Friday, March 30, 2012

Thelogically Correct Mega-Millions Numbers

1 -- For the one God

3 -- For the Trinity and the number of days until Jesus' resurrection

10 -- For the 10 Commandments and 10 Plagues

12 -- For the 12 Disciples

40 -- For the Days Jesus fasted in the desert.

Mega Ball -- 7 -- For 7 Days of Creation and the 7 Seals in the book of Revelation

Good luck to you, and  if these numbers prove true, remember to give 10% to your congregation and 1% to  your advisor.  ;-)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Down and Dirty

Last night after our Lenten service, we had a little accident at the church.

Oh, it was quite minor.  You see, during the construction of the fellowship hall, those who laid the pipe put a cutoff valve right next to the driveway beside the building.  More than once, someone has accidentally driven over the valve cover and busted the pipe.  It happened again last night.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be much of an issue.  We'd just cut the water off and wait until morning to fix things.  However, there is one problem: the church and the parsonage come off the same water source.  Shutting the water off for one shuts it off for the other.  Now, I am positive my family and I could make it without water for a night, but it wouldn't exactly be the easiest thing in the world.   Fortunately, my congregation members understand that.

We jumped into action quickly...beginning with me.  Since the parsonage is right next door, I grabbed my sharpshooter (it's a shovel for those of you who might not know) and started digging down to the broken pipe.  Within a matter of moments, I had dug down to the leak.  At this point, I didn't look much like the "saintly, scholarly" pastor.

I had mud up to my elbows.

I had mud covering my jeans.

My boots were wet and muddy.

And I loved it!

I miss doing things where I get dirty and grimy.  Growing up, I spent numerous hours on my grandfather's farm.  Whether it was chopping cotton, getting Johnson grass out of the grain, or working on farm implements, by the time I was done, I was dusty, grimy, dirty, with sweat and dirt stains on my clothes and stinking to high heaven.  And yet, despite all this, I could look at what I had done and have a sense of accomplishment.  There was visible evidence that I had done at least something.

I know there are some who would trade places with me in a heart-beat.  They'd gladly give up their jobs to be able to sit at a desk and type and read or drive to visit people in their homes.  They'd love not having to break a sweat all day long.  I understand such sentiments.  I truly am blessed to be in such a position.

However, there is something holy about digging around in the dirt.  There is something holy about using your muscles to accomplish tasks.  There is something holy about seeing the results of your labor--something I don't always get a chance to see.  There is something holy about getting down and dirty.

Within an hour, we had everything fixed.  Several congregation members pitched in with pipe and couplings.  Water was restored to all places.  Soon, I was showered and clean.  I wonder how long it will be until the next time church work will require me to get dirt under my fingernails once again?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Christian Response to the Trayvon Martin Shooting

Yesterday, I waded into the Trayvon Martin case and offered a call for calm and due process.  Today, I offer a Christian response to the situation.  Mind you, I cannot for certain say that it is THE Christian response, but it is the one I offer after thought and prayer on the subject.  It might take a little while to read through the argument, but I believe it will be worth your time.

Most of the commentary from my own denomination and fellow clergy have focused on the issue of justice.  The presiding bishop of the ELCA even took this path.  It's not surprising given my own denomination's linking of the Christian faith to justice.  In fact, I would argue that the majority of clergy in the ELCA see Christianity as synonymous with justice. 

However, what if the assumption is wrong?  What if Christianity is not about justice and is instead about reconciliation and redemption?

Don't get me wrong.  Justice is a strong part of the Christian faith.  In fact, reading through the Old Testament shows just how important justice is to God:

1.  Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden and forbidden to eat from the Tree of Life because it was God's justice for their sin.

2.  God destroyed the world and all that was in it by the great flood because of the injustice of humankind--saving only Noah and his family and enough animals to repopulate the earth.

3.  God delivered justice upon the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrews decimating their power through the 10 plagues and then destroying their army in the Red Sea.

4. God swallowed up a portion of the people of Israel for turning away from Him and causing rebellion on the way to the Promised Land.

5. As the people were becoming established in the Promised Land, they turned from God numerous times.  God exacted justice by allowing foreign tribes to conquer the people of Israel.  When the people repented, God sent Judges to free them.

6. When the Kingdom of Israel was established, God sent numerous prophets to call for justice; and when their calls fell on deaf ears, God punished the people by allowing the Assyrians and Babylonians to conquer them.

As one reads through the Old Testament, a clear pattern is established of God calling His people to account and doling out justice when they fail to measure up to following His law.  God could have chosen to continue in this unhealthy pattern, but as they say, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

For the God-honest truth is that we as humans will not change.  We continually rebel against God.  We continue to commit injustice.  We continue to sin.  A wise man once wrote, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..."  We deserve God's punishment for this.  We deserve God's justice.

And justice for sin is not pretty.  "For the wages of sin is death."  Such is what we deserve.  Such is God's justice.

Yet, God chose to act differently.  God chose to take a different path.  God chose the path of reconciliation and redemption.  God sent Christ who would die in our stead--thus satisfying God's justice, and offering God's mercy--reconciliation between humankind and God.  This reconciliation empowers us then to respond in like manner--seeking reconciliation between each other.  God's reconciliation also comes with the promise of redemption--a new relationship between God and humankind; a relationship founded in forgiveness and grace.

So, we must now ask ourselves how such reconciliation and redemption can apply in the Trayvon Martin shooting?  How may such a path be walked which satisfies justice yet focuses upon reconciliation and redemption?  Is there anyone willing to imitate Jesus in what He did for us?

As I reflected upon that final question, I began to ask myself what kind of courage it would take to go to Florida and offer myself up to arrest in George Zimmerman's stead.  I wondered what kind of courage it would take to tell the communities affected by this tragedy (both in the taking of Trayvon's life and the ensuing manufactured racial crisis), "I will sit in jail and await trial in Zimmerman's stead.  Someone will be arrested (satisfying justice) and we can now await the evidence coming forth without all the controversy (showing mercy)."

Sadly, I'm not sure I have the courage to do such a thing.  Plus, I live in Texas, and we're embarking upon Holy Week.  Ah, but could you imagine the power it would show if Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson would do such a thing?  Could you imagine the head scratching that would go on if one of the ELCA's bishops (or any other denomination's bishops or leaders) would do such a thing?  Could you imagine the completely counter-cultural stand it would have in this issue?  Could you imagine such a thing offering a pathway to reconciliation and redemption? 

I personally can.

And what a breath of fresh air it would provide to the circus and heightened anxiety produced in our culture today.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wading In on the Trayvon Martin Case

Six years ago, the country was met with a firestorm.

Three players of the Duke lacrosse team were accused by a black student at North Carolina Central University who worked as as stripper and escort.  She accused them of raping her repeatedly at a party.

All kinds of hell broke loose.  People hit the television screens and the talk radio waves condemning the players who had exercised white privilege and power to abuse this stripper.  They were guilty of a hate crime.  People were demanding that Duke University dole out punishment upon the players and team for this heinous act.

As public pressure mounted by the media increased, the university took action.  At first, the team was suspended for two games.  Then the coach was forced to resign.  Finally, the president of the university canceled the rest of the season for the team.

Before too long, the facts of the case started coming out.  Inconsistencies in the report filed by the woman surfaced.  Further investigation showed, she blatantly lied.  There was no rape.  The accusations were false.

