur after pruning.  Such is a fact of life.  But rejoicing?

I find it hard to see Jesus rejoicing as churches split or people leave in anger.  I find it hard to see Jesus saying, "Thank God this person left.  We can live in better harmony now."  I find it hard to see Jesus rejoicing over broken relationships and an unwillingness to work toward reconciliation. 

It happens.  Believe me, I know this.  But I do not find it a cause for celebration. 

Even a little shepherd like myself comes to know the sheep.  I know my folks' names.  I know their stories.  I know their struggles.  I have laughed with them.  I've cried with them.  I've built relationships with them.  I am protective of them, and I defend them from attack or misunderstanding by those who do not know them.  When they hurt, a part of me hurts.  When they rejoice, a part of me rejoices.  I want what's best for them, and Lord knows, I pray for them constantly.  I have become disappointed at times with some of their choices, but their good outshines the bad any day. 

And when you have worked so hard at building relationships and getting to know your flock, it hurts when one or two or more walk away.  You've got to give them the freedom to do so, even as you and the flock are diminished.  But, you trust them to the care of the Good Shepherd.  You pray that He continues to bless them, and you move on to continue the job the Good Shepherd gave you.  And perhaps, you cherish those moments with your sheep just a little bit more.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Little Sadder Today

It is tough when a church "family" member leaves. 

It's actually easier when they die.  I have a chance to work through my grief by proclaiming the Gospel, shedding a few tears, and remembering that I will see the person again when the fullness of the Kingdom of God is revealed. 

It's harder when a family member leaves because of something that is beyond one's control or because you will not or cannot act in a fashion they desire.  St. Paul was good at being "all things to all people", but I am not. 

I am grieving a little at the loss of one of my associate members.  Like many within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, he became very upset at the Churchwide Assembly's decision in 2009 to allow congregations to call openly gay/lesbian pastors who are in committed relationships.  He further became angry when a congregation in the local area asked him to leave.

This guy can be like sand-paper at times.  He is rough.  He is abrupt.  He will not hesitate to tell you how he feels or how he thinks you should act.  His abrasiveness can be very, very uncomfortable, but none-the-less, I admire and respect the guy.  With him, you've got to take the good and the bad.

Yes, there is some bad.  He's a stubborn, hard headed German just like myself.  When he believes he's right, he will press forward until he can press no further.  Sometimes this trait serves him well.   Sometimes it does not.

For the most part, in my relationship with him, it served him well.

As I came to know him, I got the chance to see more and more of his heart.  His compassion.  His desire to leave the world a better place than he had found it.

Tick people off?  Sure.

But procure land for the local food pantry.  He did that too.

Become domineering when disagreed with?  Yep.

But spearhead an effort to build a community member a home so that she and her family, including a severely disabled son could make ends meet.  He did that too.

Take on a denomination he felt was completely and totally wrong with no compromise?  Yes.

But actively put a ton of time and energy and drive to raise money to purchase motorcycles for pastors in Africa so that they could minister in their congregations?  He did that too.

Have a disagreement with me in which he felt I was wrong and off base when it came to seeking changes to the church's constitution?  Yep.

Respecting me enough to avoid conflict within the church.  He did that too.

But now the local church family relationship will no longer exist.  He is moving on to a place that he hopefully can worship without anger or frustration.  He is moving on taking both the good and the bad. 

I wish it could be different, but it is probably for the best--both for him and for the church.

But that's not going to stop me from being a little sadder today.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Plucking Out an Eye?

27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell." --Matthew 5:27-30

I'm sure this statement has raised more than a few eyebrows in its time.  Not necessarily that adultery part at the top (although I'm sure it has made more than a few men and women a little uncomfortable), but that part about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand.  Does Jesus really mean for His followers to do such a thing?

More than a few times, I've heard people use this text to defend non-adherence to the Law or commands of Scripture.  "Jesus isn't really telling us to cut our hands off or pluck our eyes out," they say.  "He's using hyperbole--pushing the limits--here.  He's exaggerating, so there might be other times He's exaggerating and we need to look at things more closely when it comes to the commands He tells us."

Maybe on the hyperbole part.  Not so sure about the conclusions drawn from it.

I've been a bit influenced on Dallas Willard's part because he actually deals with this text in his book The Great Omission in the chapter titled, "Jesus the Logician":

What exactly is Jesus doing here?  One would certainly be mistaken in thinking that he is advising anyone to actually dismember himself as a way of escaping damnation.  One must keep the context in mind.  Jesus is exhibiting the righteousness that goes beyond the "righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees."  This latter was a righteousness that took as its goal to not do anything wrong.  If not doing anything wrong is the goal, that can be achieved by dismembering yourself and making actions impossible.   What you cannot do you certainly will not do.  Remove your eye, your hand, etc., therefore, and you will roll into heaven a mutilated stump.  The price of dismemberment would be small compared to the reward of heaven.  That is the logical conclusion for one who held the beliefs of the scribes and the Pharisees.  Jesus is urging them to be consistent with their principles and do in practice what their principles imply.  He reduces their principles, that righteousness lies in not doing anything wrong, to the absurd, in the hope they will forsake their principle and see and enter the righteousness that is "beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees"--beyond, where compassion or love and not sacrifice is the fundamental thing.  Jesus, of course knew that if you dismember yourself you can still have a hateful heart toward God and toward man.  It wouldn't really help toward righteousness at all.  That is the basic thing he is teaching in this passage.  Failure to appreciate the logic makes it impossible to get his point.  --page 188-189
I think Willard is dead on in his conclusion--although perhaps, his exegesis could use some work. 

I'd like to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus is using hyperbole and pushing the envelope to get us to stop blaming extraneous factors when it comes to sinning.  Just about every Christian I know of at some time has said, "The Devil made me do it."  Well, then you have no responsibility for your sin, and we know that is not the case.  You do make choices, and even if the Devil tempts you, he is not the direct cause of sinning.

Likewise for your eye or your hand.  Neither of these things cause you to sin.  They are each controlled by the inner workings of our being--our head and our heart.  And it is the heart which Jesus is after in these comments.  Remember, in the saying about adultery, if one looks at a woman with lust, he has committed adultery in his heart.  The lust which resides in the heart leads to adultery, not the eye.

Yet, if you want to blame your eye, cut it off.  That's the logical conclusion. For it is better that you go through life without an eye than to end up in hell.  (Of course, that posed a very serious problem for those who were concerned with wholeness being associated with godliness in that day and age.)  And if you want to blame your hand for your sin, cut it off.  It's better for you to go through life lame than to allow your hand to cause you to go to hell. 

Indeed, Jesus uses an argument of the absurd to get down to the root of what causes sin--our hearts.  And if we don't wrestle with our human nature--the fact that we are both saint and sinner and the fact that each side has a claim upon us as we live--we will blame all sorts of factors for our sinfulness except the right one.

