Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Does it Matter?

It was a strange bit of conversation that I had on an internet message board.

A woman started a thread about the creation story in Genesis chapter 2.

She wondered how it was that people could believe the story and the idea that death was a consequence of something called the Fall.

Of course, I gave the standard, orthodox, Christian answers.

Then, she went all philosophical on my post blatantly undermining many of the points I made.

Well, two can actually play that sort of "game" so I answered philosophically in my own right undermining her points.

That actually led her to be a little less bombastic and show some humility--which was appreciated.

But then she said, "The Bible has no authority for me..."

O.K.  That's an important point right there.  A very important point.

And so I asked, "If the Bible has no authority for you, then why even bother with the question?  Why even worry about it?  What does it matter?"

For it is one thing as a Christian to proclaim God's Word to others.  We have an explicit command from Jesus to go into the world to teach everyone all that Jesus said and did and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Bible has authority as it reveals to us the nature and person of God revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

If the Bible has no authority for you...

And if you do not believe in the God of the Bible...

And if you do not adhere to the belief Jesus is resurrected from the dead...

Then why even bother trying to figure out the beliefs of Christianity?

Why seek explanation to something you refuse to believe in the first place?

What does it matter, and what is one trying to accomplish?

It is a matter of curiosity from my perspective.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Positives of the Church

I think we live in a culture which likes to accentuate the negative.  For some reason, we believe that pointing out and harping out the negative will inspire a person or institution to change and become better.  While this might prove true if given at a certain point, it is much less certain to happen if one leads with such negativity.

My favorite illustration of this comes in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery.  Jesus didn't tell her, "Go and sin no more." at the beginning of the story.  It was only after saving her life that He dropped this command upon her.  At that point, I am positive she was very receptive to His teaching.  When someone saves you from getting your head bashed in by rocks, one is apt to listen very carefully to any instructions given.

In the U.S. we don't see very many people about to get their heads bashed by rocks for committing adultery.  Usually, the worst that happens is furor raised in the media or through the rumor mill in a community.  Names get drug through the mud, and fortunately, bodily harm is not a part.  So, it makes me wonder how the Church can "save a life" before offering instruction and the commands of Christ.  How can the Church act with compassion before asking someone to change?

A little of my own personal experience:

Last year, I went through a tumultuous period of burnout.  I questioned a lot of things about my work habits, my role as leader of the congregation, and my spiritual life and growth.  Much of my questioning led to some very painful realizations.  I had become over-involved in the life of the congregation.  Instead of letting the people do the work of the congregation, I had been doing too much.  I had become overly connected emotionally.  I was carrying a lot of pain and frustration that should have been given over to God.  In effect, I was not an effective, healing presence.  I had over-invested in my time at work.  Somehow, I thought more hours spent at the office and running around visiting and contacting people would translate into more growth and better functioning of the congregation.

When I hit the proverbial wall, things weren't pretty.  I needed help, and I asked for it.

Now, things didn't necessarily go as I wanted.  In fact, I thought there was a sure and certain route that I needed to chart to ensure my health and sanity--to recover from burning out.  But that route was closed off.  Instead, something much different happened.

Within the Church and within a congregation there are those who God inspires to offer a helping hand to pastors who are in need.  Who need time and healing.  Who need avenues to practice self-care.  When you ask, they will arise.

There is often a temptation to go it alone.  To refuse to ask.  To think "physician, heal thyself!"  After all, no one really wants to take care of you.  It's your job as a clergy to take care of everyone God has placed in your congregation.  Or so some think.


A congregation ideally functions differently than this.  A congregation functions as a community of mutual conversation and consolation.  This process includes the pastor.  He or she is intricately involved in this process.  Sure, he or she is constantly engaging in conversation and consolation--mainly giving, but also receiving.  The entire process focuses on building one another up in love.

After burning out, I am blessed to have had many persons involved in building me up.  The list that follows catches the highlights.  It certainly is not exhaustive, and for my congregation members who read this, please do not think I am trying to slight anyone or play favorites.  I am not.  I care deeply about all of you.  The following list does not include those of you who pray for me regularly who keep this an absolute secret.  I know you are there even though I do not know who you might be.
  • I have been invited to hunt and fish on several properties owned by congregation members in the community.  This has provided me with an outlet beyond the walls of the congregation in which I can get away and do something that I have enjoyed doing for many years.  Self-care folks tell you to have a hobby outside the congregation, and I know now the worth of that hobby.
  • I have a couple of congregation members who engaged me educationally, literally giving me material which fed a hungry soul.  Individual prayer and meditation is but one avenue for spiritual growth.  My own avenue is through study.  Unfortunately, the theological education I received wasn't nurturing, but I was led by the influence of several congregation members to find a theological path which was much more intellectually satisfying and nurturing as it engaged life's biggest questions.  Repeated discussions fed me in a way my college and seminary educations couldn't match.
  • I have had one person in particular take me out to lunch once a month with the caveat "what is said here, stays here."  Everything is kept in complete confidence.  I cannot tell you the difference this makes.
  • After my puppy had to be put down, I received well wishes and support in my family's grief.  From the congregation member/vet who put my dog down, to him and his brother's well wishes in worship the following morning, to prayers sent through emails and on Facebook, to donations being made to a local adoption/spay/neuter organization in my pup's honor.  All of these were heart-felt and helped ease the grief of her death.
  • The leadership of the congregation paid for counseling and gave policy approval adding flexibility to the time I can take off during the week--ensuring I work as close to 40 hours a week as possible instead of the "normal" clergy work load of 50+.
Such things may "seem" small in and of themselves, but cumulatively, they have made an amazing difference.  A difference which has made me more effective a leader, preacher, teacher, and administrator.

This is, I believe, what happens when the church is at its best.  This should not just be my story.  It should be the story of each and every congregation member in the pews.  It should be the story of each and every congregation member who is unable to leave their home for one reason or another.  It should be the story of each and every congregation member who suffers from illness, debilitation, worry, stress, anxiety or what have you.  The temptation is to say, "I'll handle it myself."  But with a community of faith full of people who care and who believe in Christ who commanded His disciples to, "Love one another and by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another," why?  Why keep it down deep?  Why try to go it alone?

God has gifted the Church with many gifts including compassion.  It is a driving force in the Church.  I've been blessed by many congregation members who have it and share it.  I invite you to come experience it as well.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Farewell to a Furry Friend

There was no doubt that it was time, but I hated every moment.

About a month and a half ago, our puppy dog, Leeza suffered a stroke or a heart attack or something of the sort which rendered her extremely weakened for about four days.  She had suffered some minor set backs--times of confusion and weakness, but had bounced back very quickly.  This time, something obviously different had occurred.  I knew she probably wouldn't live very much longer.

She was 12 and a half years old and was a rather large dog.  Knowing large dogs live shorter lives, such a turn wasn't unexpected--but it was unwanted.  Yet, I was committed to seeing Leeza enjoyed the remaining days, weeks, or months.

