Thursday, February 27, 2014

Have Christians Lost the Culture War?

Todd Starns in a Fox News Opinion piece asks this very question.

He begins:

The culture war may be lost and religious liberty might not be that far behind, according to a new survey from LifeWay Research, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Seventy percent of senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in the United States, and 59 percent of Christians believe they are losing the culture war. Eleven percent considers that war already lost.

 Some within some Christian denominations see this as a major, MAJOR problem.

It's actually long in coming.  The only question I have is: what took it so long?

The real "problem" in my estimation is not that Christians are losing the "Culture War."  There's a multitude of problems that Christians within the U.S. have just not dealt with very well.

#1. Complacency.  For a long, long time, Christianity held a privileged position as the religion of choice within the U.S.  With that privilege came certain "perks" among them that many were born into the church and expected to continue to attend church.  No more.  As secularism has continued almost unabated, this expectation fell by the wayside.  Fewer made the commitment to worship.  For the first few generations, this wasn't much of a problem because there were still sufficient numbers in pews.  Yet, as older generations died out, the younger folks didn't replace them.  The church suddenly could not rest upon the fact that they held a position of privilege.  You couldn't just build a church and expect people to show up.  Now, churches truly have to engage people and work at evangelism.  Simply running into someone on the street and trying to convince them to come to worship won't work.  Literal transformation of worldviews is now necessary.  Complacent churches aren't able or oftentimes willing to put in this kind of work.

#2. The rise of the "Spiritual but not Religious."  Most folks in the U.S. still self-identify as Christians, but a vast majority are almost non-practicing Christians.  Many are "spiritual but not religious."  Many are believers in the sense of ascribing to the belief that Jesus is a cool guy, maybe even the Son of God, but that belief rarely leads to visible transformation in a person's life.  Such folks often say, "I don't need to worship in church to worship God.  I can do very well under a tree in the middle of the woods."  Unfortunately, the church rarely has any response to convince a person to worship--which leads to transformation.  The church rarely has a good apologetic (outside of "churchy" language) to combat this rampant individualism of faith.

#3. The rise of religious pluralism.  Pluralism in and of itself isn't a bad thing.  A variety of views and understandings is a welcome thing as it prevents any one particular group from exercising evil.  Mutual respect is key, but the church hasn't handled such a thing well.  It has tended to vacillate between relativism (embracing various other religions as simply other paths to God) and religious snobbery (people of other faiths are completely wrong and not worth respect).  Neither of these are particularly palatable or particularly biblical.  It is extremely difficult to be comfortable enough in one's own Christian skin and still respect others.

#4.  (This one could get me in trouble.)  The Politicalization of the Faith.  Yes, I am speaking about the "Religious Right" and the "Christian Left."  These two political movements, in my estimation are deadly.  They each basically assert, "You cannot be a true Christian if you don't vote either Democrat or Republican."  They each assert their particular political party as more "Christian" than the other.  I personally believe this is not a good thing.  I personally believe such affiliations draw lines in the sand and lead to polarization--a polarization within the pews.  Both groups seek to exercise power to influence voters and government.  In their own ways, each group tries to establish God's Kingdom on earth through the passing of legislation.  Last I checked, the church sought to transform society through POWERLESSNESS, not through power.  Very bad things have happened in history when the church sought to use power in governmental rule.  The church needs critical distance from each political party to be able to call sin for what it is: no matter who is committing it.  When affiliating with a party, the church has lost its prophetic voice and alienated 1/2 of the people it is called to reach.

I could list more, but in my estimation, these things--these changes in society--have made folks in the church anxious.  Rather than deal with the change in society, many have battened down the hatches and sought to preserve their "turf."  They declared war oftentimes using the legislative process to accomplish their goals.  Last I looked, Jesus wasn't about that kind of stuff.  The only war He declared was against evil.  When it came to society and people, Jesus sought reconciliation, forgiveness, and love--even of His enemies.  He never attempted to change the laws of the Roman empire, but sought to change the hearts and minds of those whom He came into contact with through compassion.  With one caveat--He was quite vociferous toward those of the religious establishment who should have known better.

The church in America would do well to drop this pretense of culture war and follow the example of its founder.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I am Judas

Yeah.  I took one of those cute Facebook quizzes.  Which disciple of Jesus are you?  What did I get?  Judas Iscariot.  A pastor gets Judas Iscariot.  Wonder how long it will be before I get asked to tender my resignation?

Here was the caption underneath the pic:

Black sheep, loner, ne’er-do-well, rebel… You’re the kind of person who’s never really fit in with the crowd and you’re okay with that. You do your own thing and live by your own rules. (Also, people don’t really seem to trust you for some reason. You might want to work on that.)

Black sheep?  Maybe.

Loner.  Definitely.

Ne'er-do-well.  Not so much.