Sermon Delivered September 25, 2011: Let the Same Mind be in You

You know, you just thought Christianity was easy.

You just thought it was a piece of cake to be a Christian.

And in a manner of speaking, you are right. It is easy to be a Christian. At its core is the Gospel proclamation that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. There is nothing we have to do to earn salvation. There is nothing we have to do to earn the love of God. There is nothing we have to do to initiate a relationship with God. He takes care of all of that for us.

Paul says it this way in the book of Ephesians, " 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast."

Yes, it is not our works that lead to salvation; it is Jesus’ work on the cross that leads to life. It is Jesus’ death and resurrection that leads us to eternal life. Jesus paid the price. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross led to our redemption. He accomplished what we could never, ever accomplish on our own. God’s mercy; God’s love; God’s peace, and God’s joy rain down on you and me even though we didn’t and can’t do anything to earn them.

Ah, and if we have to do nothing to earn God’s love, that makes Christianity pretty easy. As Paul again says in Romans chapter 10 verse 9, "9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

What more do we have to do? What more do we need to worry about? All is taken care of for the one who believes. Christianity therefore becomes very, very easy.

But what if, just for the sake of argument, we pretend that we are brought to our knees by what Jesus Christ has done for us. What if for a moment we pause as we realize the great price Jesus paid for us with His pain; with His suffering; with His death. What if, just for the sake of argument, we are moved with thankfulness and awe and wonder by what He has done. What if in those moments as we contemplate such things we find ourselves inspired, motivated, and deeply desiring to offer a response to what Jesus first did for us? What if in those moments of contemplation we find ourselves so overwhelmed by God’s goodness that we desire to live a life that seeks to honor Him and thank Him for the marvelous gifts He has bestowed upon us? What if in these moments we stop and say to our God, "Father in heaven, I know there is nothing I can do to earn your love. You have given it to me freely and undeservedly through your Son. You have done so much for me, can I do something for You?"

And, just to keep the argument going, let’s say that God used a man to write a message to you and to me. And in that message that man wrote these words, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

"Wait a minute," you might say. "Is that even possible? How can I have the same mind as Jesus? Isn’t there anything else I can do? Can’t I just go to church once a month or so? Can’t I just put a little bit of money in the offering plate? Can’t I just pray for people I know who are sick or in trouble? Can’t I just do a random act of kindness or two?"

And the reply remains unchanged, "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus who though He was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but He humbled himself and became obedient unto death–even death on a cross."

"But do I have to do that? Do I have to be humble? Do I have to be completely obedient? Do I have to set aside my hopes and my dreams and my desires and focus on Your will for my life? Do I have to really seek to see like Jesus saw? Think like Jesus thought? Do the things Jesus did? Obey the commands He gave to us? Surely, You don’t really mean this do you, God? After all, I am saved by grace through faith. That’s enough, isn’t it? I don’t have to really do all this stuff, do I?"

The answer is, it depends on what your heart’s desire becomes after you have experienced the grace of God. Are you content to call yourself a Christian in name only, or do you wish to be a disciple.

As St. Paul says, "Let the same mind be in you that is in Christ Jesus."

Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer the German theologian who wrote the Christian classic, The Cost of Discipleship, put it this way, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."

And you just thought Christianity was easy. Amen.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Further Facebook Thoughts

"The human mind thrives on change and being exposed to new things."

So said my Bowen Systems Theory teacher, Doug Hester.

And as per my last post on change, I agree.  However, there is a corollary to such a thing:

"Systems like homeostasis and are resentful to change."  --Doug Hester

That dynamic is at play wherever you go.--especially on the internet where websites constantly change and update.  Yet, I have come to see that the anxiety that goes along with change can be diminished significantly.

I my time of browsing and engaging the world wide web, I know of only one website that hasn't changed its format: the Drudge Report.  Most others change on a regular basis, but there is something that sets those websites apart compared to Facebook.

For instance, every time Yahoo! has changed its format, it warns its browsers weeks, sometimes months in advance.  There is a link which will pop up that says, "Check out our new format!"

Browsers have plenty of time to grow accustomed to the look in advance.  And even if they don't check out the changes, they are warned such change is coming.  It makes a world of difference.  Other websites will even ask for input before making the change ensuring folks have an opportunity to engage the process before it happens.  Generally, when the change finally occurs, there is a seamless transition with little or no fussiness.

Compare this to the random nature and imposition of change which occurs on Facebook. 

Which is a more mature way of handling it?

Change is necessary.

But if you are aware of human nature and how it works, you will administer change in such a way that does not incite or infuriate.

Not likely the folks at Facebook really care or would take such things under advisement.  But maybe if they spent a little less time with their computers and a little more time with people, things would be different.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Change for Change's Sake

Another day. 

Another Facebook change.

Another uproar by some Facebook users.

Followed by another round of those who say, "Chill, it's really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things."

And to some extent, everyone is justified in what they speak.

Change is an important part of life.  A person only ceases to change when they die.  Ergo, change is necessary--for people, for business, for churches and other non-profit organizations, for families.  Stop changing and adapting, and you will die.

But there is a bit of stupidity in change for change's sake.  If you have something that is working and working well, leave it be.  There is no reason to tinker with such things.  Seen too much of such business in my time.  Change for change's sake can also lead down a very dark road.  Ask Netflix right now.  Change for change's sake is not usually directed at enhancing relationships or doing what is best for the "customer".  Usually it's motivated by boredom or a desire to completely impose one's own will upon others.  Can anyone say George Lucas tinkering with the BluRay release of the Star Wars saga?

And oftentimes, most of the change we experience really isn't worth getting too upset with.  In the big scheme of things Facebook's recent change is not life altering or earth shattering.  There are many more issues worth worrying about. 

But...if such change for change sake leads to death of Facebook or a severe diminishment of its users, then not only will Facebook suffer, but those of us who lose contact with those whom we have reconnected with lose.  Sure, we can try Google + or whatever arises next, but that's no sure guarantee our connections will be reestablished again.

So, you see, everyone is a little right in their critiques and changes today.  And everyone might be a little leery as well.  For the only problem in the whole ordeal is simply change for change's sake.


As I continue to read through the Sermon on the Mount on an (almost) daily basis, one particular snippet keeps haunting me:

28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. --Matthew 7:28-29

Jesus astounded the people with His teaching...

because he taught as one having authority.

Not like the scribes who presumably taught but didn't do so with authority.

Question: What does it mean to teach with authority?

Does it mean teaching with absolute certainty?

Does it mean having all the answers?

Wiping all the dust off of my Greek lexicons, I can see two possibilities in translating the Greek word "exousian" in this case:

1. Ability, capability, might, power.

2. authority, absolute power.

Which one?

Reading through the Expositor's Bible Commentary gives a clue.  Notice throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly says, "You have heard it said...but I tell you..." 