She had been on a rather strict regimen of food consumption to keep her weight down.  She had her allotted amount of food, one snack, and no table scraps.  All of that went out the window after she suffered her episode.  I told my wife, kids, and relatives, "Spoiling is the order of the day.  Leeza gets whatever she wants."

We even switched dog foods because it seemed like she was having difficulty eating hard food.  She relished the 4 Health Brand, wolfing down the "Beef Stew" and "Chicken and Rice" varieties.  She went nuts when I'd give her a piece of turkey bacon.  She thought she was in heaven getting to lick all the plates and bowls like she did when she was a puppy.

But then the downhill slide accelerated.  About a week and a half ago, I noticed her having a much harder time standing up and then keeping her footing.  Several times, she slipped on the hardwood floor in our home and fell down.  This was not normal.  She started eating less and even refusing food.  Again, not normal.

Then, the swelling started.  Her abdomen began ballooning, and I knew this was not good.  A vet friend said it was probably congestive heart failure or liver failure.  This was just one of the issues.  She also had a tumor just under the skin on her side.  I knew the inevitable was just around the corner.

Last Friday, she finally reached the point where she could no longer stand on her own.  She needed help just to get on her feet.  And then when she was helped to her feet, she only had the strength to stand for 20 or 30 seconds.  I had to pick her up and carry her outside so that she could do her business.  Her breathing became shallower.

Yet, she retained her personality.  My wife and I began spending much more time with her, just laying by her side and petting her.  Whenever we would stop, if only briefly, she would paw at our hands, insisting on more love.  This made my decision harder.  I wished she would just slip into a coma or be taken by a massive heart attack or stroke.  I wanted her to go naturally, but she finally reached the point where something needed to be done.

Saturday afternoon, I carried her out to the car for her last journey on earth.  My family packed our car together, and we drove to the vet's office--a vet who was also a congregation member.

I carried her to the room, and we all petted her and loved on her.  My congregation member was tremendous in his bedside manner--talking us through the process and what would happen.  He gave us ample time with Leeza to say our goodbys.  He cautioned the kids and told her what might happened as the drugs took effect and the possible reflexes that Leeza's body might have.

And then the shots were administered.  Tears were shed by all.  I don't care what anyone says.  It's not "just a dog."

Sunday at church, our Gospel band led worship.  For special music, we had chosen to sing "Stroll Over Heaven with You."   The vet who put Leeza down and his brother both sing in the band, and they dedicated that song to my family and I.  "Oftentimes we tend to think about this song as walking with a loved one or someone special once we get to heaven.  There's nothing to say that we can't think about walking with our furry special one's when we sing this song."

I know there are some theologians who dispute whether or not animals have souls.  They also may dispute whether or not animals are "in heaven"-so-to-speak.  I know that in the final judgment, a new heaven and a new earth will be created.  The tree of life will return as creation is returned to its original intent.  That original creation, before its corruption, was a place where man and animals coincided in perfect harmony.  I expect nothing different at its restoration.

When I cross over into that time of waiting until creation is restored, I expect to be greeted by my Savior and all those who have gone before.  And I'm pretty doggone sure that my Leeza will hear my voice and come running across whatever turf is there; moving at break-neck speed, squealing her excited squeal--the same one I heard so many times when coming home, taking her on a trip, or picking her up from being boarded.

Rest in peace my big, hairy "love sponge."

Where is Grace?

(Trying the video thing once again.  For those who wish to simply read, continue below.)

    During my senior year of college, my roommate and I went camping in Perdernales Falls State Park.  We enjoyed a couple of days of hiking around and enjoying the hill country scenery.  On the second morning of our stay, we hiked around one of the “mountain” trails–actually, it was more of a hill.  As we hiked along the main trail, I saw a narrow pathway heading toward the woods.  On a whim, I took this branch.  My roommate wasn’t exactly thrilled about getting off the main trail, but I said, “Let’s just see where this leads.”

    We walked around a few cedar trees and came upon a small creek.  As this creek made its way down the hill, it had eroded into three small waterfalls.  The falls had eaten into the rock and formed three pools a couple of feet deep each.  The clear, cold, spring water had turned various shades of green, blue, and dark blue.  The red and white of the rock added further color to this sight.  The color and chuckling of the water made the place overwhelmingly peaceful, and we sat there for several minutes before carrying on.  We actually traveled up the creek, and in about 75 yards, we intersected the main trail once again.

    At this point, I wondered to myself, “Why is it the main trail diverges so far away from this little piece of heaven?  Why isn’t that little side trail marked on the map?  Aren’t people being deprived of seeing this little piece of beauty–especially if they simply stick to the main path?”

    I mean, I know there is something to be said for staying on the main path–taking the same road everyone takes–following where the crowd has gone before.  For the most part, it’s safe.  For the most part, there are others traveling along the way who can help you out if you get in trouble.  For the most part, the path is usually the easiest to follow as it is well marked and generally avoids the most troublesome spots.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with following the well marked path.

    But the marked path does not always lead you to the places of utmost beauty.  The marked path does not always lead you to the places of tranquility and peace.  The marked path may get you to the end faster, but it does not always guarantee you arriving in the state which is best for you.

    Jesus makes no bones about the fact that Christians are not called to walk on the main path.  We are not called to go through the wide door.  We are to intentionally seek out and find the more narrow paths–the more narrow doors as we grow in faith and seek to serve God.

    In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is asked, “Will just a few be saved?”

    Jesus responds, “24‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. 25When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” 26Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” 27But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” 28There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. 29Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’”

    In some ways, this teaching is very troublesome for certain people.  Jesus here makes no bones about the fact that some people will be left outside the door knocking and begging to come in.  There will be some people seeing the great saints in the Kingdom of God, and they will weep and gnash their teeth while seeing them.  Even more frustrating to those who are left outside is the fact that they knew the Lord.  “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!”

    And the Lord’s reply is curt and cuts to the bone, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!”

    Now, the temptation here is to try and label those who are the evildoers.  The temptation here is to find a group that fits that description.  And of course, when we label that group, it will not include us.  It will be them and those people who have the problem.  It will be that group that has to worry about what Jesus is saying.  It certainly can’t be us–no, not at all.

    I would caution us very strongly against doing such a thing.  Because whenever we label ourselves as the “in” group and those others as the “out” group, we find ourselves butting up against Jesus’ next statement, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.”  And listen to this, “Indeed some who are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

    Some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.  Whenever we start labeling such things and putting ourselves first, we might just find ourselves bringing up the rear.  We might just find ourselves on the outside looking in.  We might just find ourselves weeping and gnashing our teeth.  It’s not a pleasant thought.  Not at all.

    At this point, at least with me, the question then becomes–what is the narrow door?  What does it mean to seek out the narrow door?  How is it possible to enter through that door, and where is grace in this whole process?

    I believe the concept of grace is important here–very important. I think we must remember that Jesus didn’t speak these words in a vacuum.  In fact, these words are surrounded by others which I think help shed some important light on this teaching and help us understand it much, much better.