Rebel.  Probably.

"You're the kind of person who's never really fit in with the crowd and you're okay with that?"  To a tee.

"You do your own thing and live by your own rules."  Kind of.

"People don't really seem to trust you."  Not so sure.  It seems like most of my congregation members do, but do I really know what is going on deep within the recesses of their brains?

Jokes aside, and I know this is a pithy quiz, but I am Judas.

How could I say such a thing?  Why not a Peter: a leader in the Church?  Why not a Matthew?  Or a Bartholomew?  Or a Thomas?  Why say you ARE Judas?

I'd like to think of myself more highly.  I really would.  I'd like to think of myself as one of the others who wasn't stealing from the community purse; or coming up with holy reasons for something (selling a bunch of perfume) when I am really self motivated (so I can have the profit); or who didn't betray the Lord for 30 pieces of silver.  I'd like to think that I'm better than that.  I'd like to think I would never, ever do such a thing.

But I betray Jesus each and every day.

Every time I sin in thought, word and deed, I crucify Christ once again.  And the Lord knows, I sin.  The Lord knows I like looking after myself.  The Lord knows I rebel against (not only those who want me to conform and toe any particular denominational party line) Him in the deepest recesses of my heart.  The Lord knows I oftentimes trust money over Him.  The Lord knows I want to come across as looking holy.

Yeah.  I am Judas.  Not proud of it, but I am.

And the question is: is there any hope for one such as I?  Is there hope for one scarred by sin, by selfishness, by rebellion?

I take great comfort in knowing that Jesus died for me while I was and still am a sinner.  I take great comfort in knowing His grace is sufficient for even me.  I take great comfort in the fact He who began a good work in me is not through just yet. 

I've got a long way to go.  Maybe one day I'll graduate up to Thaddeus or someone similar.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Freedom of Religion and Discrimination

Life gets rather messy when two incompatible objects butt heads.

Arizona has placed themselves right in the crosshairs with its bill to allow forms of discrimination based upon religious belief.

I am none too pleased with this particular bill as I believe it is a warping of the nature of religious freedom as preserved in the Constitution.  Not only this, I believe it flies in the face of Jesus' own teachings regarding how a Christian is called to interact in society.

First, let's deal with the issue of religious freedom.  I would like to make a distinction here between religious belief and religious practice.  It's not necessarily healthy to do such a thing because usually our practices flow from our beliefs.  Yet, there is a reason I want to make such a distinction at this time.

There are a lot of world religions.  There are the major five or six, but there are a host of others throughout the world.  Many of them have particular beliefs instilled in them--among those beliefs the secondary citizenship of women (many Islamic as well as Christian sects), the marginalization of the poor (the Hindu caste system), the severe punishment of homosexuals (many sects of Islam as well as some Christians).  There are other such beliefs to be covered, but I think these few are enough to highlight a substantial problem: when religious belief clashes with guaranteed rights endowed in the U.S. Constitution.  In our nation, we do not adhere to a caste system; we guarantee the rights of women and homosexuals despite what religions believe about them.  And since the U.S. Constitution is the highest law of the land, the Constitution takes precedence over religious belief.

There might be some who decry this, especially some of my more conservative brothers and sisters of the Christian faith.  YOU say that we should deny our religious beliefs and make them subservient to the U.S. Constitution?  Not your beliefs.  Your practices--especially ones which conflict with the basic understanding of human rights (more on this later as I will try to show that discrimination has no basis in Christian practice).  Why do I say such a thing?

Let's put it plain and simple.  What happens if a religion comes along that practices human sacrifice as per the ancient Mayan and Aztecs?  Let's just say theoretically a person comes along looking to re institute such a practice.  Because we have religious freedom, should we let that person go ahead with the plan?  Should we let the person claim that it is well in line with his religion to capture people and then sacrifice them to appease the gods?

I think most of us would revolt at the idea.  I also realize this is taking this to almost an absurd conclusion; however, complete and total religious freedom would allow for such a thing to take place.

On a more concrete note of possibilities, it would be quite easy for a store owner to put up a sign which said, "No blacks allowed.  It's against my religious belief."  Back to Jim Crow with legal underpinning.  Not good.  Not good at all.  On a practical level, this law has many, many problems, and while protecting individual freedom to believe is important--it should not trump the basic human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Secondly, from my own faith tradition, I do not think such a law is compatible with how Jesus taught His followers to act.  Yes, as Christians we are to stand against sin.  Yes, as Christians we are to strive for perfection.  Yes, as Christians we are not to condone sinful behavior.  But we are called to give people freedom to sin.  We are called to give people freedom to go against God.  We are called to give people freedom to reject our beliefs and practices and do their own thing.  And we are called to keep loving them no matter what they do.