But the damage had already been done by an overzealous media which (in my opinion) purposely tried to whip communities into a frenzy by its selective reporting of the facts.  Unfortunately, the lives of innocent people were damaged by this rush to judgment.

Fast forward to this year.  Tragedy hits in Sanford, Florida.

A young, unarmed black teenager--Trayvon Martin--is killed by a neighborhood watch captain--George Zimmerman--who at first is called white.  The police do not even arrest Zimmerman.

The media grabs hold of the story, selectively doles out information, and once again whips people into a mad frenzy. 

It's a hate crime.

It's an injustice.

Trayvon must be vindicated.

Marches ensue.  Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson rush in.  Even some of my fellow clergy jump on the bandwagon and wear hoodies to church to be in solidarity with those demanding justice.

All this takes place before the facts of the case are even laid out. 

Nothing has gone before the grand jury. 

Little evidence has been produced.

To begin with, none in the media investigated Zimmerman's claim of self-defense.  Only recently did police reports (which were leaked) detail Zimmerman's side of the story.  Sure, he's telling his account of the events, but there is no disputing the officers who detailed the bloody nose he had, the lacerations on the back of his head, and the grass stains on the back of his shirt which corroborated his story of being beaten by Trayvon.

Kind of shed a different light on things.

But, the rush to judgment is taking place once again.  Once again, lives are ruined by a news media which throws selective chum into the water to make the sharks go into a feeding frenzy.  And they don't give a darn about who gets hurt in the process.

Justice will be served.  It will happen when all the facts are brought forward--the witnesses consulted--and characters assessed.  It will happen if Zimmerman is indicted by a Grand Jury who has the facts--or if he is vindicated.  Let the process work.  Stop jumping on the emotional rollercoaster.  That has happened before to the detriment of justice. 

Don't let that happen again.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sermon Delivered March 25, 2012: He Will Draw All Unto Him

In 1984, my grandparents moved to the retirement community of Bella Vista, Arkansas. I have traveled there many times in the past 28 years to visit, and I’ve been privileged to do quite a bit of sight-seeing in the surrounding areas. About an hour or so drive from my grandparents’ house is the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It’s a quaint little tourist community with quite a few artisan shops. It has a unique Ozark’s flair and flaunts the hillbilly way. But such things are not the only reason folks flock to Eureka Springs. Being right smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, more than a few Christians travel to this destination because it is home of the Great Passion Play.

I remember clearly the first time my family traveled to Eureka Springs to see the play. We spent the entire day there taking in the sights and sounds of all the site had to offer including walking to see the Christ of the Ozarks statue. This statue stands seven stories tall and weighs over 2 million pounds! It’s an impressive sight set on a picturesque mountainside. I remember my dad taking what seemed like hundreds of pictures of the statue, and I also remember the inscription carved into the stone at the bottom. It was from our gospel lesson today from the 12th chapter of the book of John verse 32. Jesus says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

It was a rather appropriate comment regarding this statue since thousands of people per year come to see it. They are drawn not necessarily by the statue itself but by the one the statue represents. They are drawn to Jesus.

But as many people come to see this statue, I cannot help but wonder how many of the people who come to view this statue are non-Christians. I mean, in our gospel lesson, Jesus was very clear about who He would draw unto Himself. He said, "I will draw all people to myself." He did not say, "I will draw all believers to myself," as if they were the only ones that counted. Jesus’ heart and desire is to draw all people to himself. Period.

Now, we could stop right here and say, "Well, Jesus, you’re not exactly doing a very good job. Not that I want to question the Son of the Almighty God who has been with God from eternity, but Jesus take a look around the world. The earth’s population is estimated to be around 7 billion people. Just over 2 billion of those people are Christian. Now, that’s a lot of people who believe in you, but that’s only 2 out of every 7 people. You can’t even gather ½ of the earth’s population unto yourself. What’s going on, Jesus? Are you somehow slipping?"

That question might seem a little blasphemous to our ears, but I think it’s a legitimate question to ask. Why aren’t more people being drawn to Jesus? Why does only less than half of the world’s population consider themselves followers of Christ? Why, in our country does the number of non-believers increase and the number of Christ’s followers decrease? Jesus wants to draw all people to Himself, but that’s obviously not happening. So, what’s the problem?

As I think about these questions, and I picture myself going up to Jesus Himself and asking them, I can almost see Him smirk and smile at me. I can almost picture Him putting His arm around me and say, "Do you remember the last thing I told my followers before I ascended into heaven?"

At this, I respond, "Well, sure. You said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to believe everything you commanded. And you said you would be with them always until the end of the age."

Jesus, beaming, says, "Good job. Your Bible memorization skills are admirable, and you are right about my command. Now, think deeply about what my command has to do with drawing all people unto myself. Is there a connection?"

Well, is there? Is there a connection between Jesus’ desire to draw all people unto himself and His final command to make disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey everything He commanded us?
Simply put: yes, there is–a very strong one.

For you see, my brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus’ desire and His command walk hand in hand. Jesus’ desire and His call to all Christians are intended to work together. Jesus seeks to work through you and I as we engage the world to make disciples and draw all people toward Him. Simply put, Jesus gave the Church the responsibility of reaching out and drawing all people to Him. So, the question gets turned away from Jesus and back toward you and I. The question becomes not: how are you drawing all people toward you, Jesus? But instead: How is the Church working to draw all people toward Jesus? That’s a very different and very difficult question given the circumstances in this world in which we live.

For now, we must address ourselves. Now we must address our congregations. Now we must address how we interact with the world and with our neighbors. We must address our own hearts and minds and attitudes toward those who are and who are not members of our congregations. We must dig down deep within ourselves and see if we are seeking to follow Christ’s command by first learning what He commands and then teaching it to others. How are we being disciples, being drawn to Jesus so that we may in turn then work toward drawing others toward our Lord and Savior?

I am reminded of a sermon illustration I have used numerous times, but as with all good stories, it bears repeating often enough. And if one were to ask me why I keep repeating it, I will respond in the same manner the old preacher once responded to one of his congregation members when he was asked why he kept repeating the same sermons over and over and over again. The old preacher said, "Well, once y’all start living them sermons, I’ll stop preaching them."

Onto the illustration: Tony Campolo tells the story of a reformed drunk, Joe, who was marvelously converted at a Bowery mission. Joe had been an incorrigible wino, and no one who met him ever expected him to be anything other than a homeless drunk. So the transformation that occurred after his conversion stunned everyone who knew him. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Joe became the most caring person that anyone associated with the mission had ever known. He spent his days and nights at the mission serving both the homeless and the drunk, as well as the Christian workers. He considered no job beneath his dignity, whether it was cleaning up vomit or scrubbing the toilets after careless men left the bathroom filthy. Joe did what was asked with a soft smile on his face and with gratitude for the chance to help. He could be counted on to feed feeble men who wandered in off the street, and to undress and tuck into bed men who were too inebriated to take care of themselves.

One Sunday in the mission, an evangelist was delivering his evening message to the usual crowd of still and sullen men. When he made his regular appeal for people to come forward to accept Christ, one repentant drunk shuffled down the aisle to the altar and knelt to pray, crying out to God for help. The penitent sinner kept shouting, "Oh God, make me like Joe! Make me like Joe! Make me like Joe!" The director of the
mission leaned over and said to the man, "Son, I think it would be better if you prayed, ‘Make me like Jesus!’" The man looked up at the director with a quizzical expression on his face and asked, "Is he like Joe?"