    I would like to invite you to turn in your Bibles again this morning to Luke chapter 14.  In our gospel lesson, Jesus ends with those who will be eating in the Kingdom of God, and just a few verses later, He fleshes that out more fully.  Let’s begin reading Luke 14 verse 7

    7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
    12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

    Notice the humility Jesus calls his followers to display.  Notice the narrow door He sends them through.  No one would have thought to act in this manner during the time Jesus spoke these words.  Everyone wanted prestige and self-aggrandizement, but Jesus says, don’t seek it.  Instead, be humble.

    This is a consequence of grace.  For if we believe that God is responsible for our salvation–that it does not come from anything we do–then we do not become self-righteous.  We do not think that we have all the answers.  We do not think we are above everyone else.  We do not think we have any sort of special privilege because we know Jesus.  Because Christianity isn’t necessarily about knowing Jesus–those left out of the door knew Jesus–Christianity is about being known by Jesus.  And those who are known by Jesus do not point to themselves and the way they act or behave.  Instead, they point to Jesus.  Because it is in Jesus that we find Grace.  It is in Jesus that we find mercy.  It is in Jesus that we find the narrow path and the narrow door.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Changing One's Mind: Becoming a Fisherman

"Daddy, will you take me fishing before the summer is over?"

My initial, internal reaction was, "Are you kidding me?  No.  Hell, no.  I don't like fishing.  I don't have any fishing gear.  I don't want to mess with the things.  Think of something else to do.  How about I take you pig hunting again?"

But, as I said yesterday, Daddies will generally do anything within reason for their children, especially their daughters.   And so began my 180 degree turn from fishing hater to fishing enjoyer--or whatever non-made up word goes there.

Most of the time, we don't change, however.  Most of the time we do not flip our views or perspectives.  We become entrenched in our own thoughts, beliefs, and worlds.  To change a view or perspective--even if it is one like reversing one's position on fishing involves a changing of your very being.

For many years, I made no bones about my distaste of fishing.  I'd even used it in a sermon once or twice.  When I made the comment to my mom the other day that I was enjoying the time fishing with my kids, she remarked, "I can't believe I'm hearing this coming from you."

She could have said worse.  She could have harped on me for being so stubborn in my dislike of fishing.  She could have recounted all the times I said I wouldn't go fishing at all.  She could have rubbed my nose in it unmercifully.  But mom's don't do that-most of the time.

And I would have had to eat crow.  I would have had to acknowledge that she was right.  I would have had to admit, "I was completely wrong for saying all those things earlier."  And to a certain extent, I was. 

Yet, if my daughter hadn't of begged to go fishing, I would not have engaged the process again, and I would not have come to enjoy it and find its benefit to my physical and mental health.

Two things, in my estimation were important here: the tremendous love I have for my daughter who asked me to take her fishing, and the engagement of the process.

Too often, I think, when it comes to engaging different worldviews and thoughts, we are unwilling to do so because we neither love or respect those who invite us to look at things differently.  It's easy to look at another and call that person stupid or ignorant or off base.  It's easy to label a person and refuse to engage the thought process because of that label.  "I don't listen to what he/she has to say because he/she is a liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Lutheran, atheist, or what have you."  Labeling and refusing to offer love and/or respect simply allows a person to keep a safe and critical distance, but the minute you actually love and respect someone, you take a moment to actually consider what that someone says or believes.  You take a moment to go out of your way to contemplate because love pushes you out of your comfort zone.  Such love can lead to change.

But I think love is not enough.  I think engagement is required as well.  I could have easily bought a rod and reel for my daughter, slapped some bait on a hook, and said, "Have fun."  But I didn't.   That's not exactly how it works either.  I had to show my daughter how to do those things, and it's not enough just to talk her through it.  I had to show her--which meant, I had to fish as well.  I had to engage the process.  And as I said yesterday, I'm not much for just casting a bait and waiting.  I like to be a little active, and bass fishing gave me that opportunity.  As I began getting into a rhythm and enjoying the surroundings and catching a fish or two and letting it go and seeing the joy on my daughter's face when she caught her first bass and being away from all the things which vie for my attention and simply concentrating on what I was doing right then and now, I started thinking to myself, "Man, I am enjoying this.  A lot."  I would not have gotten to that point if I refused to even pick up a rod and reel--to engage the process.

I think our world/nation today would benefit from a willingness to love and respect and actually engage other points of view.  I'm not talking about simply acknowledging that they exist, but really try to learn those other worldviews and test one's own view against those other views.  There is a "danger" that one may end up swayed to another position.  However, there is also the likelihood one learns a great deal about why one believes as one believes and thinks as one thinks.  There is also the likelihood that one will discover something that is very fulfilling and life giving.  There is also the likelihood that one discovers the strengths of one's worldview and it's application to the world.  And there is the likelihood that one discovers the common ties to those who have different worldviews.  Those common links are important in helping us live and work together.

And, of course, humility is discovered in the process--a humility which recognizes that I do not have all the answers and that my particular view may indeed be wrong.  But if you are like I am and you are consumed with finding the Truth, you will willingly head down that path.  Love.  Engage.  Change.  It's made a fisherman out of me.

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."  --Jesus

"Come with me, and I will make you fish for people."  --Jesus

I Can't Believe I'm Writing This

A few weeks ago, my oldest daughter came up to me and said, "Daddy, can you take me fishing before the summer is over?"

I cringed inside.

I didn't much care for fishing.  Never really have.  Partially because I don't like eating fish--something about the texture of the meat.  Oh, in a pinch, I'll dig in, but it certainly isn't my favorite.

There's also the matter of a few rather unfortunate fishing experiences when I was younger.  Unpleasant they were, to say the least.  It kind of left a rather poor taste in my mouth for the whole process.

But then the daughter makes her request, "Daddy, can you take me fishing before the summer is over?"

And of course, the wheels in my head started turning.  Most Daddys will do just about anything they can for their children (especially daughters) that is within reason.  This request was certainly within reason, even though it wasn't something I would particularly enjoy.  And my eldest does enjoy the outdoors--a lot.  If she gets hooked on hunting and fishing--being able to provide her own food...  And if she likes fishing a whole lot, she will definitely be interested in a certain type of guy when she gets older...  I figured the pluses outweighed the minuses.  I'd take my girl fishing.

And I already had a head start; I did have my fishing license.  Earlier this year, a congregation member had taken me Crappie fishing.  But I hadn't touched a rod and reel since then.  But I didn't own any fishing poles or tackle.  Looked like I'd have to do some shopping, and I wasn't going to spend a ton of money either.

And I didn't.  But I did purchase two reels and an assortment of tackle for well under $100.  I made plans to to take my eldest fishing last Friday at a local state park.  I mentioned this to another one of my congregation members over lunch early in the week.  A day or so later, he called me and said, "How'd you like to take Kiera to my neighbor's spring fed pond to fish there?"