Jesus doesn't cite any other authorities.  He doesn't quote other teachers or wise men.  He quotes the sacred Scriptures and goes beyond what they even say. 

The law:  "You have heard it said, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery.'" 

Fine, easy enough.  Don't sleep with anyone who you are not married to.  Can accomplish the fulfillment of that law without too much difficulty. 

With Authority: "But I say, if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart you have committed adultery with her."

Jesus goes above and beyond what the law states as He teaches.  Was anyone else daring to do such a thing?  Did anyone else dare to make the Mosaic Law even more strict than articulated? 

I remember taking a class on Judaism in college.  The rabbi was very straight forward with us when he talked about the Jewish concept of sin.  "It isn't a sin if you think it," he said.  "Only if you act on your thoughts."

Jesus doesn't follow that rule.  Jesus includes not only the action but the thoughts which lead to the action as sinful. 

"I tell you..."

Is this the understanding of such authority?  Or is it more? 

And are such folks astounded by authority today?  Or resentful?  Can the Church claim to have such authority in its teachings?  Is it something the Church has lost along the way?

So many questions to wrestle with.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Souring on Football

It used to be close to a second religion for me.  O.K., maybe not quite that, but there was a day when I couldn't wait to watch football on t.v.

Thursday night.  Check.

Friday night.  Check.

Saturday all day.  Check.

Sunday afternoon.  It's Cowboy's time!

Monday night.  Can't miss.

Didn't matter if I didn't really have any allegiance to the teams playing.  I got to watch the game.

The game.

Unfortunately, it's not a game anymore.  It has gone much further.  It has become an obsession driven by one thing and one thing alone: money.

Things began souring within me this past year when the NFL and player's union duked it out over???  Yep.  Money.

Millionaires versus billionaires.  In the midst of some very tough economic times, I had no sympathy.  I still have no sympathy.  I find it abhorrent that the game which built itself on the backs of blue collar folks now raises ticket prices and parking prices and concession prices to the point where those same blue collar folks can no longer watch their favorite teams in person.  Blah!

Oh, I still take a little time off to watch a quarter or two of the game on Sunday, but I don't go out of my way anymore.  If there's something else to be done, I give it priority.

Same with college football.  The game used to be about rivalries.  It used to be about tradition.  It used to be about building a program to dominance and watching it compete for a national championship every year.  Now, traditions are being thrown into the wind.  Rivalries are split as teams  head to superconferences.  Who gives a darn about the national championship when you can get television commitments and contracts worth millions.  THE DOLLAR HAS DESTROYED THE GAME!

I'm not naive.  I know that money is necessary.  I know it helps colleges out.  But it's a shame when the athletic programs outshine the schools of engineering, medicine, education, science, etc.  How many lives has a damn football game saved?  Compare that to one graduate of the school of medicine.  How many roads has a football game constructed to get people to their jobs?  How many children has a football game cared for and taught the basics of life?  Zip.  Nada.  Nil.

And yet, colleges and universities spend more and more money on their athletic programs...more and more money on the salaries of their coaches...more and more money on some insanely designed and crafted uniforms.  While tuition continues to skyrocket for those students who will truly make a difference in the world around us.

It's a shame, really.  I love football.  I'm sure one of these days, I will be rooting for my son as he plays.  I'll enjoy the game, but there will still be a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sermon Delivered: September 18, 2011: How Does Your Generosity Measure up with Gods?

Life may be a lot of things, but one thing I have come to see: life isn’t fair.

Oh sure, we try to sugar coat things and pretend like things are fair. We try and teach our children that they should be treated fairly at school. We try to teach them that they should share with others. We try to teach them they should receive a reward equal to the work they put into something. Those of us who are parents work diligently to make sure our kids are treated fairly within our homes–at Christmas, each kid gets the same number of presents–each kid gets the same number of cookies–each kid gets the same amount of time spent upon the computer. We expend tons of time and energy trying to teach our kids fairness and telling them they should do likewise. And despite all our efforts to do such things, eventually, they have to learn the hard lesson of life that fairness is just an ideal. It doesn’t really exist.

Think life is fair?

Ask the worker who worked for Enron if life is fair.

Ask the guy who spent most of his life working for the same company only to lose his job and benefits to
company downsizing or to a younger, cheaper worker.

Ask the military man who spent years overseas fighting for freedom who now has to take his shoes off and be patted down in the airport.

Ask the rancher who has spent years of blood, sweat, and tears working on his property, building up his herds and his assets only to see it wiped out in a horrific drought.

Ask the homeowner who is given 15 minutes to evacuate because a fire is bearing down on his home and who eventually loses everything in that fire.

Ask the people who lost loved ones to the tornadoes in the eastern United States.

Ask the people who have sought to live the right kind of lifestyles who don’t drink, don’t smoke, eat healthily, exercise regularly, and who still ended up with cancer.

See if they will tell you life is fair. See if they answer in the affirmative.

And yet, we still hold onto our concept of fairness. "O.K. Pastor, we know that life here on earth isn’t fair.
But when God comes, when God finally reveals His Kingdom, then things will be fair."


Do you really think so?

Jesus told a parable one day about the kingdom of heaven. A landowner went to where the day laborers had gathered. Probably a place like that little supermarket there in Bellville where men gather on a daily basis. This landowner hired the lot of the workers who were there promising them the usual daily wage.
This landowner trusted the men to do the work they were chosen to do. He didn’t spend all day supervising them. In fact, the landowner took several trips to the marketplace that day, and each time he went, he found more and more idle workers. Each time, he invited those workers to head out and get some work done in the vineyard. Each times the landowner said, "I will pay you what is right."

Even at the end of the day, when there was only one hour of work to be done, the landowner went to the marketplace and found some men who were idle. "Why aren’t you working?" the landowner asked.

"No one would hire us," they replied. That sounds like a familiar phrase in our current economy.

This landowner, however, did not turn them away. "Go to work. I will pay you what is right."

At the end of the day, the landowner calls his manager to him. "Time to pay the workers. Start with the one’s we hired last, and then end with the ones we hired first."

Now, I’m not sure why the landowner decided to pay in this fashion. I know he could have saved an awful lot of grief if he would have paid the first ones who came to work first and then ended with the last ones. But perhaps this landowner isn’t concerned about feelings, and perhaps he indeed is trying to teach a lesson.
The folks who were hired to work only one hour receive their payment. Surprisingly, IT’S AN ENTIRE DAY’S WAGE! Can you imagine their surprise? Can you imagine their shock? Holy cow! They certainly didn’t deserve this, so I am sure their thankfulness toward the landowner is sky high.

I’m sure the next folks in line wondered if they would receive more since they had worked longer hours.
Nope, they too received a day’s wage. Perhaps they were a little disappointed, but at least they could say they received a day’s wage without having to work an entire day.