What if our lives reflected the same attitude of Joe? What if our lives reflected the same willingness to serve others like Joe was able to serve others? What if our lives captured the same spirit of compassion and understanding and change that were manifest in Joe’s life after he experienced the risen Lord? Would that impact our community? Would that impact our congregations? Would that make a difference as we follow Jesus’ command? Would that help the Church draw all people unto Jesus? Would it hurt anything if we tried to find out? Amen.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Politics and Preaching

I've found myself in a bit of a conundrum.

One of my congregation members is running for Sheriff of Austin County.  I admire this man.  He's family oriented.  He's Constable of the county, and he has gone out of his way to be visible in the community--attending football and basketball games to direct traffic, working with kids, and taking time to make sure our church's Halloween hayride has an escort around the community.

I support him with his campaign to become Sheriff.  However, I haven't publicly declared that I will cast my ballot for him--or any of the other candidates running for Sheriff (one whom happens to be my neighbor and another who I know well too).

There's a reason I haven't done so: my position as pastor in the community.  Cat Spring is a one church town.  As such, I am highly visible in all that I do as this congregation's pastor.  People watch what I do and listen to what I say (for better or worse).  Part of my calling is to proclaim the Gospel and then allow others to make choices based upon their understanding of that Gospel.  This includes the realm of politics.  In no uncertain terms am I to seek to persuade people to vote Democrat or Republican.  In no uncertain terms am I to endorse any candidate who runs for office.  This would be seen as violating the two kingdoms understanding of the Lutheran heritage.  It could--if I proclaimed such things from the pulpit--open my congregation up to investigation by the IRS.  It could also be seen as me using my influence to sway an election by making it seem like God prefers one candidate over another (as if I fully know  God's will as to which candidate should be elected to office).  It also could cause potential problems because if there are folks in my congregation who support one of the other candidates, I could be seen as alienating them.

Because of all these things, I will not and cannot endorse any candidate for office, even if that person is a member of my congregation.  It may sound harsh, but such is the role I believe I am called to.

Unfortunately, this also means I get stuck in some sticky situations at times.  I've been invited to attend a fundraiser for my member's campaign.  While I want to go to show my support, I also know this could be seen as a public endorsement.  Then, all those things above could come into play.

I'm going to have to decline the invitation: not because I don't want to go; not because I don't support my congregation member; but because as a preacher, I need to keep my distance from politics as much as I can.  I hope my folks understand.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Not Very Saintly

How the mighty have fallen.

Once the NFL's feel-good story of the year and the team everyone was rooting for, the New Orleans Saints have taken it on the chin.  Story here.

One would be hard to pressed to defend the idea of placing a bounty on opposing teams' players--especially if they were carted off the field due to injury.  One would be hard pressed to defend lying to the NFL.  Such things are quite inexcusable in my opinion.

I played football.  I had a lot of fun doing so.  Did I absolutely try to knock the snot out of players on the other team?  Yep.  Did I say some oohs and aaahs when watching film and seeing tremendous hits doled out by my teammates?  Yep.  Did I laugh when players of the other team took a massive shot from one of my teammates?  Yep again.  Did I or any of my teammates ever intentionally try to hurt an opposing player?  Nope.  Did we ever discuss trying to hurt another player?  Nope.  There was something not very sportsman-like about such things.

I mean, I can't necessarily speak for all my teammates, but I always wanted to play the other team at full strength.  I didn't ever want to win a game because another player got injured.  I wanted to win a game because we deserved to win.  I wanted to win a game because we outplayed the other team.  If I knocked someone down, I was always willing to give them a hand up.  I tried to play by the rules and didn't try to do things illegally.  I wanted to be a good sport.  It wasn't win at all costs.

The bounty scandal and punishment handed down to the Saints is just a symptom of a larger problem with the NFL.  The league is in league with money and winning--not sportsmanship; not player safety; not entertainment.  In many ways, football has become a religion for the masses who follow it, and you only need to go to a game to see the true fanatics and followers of the religion.

When something gets taken so seriously; when winning at all costs becomes the chief motivation to get money, things like bounty scandals happen.  Things like Spygate happen.  Players place themselves in harm's way more often to satisfy the masses and the owners.  Sportsmanship becomes secondary or tertiary.  Love of the game becomes a business. 

Of course, Roger Goodell has to try and give some semblance to making the game about the right things, but does anyone seriously believe this will make a dent?  You don't treat an ingrown toe nail with amputation (which is what I believe the Saint's punishment is).  You have to treat the real problem.  The NFL is in serious need of a heart transplant.  Yes, I believe it needs a change of heart.

Unfortunately, there is not much in our society which is geared toward such things.  We clamor for money, for power, for fame and fortune.  We don't clamor for being good people.  We don't clamor for character and honesty and decency.  We give lip service to such things, but in reality we're more concerned with making sure we are comfortable and then telling everyone else how to live.  In short, we're not very saintly. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why I Joined Netflix

I am a pop culture illiterate.

I freely admit this.

At one time, I wasn't.  At one time, I knew the music that most people listened to.  I knew the television shows which were most popular.  I knew the top movies.  Many times, I'd take time to listen to the music or watch television so that I could relate to the pop culture.

But I stopped.

Mostly it's because I found much of what passes in pop culture to be nauseating.  I mean, most of the stuff that is put out is intellectually bankrupt.  Rarely do they tell good stories anymore in movies, and when they take a good story and put it into production (i.e. Lord of the Rings) they use artistic license to warp the story and change things drastically. 

I stopped listening to modern country and western music when partying became the main theme and artists scrapped tradition to make a buck.  Television shows don't interest me either.

Yet, there are times when I still need a technology escape.  There are times when I still need a chance to let my brain zone out and be entertained. 

Netflix gave me the opportunity to do such a thing and choose which movies I want to subject myself to.

Now, their selection isn't the greatest, but it's adequate for my purposes.  Streaming movies online gives me opportunity to watch things when the kids have occupied the television sets.  I can half-way see what pop culture is producing without having to subject myself to it ad nauseum.  And it's pretty cheap: all things considered.

And since I'm still wading through Nietzsche while researching for my book--I darn sure need some of that entertainment.  :-)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Wonders of Technology

A couple of years ago, I wrote my first book.  It's entitled: What is God Calling You to Do and Be?  Discerning God's Will for Your Life.

Those who have read it gave me good reviews, and of course, I wanted to have it published.

Of course, that's when I ran into the proverbial brick wall. 

Do you know how difficult it is to get something published through a publishing company?  Do you know how many would-be authors are out there trying to get their stuff published as well?  Do you know that you really need connections to get the process moving if you are a first-time author trying to break into the field?

I didn't, but I do now.

I was pretty disheartened when all of this took place.  When you spend hours writing a book, you want to share it with as wide an audience as possible.  I personally didn't write the book to make tons of money off of it, but I still wanted folks to read it.

Therefore, I self-published through a local printer.  True to my word, I sold each copy for $10.   Yeah, I lost money on the whole ordeal, but at least I published it.

Yet, I longed for a wider audience.  I longed to have the chance to get the book out there into the larger public arena.  I figured a way would open if I would remain patient.

Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon.  I was checking on an Amazon order I had placed.  After scrolling to the bottom of the screen, I noticed the link:  Independently Publish With Us.

"Holy cow!" I thought.  "Is this what I think it is?" 