"Sounds fantastic!" I replied. 

Suddenly, this apparently sparked an interest in my two youngest.  "Daddy, can we go too?"

Family fishing trip.  Luckily, my church members had a few more rods, and they loaned them to us that morning.  Only my youngest daughter caught anything.  But that didn't disappoint my eldest.  She wanted more.

Another congregation member has given me permission to fish on their property, so away we went that afternoon: just the two of us.

I caught a couple.  She didn't catch anything.

We went out again the next evening, and she caught her first bass.  She was extremely proud of herself, and she continues to beg me to take her fishing.  So does my middle child.  So does my son.

And here is the most intriguing part...

I have come to enjoy fishing--especially bass fishing.  I generally don't like just throwing a bait out there and waiting eternally for a fish to perhaps take a bite, but I do enjoy the continual cast and reel while fishing for bass.  I enjoy standing at the water's edge getting into a rhythm  and exercising my body.  I enjoy standing in the open air without the distractions of phones or computers or television.  I enjoy trying to outwit an animal with a much smaller brain capacity.  I enjoy the tug on the line, the setting of the hook, and the fight to bring the fish on shore.  In just a few days time, my abhorrence of fishing has done a 180 degree turn.

I actually enjoy fishing and am looking forward to heading out again in the near future.

I can't believe I just wrote that.

(Theological reflections to follow.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

What Happened to Jesus?

Something a little different to start:

And for those who would rather read instead of watching the video:

    I don’t know how many of you remember the original movie “The Karate Kid,” but I sure do.  When I first saw it as a youngster, I thought it was one of the best movies I had seen.  I can’t tell you how many times my friends and I would play around and imitate the “Crane Technique.”  Anyone remember that one? 

    There was a very impressionable scene when the main character, Daniel, is about to begin receiving his training from Mr. Miyagi.  Mr. Miyagi asks Daniel if he is ready to begin, and Daniel replies, “Yeah, I guess so.”

    Mr. Miyagi then says, “Daniel-san, must talk.  Walk on road.  Walk right side, safe.  Walk left side, safe.  Walk in middle, sooner or later (squiiiiiiik) get squish just like grape.  Here karate same thing.  Either you karate do yes or you karate do no.  You karate do guess so, (squiiiiiiik) just like grape.”

    The implication is awfully clear.  There is an either/or proposition.  Either you do things one way or you things the other way.  There is no middle ground.

    A lot of times, we as Christians do the same thing with Jesus, and one of the prevailing thoughts regarding Jesus in the Church is that He is love.  And if Jesus is all about love, then He certainly can’t do anything or say anything which is opposite of love.

    We flesh out that picture of Jesus by citing many favorite stories and sayings of Jesus.  “For God so LOVED the world that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

    “Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you.”  (Matthew 5:44)

    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.  And you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  (Matthew 22:38-39)

    There is the parable of the Prodigal Son, or as others have begun to call it, the Parable of the Prodigal Father who goes above and beyond to show love and compassion to both of his children even enduring humiliation to show them that kind of love.

    And finally, there is Jesus’ new command given to His disciples at the Last Supper, “Love one another as I have loved you.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

    Yes, Jesus was all about love–all about showing God’s love–and we just need to love everyone like He loved us.  This is what Christianity is all about!!!  Love, love, love.  It’s that simple.  If something doesn’t speak of such love, then it cannot be of Jesus. “Walk on right side of road.  Safe.”

    Ah, but then one runs across stories and sayings like our Gospel lesson for today.  Listen to Jesus’ words once again:

    49 ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’     (Luke 12)

    Just what happened to Jesus?  Where is all that love?  He speaks of bringing fire to earth?  He speaks of bringing division?  What happened to love one another?  This sounds quite different.  It sounds more judgmental!  Surely this can’t be right.  It doesn’t seem to gel with the idea that Jesus is all about showing God’s love.  Does it?  Is Jesus more of a judge?  Did Jesus show up to render judgment and call us to mend our ways and get our lives back in order?

    Well, there is a portion of Christianity which builds a case for Jesus being exactly this, and they use the above Bible verses and others to show that indeed Jesus renders such judgment upon us.

    Matthew 4:7, Jesus says, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near!”

    Luke 5:32.  “I have come not to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance.”

    “Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5)

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

    And there is that long parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 where Jesus tells of the last day when God will judge the sheep and the goats.  Those who cared for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, and the imprisoned will head to a heavenly reward while those who refused to show such compassion will end up separated from God for eternity. 

    Indeed Jesus came to render such judgment, and there are more than a few Christians who harp on this fact to no end.  In fact, some almost revel in rendering these judgments upon others believing they are doing the Kingdom of God a favor. “Walk on left side of road, safe.”

    Or so it seems.  Either go with Jesus as Lord of Love and be safe or go with Jesus as Righteous Judge and be safe.  Try to do anything more, and squish, just like grape.  Right?

    Wrong.  Unequivocally, wrong.

    For, the reality is that the same Jesus who showed compassion and love is the same Jesus who rendered judgment and called for repentance.  The same Jesus who prayed that His followers would all be one is the same Jesus who said He came not to bring peace but bring division.  It is the same Jesus on both counts.  It is not an either/or, it is a both/and. 

    There is no doubt that Jesus came to earth to show God’s love and compassion. He came to heal.  To bind up the broken hearted.  To restore to community those whom had been shunned.  To forgive those whom society had labeled sinner and unworthy to stand before God.  To make people radically rethink the nature of God and who God truly cared and loved.  One cannot read the gospels without noting this facet of Jesus.

    But Jesus was also uncompromising in standing against that which was evil.  He didn’t mince words when dealing with the Pharisees who showed a lack of compassion toward the poor and widowed.  He didn’t hesitate to call such people “a brood of vipers” which is the modern equivalent of sons of female dogs.  He didn’t hesitate to make known the reality of eternal punishment for those who failed to show charity in this life.  Anything which stood in the way of God’s Kingdom or led people away from God, Jesus unhesitatingly condemned.  And it was this uncompromising stance which led to division.

    Love AND judgment.  This is Jesus.  And as His followers, it is who we are called to be as well. 

    There is no doubt that we, like Jesus are called to show compassion, mercy, and love.  There is no doubt that we are called to welcome the sinner, the outcast, those whom society turns its back on.  We are to love those who are considered unlovable.  We are to love our coworker who scoffs at us and gossips about us.  We are to bring God’s message of salvation to anyone and everyone regardless of race, color, or creed.  Love must be a part of our lives, and we must sense it to our very core.

    But we too must be uncompromising when it comes to living by Kingdom principles.  We must shun the works of evil.  When gossip is laid on our ears, we must not repeat.  We must not return evil with evil.  We must refrain from abusing anyone who is made in the image of God.  We must reject dishonest dealings and refuse to cut corners if it means doing shoddy work.  We must take such stands even if it means rejection and division.