As each successive group came forward, I’m sure their disappointment grew as they saw they would only receive a day’s wage. However, no group complained. They all knew they had worked less than a day and their wage was more than right. Even though it was less in proportion, they were still ahead of the eight ball.
But then the last group comes forward. This group had indeed worked all day. They had labored the most.
They had endured the burning sun. Their muscles bore the brunt of the heavy labor. They had seen everyone else get more than they deserved. They thought and had convinced themselves they should receive more too. It was only fair. It was only fair that they should be treated like everyone else who had been given more than what their work was worth.

But the landowner paid them what they had agreed upon earlier. The landowner did not give them extra. And they were upset. They grumbled. They complained. "It’s not fair!" they shouted. "Those last ones, the ones who came in and worked only an hour–you paid them for a whole day’s work. How could you do this? And how could you only pay us what you are paying us when we have worked the hardest? Where is the justice in that? Where is the fairness in that? This isn’t right!"

And the landowner reminds them, "Look, guys, you agreed to work for me for the usual daily wage. You are receiving what you negotiated for. And you are angry about it? Furthermore, this is my vineyard and my money. Certainly you are in no position to tell me how I am to spend my money or who to hire, are you?
And finally, are you angry at me and are you envious because I am generous?"

And in so doing, the landowner plays his trump card, and Jesus makes His point. In the kingdom of God, things are not fair. Generosity abounds to the point where those who did little work still receive the same amount of wages as those who worked the hardest. Put this way, it didn’t matter how much work was done or how long one worked, everyone received the same thing.

Now, this smacks us hard with our own sense of fairness. Many of us probably identify with those at the end of the line. Haven’t we worked hard? Haven’t we busted our tails off? Don’t we deserve more than what we get? Perhaps we do, but why don’t we identify with those who are paid first and who came to work last?

I remember working at the Sealy Christian Pantry one Wednesday many moons ago. A gentleman and his son came to get food. When we handed them their bags, they were surprised at the amount of food they received. They were overwhelmed at the generosity of the pantry. They had never needed food before, but when they were in need–when they hadn’t been able to find work–generosity touched them deeply.

Why is it that so many of us don’t seem to sense such generosity on our lives? When it comes to our working in the kingdom of God, do you honestly think we have worked all day long? Do you honestly believe we have given our all to the landowner? Do you honestly think we deserve to be paid a full day’s wage of salvation and the many gifts we have in our lives? Do you think God is being fair to us in the midst of our sinfulness and the amount of time we dedicate to Him in our lifetimes?

No. I think if we were honest with ourselves, we’d see we deserve none of what we get. And yet, God gives it to us anyway. We have been paid more than what we deserve because God is generous and not fair.
So, this now leads me to ask us this morning, how does our generosity stack up against God’s? If Jesus gives us insight into God’s generosity in His Kingdom, and if Jesus asks us to help others see that kingdom in our midst, what does that say about how we try to do things? Do we seek to be fair? Or do we seek to be generous? There is a big difference between the two. Life isn’t fair, and life can be downright harsh. The kingdom of heaven isn’t fair either, but it is downright generous. Where does your discipleship lead you? Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

We're More Connected than Ever Before. (Not!)

Late last year, I entered the realm of texting.

Not necessarily by choice.

Actually, I started receiving numerous texts from church members, and since I didn't have a texting plan on my phone it cost the church extra $$.  The obvious solution was to upgrade my phone (I wasn't going to text without a full keyboard) since the extra money spent would be less than what was being spent on the texts I was receiving and sending.

Now, I get texts regularly.  To be fair, I also send a few, and I confess, it's much easier to get in touch with people because folks will oftentimes respond to a text quicker than to a voice message.  At least we're communicating, but contrary to all the hype, I have come to see I am not really connecting. 

Technology has a (ahem!) wonderful way of actually distancing us from those we come in contact with.

Way back when, when there were no phones, most communication was done face to face.  Of course, you could write letters to communicate, but you usually did this when someone was some distance away.  If you needed to communicate, you got on your horse, went to your neighbor and talked.  How many of us really do that today? 

Then came the telegraph followed by the telephone.  Suddenly, we could send and receive messages much faster.  We could call one another and talk without leaving the comfort of our own homes.  We could still hear the person on the other end of the line, but suddenly, we were one step removed from his or her presence.  Of course, the phone was a boon for people separated by distances.  Now they could talk and check in.  I don't want to minimize this positive.  It was good.  But face to face time began its erosion.

Enter email and text.  Whereas the telephone enabled you to communicate without leaving your home, you at least had to talk to someone.  That might be pleasant.  It might be awkward.  But at least you had to go back and forth.  You could pick up some inflection in voice and read moods if you listened carefully.  With email and text, you no longer have to do that.  You can zap someone else and wait for a reply if you so choose.   You don't have to listen for clues that offer emotion.  You don't have to enter into another's personal space and be affected by it.  One more step further removed from personal, face to face connection.  In fact, there's almost no connection what-so-ever except for information.  And can we exist and be in relationship through electronic words alone?

No wonder it seems like we are lonelier than ever.  We've replaced face to face with typing through a hand held computer with no interaction at all.  We're connected to machines instead of each other.

Yet, the t.v. and radio commercials tell us that beyond a shadow of a doubt we are more connected than ever.

Pardon me if I puke.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

When was the Last Time...

folks said, "Wow!" when they heard about something the church has done?

At least in a positive way?

Oh, sure, I know that such a thing is often said about an individual congregation's activities.

"St. Steven's raised over $10,000 at their annual picnic."


"St. Peter's raised $30,000 to provide clean drinking water in Africa."


Lakewood Church draws 15,000 people every Sunday.


Not to diminish such accomplishments, but really, is this all the Church is capable of?  Is this all the church can do?  Individual congregations impacting local communities?  That's it?  When is the last time the Church did something that made the world take notice?  When is the last time the Church did something that made folks across a broad geographical area stop and ponder the power of God working through His people?

I'm waiting.

It seems like the only big things that draw attention to the church are pastors who get put on the spot when asked questions about God's relationship toward homosexuals...

or when a pastor or priest gets caught abusing a child...

or when a pastor or priest is seen with a prostitute (and not in the same fashion that Jesus visited with prostitutes)...

or when a pastor/church embezzles money.

Such things cause people to say, "Wow." and shake their heads in a very negative manner.

But where are our tremendous acts of kindness, generosity, and overwhelming grace that cause people to stop and pause?  Where are our acts of unconditional love and sacrifice that cause people to stop and say, "The church still has relevance."?

Is there anything beyond the political agendas of the religious right and religious left?  Can Christians actually get together and make a difference beyond such politically driven ideology?

Can we think beyond ourselves and our local congregations to embrace the reality of a world changing faith which seeks not its own glory but to glorify our Father in Heaven? 
Can we make such a difference?

When was the last time...

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Letter to Christians of the State of Texas

My brothers and sisters in Christ,

One day, a man asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

Jesus told a story.  I am sure you are quite familiar with it.  It's called the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  At the end, Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."