Thoughts of checking my order quickly left as I clicked on the link and found that I could indeed publish my work to Amazon's e-reader store.  A somewhat limited audience, but still, a great find for yours truly.  It was amazingly easy to complete, and this morning, I received a confirmation email that my work had indeed been published and is added to Amazon's Kindle Store.

Ah, the wonders of technology.  Now, there really is a free market of ideas out there.  It may be that no one will buy my book.  It may actually sell a copy or two, but at least it's out there.  Who knows what will happen with number two.

For those who would like to check it out, or perhaps purchase my book, click on the link below:

Amazon's Link

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Vintage Excursion

As part of our Spring Break this year, we took the kids to Plano to visit my sister and her family.  It was quite entertaining (most of the time) to have five little kids playing around with each other.  They thoroughly enjoyed one another's company.  They also enjoyed several of the excursions we planned for the break.

Perhaps the one most enjoyed was a trip on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad which traveled from Grapevine, TX to Fort Worth, TX.  We rode in one of the old fashioned, fully restored passenger cars--no a/c, wooden seats, etc. 

What was most interesting was the relaxing nature of the journey.  It was slower than driving so we got to see more.  We weren't insulated from the world around us--we actually had to engage other people.  We essentially were at the mercy of the train and its schedule and had to function appropriately.

For some, this might have caused much consternation, but perhaps those folks stayed away on this day because I saw no one getting overly anxious.  I saw no one get upset at anyone else.  Even when the train was forced into a 45 minute delay because of an incompetent dispatcher, folks maintained their calm.  It seemed like nothing would spoil the excursion.

It was vintage in that nature.  It was almost as folks boarded this train that they went back in time to a place where civility ruled--where time was not of the most import--where strangers were neighborly to one another despite not knowing a single thing about each other.

I have seen such values permeate various churches in which I have been a part of.  I hope my congregation sees itself as such a place today.  There is nothing wrong with being vintage in this manner.  In fact, I'd call it hospitable, relaxing, recharging, and engaging.  I'd call it a place I'd like to come back and visit time and time again. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Paradox of the Christian Faith

I have been reading A.W. Tozer's The Pursuit of God.  It's a fabulous Christian classic on prayer and spiritual formation.  I came across this quote:

To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul's paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.  St. Bernard stated this holy paradox in a musical quatraing that will be instantly understood by every worshipping soul:

We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill

(A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, Kindle Version, Location 114)

I pondered these words deeply and reflected upon the truth of them.  Christians indeed are caught in a paradox of knowing and unknowing.  We are fully known by God, and this brings both a great comfort and a great fear.  Comfort in understanding that God knows us.  Fear in that He knows every single part of us including those thoughts we keep hidden from others because they reflect poorly upon us.  We live in this tension.

We also live in the tension of knowing God and the mystery of God.  I happen to believe those who say God is fully mystery and cannot be known are wrong.  God has indeed revealed Himself to humankind.  Christians believe that God Himself entered into humanity by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus.  As such, we received the revelation of God.  We received knowledge of Him.  We received His teaching.  He continues to reveal Himself to us if our ears, eyes, and hearts are attuned to Him.  Yet, despite His revelation to us; despite the fact we can know God, we can never know Him fully.  He is still a mystery to us.  Therefore, I also believe those who say we can absolutely know God are wrong as well.  We live in the paradox.

We also take heart in knowing the loving, forgiving nature of God.  We know we have been condemned by our failure to live up to God's commands.  We read His statutes as revealed in Scripture, and we know we would be in trouble if it were not for Christ's taking our sins upon Him to the cross!  Knowing of His sacrifice, we rest assured that we are forgiven.  Our conscience is eased.  Yet, at the same time our conscience is eased, there is a flicker that desires to do better.  There is a spur that urges us to seek to fulfill the commands of Christ.  There is a longing to be the person God wants us to be--to achieve His Will in our lives.  The longing leads us to try the impossible once again--to achieve perfection.  But our eventual failure leads us right back to the foot of the cross once more to be comforted.  We never break out of this cycle.  It's the paradox of being comforted and forgiven for our inability to achieve perfection and our desire to attain it as we seek to be God's children.

We are also affected by the paradox of the Kingdom of God.  We know that God's Kingdom is an ever present reality.  We know it is in the world breaking in at times and places often unlooked for or unexpected.  But we also know it is not fully manifest.  We know we only get glimpses.  Here but not here.  Another paradox.

And as we seek to live the life of faith, we find at times an overwhelming peace that passes all understanding.  In the midst of the storms of life, our hearts remain calm for we know who is in charge.  Yet, strangely enough this peace does not allow us to be still.  It propels us to go into the world where there is not peace.  It unsettles us enough to where we are not content with the way things are, but we hunger for that which should be.  The peace in our hearts makes us unsettled when we see injustice, hunger, pain, and suffering.  The peace in our hearts becomes unsettling when we realize many have not touched that peace and that God wishes that peace to be held by all people.  Quite the paradox that the Christian faith leads to both peace and discomfort at the same time.

And so we see that as we live in this paradox: of knowing God and not knowing God, of saint and sinner, of knowing our imperfections and striving to be perfect, of seeing the Kingdom but not seeing the Kingdom, we find ourselves seeing that we are both inside and outside, full and hungry, satisfied and longing all at the same time. 

Perhaps the secret to living the full Christian life is to embrace the tension and live it fully.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Narrow Gate

First Lesson of bike riding: It's always easier to bike with the wind than against it.

You learn that one really quick.

Biking against the wind wears you out much quicker.  Your legs start hurting.  Your breathing begins to get harder.  Not only are you battling friction in the road, you are working against the movement of the air.

But once you turn around and ride with the wind, it's a whole other ball game.  You move faster as the wind propels you.  Your muscles don't have to work as hard.  Your breathing slows as nature helps you along.  It is exhilarating! 

Of course, when you ride with the wind, you don't get as much of a workout.  You don't exert your muscles as much, so they don't get as strong as you would if you rode against the prevaling wind.  Even though it technically might be more fun to go with the flow, one gets more long term benefits by riding against the current.

Makes me think of Jesus' comment about the narrow gate:

13“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.   Matthew 7: 13-14

I think about such things in regard to much of how the current U.S. cultural system works.  There are a couple of prevailing winds.  For our sake, let's call them liberal and conservative.  These two winds oftentimes blow in separate directions, and many people ride with each wind.  It's nice to be going with the wind feeling as though you are being propelled through life--riding a nice current of support from peers and those who agree with you. 

But is that the direction to which you and I are called?  Are we called to be one of the prevailing currents, or do we need to make it a point to swim against the stream?  For the narrow gate in this case might be charting a path that actually heads directly into both of those winds. 

OUCH!  Can you imagine the pain that would entail?  Can you imagine how narrow that path would be?

It would be interesting to see if such a thing were actually possible.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Power of God Moving

I am hard pressed to explain it perfectly, but I have seen a concentrated outpouring of the power of God lately.  It is a marvel to behold:

1.  The woman who suffered a debilitating stroke back in July who I have wrote about numerous times is now home again. 

2. Our congregation has begun praying for a young man whose body is ravaged with cancer.  Following the initial service where his name was added to the prayer list, a church member walked up to me.  This person stated to me that while driving home, the young man's plight struck hard.  Returning to church, the member asked me if it was acceptable to offer a donation for this young man to do something fun--kind of like a make a wish sort of deal.  $500 was donated instantly because of a prayer.