    Unlike the karate, Christianity isn’t about walking down a road.  Christianity is about following a path–a path laid out by Jesus Himself.  Too far to the left, and you’re out of His footsteps.  Too far to the right, and you’re off the way again.  Keep your eye on Him and imitate Him because if you go too far one way or the other, squish, just like grape.  Amen.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why Deal with the "Big" Questions?

In the video I posted a link to yesterday, I was intrigued by one of the questions asked by a student during the Q&A time following the professors' presentations. 

Paraphrased, the question basically boiled down to: why should we as students deal with these big questions now?   Can't we just wait until we are settled down, working, married, raising children, etc.?

I actually was a bit disturbed by the profs' answer which basically boiled down to: you don't know when you are going to die.  Better get this stuff handled now.

While essentially their statement is true--we do not know how much time we indeed have on this earth, I personally would handle the question in a much different manner.  For the driving motive to then think on such matters revolves around fear.  Get this thinking done, or you might be gone tomorrow!  I'm not one who likes to use fear as the proper motivation.

To begin with, I would have gone after a major assumption made by the young woman--that she would eventually get "settled" into a job and family and suddenly find time to think about such matters.  This is a major, major assumption--one that I believe is a fallacy.  I do not know too many people who find much time once they begin careers and have children. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case.  Once a person graduates from college and begins working and then starts a family, time shrinks.  Work demands anywhere from 40-70 hours from a person per week.  Children suck down much of the rest of that time.  The desire to get away for any sort of down time means traveling on weekend getaways.  Of course, as children grow, then comes school, homework, extra-curricular activities, weekend sports, etc.  And after the kids move out, then comes time to volunteer at the things one is passionate about.  Then comes retirement, and if the indications I get from most retired folks, they are actually more busy after they retire than when they were working!  Time has a way of slipping away from us.

So, given that you may never find yourself "settled down", when is it time to think about the deep questions of life: why am I here?   What is my purpose?  Why do good?  What do I do when I cannot find answers?  What is the meaning of all of this?  What am I willing to give up to be successful?

Is being busy just a way of avoiding such questions?

I have heard at least one person say they had no desire to examine these questions.  This person was quite content to live an unexamined life.  But I don't sense this to be the case for many others.  There seems to be a general hunger for purpose, meaning, and authenticity at least in the U.S.  And from what I have read and seen, people are having a horrid time discovering such things.

And I wonder if it's because they are too busy?  I wonder if it's because there is tremendous pressure put on us to be moving, working, playing, shopping, engaged, connected, online, social networking, and what have you?  I wonder if we have lost our ability to contemplate and think, lured by a false sense of identity found through cyberspace and technology?

I do not believe one finds meaning, purpose, and authenticity in the cyber-world.  Nor do I believe it is found in staying busy.  Or work.  Or flying around from activity to activity.  Or in having fun and partying.  I believe it is found in allowing life's big questions to drive one to the ultimate source of reality--and I believe that ultimate source is the creator God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps one reason people fear those big questions is that eventually they are forced to deal with Jesus, and He's unsettling.  He makes you confront your shortcomings, but He also gives you strength, purpose, meaning, and authenticity.  If you want to wait until you have time to finally discover such things, then be my guest; however, if you want those things now and the fulfillment they bring now, don't wait.  Take time to deal with the big questions. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Great Quote About Marriage

Found in this Youtube video from the Veritas Forum (41:13):

Georgia Tech Professor Vincent Mooney: "Marriage isn't just 50-50.  It's 100-100.  Everyone gives everything you can."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sometimes You Just Have to Smile

Yesterday as I headed to "a deserted place to pray," I stopped in to meet one of my new neighbors.

A family moved into a house a couple of blocks down about a month ago, and for one reason or another, I hadn't stopped in to welcome them to the neighborhood.

I introduced myself and talked to Johnny for the first time.  His granddaughter was with him on the porch blowing bubbles.  She was adorable.

I remarked to him, "Just down the road is a playground next to the church.  If you want a place to take her to play, by all means, take her.  That's what the place is for."

We continued to talk, and he expressed his desire to find some part-time work.  I found out he does carpentry, painting, and other such things.  I told him I'd keep an eye out and talk to a few folks around.

He asked what I did, and I replied, "I'm a pastor."

He said, "What else do you do to earn a living?"

Apparently, he's from a different denomination where pastors work at other jobs.  Fortunately, I do not have to do that, so I told him, "That's it.  I'm paid full time to be a pastor."

And then he said something very intriguing, "Yeah, an old man in a red truck came by and said that I was welcome to come to that church down there.  He said everybody can come and everybody can worship.  That's what that old man said."

And I said, "We'd love to have you."

A few more pleasantries were exchanged, and I climbed back into my car.  As I reflected upon those few moments with Johnny, I thought about what he said about that "old man in the red truck."  At least one of my congregation members had met this gentleman and invited him and his family to worship with us--even before I could make my way down there and invite him myself.

Sometimes, you just have to smile.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Last week, I went on vacation.  As I departed for my parents' home in Odem, TX, I posted the following to my Facebook status: Unplugging from FB for a week. Vacation time. For those who read my blog, it is set to automatically update the next few days automatically at 10 a.m.

I then proceeded to unplug.  I didn't check my Facebook account until this morning.  But I asked myself, "Why stop there?"  So, I vowed to myself to refuse to check any internet news websites for the entire week.  No Drudge.  No Fox News.  No CNN.  No MSNBC.  Nothing.  I would read the Corpus Christi Caller Times to get any news--and one simply cannot claim the CC Caller to be anything like a world class newspaper.

For the first few days, it was quite difficult to refrain from touching the Facebook App button on my phone.  Similarly for my Kindle Fire.  I avoided my mom and dad's computer, so connecting to the world wide web in that fashion was no problem.  But like a moth drawn to the flame, every time I saw it, the impulse was there--strong.

But as the week continued, the impulse grew less and less.  In fact, as the week drew to a close, I had a sense of dread when it came to returning to the land of cyberspace.  Not because I didn't like keeping up with friends and family, but because I would be sucked back into an addiction: the addiction of information.

Let me put it this way: in the course of a day before my vacation, I was used to reading hundreds of Facebook statuses per day, at least two or three dozen news stories, a hundred to two hundred headlines, and five to ten blogs a day.  That's a ton of information!!!  Almost too much.

And this is probably the lower end for some who spend much more time in the internet world.  Imagine if you added tweets and other social media formats!  It's a bit mind boggling to think about the mind numbing effect of so much information.  And honestly, that's about what I discovered such information to be--mind numbing.

What I mean to say is that this week, I discovered that when I imbibe all this information, it evokes all sorts of emotion: anger, sadness, happiness, elation, worry, fear, etc.  That emotion is like a rush of sorts.  It takes me from one feeling to another over and over and over again.  I came to see that I depended upon that emotional roller coaster.

And I didn't want to get back on.  And still don't.

Which is a bit problematic in a way.

For I still have more than a few college and seminary professors' words ringing in my ears--their paraphrasing of the great thinker and theologian Karl Barth:  The preacher should approach the world with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

I get this all too well.