Those of us who live in Texas know that many of our neighbors are hurting.  Recent wildfires have devastated Bastrop and parts of the Tri-County area near Magnolia.  Nearly two thousand homes have been destroyed.  Our neighbors are hurting and in need.

Churches and Christians around the state have responded graciously and generously.  Food and clothing have made their way to these areas in copious amounts.  Churches and Christians have looked to "adopt" families and help them through these difficult times.  However, the biggest task remains: rebuilding.  Who will help with this process?

Too often, we have been guilty of passing the buck of rebuilding to others--individuals, the government, other social agencies.  Such a task seems too monumental for us as the church.  Most denominations are in decline and dollars seem to be stretched thin.  Congregations seem isolated and unable to even consider building houses and homes.  Yet, I want to challenge you to really think about such an outlook.  I want to challenge you to look beyond your own congregation, your own denomination, and your own circle of people you associate with who are Christian.  I want to challenge you to look beyond the differences that separate us as brothers and sisters--those finer points of doctrine which cause us to label ourselves: Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Non-Denominational, etc.   I want to challenge us to look beyond such things--as important as they are to giving us our identities--and look to the command of the one who gives us our true identity.

"Go and do likewise," He said.  Who of us can argue this from our respective backgrounds?  Who of us can argue that Jesus doesn't tell us to reach out to our neighbor who is in need and help him or her rebuild and transform his or her life?  Who of us can argue that Jesus doesn't call us to go the extra mile with generosity--not only taking care of our children, but our enemies and those who persecute us?

Is it too much to ask of the larger Church, the Church that transcends denomination lines to unite to help our neighbor?  Is it too much to ask of the larger Church to lead in rebuilding instead of waiting for someone else to do it?  Is it too much to ask of us to come together in this time of need to show the true power of God working through--as St. Paul calls us--the Body of Christ on earth?

When is the last time the Church did something on the side of good that caused the world around us to say, "Wow!"?  When is the last time the Church undertook a project so big and so daunting nearly everyone around said, "You are crazy."?  When is the last time the Church united in such a fashion to make a difference in the lives of thousands?  Is the Church even capable of such a thing in this day and age of divisiveness and squabble?

I'm willing to try and find out.  I'm willing to say the Church can indeed do such a thing.  And I think we can begin right here and right now in the state of Texas as we seek to rebuild the homes of our neighbors who lost them to these fires. 

I ask you to pray for this endeavor.  I ask you to be willing to support it financially.  I ask you to support it with your time and efforts.  I ask you to get this letter into the hands of as many people as you possibly know and challenge them to add their support.

I have set up a Facebook group entitled "Texas Rebuilds After Fires."  Join.  Participate.  Network.  Add friends and family.!/groups/276767935668973/  Let's see how far this thing can go as we seek to do what Jesus said, "Go and do likewise."

For those of you not on Facebook, contact me.  My work email address is  I can also receive the old fashioned kind of mail at 480 Ross St.  Cat Spring, TX 78933.  Finally, the phone number of the church is 979-865-5444. 

May God bless you and lead you to do that which is right as you seek to serve Him.


Rev. Kevin Haug

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sermon Delivered September 11, 2011

First Lesson: Genesis 50: 15-21
15Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" 16So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." 19But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

I know that you have been there at some point or another.

Some of you have told me while I sat or stood next to you.

Something has happened in your life that has turned everything upside down for the moment.

A frightening medical diagnosis.

A loved one stricken with disease and hospitalization.

A child lying in a hospital bed.

One of the worst droughts ever hanging on and devastating your livelihood and land.

Fires raging around burning, threatening people you know.

Sometimes you feel like you are shouting up at the Almighty saying, "Where are you? What are you doing? Can’t You see how devastating this is?! Aren’t You going to do anything about it? How could You let this happen?"

No one likes being surrounded by such dark things. No one. It takes a toll on your mind, your body, and your spirit.

Where is the hope?

Many years ago, a young man experienced the very same thing we experience. This man was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was the favored child of his father. In fact, his dad went out of his way to shower kindness and favors and gifts upon him. This young man relished his father’s attention, and he also held it over the heads of his brothers.

Oh, most of his brothers didn’t like him at all. They were jealous of the attention he got from his father, and one day, their brother pushed it too far. Their brother shared with them a dream that he had about the sun, the moon, and some stars bowing down to him. He had also shared a dream about making hay sheaves, and all the brothers’ hay sheaves bowed down to his. In a not too subtle way, this young man was telling his brothers they should bow down to him.

Their anger was at a fever pitch. Their dad did nothing to curve their brother’s behavior. So if dad wouldn’t teach this whipper-snapper a lesson, they would. One day as their brother came walking, they seized him and threw him in a pit. They intended to kill him, but one decided that was a bit much. So, instead of killing him, they sold him to a group of slave traders. They then lied to their father and told him their brother was dead–devoured by a wild beast.

Now, for a moment put yourself in the place of that young man. Where once, he walked as a sort of king amongst his brothers, he now found himself in shackles. Where once he was free to go and do as he pleased, he now was forced to serve and obey every command of another. The silver spoon that once resided in his mouth was now yanked out.

But it was only beginning. This young man was eventually sold and began working in another’s house. His master’s wife approached him wanting sexual favors. The young man rejected them. The wife lied and said something happened that didn’t, and the young man went from being a slave to being a prisoner. But that wasn’t even the end of his fall.

While in prison, he met two men. Each of those men shared with him a dream. The young man interpreted both of those dreams and told them what would happen. One of the men would be reinstalled into the King’s court, and the young man said, "Put in a good word for me when you get there." The man promised he would...but didn’t.

Our young man was in prison. Alone. Betrayed by his brothers. Betrayed by his master’s wife. Betrayed by someone he helped. Never was he more alone. Never was he more desperate. Never more was his faith tried and tested. Life was simply not fair. Sure, he had been big headed and overbearing, but did that warrant such punishment? Did that warrant such despair?

But then, then things took an interesting turn. The king had a bad dream and needed it interpreted. None of the wise men of the kingdom could do so, and that’s when one of the king’s servants spoke up. Perhaps his memory was finally jogged. "There is a man in your prison who can interpret this dream."

The king called the man up, and through the irony of ironies, this prisoner was made second in command in the kingdom! Talk about major redemption.

But the story isn’t finished. The young man was set in charge of preparing for drought and famine. He was set in store of collecting grain for the famine years, and when famine struck, their kingdom had food–so much food they helped feed people from all around, including his brothers who came seeking food.

Eventually this young man and his brothers met up. He revealed himself to them, and they were reconciled.  Things were going along swimmingly until their dad died.  Then the brothers, became worried.  What if our young man decided to exact revenge?  That’s where our first lesson comes into play this morning. Their reconciliation culminates with this young man, who is named Joseph, by the way, saying these powerful words, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today."