3. Before herding my kids into the car to head to school the following morning, the phone rings.  Usually a phone call late at night or early in the morning does not bring good news.  I was in store for a surprise.  A member saw our council had voted to construct a prayer room as part of our church office--one that will be open to the public 24 hours, 7 days a week.  Touched by this desire for prayer to be a part of our community and church, this member donated $1,000 for its construction.  Mind you, our council had already designated $4,000 toward the room, but the member had great enthusiasm for it as well.

4. Several things in my personal faith life have exploded as well.  I will not go into them in detail right now, but they are part of this larger picture which seems to be emerging right now. 

Let the blessings rain down and the power continue to flow.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Green Injustice

I just saw this story on ABC News:

Green Firms Get Fed Cash, Give Execs Bonuses, Fail

Now, a couple of things:

1. I'm all for alternative energy to reduce the amount of oil, coal, and gas we use.
2. Most of that technology is not economically viable right now, so we still need oil, coal, and gas.
3. I'd like to drive an electric car to get my kids to school and back.  It would be absolutely perfect!
4. But I'm d@mn sure not paying $57,000 or close to $100,000 for such a vehicle.  (The two cars shown in the video.  I'm also not paying $40,000 for a Chevy Volt when I can pay less than $15,000 for a car that gets 40 mpg or less than $10,000 for a car which gets 30-35 mpg.

It is most irritating that our tax dollars are being given to companies to produce vehicles which cost absurd amounts of money.  The average Joe or Jane who drives his or her car to work simply cannot afford to pay those high prices even if he or she would benefit from the car. 

Therefore, in effect, the U.S. government is subsidizing a car that only the wealthier folks in the U.S. can buy.  They have also implemented policies which drive up the cost of oil and therefore gas, to squeeze lower, and middle class families to the brink--who cannot afford to buy said vehicles.

Now, I want an explanation as to why many of those who are concerned with justice issues within my denomination aren't screaming bloody murder about this?  I want an explanation why they keep silent with policies that negatively affect the quality of life of the 99% and yet subsidize vehicles which those same 99% can't afford which might improve their quality of life? 

Anyone else see the fallacy in this whole picture?

One more example of energy injustice regarding light bulbs here.

*Shakes head at the insanity*

Monday, March 12, 2012

Love of God and Love of Neighbor

This interesting snippit arrived via fellow friends on Facebook

Beck: Bait and switch afflicts contemporary Christian society

First thing's first: I don't disagree that some within the Christian faith look very much like they have subsituted "working on their relationship with God" for "becoming a decent human being."  That's almost a no-brainer.  In fact, a song I loved to listen to in the early 2000 by dc Talk called "What if I Stumble?" started with the same sentiments. 

Did you catch the opening line?

"The greatest single cause of athiesm in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable."

Such a critique of Christianity has been around for more than a few years, so what Beck offers us in this article is nothing new.  Yet, he also proposes an answer which is rather head scratching for Christian Orthodoxy.

From the article:

I truly want people to spend time working on their relationship with God. I just want them to do it by taking the time to care about the person standing right in front of them.

To this I reply: good luck.  It simply will not happen for the starting point is all wrong.  Without a relationship with God, one's selfish desire will trump being a decent human being every time.  Without a relationship with Jesus Christ, one's treatment of another, as Nietzche said, is all about having power over that other person.

To truly love one's neighbor, one must love God first.  And, in order to love God, one must have experienced His grace, His mercy, and His love.  One cannot give that which one has not received.

Beck would probably say at this point, "Perhaps you are right, but how does that account for such nasty treatment of others by folks who claim to be Christian, who claim to work on their relationship with God by going to church, who claim to pray, etc.?"

It is a legitimate question.  One that potentially gives folks fits if not for a couple of truths:

1. A Christian does not ever claim to fully overcome one's sinful nature and desire.  These things are still at play within us.  As Martin Luther would say, "We are both saint and sinner at the same time."  A Christian who does not care for neighbor as in the examples Beck uses, will be judged accordingly.

2. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity: If Christianity is true then it ought to follow (a) That any Christian will be nicer than the same person would be if he were not a Christian.  (b) That any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before. (Kindle edition location 2611)

What Beck may fail to recognize is that those who have abhorrent behavior at the eating establishments toward their waitstaff might have even worse behavior if they weren't Christian.  Are they living up to the standards of Christ?  No.  There is no disputing that, but show me one person who actually does.

It is the belief of Christianity that as one's relationship with the Triune God deepens, then does love of neighbor, not vice versa.  It is the belief of Christianity that as one's relationship with the Triune God deepens, one's eyes are opened to see Christ in one's neighbor, not vice versa.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon Delivered March 11, 2012: Laying Down the Law

Sermon Title: Laying Down the Law

Generally, we don’t like it when someone lays down the law.

I remember my junior year of high school. Our football team was state ranked for the first time in God knows how long. We had a roster full of returning veterans. The sky looked to be the limit, but that was before the injury bug bit. And he bit hard. Our star running back was lost for the season when he tore his ACL in the first scrimmage of the year. That was a decimating blow, but it didn’t stop there. No less than three other members of that team (if I remember correctly) suffered the same sort of injury during the season. And that is devastating to a small school team. It had a major impact both on our performance on the field and to our team psyche.

Early in the season, we lost a heart breaker of a game. I think it was to the town of San Diego, TX. Afterward, I found out later, several of my teammates had gathered at a party over the weekend and had a few drinks to cope with the loss. Apparently, our coach found out about it as well. I remember what he did to lay down the law. During athletics that Monday, he made us dress in full pads. Normally, we only wore our shoulder pads and helmets, but not this time. For about 45 minutes, he put us through utter hell.  He made us do every exercise that existed to make us miserable. From Green Bays to running and doing a somersault every five yards. During the entire time, he kept saying, "Was it worth it? Was it worth it?"

At the end of that session, I personally was ticked off. I hadn’t partaken of the partying. I certainly hadn’t drunk any alcohol during the weekend. And now, I was having to undergo all this stuff because of what other members of the team had done. Never had I quit any team sport in my life. Once I made a commitment, I finished out the season, but this circumstance was too much. I wasn’t about to take all the garbage because of the actions of my teammates. I asked to meet with my coach after school.

Before practice that afternoon, I told my coach in no uncertain terms, I was through. I hadn’t partied. I didn’t drink, and I wasn’t going to be subject to that kind of stuff again. I didn’t like it that my coach had laid down the law.

My coach looked at me from across his desk. He said, "Please, just be patient. I did that for a reason. Don’t quit just yet."

At that instant, I saw something in my coach’s eyes and in his manner that told me to trust him. I decided to give my coach a chance to prove that what he had put me through was worth it, and that afternoon, he addressed the team.

I wish I could remember exactly what he said to us at that moment. I wish I could remember his words, but as he explained to us his reasoning, everything fell into perspective. He was pushing us to get us to rise above everything that had been happening. He was pushing us to make us dig down deep within ourselves to see what we were made of. He was laying down the law to challenge us to be better football players on the field and better people off of it. I knew I wouldn’t quit after hearing him. I didn’t like having the law laid down, but after my coach’s comments, it all made sense. Coach wasn’t so much trying to punish us as he was trying to help us. He didn’t hate us; rather, he wanted what was best for us as individuals and as a team. I know this now, but I still didn’t like it then.