The theologian and pastor must know what is going on in the world around him or her.  He or she must be engaged with the issues of the day, but quite honestly, in this day and age, many "issues" aren't really "issues."  Many headlines make mountains out of mole hills.  Remember that tummy sickness that grabbed headlines a week or so ago?  Where hundreds were getting sick because of eating certain fruits and vegetables?  Hundreds of people.  Quite frightening, right?  

Well, not really.  If you calculate the odds of actually getting sick and compare them to the pure randomness of getting sick by food poisoning, then you would shrug your shoulders and say, "What's really the issue here?"

But we generally don't have time to unplug and think through things in such a fashion.  The 24/7 news cycle draws us from one crisis to another--from one story to another--from one emotion to another--without any time for reflection or thinking.

I used to check the Drudge Report 4 or 5 times a day because it is constantly updating.  Same with Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.  No more.  I used to jump on Facebook that many times at least in a day as well.  No more.  No more emotional roller coaster.  No more anxiety of needing to know what is going on the moment it happens.  I found something precious this past week.



Time to think and reflect.

In this day and age, it is almost impossible to be fully unplugged from the world wide web of information and data, but this is one person who will be severely limiting it. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Interpreting the Bible Part 3

The Emergence of Another Way

Recently, I have come across in my reading another set of assumptions which I believe is more faithful as we deal with the interpretation of scripture.  It is what I call the hermeneutic of trust.  Much of my thinking has come as a result of reading Scottish scholar, Richard Bauckham’s book: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts.  Bauckham argues that the gospels are not to be seen as recorded ancient history.  They do not fall into that category of literature.  Instead, they are to be seen as ancient biographies.  The rules for writing such literature differed a bit from historical accounts, but there are some important things of note regarding the writing of such literature:

A.    The writers of such biographies believed in the importance of being as close to the subject of the biography as possible.  Fourth or fifth hand information was not considered acceptable.
B.    The Gospels were probably written 35-50 years after the death of Jesus.  Eyewitnesses would still have been alive.  The authors would have known this.  Luke admits so in his introduction.  He also admits to consulting with them.  The hermeneutic of suspicion relies on the assumption eyewitness testimonies were unimportant to the people writing the gospels–Bauckham, and others, argue vehemently otherwise.
C.    Bauckham believes the gospel writers–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–gave us clues as to who their main eyewitnesses were:

    Mark: the apostle Peter.
    Matthew: Mark’s account + the disciple Matthew
    Luke: Mark’s account + several women disciples

D.    Bauckham believes John was written by an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, and the author is the beloved disciple as named in the work.

There are issues with viewing the gospels as eyewitness accounts-namely, eyewitnesses don’t exactly get their stories completely straight at times.  Details vary.  Sometimes people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear.  Other times, they interpret events instead of simply reporting them.  Yet, Bauckham actually deals with many such objections in his book, and I will not go into those now.

What I want to delve into is approaching the gospels as eyewitness testimony.  For testimony demands an element of trust as one approaches it.  For instance, if you sit down at the dinner table with your spouse and he/she tells you, “I had a good day at work.  I finished up a major project.”  And you respond, “Do you have any corroborating evidence?”  You will probably have a rough evening.

Testimony demands to be trusted unless a witness is shown to be untrustworthy.  The ultimate question one must ask in this vein of thought is whether or not the gospels as we have them are in fact, trustworthy.  Of course, I say they are.

If we take this track for interpretation, there then is little mystery as to why the early church accepted the four canonical gospels despite their varying claims.  As with eyewitness accounts of an event, some witnesses remember certain details while omitting others.  Some eyewitnesses add some interpretive thoughts (John is especially guilty of this).  Some say the red car ran the light while others say the blue one did–yet no one disputes the crash! 

The early church believed one could take the four gospels in their totality to understand and get a full picture of who Jesus was.  They did not make distinctions based upon “what Matthew’s Jesus said” or “what John’s Jesus said or what “the Lukan community said” or what the “Markan community said.”  They were comfortable with the differences and the interpretations of events trusting the testimony of the witnesses.  Should we be any different?  That is the important question governing each of these modes of interpretation.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Interpreting the Bible Part 2

Two Modes of Interpretation

As theology responded to the “Enlightenment threat” it generally chose one of two routes:

1. The hermeneutic of inerrancy: In some ways, the name says it all.  One direction theology chose was to view Scripture as completely inerrant.  The Bible was seen to be complete and perfect no matter what science or reason said.  This mentality was a sort of battening down the hatches approach or a “we refuse to be influenced by this science and reason stuff.” 

This school of thought basically settled on five fundamentals of the Christian faith–hence became known as the movement of fundamentalism.  Those fundamentals are:
•    The inerrancy of the Bible
•    The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ's miracles and the Creation account in Genesis
•    The Virgin Birth of Christ
•    The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ
•    The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross

In my estimation, this is an intellectually untenable position based on several reasons: translation errors, the lack of original manuscripts, manuscript variances, historical reality, conflicting texts/laws/teachings/statutes in the Bible itself.  However, many fundamentalists have been accused of being non-thinkers.  I think this assertion is equally absurd.  Many fundamentalists think and think deeply; however, I believe their thought is based upon faulty assumptions–the major one being the Bible is inerrant.

2. The hermeneutic of suspicion: This will require a little more depth to explain.  This theological train of thought took the tools of reason and science and began applying them to the Christian faith.  In a very real way, they accepted the authority of reason and science over theology and sought to make theology acceptable in the eyes of philosophers and scientists.

There are some valuable insights which have come from this group particularly seeking to understand the stories of the Bible as they were first understood in the historical context in which they were originally heard.  Some fascinating insights have been discovered by using such a method; however, as with many things, like fundamentalism, the hermeneutic of suspicion has been pushed too far.

Perhaps the most famous scholar to appear in this vein of thought is Rudolph Bultmann.  He was not the first to embrace some of the following ideas, but he has been very influential-especially in modern, liberal American Protestantism.  Bultmann raised much suspicion regarding anything and everything miraculous recorded in the Bible.  Such things were not compatible with reason and science, said he.  (He was wrong, but we do not need to debate such matters here.)  Therefore, we must take the stories about the miraculous and seek a different meaning using the story as an anecdote to portray a larger truth.  Skepticism of the historical accuracy and reliability of the biblical accounts became the rule.

Of course, if the accounts of the miracles were not necessarily reliable and accurate, how could we be sure about the accuracy of Jesus’ teachings?  This was another theme Bultmann picked up on–what was authentically, historically Jesus and what was not?  Following in the footsteps of Albert Schweitzer, Bultmann traveled further. 