What you intended for harm, God intended for good.

It wasn’t until this moment that Joseph could put it all together. It wasn’t until he had endured the pain, the humiliation, the suffering, the imprisonment and the betrayal that he could put it all together. It wasn’t until he had come all the way through to the other side that it all began making sense. All along the way, God had a plan. God was using these terrifying, frustrating, and daunting events to make something good happen.

Sometimes, when we are sitting in our own personal prisons, this is the last thing we want to hear. We want certainty. We want results. We want things to go back to the way they were. We want our loved one to be healed. We don’t want the pain. We don’t want the frustration. We don’t want the anger. We don’t want these things to happen to us anymore.

But then they do.

Again and again.

Lives are uprooted.

Fires rage.

Drought persists.

But into the midst of all these things, a ray of light can shine down clearly for those of us who believe. For our
God is the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. The same God who saw Joseph through all the trials and tribulations he faced is the same God who is working in the midst of our trails and tribulations. When others or the devil intends things for evil, God intends them for good.

And this was rammed home for you and for me on the day Jesus rose from the grave. For this reveals that in the end, God’s word will have the last say.

But in the mean time, I cannot answer the questions of why. I cannot make things better. I cannot remove anger and frustration and pain. But I can point to hope. I can point to the One who has promised to work in such dire situations. I can affirm to you that God intends things for good–we just can’t see it now. And all I can do, and perhaps you as well is to cling stubbornly, persistently, and with all our might to this hope: what some may intend for evil, God intends for good. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Stealing the Show

I was blessed this morning.

During our second worship service, as I was beginning my sermon, a toddler, who wasn't more than a year old slipped out of her pew and headed toward the front of the church.

I had delivered only a sentence  or two when she arrived at my feet.

Of course, I picked her up and held her.

Serious sermon today.  Will post it on the blog tomorrow.  Preached on the Old Testament lesson from Genesis 50 where Joseph's brothers come to him terrified that he will punish them for the bad things they did to him as a child.  Joseph utters a brilliant line, "What you intended for evil, God intended for good."

Focused on that message in light of all the trying stuff that is going on around:

One member recovering from a serious stroke.  Roller coaster ride up and down.  A few times, we thought we'd lose her, but she's always bounced back.  It's emotional walking with the family through this one.

Another family's 12 year old daughter suffered a heart attack, and we still don't know what the long term prognosis is going to be.  Another highly emotional situation.

Another member who had quadruple bypass surgery had to be life-flighted back to the hospital due to slow progress in his recovery.  Thankfully, he's doing better but has a long way to go.

The persistent drought shows no end, and not only is my faith tested, but many of my parishioners are seriously effected.

More than a few of my congregation members have had family members or friends lose homes to the wildfires raging around the state.  Several times, we've been inundated with smoke.  It's tense at times.

Add this to all the other stuff in the life of a congregation: searching for a new music director/organist in a rural area (a nearly impossible task), preparing for next year's budget, preparing for a new Bible Study, continued prep for my adult Bible Study, reading and self study that I had neglected for years, revamping Sunday School and leading that process, and knowing I haven't had the chance to visit many of my shut-ins for an extended period of time while dealing with the serious nature of all these other things.

More than a few times, I've been stretched thin.  As Bilbo Baggins says in the Lord of the Rings, "'I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter, scraped over too much bread."

If it's not one thing, it's another.

It was an important message for everyone, including myself to consider.  "What you intended for evil, God intended for good."

But it's seriousness was tempered greatly by this little girl who wandered up to the front of the church. 



Waving to her mother and pointing at her.

One cannot help but smile--even in the middle of so much stress and concern and heart ache.

About a quarter of the way through the sermon, I handed the girl back to her mother, but that wasn't the end.  After the sermon was done, we sang a hymn.  The little tyke slipped out again, and headed once again to the front of the church.

This time, she stayed with me for the rest of the service. 

She waved to her mom.

She pointed at people.

She looked at me and at the statue of Jesus above the altar.

My heart melted within me.

Jesus told His disciples once, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs."

I understand a little bit better why Jesus said this.  That kingdom of heaven reached down and touched me today as a little child came down to me.

She "stole the show" so to speak, and this is one pastor who is glad she did.

Friday, September 9, 2011

An Open Letter to President Obama and Any and All U.S. Congressmen

Dear Mr. President and all distinguished leaders,

I am writing in reaction to the President's speech last night.  Several of his proposals will directly affect me positively, and I can easily get behind most of the ones that don't directly affect me as well.  Who doesn't like money being put into one's pocket?

However, as  a lower-middle class family man, I can say that such proposals really won't help much to get me to spend more: which is at the heart of the economic uncertainty right now.  Honestly, the economy needs us consumers to spend.  Providers have plenty of goods to supply, but there is little demand from us.

Let me tell you why. 

1. We're not necessarily holding onto our cash.  Sure, some are indeed saving money right and left because of the uncertainty in the economy, but most of us are like pass through banking accounts.  It goes in one day and out the next.  We are spending our money, but it's not on the extras anymore.  We can't afford them.


2. We're paying through the nose for energy and food.  Yeah, I know the FED keeps saying, "Core inflation is healthy."  Just once, I'd like to tell those folks to get a grip!  Inflation is inflation no matter if it's core inflation or commodity based inflation.  It has the same effect on our pocketbooks. 

Here's a thought for you officials to consider.  When energy prices dropped during the Great Recession and maintained low levels, the economy started recovering.  But when they spiked again, everything stalled out.  Our expendable incomes dried up once more.  Consumer confidence dropped.

Energy prices, directly impacted by the price of a barrel of oil have a major effect on all other consumer goods.  They drive up the price of food.  They drive up the price of manufacturing.  They drive up the price of clothing.  When such necessities go up in price, they dry up our ability to spend.  We have to cover our electric bills.  We have to cover the cost of food.  We have to have clothes.  Whether you like it or not, most of us drive to work, and we have to pay for the gas.  When these prices, driven by high energy prices increase, our ability to keep the economy moving by our spending falters. 

And, of course, when our spending falters, businesses hunker down, save their money, and refuse to hire.  Unemployment stagnates, and we end up where we are right now.  A perpetually spinning hamster wheel that moves nowhere.

Now, I know you Republicans and Democrats hate each other.  I know you spend most of your time trying to make each other look bad.  I know you vie for power and strive to keep it.  Unfortunately, for myself, I have become a great cynic of most things political.  The old joke, "How can you tell a politician is lying?  His/Her lips are moving." is more of a description now-a-days instead of a joke.  I hold out great hope because of my faith, and I really, really try to put the best possible spin on your actions and speak well of you when I get the chance.  My faith urges me to do so. 

But I find such a thing more and more difficult as I sense the further gap between the ideologies you embrace and the realities of the life I live from day to day.