And I imagine there are still folks who don’t like the picture of Jesus they see this morning in our Gospel lesson from the book of John. I mean, when people think of Jesus, they picture a man who loves God and loves people. They think about Jesus healing the sick and giving hope to the poor and marginalized. They think of Jesus forgiving His enemies while dying for them on the cross. They think about Jesus the Good Shepherd who takes care of the sheep, who leaves the 99 to look for the 1, and who tells us to do the same. They think about Jesus the good teacher who teaches us what it means to live in harmony with God and with one another.

Rarely, do folks think about the picture of Jesus with steam pouring out of his ears, grabbing a whip and tossing tables and chairs and money in the temple. Rarely do they picture Jesus screaming at the top of his lungs, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!" Rarely do they picture Jesus laying down the law.

Or, if they do see Jesus in this manner, they see him as pointing his fingers at someone else. They see him chastising those who don’t agree with him. They see him calling others into account and not themselves. After all, they are the ones with the problem. They are the ones who don’t follow Jesus’ commands. They are the ones that need the tongue lashing so they don’t end up in hell. I’m saved. I don’t have to worry about Jesus coming down on me.

Oh how short sighted we tend to be with our picture of Jesus. Oh how we miss the complete picture of who Jesus is and how he looks at you and me. Oh how we shudder to think that when Jesus picks up the whip to cleanse the temple, that he also picks up his whip to cleanse his other temple as well. Now, what do I mean by that?

Remember St. Paul’s words regarding our bodies? Do you remember that little snippet from the book of 1 Corinthians? Let me give you a refresher. Chapter 6 verse 19 is the critical verse as Paul writes:

19Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. He dwells within you.

And if that’s not enough, let’s look at Ephesians chapter 3 verses 16 and 17:

16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Paul prays that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. Yes, our hearts are a dwelling place for Christ himself.

And so we must ask ourselves this day, what is in our hearts? Are our hearts filled with goodness and the grace, mercy and love of God. Are our hearts tuned to God himself? Do our hearts beat in sync with the Father’s heart so that we look at the world through His eyes and treat His children as He would treat them?

Or do our hearts need cleansing just as the temple needed cleansing? Do our hearts need to experience the law of Jesus as He looks with anger upon our greed, our lust, our jealousy, our anger, our contempt, our pride and all the other things that make us less than perfect? Do we cower in fear as we watch him unwind the whip to drive these things out? Do we think about quitting this faith to which we adhere?

Or do we stop and think that perhaps Christ has a bigger plan as He lays down the law? Do we stop and think that Christ has a purpose in cleansing us too? Do we think that perhaps as painful as it may be when He unleashes His anger that He is trying to make us into a better Church and into better people? Is it possible to see Jesus laying down the law not as a sign of His hatred but as a sign of His love for you and for me?

We generally don’t like it when someone lays down the law, but perhaps in the big picture, it’s a good thing when they do. Amen.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Spring Break Blogging

Just a word to my readers: next week is spring break in our neck of the woods.

I will be taking vacation from my pastoral duties for the week and spending some needed time with my family.

I have written several blogs which will post automatically next week each day at 10 a.m. CST.  Therefore, even though I will be taking a break, my blog will not.  (Isn't technology wonderful.)

I will be able to moderate comments from my cell phone, but odds are, I won't be responding to any.

I greatly appreciate all of you who take the time to read this stuff and comment.  I enjoy the writing portion, but what is a writer without those who read?  Thank  you.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is the Game Rigged?

Imagine that you and your buddies want to play a game of cards.  For this particular imaginative exercise, let us say you will play bridge.  You arrive at your destination and find a card table already laid out and four hands being dealt.

Everyone assumes a seat.  You begin to pick up your cards.  The first four cards you pick up are all spades.  "Not bad," you think.  But then you continue  to draw spades.  Eight, nine, ten spades.  Your mind begins reeling.  After picking up all thirteen cards in your hand, you realize you have a perfect hand.  You drew all thirteen spades--a truly remarkable feat.

Now, for those of you who are interested in statistics, drawing such a hand would be a 1 in 3.9542 x 10^21 chance.  Nearly impossible odds.

As you looked at your hand, you would possibly think one of two things:

  1. I am the luckiest guy in the entire world.
  2. The game is rigged.
From your perspective, you would probably want to think the first thought; yet those sitting around the table would probably offer up the second.  In fact, no one would probably accept the hand as genuine because those hands just don't come around--at all.  No one that I know has ever been dealt a perfect hand like the one I described.  Even thought it is technically possible--well, it just doesn't happen.  (This is why Vegas puts astounding odds at getting a Royal Flush, and that's with eight less cards!)

In a similar manner, our universe is something to marvel at when it comes to how it is finely tuned.  There are several mathematical constants which, if they were off by a magnitude of .01, would mean that life itself would not be able to exist.  Compound such a thing with the Earth's place in the midst of  the universe: we are in a galaxy situated just perfectly in the midst of space--there's not a lot of space junk: asteroids, etc. that we run into.  Our galaxy isn't colliding with any other galaxies.  We are situated in just the right place in our galaxy where we are not too close to the black hole at its center.  Again, within our galaxy we are situated perfectly so that we are not bombarded by space junk.  In addition to this, we are just the right distance from a star of just the right size so that water stays in its liquid form.  We have protective outer planets (Jupiter and Saturn) which protect us from any space junk which would bombard us.  We have a moon situated just right which also offers protection and interacts gravitationally with the planet in very helpful ways. 

Statistically, the odds of us being in just the right place with all the right measurements are astounding--on the measure of getting a perfect hand in bridge.  (Statistically, the odds are basically zero, BTW.)  Yet, here we are. 

Now, depending upon your perspective, you can conclude several things:

1. We are the luckiest folks in the history of the universe blessed by a phenomenal chance. 
2. There are an infinite number of universes out there, so one was bound to get it right.
3. The game is rigged.

What's the most reasonable answer? 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sticking With It

Sometimes, I want to quit.

I think to myself, is it worth the pain that I will experience in the next few moments?

I look at myself in the mirror and see precious little change to my body.

Will the muscles ever firm up?  Will the "love handles" ever disappear? 

I enjoy my bike ride.  I enjoy the challenge of overcoming the inclines of Track Road here in Cat Spring.  I enjoy seeing the grass blowing in the wind.  I enjoy watching the cattle graze.  I wonder what unexpected thing I will come upon on a given ride: armadillos, a coyote, calves eating outside the fence giving me an opportunity to herd them back into their pasture.  I enjoy the quiet as I spend some quality time with God.  More than a few thoughts have popped into my mind during these moments each day.  I thoroughly enjoy riding my bike.

But I'm not so much liking the strength training I do.  At least not right now.

Oh, I enjoyed it for a time.  It was thrilling to see quick results as I was able to do more and more: add more weight to arm curls; finish a full routine of push ups and squats; etc.

But I've hit that proverbial plateau.  Now, it doesn't seem like I get anywhere with the work.  I've started doing supersets of push ups--do as many as you can in one set.  Oh, and I don't do regular push-ups.  I put my feet on a chair so that my core really has to work.  Things go O.K. for the first 25, but then the old arms start getting creaky.  Trembling starts happening around 30.  I've gotten up to 35, but that's it.  Then I sit there for a moment letting my sore arms rest.

I do something similar with biceps.  Lunges suck (my knees remind me of football injuries received 20 years ago).  Kettle-bell swings add soreness to the abs.  Over and over--2 to 3 times per week.  For what?  I just can't see much happening.