Bultmann began with a very important assumption about how the Gospels were written, (please note, I am applying Bultmann’s thought only to the New Testament here.) asserting they were put together by communities of faith who were interested in conveying a particular portrait of Jesus.  Much like fables and fairytales were gathered by certain communities, so were the stories of Jesus.  Mark had a particular community he was trying to influence.  Matthew, Luke, and John likewise.  Various stories and traditions were used by differing authors to complete their picture of Jesus; some of that material was historical; some was not.  The quest for the historian was to wade through that which was added and by some sort of criteria distinguish what was really Jesus and what was constructed by the communities of faith and attributed to Jesus.

In the 1990's a Third Quest for the Historical Jesus used many of these same methods to push the envelope even further.  Perhaps some of you remember the Jesus Seminar?  I certainly do as I was in theological training during these years, and much of this was big news.

Unfortunately, like the hermeneutic of inerrancy, the hermeneutic of suspicion suffers from some devastating problems.  What criteria does one use to figure out what is real and historical versus what communities added?  Much of the criteria is actually pretty subjective.  Can we find corroborating evidence to verify the historicity of Jesus, much less any other particular figure from ancient history?  Is it possible to construct a Jesus with as much staying power as the Jesus portrayed by the Gospels–a Jesus worthy of having a global faith based upon?  Are the reconstructions presented by these Jesus scholars true pictures of Jesus or interpretations based upon these scholars’ biases?  Why shouldn’t we be just as suspicious of these reconstructions as we are of the biblical accounts?  These are just a few questions.  There are some even more devastating ones which I believe make the hermeneutic of suspicion an intellectually untenable position.  Again, as I said about fundamentalism, it’s not because people don’t think.  There are some tremendous thinkers in this vein of interpretation; however, the basic assumption, I believe is wrong.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Interpreting the Bible Part 1

How does one Interpret the Bible?
Three Forms of Hermeneutics

Please don’t be frightened by the second line of the title.  Hermeneutics is simply a big word for interpretation, and it is my belief that much of the confusion and division we experience between Christian denominations and believers can be traced directly to how we interpret the Bible and the underlying assumptions governing our interpretation.

A Brief Traverse of History

There has never been a time when everyone who came into contact with Jesus’ teachings agreed wholeheartedly on their interpretation.  Yes, you heard that statement correctly.  Someone might try to argue that the early disciples were surely in agreement and that in the early church everyone was on the same page.  I would respond to such a statement with the following: How long has it been since you have read your Bible?

If you read through the book of Acts, which is Luke’s account of the beginnings of the church, you will see quite plainly, the early church was not always in harmony.  There were divisions and factions arising even then.  Couple the book of Acts with the letters of Paul, and you have further evidence the early church was not of one accord.  Throw in a couple of the early heresies, especially Gnosticism, represented by the Gospel of Thomas, and one quickly gets the picture of a church wrestling deeply with what it fundamentally meant to follow Jesus’ teachings.

In 325, Emperor Constantine convened a great council of the church to deal with such matters.  (Some folks call this the “First Great Council.”  I disagree.  I think the “First Great Council” was recorded in Acts 15.)  The council had many successful moments including the formulation of the Nicene Creed and the beginning of some canon law.  There was a sense of unity in the Church–for a time.

But scriptural interpretation still was not a settled matter, and as time progressed four main modes of interpretation emerged and were prevalent during the Middle Ages. They were:

    •    The literal meaning – which was the plain and evident meaning.
    •    The moral meaning – instructed people on how to behave.
    •    The allegorical meaning – this revealed the doctrinal content
    •    The anagogical meaning – this expressed a future hope.

Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with these methods of interpretation–unless you have difficulty discerning which method should be primary.  Why does that make a difference?  Please see Worksheet 3A from Kerygma: Parables: Stories for Life in God’s World.*  Can you see the issues which can arise using such allegory to formulate the basis of doctrine?

Luther rebelled against the allegorical meaning as primary, and he argued the literal or plain reading of scripture–and as he translated the Bible into German–read in the language of the people should be the primary, authoritative reading of scripture.  We know some of the results of Luther’s stand–or theoretically, we should since we are Lutheran.

But this reading also posed a set of problems for language is a bit tricky.  Much of the language of scripture is metaphorical.  Some of it deals with visions which obviously draw heavily on analogies.  The most famous one is perhaps what began the divisions among Protestants: the definition of the word “is” as it pertains to Jesus’ words regarding the Lord’s Supper: “This is my body...This is my blood...”  Is the word “is” to be taken literally, metaphorically, or somehow a combination of both?

Interestingly enough, another phenomena entered the picture at almost the same time as the Reformation–the rise of reason and the modern Enlightenment movement.  Up until this moment in time, theology was considered the “Queen of the Sciences.”  It carried the most authority in universities.  In just a century or so, it was replaced by science and philosophy–the disciplines which were based in reason.  Theology had lost its status, and so it found itself in a bit of a quandary.  How should it respond?

*The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord's body, the pandochium (that is, the stable [inn]), which accepts all [pan-] who wish to enter, is the Church. And further, the two denarii mean the Father and the Son. The manager of the stable is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Savior's second coming.  (This is not the full text, but a portion copied from this website.)

Monday, August 5, 2013

What's Your Retirement Plan?

    The other day, I received my pension statement, and for the first time in a long time, I actually smiled when reading it.  After the stock market drop in 2008, it was not fun receiving these pieces of paper.  In fact, looking at them caused me to believe I would never have the opportunity to retire.  But, since at least the stock market has rebounded-the rest of the economy is a little more questionable-so has my pension fund.  But does that mean I haven’t stopped worrying about my retirement?  No.  Not at all.

    Like millions of Americans, and probably like those of you who are still working, I am concerned about what will happen to me when I either decide or am unable to work any longer.  I hope to have enough packed away so that I can enjoy the golden years without concern or worry.  I hope to obtain enough wealth to be able to say to myself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”  Do you have such a retirement plan?

    Perhaps you already see where this is headed.  Perhaps you recognized that I quoted a portion of our Gospel lesson in my opening statements, and perhaps you recognize what our Gospel lesson ends with. 

    Jesus tells a parable about a man who is very much like those of us who slave and save for retirement.  Of course, he obtained the lion’s share of his wealth by a stroke of fortune.  He was a farmer, and those of you who have worked the land know how tedious being a farmer can be.  You know the ups and downs and how oftentimes there are years where you barely break even, sometimes go in the hole, and rarely, but enough times to give you hope, you have a crop that is above and beyond fantastic.  We call those crops a bumper crop.  Well, the farmer in Jesus’ story has an uber-bumper crop.  I mean it’s an absolutely fantastic crop–perhaps along the lines of getting four bales to an acre on dry land cotton farming or having every single cow drop two healthy calves in a single year.  We are not talking breaking even on expenses.  We are talking major, major profit.

    And, perhaps, just perhaps, after many years of just breaking even or going in the hole and barely making it by, the farmer now has the opportunity to relax.  All those years of toil and trouble have now paid off.  He can indeed enjoy life: relax, eat, drink and be merry.  He feels as if he has earned it.  I am sure many of Jesus’ hearers would have felt a bit of kindred for the man in the story.  After all, many of them were farmers and ranchers and fishermen and those who worked the land.  This story would have resonated with them deeply.