I think, that if you truly wanted to help me and others like me, you'd try to address the things that really limit our spending down here: energy and food.  Reign in speculators.  Tax the heck out of their capital gains in these areas and make it prohibitive to drive up the cost of oil and food.  Work to get gas prices back in the $2 or less per gallon range, and watch the prices of food fall once again. 

Now, I know that both parties have a vested interest in high energy prices.  Republicans are great friends with the oil and gas industry, and it would be a shame to have that relationship strained on behalf of the people who elected them.  But, hello, make a deal with the devil, and you eventually get burned.  Most of us down here know this.  And most of us don't like it.

Democrats, you aren't off the hook either.  We know you like high energy prices because it helps you push the "green" agenda.  Now, I agree completely that renewable resources are great.  I love solar and wind power.  If I could afford the darn stuff, I'd put it on the house I own immediately.  But such energy sources aren't there yet.  They are horribly inefficient, and we can't touch our power generation needs by using them alone.  This is just the tip of the ice berg.  I know you are truly concerned about our dependency on foreign oil and sending U.S. monies to countries that aren't exactly friendly to the U.S.  However, consider this, by failing to reign in those who drive up the price of oil, we're actually putting MORE money into the hands of those countries who don't exactly like us.  How is this a good situation?  Lower the cost and lower the amount we give these countries who purposely denigrate us and would like to see us come to harm. 

So, let's look at this again.  Work to lower energy costs.  That directly lowers the prices of food and other necessities.  Consumers have more money to spend.  The government does not have to go into debt.  A commodity tax puts money into the government's pockets--which it desperately needs.  The only one's really hurt are the speculators who aren't exactly being kind to Joe Public.  Where is the down side?

I guarantee, folks like myself, with the extra income will begin spending again.  We won't feel so pressed and up against the wall. 

The economy will get better.

And then you can go back to beating each other up and vying for power.

Just about everyone wins.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Act Of God (AAOG)

I think that's what I'll call it.

It will be a short lived organization, just as long as it takes to get folks back into their homes.

What it is: An organization comprised of Christians of every denomination who seek to assist their neighbor who has been left in need due to the Texas Wildfires of 2011. 

It's mission: Provide uninsured families who lost their homes to the 2011 Texas Wildfires with a home.

How will we do it? 

Faith in God providing and expecting the Church to well, be the Church.

First, prayer.  If such an undertaking is not done with prayer, it will never happen.  Pray that this vision is first and foremost of God and for His glory and no one else.  Pray that He opens the way. Pray that God opens the hearts and minds of those willing to help with time, talent, and money.  Pray that God will grant vision to others who will help lead and direct. 

Second: Need assessment.  How many folks will need homes?  What are family sizes?  How much space will they need?  How much are we looking at for an average cost of a home?

Third: Parameters for building or providing housing.  No McMansions.  No shanties.  Basic and quality.  Manufactured housing?  A possibility.  Metal building homes?  Definitely where applicable.  Sub-divisions?  Have to deal with HOA's or deed restrictions. 

Fourth: Contractors.  Gonna need several who have a heart for this.  Pay where necessary.  Volunteers welcome.

Labor: God's work.  Our hands.  Sweat equity included (stealing that from Habitat for Humanity.)

Fundraising: Grass roots.  Appeals to congregations and their members.  Will accept grants from organizations, but will not take strings attached.  This is the Church's work. 

Structure: Rooted in a congregation.  Lead committee which oversees work in several areas.  Will need several throughout the state.

Lots more to consider, I am sure.  Starting with the skeleton.  Flesh to follow.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sermon Delivered September 4, 2011: We Do It Backwards

The scene plays out over and over again. Thousands of times each and every day. In many places, and in many settings. The characters are different, but the story line is the same.

A husband makes an offhand remark to his wife.

A boss is overly critical of an underling.

A student bad mouths a teacher.

Co-workers differ in their political understandings.

Diners receive poor service from a waiter or waitress.

A pastor says something that angers one of his parishioners.

The list can be exhaustive. Each situation demands a response, and what does our nature lead us to do?

The wife calls her friends and speaks ill of her husband.

The underling complains to his coworkers about how difficult his boss is.

The teacher complains to her colleagues about how unruly the student is.

Co-workers tell their friends how ignorant their fellow workers are.

Diners tell their friends to avoid the restaurant and in particular this waiter or waitress.

The parishioner calls up several members in the congregation and launches into a tirade about how poor the pastor is performing.

Soon, the commentary spreads. More and more people hear the complaints. More and more people become angry, anxious, and agitated. Sooner or later, the word finally gets back to the person who was the target of the original diatribe. Many times, the person is completely blind-sided by the attack. He or she becomes angry. And what does that person do? Does he or she go back to the person who started telling everyone in the first place?

Hardly. The person calls up a friend or family member, and the process gets started all over again. Doesn’t matter if it’s business, family, friends, or what have you. The dynamics are the same. And the consequences are dire. Relationships are strained and broken. Jobs can be compromised or lost. Ulcers develop and walls around hearts get built. Anyone familiar with such things happening?

I’m sure you are. I’m sure you have fallen victim to the process at some point or another. I am sure it wasn’t fun–or isn’t fun if you are going through it right now.

God knows it’s not fun. God knows it’s not right. That’s why He had Jesus instruct us on how we should act in the face of someone who sins against us.

Compare the above examples with the steps Jesus invites us to take when another member of the church sins against us. I think you will see that when it comes to handling our issues, we tend to do it backwards.

Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one." Don’t call a friend. Even a trusted one.
Don’t post something to your Facebook status. Don’t email two or three confidants. Go directly to the person who offended you and tell them face to face. That’s step one.

I know this step is difficult. It’s not easy to confront someone who has made you feel like dirt. It’s not easy to confront someone who has made you angry. It’s not easy to confront someone who has made you feel smaller than small. But think about this for a moment. Jesus isn’t allowing you or me to be the victim. He is not allowing us to be less than human. He isn’t allowing us to feel sorry for ourselves. He is not only encouraging us to stand up for ourselves, He is demanding it! Running from problems is never the answer. Confronting them is. Even if those problems have two arms, two legs, a brain, and use words that hurt us. Jesus tells us to embrace bravery.

"But what if it doesn’t work?" you might ask. "What if I confront whoever it is and they don’t listen to me? What if they continue their verbal assaults and reconciliation does not occur?"

Well, that’s where your friends come in. And not the whole shooting match either. Again, not your entire Facebook family. Not your entire email tree. Not your entire personal phone book. No. Two or three. Get them together. Have another sit down–face to face. Another attempt to bring about healing to the relationship. Jesus puts it this way, "But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses."

Again Jesus doesn’t let us play helpless victims. He doesn’t let us wallow in our own misery. He invites us to build a case. Let witnesses be there to hear the conversation. Let them see things from their perspective. They might see something a little differently. They can confirm if you are right in your assessment. They can see if you are missing something. They are there for moral and physical support. And they are there to back you up if you have to take it to the next level.