But I know enough from experience to know one has to press on before seeing results.  The body plateaus before allowing itself to go to the next level.  I've had it happen to me numerous times in the past.  But it's hard to be patient.  It's hard to allow the body to acclimate, adjust, and then enter the next phase.  But I know if I want to get there, I've got to stick with it.  I know I've got to keep it up.  I tell myself this each day it's time to strength train. 

It's more than just strength training, though.  It's life.  Sometimes, you know you are doing the right thing.  You know you are working toward something good and just.  Sometimes you know you are following God's intent for your life, but suddenly you find yourself bogged down; in a rut; on a plateau.

  • A burst of spiritual growth takes place.  Prayers seem to be answered left and right.  And then, silence; dryness; nothing.  Yet, you continue to pray and study knowing you are doing the right thing.  Do you quit because of the dryness?
  • You tackled a new job with gusto and excitement.  Things took off under your guidance, but suddenly, things have leveled off for the last year or so.  Things become repetitive.  You know the things you are doing are right, but when will such growth occur again?  Do you quit, or keep going.
  • You tell your kids over and over and over the same thing.  Yet they never seem to listen.  They never seem to follow instructions.  Do you cease and desist?  Do you stop trying to be a parent?

Oh, just the tip of the ice berg.  How many times do we find ourselves facing the choice: should I stop, or should I stick with it?  It's easy enough to stop, but I'm curious about that next level.  I wonder what it will be like once I get there--if I get there?  The only way to find out is to stick with it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rubbing Elbows with the 1%

In my calling, I associate with a wide range of people of various backgrounds and of various economic strata.  I deal with widows and widowers living off of social security alone; I deal with folks who have made millions; I deal with folks in between both extremes.  I've been out of my comfort zone more than a few times as I've visited with folks. 

I personally would be considered middle class.  I'm not ashamed to put my salary and such forward--even though we're willing to talk about our individual salaries less than we talk about sex in our culture now.  I take home roughly $49,000 per year.  Since I am considered self-employed by the Social Security administration, just over 15% of that goes to Uncle Sam.  My housing is provided by the church I work at, so if you include utilities and repairs, add roughly $400 per month.  My family's medical and dental is also paid for: roughly $30,000.  I also get a professional expense fund, continuing education, and a housing equivalency allowance.  All told, my entire compensation package is just over six figures.  Yet, by strictly take home pay, I'm considered lower-middle class.  I personally consider myself very blessed. 

As a family, we give 10% of our take home pay back to the church.  We also support numerous charities.  Further, I don't recall ever turning down one of the younger members of my congregation who has asked me (or my wife) to purchase something for a school fundraiser or an extra-curricular activity.  It is our joy to give and help out.

We don't do many extravagant things as a family.  When we travel, it is generally to visit our family members.  The cruise my wife and I took last year was a really big deal.  Normally, we don't stay in hotels when we go some place.  We stay with friends.  We don't buy a lot of extra stuff.  Once in a while we splurge on something nice, but normally, we carefully watch where we spend our money.  We have to with three kids and looming costs for extra-curricular activities, school related costs, and eventually college.

Such is the financial life of a middle class person. 

Dealing with those on each side of where I sit financially is eye opening.  For the purposes of this blog post, I'm going to talk about dealing with those on the upper end of the economic spectrum, especially since in the past few months, the 1% have been getting quite a bit of attention--most of it very negative.

Last week, one of my members had surgery in Houston.  He's a partner in a large law firm, and he has argued several cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States.  He has been compensated well for his expertise.  As I sat with his wife during his surgery, I had the opportunity to meet several more of the friends within his circle.  As with Dorothy when she realized she wasn't in Kansas, so too did I realize I wasn't traveling in my normal circle.

I had a great opportunity to listen to this group of people talk about the things they were doing, and perhaps it was only this particular group of people, but their conversation was quite intriguing.  They spoke of much of the charity work they conducted; one gentleman, an artist, told of how he donated numerous works of art for auction across state lines.  Others spoke of their work at the Nehemiah Institute run by First Presbyterian Church in Houston--a school for inner city children.  They spoke of having fellowship times with their Bible Study groups.  They spoke some about their travels and the things their children were involved with.  There was no pretensions with anything.  There was no snobbery.  These were honest folks who were striving to do good things in the world who also just happened to be blessed with wealth.

Now, take that verbal picture I just painted and compare it to much of what we hear in the news media regarding the 1%.  Do we hear such things? 

Not hardly.  Now, it is true this group of folks might be the exception rather than the rule, but if that is the case, then I have been blessed to run into most of the exceptions.  Blessed to a fault, I guess because I personally haven't run into any "bad" apples who are consumed with greed and don't care how they get wealth.  The 1%ers that I know are generous, caring people who have shown it through their actions and their contributions to all sorts of needs. 

Are there some selfish ones out there who don't care about sharing their blessing with others?  I have no doubt.  But I have learned something about those with whom I've rubbed elbows with: they are people just like me, except they have more money in the bank.  They laugh.  They cry.  They have problems with relationships.  They understand forgiveness.  They love God and serve their neighbor.  And they don't deserve to be dehumanized anymore than the poor deserved to be dehumanized. 

Our job in the Church is to bring all into the fold of Jesus Christ: rich, poor, and the in between; the hurt, the healed; the sick and the well.  We aren't given the option of being nasty to our brothers and sisters--no matter where they lie on the economic scale. 

If you are skeptical of this post, so be it.  I simply extend to you an invitation to meet the people I have rubbed elbows with.  Perhaps then it will change your perspective a bit and help you see (to paraphrase Dr. Seuss) a person's a person no matter how rich.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sermon Delivered March 4, 2012: See if You Can Catch the Satire

Gospel Lesson: Mark 8: 31-38

31Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Sermon Title: He Said this Openly

As I begin my sermon this morning, I would like to tell you an adaptation of our Gospel story this morning from the eighth chapter of the book of Mark. It is an adaptation specifically geared for our day and age–an age which emphasizes building up another person’s self-esteem as the most important thing and ensuring that no one gets his or her feelings hurt. After-all, if we are going to be a church that reaches out into such a culture, we must learn to adapt and make our message reach out into such a milieu.

One day one of Jesus’ closest friends made an absolutely astounding proclamation. Peter was his name, and he stated that Jesus was a very special man. Peter said that Jesus was very important in God’s eyes as a very good teacher who would show humankind what it meant to live together in peace and harmony.
Jesus was very proud of Peter, and he told Peter how good of a student he was and how God had given him this special information. But Jesus didn’t want all of his other followers to feel bad. He wanted to make sure they had special information too, so he turned to them and began to teach them.

"My BFF’s," Jesus said, "I have something important to tell you. I am going to have to go to Jerusalem, and there are going to be some bad things that will happen. You know as well as I do that there are some people in this world who are bullies. I’ve tried to teach you how not to be bullies, but I’ve got to go to talk to some of the biggest bullies around. I’ve got to try to convince them to be nice to each other. God has asked me to do this, and I’ve got to see it through even if they try to hurt me–which they probably will."

Peter listened to what Jesus had to say, and he wasn’t happy about it. Peter didn’t think it was too wise for Jesus to go around confronting bullies. They would indeed hurt him, and Peter didn’t want to see anything happen to his best friend. So, Peter took Jesus aside and tried to reason with him. He tried without being ugly to convince Jesus to continue to teach everyone how to be nice.