    Ah, but then, Jesus throws the curve.  He continues, “20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’”

    I am sure this would have left folks scratching their heads and pondering things for a few moments.  And I hope it makes us ponder such things as well.  And now, I am going to share some of my pondering as someone who is a lot like that farmer.

    You see, I am pretty conservative when it comes to my finances.  I pinch my pennies pretty tightly.  My family and I do not go on regular, extensive, expensive vacations.  We usually spend that time visiting with family and friends.  We do not own the newest vehicles or latest electronic gadgets.  We shop for the grocery store brand items all the time.  Most of the time, I reason to myself, “I’ve got to save for my children’s education and for my retirement.”  Splurging is difficult.

    But then I think to myself, “What am I teaching my children about faith?  What am I teaching them about life?  And what happens if something should happen to me?”

    For you see, Jesus hits me like a ton of bricks this morning.  He raises the reality of life.  We never know when our time is up.  We could be slaving away and working and setting aside all we can, and then suddenly a brain aneurysm makes us drop dead.  We could work our tails off, spending 70 hours a week at work only to be suddenly diagnosed with cancer.  All too often, I have witnessed people who save and claw for retirement suddenly hit with illness and troubles once they quit working, and they all share the same thing with me at that point.  “Pastor,” they say, “the golden years ain’t so golden.”

    So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.

    So I find myself pondering what it means to be rich toward God.  Does that mean I should stop saving for retirement?  Does that mean I should throw caution to the wind and just enjoy life right now with no thought of the future?  Does that mean I should focus on making myself happy and my family happy? 

    That’s the trouble sometimes with only reading a portion of the Bible at church on Sunday mornings.  Sometimes we cover only the ground the people of the Revised Common Lectionary want us to cover.  But, we are not limited to what we have printed in the bulletin.  God’s Word is right before us in the pews, and to end this sermon, I would like to ask you to pull out those Bibles.  Please turn in them to Luke chapter 12 because I think it is important to read what Jesus says immediately following this story about the rich fool.  It’s on page _________.

    Let’s begin reading at verse 22:

    22 He said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 26If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

    32 ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

    What does it mean to be rich in God?  The answer is plain as day, “Strive first for His kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”  Learn it.  Live it.  Seek it.  Have no fear.  Amen.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Reason for Marriage: A Christian Perspective

It is not enough when one simply points out the flaws of a given perspective when it comes to a particular issue.  One must also offer an alternative point of view, and so, in regards to yesterday's post where I put forth the reasons a basis for marriage from a secular perspective fail, I must now offer the alternative.

Christianity has two main figures who address marriage at length: Jesus and Paul.  I will begin with Jesus as He is the Author and Perfector of the faith:

3 Some Pharisees came to him [Jesus], and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ 4He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, 5and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ 7They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ 8He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’--Matthew 19:3-9

Jesus teaches against divorce by referring to Genesis chapter 2.  I too will head that direction so that Jesus' words may be understood more clearly in regards to marriage, but first we must take a slight detour and examine St. Paul:

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. 10 To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband 11(but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.--1 Corinthians 7

Interestingly enough, Paul gives, as a reason for marriage, the quenching of the fires of lust.  Get married so that you can have sex which does not conflict with the commands of God.  Now, this might seem a bit absurd as the only reason given for marriage, but we must also note Paul ties his teaching to Jesus'.  So, we must examine in depth what Jesus says about divorce and why it is not permissable except in the cases of unfaithfulness.

One last tangent: there are those who claim that sex is sinful unless it is for procreation.  Paul doesn't come close to this in his statement.  If any of my readers ever thought this, I assure you, it is not scriptural.  Go have some fun.

Onto heavier matters...

Jesus teaches quite clearly marriage is to be between one man and one woman and that the bond should not be broken by anything man does.  Why is Jesus so strong on this teaching, leaving very little wiggle room?

Examining the text from Genesis chapter 2 is important here:

18 Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ 19So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.’ 24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.--Genesis 2:18-24

There are a number of things of import in this passage.  Number one: While we can certainly live alone, it is not the preferred option.  We are meant to be a communal creature--individuals living in community, and the very foundation of that community is the marriage relationship.  Number two: we live in relationship to creation.  God began the process of community by bringing the animals to the man to name, and while none was a suitable helper, man still was in relationship with them.

And now, we come to a very important part: woman was taken out of man.  Please do not assume this means women have one more rib than men.  They don't.  Perhaps man was originally created with an extra--I really don't know.  What I do know is the importance of that act of removing part of the man and creating woman out of it.

For one must think like the ancient Jews to understand the importance of this act of God.  For the ancient Jews put a great value on the concept of wholeness.  God was considered the ultimate of wholeness, completeness if you will, and things which were whole were considered closer to God.  (Incidentally, the concept of shalom means wholeness.)  When man's rib was taken, he was no longer whole.  He was no longer one flesh.  How could he recover his wholeness?  How could he recover being one flesh?

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.--Genesis 2:24

It is in the marriage relationship where wholeness is found.  The two, in their relationship with one another become one--united in wholeness, in shalom.  This is why Jesus puts severe restrictions on divorce.  One does not simply walk away from such a bond because these two individuals have become one, and to tear one flesh apart not only is painful, but it destroys wholeness and shalom.  What God has joined together...

This is why the Roman Catholic Church honors marriage as a sacrament.  The mysterious joining together of two individuals into one flesh by God's Word indeed is a wondrous mystery.  (Lutherans do not consider marriage a sacrament because while there is command from God's Word, there is not a physical sign attached to it.)

This concept of wholeness is actually referred to again by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 and gives further credence to the Christian stance of saving sex for the marriage bed:

16Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’

The Christian basis for marriage is the belief that wholeness, shalom is achieved in this relationship.  It is not to be entered into flippantly, but with the knowledge something very important is going on.  The relationship should not be ended without very, very good cause (unfaithfulness, in my estimation, can also be extended to abusive situations).

So, what does viewing marriage in this fashion do?

1. It handles both the couples who have and do not have children.
2. It handles the emotional aspect of companionship.
3. It allows for the economics of marriage.
4. As it stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition, it also imposes the Judeo-Christian boundaries on healthy marriages.

Of course, then one must recognize the place of polygamy in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The Bible never out and out declares polygamy a sin.  In fact, there are notable heroes of the faith who practiced it and without a peep from God or a prophet sent to tell them they were wrong.  One could argue that polygamy indeed is sanctioned by the Bible.

Yet, I personally would not go that far.  In 99% of the cases, polygamous relationships in Scripture turn out badly.  Sarah and Hagar were not the model of wives who got along.  Jacob's favoritism of Rachel's children over Leah's caused massive strife among the children.  David's family went into open war.  Solomon's heathen wives led him astray and into worshiping false gods.  In building a case, I wouldn't recommend polygamy in the least.

However, with that one caveat, I believe a faith based approach to marriage serves as a much better approach than a secular approach.