Jesus says, "If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." If nothing else works, let the church in on the ordeal. Let the church render judgment. I find this particular aspect very interesting indeed in light of how things normally happen. Oftentimes, folks are willing to let the rumor mill get started in the church as long as it’s done secretly. Folks are willing to talk about stuff people did under the table, but when you ask them to bring it out in the open, they clam up. Why is that? I mean, here, Jesus gives us permission to air the dirty laundry out in the open, to bring cleansing to it. Why is it we want to keep things such a secret and spread stuff underground? Jesus says it’s healthier to get it out in the open, especially if the other person is doing something that is unhealthy. And when that unhealthiness is exposed, the other person has a choice: shape up or ship out. The church is supposed to treat such a person as an outsider–as someone who is not worthy of fellowship until that person repents. And isn’t repentance the overall goal? Isn’t getting a person to change unhealthy behavior the goal?

Well, maybe it should be. But perhaps when those rumors are spread, the ultimate goal isn’t reconciliation. Perhaps our motivations are less than healthy. Perhaps our motivations tend towards discrediting someone else. Making them feel as badly as we feel. Hurting them as we have been hurt. Perhaps this is why we do it backwards and not as Jesus teaches us.

"Well, Pastor," you might say. "That’s all well and good. I see your point when it comes to the church, but a whole lot of people who offend me and sin against me aren’t a part of this church. Some of them don’t even go to church, so while this teaching might be true, it’s pretty impractical in the midst of the situations I face."

O.K. So, if you really want to go there, I’ll even go one step further. I’ll take the step which says that Jesus gave us this instruction because it’s easier than the way He truly wants us to forgive. In all honesty, very few people on this planet can forgive like Jesus forgives. And how does Jesus forgive?

Pull out your Bibles, and I’ll show you. Turn to Luke chapter 23. Look at verses 33 and 34. Read them and see how Jesus forgives, " 33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."

Take a look at that! Did Jesus confront them with their sin? Did Jesus wait for them to admit their wrongdoing? Did Jesus go through that entire process He outlined? Nope. He took every bit of evil that was done to Him. He took every bit of cussing, spitting, demeaning talk and behavior. He took every lash of the whip; every pounding of the nail, and every prick of the thorn. And when they stood beneath Him mocking Him and casting lots for his clothes, He said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Do you want to take a hard look at Christian forgiveness? Then take a look at Jesus on the cross. Take a look at how our Lord handled such matters. And if you really want to deal with those who sin against you in the world differently; if you want to set yourself apart as one who could strike back but won’t; if you want to set an example of what it means to live and move with Jesus as your Lord, follow His example. Offer your forgiveness when others don’t deserve it. For that is the way of Christ. Difficult, I know. But try it and see how effective it might be. Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Challenge to the Church

You've seen the television scenes.

You've watched on YouTube.

Smoke rising.

Flames curling.

Homes destroyed.

People uprooted.

The fires in Texas have been devastating in the midst of the worst drought in most folks' memory.  Insurance companies call such things (kindly or unkindly) "acts of God."

It is debatable whether or not such acts are committed by God.  For sure they bring the faithful to their knees, but they also leave the unbeliever questioning the goodness and character of the Almighty.  If such acts are caused by God, then God is a very poor evangelist.

But if, indeed, God is good and His character is one of compassion, then His people should share those traits.  His people should show their best in the midst of such horror and devastation.  His people should commit acts of God greater than said drought and fire.

Therefore, I offer a challenge to His people.  I am sure most of the homes destroyed by the Texas fires are insured, but for those that are not, I challenge the Church--all denominations and all faiths--to unite and coordinate and rebuild those houses.  It matters little to me whether it is churches of Texas only or throughout the U.S.  But the gauntlet is laid down.

Are we bold enough to tackle it?

Are we bold enough to show such compassion?

Are we bold enough to set aside our differences in beliefs and doctrines and unite under compasson?

I challenge us to do it!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Denomination as Multi-National Corporation?

...only a fool or a true believer still thinks that denominations differ from one another for decisive theological reasons.  For all their different traditions, most denominations now resemble each other remarkably closely in structure.  They are all cast in the same organizational logic and confronted by the same organizational imperatives, such as public relations, fundraising, and lobbying.  Watch their day-to-day operations, their hierarchical chains of authority, their external dealings, and what do you see--the "Body of Christ" or a pale ecclesiastical version of a multinational corporation?"
--Oz Guiness, The Last Christian on Earth p. 139

God forbid.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Signs of Hope

This past weekend, I sat down to breakfast with two gentlemen from my congregation.  We got together to have one of those "intellectual" discussions--particularly reflecting upon a book entitled A Place for Truth edited by Dallas Willard.  We spent two and a half hours in discussion and reflection. 

At one point as we reflected upon several issues and concerns, I spoke out, "I cannot not believe in Truth.  I cannot not have hope.  I've seen too many things and been with too many people who are suffering to believe that is the end all and be all.  There's got to be something more!"

That point, my friends is one of my basic assumptions of life.  I can't prove it rationally.  I cannot prove it mathematically.  I can give no tangible evidence for its existence.  But I believe it, none-the-less.  I have to.

Today, I visited a 12 year old girl who suffered major brain damage because of an irregular heartbeat leading to a seizure leading to a heart attack.  She was literally dead for quite some time.  She has been move from intensive care in a major children's hospital to a rehab type of hospital.  She still cannot talk.  She is moving, but we still don't know if her movements are voluntary or not.

But there is hope.  She is off of breathing helps and apparatuses.  She is off IV meds.  She has a feeding tube and is still being monitored, but it is far less than where she began.

As the physical therapists worked with her today, she held her head up on her own for extended periods of time.  She had been very reluctant to do so.  Her eyes were open more.  She was placed in a wheel chair of sorts and "driven" around the hospital.  She did extremely well in that chair which isn't the case for some patients.  All of these things are signs of hope.  Who knows what the exact future holds?  But there are moments like these.

For this little girl's parents, they don't come fast or often enough.  They would like to see her up and moving and running around with reckless abandon.  They would like answers to all the questions of why, how long will she be this way, and how will her brain damage affect her.  At this time, there are no answers.  Even with all the medical technology we have.  There are no answers.

But there is hope. 

Sometimes it's small, but it is there.  Sometimes it's the only thing to grasp onto that keeps a person getting out of bed in the morning.

I'm constantly on the lookout for it.

And even when I can't see it, I remind myself of what it must have been like to believe in Jesus for those three days He was buried in the tomb.  None of His followers expected resurrection even though He had foretold of it.  They were living in a great cloud of unknowing. 

But after the resurrection, they understood hope.  They understood there was something more.  They understood that the wrongs would be made right. 

Sometimes, I have a hard time understanding, but I try.  And won't give up.  I have to.  I need to hope.