Jesus listened thoughtfully to what Peter had to say. He looked into Peter’s eyes with compassion and understanding. "My friend, Peter," Jesus said, "I am sorry. I can’t. I have to do what God tells me to do. You have to understand that God is the most important thing in my life, and I know He wants me to stop people from being mean to one another. I know this isn’t easy for you to understand, but one day you will. I know you may have trouble getting it, but it’s O.K. It’s not always easy to understand God. That’s why He’s God and you’re not. Try really, really hard to see things from God’s way."

To try and help everyone understand, Jesus asked the whole crowd to come around. He looked at all of them. He wanted to treat them all equally and be kind to each and every one of them.

He began to teach them, "If you want to follow me, let me tell you what to do. Now, remember, you don’t have to follow me. There are many other pathways you can go to find fulfillment. Some might even be a little easier, but here’s what it takes to follow me–call me your Lord and Savior, give up a little of your time during the year to worship me. If you have other commitments, I understand. Don’t worry about it. I know your time is important. You should also give a little bit of money when you worship me. It doesn’t have to be very much. Really, it’s just between you and God. It’s not like I’m going to check in on you or anything. And if you would rather eat out during the week instead of giving, go ahead. My work isn’t all that important considering all paths go to the same place. But I still would like you to give a little.

Now, here’s the hard part. I want you to work very hard to make everyone feel good about themselves. I want you to make sure they know that God loves them just the way they are and they do not need to change one bit. I want you to make them know they are special to God and even if they make mistakes, it’s O.K. Everyone makes mistakes. Just make them feel good and tell them to try extra hard not to do it again. That’s what it means to follow me. If everyone just does all of this, they will be very happy, and I want everyone who follows me to be happy.

Now, how does that sound? Does that make Christianity easy enough for everyone to follow? Does that make Christianity easy enough for everyone to swallow so that it doesn’t offend anyone? Does that make Christianity easy enough so that we can avoid people becoming angry with us and upset at our faith? Does that make Christianity easy enough so that our churches will now grow and thrive? Does that soften Jesus’ teaching enough so that people won’t be intimidated by His words any longer? Does that little retelling cover up the reality of what Jesus says is the true nature of following Him?

Sadly enough, oftentimes, we act like Christianity is more like that fictional account I started off with. Sadly enough we oftentimes act like Christianity is simply something we adhere to so that we feel good about ourselves, and if it suits us, to try and be nice to others. Oftentimes, we sugar coat Jesus’ teachings so that people will not be offended, and we bury deep down the reality to which Jesus calls you and I. Most of the time, we are afraid to teach as openly as Jesus does.

We’re afraid people will tune us out. We’re afraid we will offend someone. We’re afraid of coming across as arrogant or exclusive. We’re afraid that if we make Christianity too hard, people will run away from it in droves.

But that’s exactly the opposite of what happened when Jesus challenged His disciples and the crowds around. Apparently, they were intrigued by the challenge Jesus offered. And it was a challenge that cuts deeply into our culture that revolves around us feeling comfortable and building up our self esteem.
Jesus makes no excuses about what is going to happen to him. He knows when he goes to confront the scribes, the chief priests and the elders what will happen to him. He knows it will not be pretty and it will involve suffering. He knows it will involve death. Yet, Jesus is willing to entrust his followers with this information, and he does so out in the open.

But true to our human nature, we don’t like such open and frank talk. We don’t like people really being honest and truthful with us. We would rather have it sugar coated. We would rather have things toned down. Peter embodies this in his hubris as he takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him.

Jesus’ response would make Him no friends today. "Get behind me Satan!" Jesus yells. "For you are setting your mind on human things and not on divine things!" Jesus crushes Peter’s ego by comparing him to the Father of Lies. And Jesus doesn’t apologize. He takes it even further.

Gathering around the crowd, He lays down the nature of Christianity. He tells us what true discipleship embodies, and it’s tough. "If anyone wants to be my followers, he must take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life must lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel will find it."

Tough words. Honest words. Words spoken openly. What if we were as honest as Jesus about what it meant to be a Christian in today’s world? What would our church be like if not only we said that Christianity was difficult to practice but we actually tried to do what Jesus called His disciples to do? Would we rise to such a challenge? Could we do such a thing openly and honestly? What do you think? Amen.

Friday, March 2, 2012

My Heart Melted

Last night, I laid down on the living room floor to relax just before putting my kids to bed.

My oldest daughter had decided to relive some of her earliest childhood by watching a Blue's Clues DVD.  She was laying on the couch above me.

Without warning, she plopped down right on top of me, and she wrapped her arms around me.  She slid down to where I could embrace her and snuggle down as she watched the show.

A few moments passed, and she said, "You're filling my bucket, Daddy."

"What?" I replied.

Apparently, they had read some sort of book at school about filling and emptying emotional buckets--kind of like Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages stuff.   I didn't know this until Kiera explained later.

"You're filling my bucket," she repeated.

"With what?" I asked.

"With love."  With that, she gave me a kiss and then she rubbed noses with me in an Eskimo kiss.

"I love you, Daddy."

My heart melted.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Jesus-Eating Cult

I was asked to respond to an article on Fox News regarding Larry Doyle's article in the Huffington Post entitled:  The Jesus-Eating Cult of Rick Santorum.  Article here.

I honestly don't want to respond to the Fox News article because it's a spin off the original.  I prefer to go to the source instead.

A few things hit me right off the bat as I looked at the page:

#1. It's under the comedy section.
#2. The guy wrote for and produced the Simpsons for four years--which, if I recall, had more mentions of God than any other show on television at the time except for those which were religiously themed.
#3. The piece is obviously satire.

I remember as a kid watching the movie "Gandhi."  At one particular scene, a priest is riding atop a rail car with several other Hindu's.  The priest isn't wearing his clerical collar, and he strikes up a conversation with the guy sitting next to him.  The priest informs the man of his religious background.  The Hindu responds, "Ah, my sister is a Christian.  She is a cannibal." 

The priest is taken aback!

The Hindu replies, "She eats the body and blood of Jesus."

I laughed.  I personally thought it was hilarious, but I also know my Church history.  This Hindu's response toward cannibalism, and Larry Doyle's satire are not the first instances of Christians being called cannibals.  In fact, it was one of the charges used to spur persecution in the Roman Empire.

I mean, you have to look at things from an outsider's point of view.  Christians (especially during the early days) met in secret, only allowed those who were members to partake of the sacrament, closed out anyone else, and spoke of receiving Jesus' body and blood.  It's no mystery how folks believed the Christians practiced cannibalism.  It's also no wonder that Doyle does the same thing in his satire.  Doyle is pushing to prove a point.

And what is that point?

To prove the absurdity of the complaints raised against Santorum.

1. The Catholic Church practices cannibalism.
2. Santorum takes his orders from the Pope.
3. The Catholic Church will return to its days of persecuting Protestants and other faiths.
4. The Catholic Church and NAMBLA have a working relationship.

All of these are absolutely absurd, and anyone with a brain knows it.  Especially if one hearkens back to the days when John F. Kennedy was running for president of the U.S.  Remember the anti-Catholic rhetoric that was used against him?  (I personally don't because I wasn't living yet.)  Remember how that all turned out to be garbage.

Doyle nails that in his last sentence, "Need I remind you that only once in our great history has a Roman Catholic been elected president, and how tragically it ended?"

Yes, it ended tragically with Kennedy's assassination, but he is also regarded as a great president.  Funny how Doyle makes such a connection, and funny how conservatives seem to be up in arms with this piece.

Personally, I think it's brilliant.