My favorite illustration to show this is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  I think we should rename it as the Parable of the Prodigal Father personally, but that is beside the point.  The Father in this parable is the main focus--particularly in how He acts toward His sons.

The first one would be considered the one living in sin.  The youngest son comes to the Father and demands his inheritance early.  Basically, he tells the Father, "I wish you were dead so I can have my money now!"

What does the Father do?  Does the Father do what most of us dads would do?  Does He scoff at His son and tell him to get back to work under threat of punishment?  Does the Father scold the son and make him feel two inches tall?


With a radical love, the Dad gives His son the portion of the inheritance and lets him go make his own way.  The consequences are dire!  The son squanders his money and has to work at a degrading job not making enough money to feed himself.  The son "comes to himself" and says, "I messed up.  I need to apologize.  I can go work for dad as a servant."

The son heads home, but before the kid has a chance to apologize, the Father comes running to embrace His son.  Before the kid has a chance to grovel, Dad is exuding love once again.  Dad even throws a party, much to the chagrin of the older son.  This welcome; this party; is an example of pure grace.

Interestingly enough, the older son, gets quite upset with Dad.  The older son refuses to go to the party Dad is throwing.  This is actually an insult to the Father as well.  The son might not necessarily be aware of it, but he is sinning just like his younger brother does.  And what does the Father do?  He comes out to the son and invites him to come in.  Grace is extended once again.

Both sons are sinful.  Both need the Father's love.  Grace rules the day.

I think one of the greatest points to be made in this parable is the Father reaches out to both of His sons and extends them love--not by telling them what to do; not by discriminating against them; not by trying to make them conform to His will, but by giving them freedom to pursue their own course.  He counts on His love being the thing which will bring them back under His roof.

This tells me a couple of things.  #1. I am not the Father.  I don't have that kind of love.  #2. This means, in all reality I am like son number one or son number two.  #3. I am either a wayward sinner or a self-righteous sinner.  #4. I am in need of the Father's love to get into the party one way or the other.  #5. If I need the Father to come to me to get me in, then I have no business being self-righteous or haughty.  Grace brought me in, not my own actions.

As Christians, we should know we are not the Father in this parable.  We should know we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  We should know we are still captive in sin and incapable of living the life God has called us to.  We should know we are no different than anyone else living in sin.

And what was Jesus' response to us when we were living in sin?  What did Jesus demand of us?  Did He say, "Get your stuff together, and then I will die for you?"  No.  He died for us while we were still sinners.

How many of us are willing to die for someone else we consider living in sin?  How many of us are willing to die to our own egos to show kindness to someone we disagree with vehemently?  How many of us are willing to be convicted by grace and humbled enough to serve someone who we consider to be breaking God's commands?

Jesus did that for us and then said, "Go and do likewise."  Through love people are brought to repentance, not through discrimination.

I, for one am hoping the law passed by the legislature in Arizona is vetoed.  I do not think it compatible with our Constitution or with Christianity.  I know others may vehemently disagree.  It's okay.  I still love you.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Striving for Perfection

    As per the church-wide email I sent out this past week, I need your help this morning as we begin into this sermon.  I asked everyone to consider what a perfect congregation might look like.  What are its character traits?  What are the things it does?  If you would, please share some of your thoughts this morning.  Those of you who did not get this email, please, off the tops of your heads, share your thoughts about what character traits the “perfect” church has and what things such a church would do.

(Other notables from the first service responses: freedom to express one's view without judgement; people pray for each other [response from a 9 year old], people listen to the contributions of youth; outreach oriented; no quarreling)

    O.K. So, these are the character traits and actions that those of us who are gathered here this morning see in a perfect congregation.  There might be a few more that we could add, but let’s say that this indeed represents a perfect congregation.  Now, let me ask you this: if this represents a perfect congregation, are there such things as perfect congregations around?  Has there ever been a congregation which in actuality meets this vision?

    Did you say no?  I’d be flabbergasted if you said yes.  You and I know there is no such thing as a perfect church or a perfect congregation.  You and I know that sin pervades every aspect of our lives here on this planet and is inescapable.  You and I know perfection is an unattainable reality until we pass the threshold of death.  This is something we cognitively know.  And so I must ask, if we know that we cannot reach perfection, why do we have a vision of it?  Why does such a vision even exist?  I mean if we can’t attain it, why even bother to think about it?

    Last Sunday, our Gospel lesson began with these words from Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus then shows what it means to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees.  “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, you shall not murder.  But I tell you if you are angry with a brother or sister, you are liable to judgment...You have heard it said to those of ancient times you shall not commit adultery.  But I tell you if you look at a woman with lust in your heart you have committed adultery with her.  You have heard it said you may write a woman a certificate of divorce.  But I tell you if you divorce a woman you cause her to commit adultery and if you marry a woman who has been divorced you commit adultery.  You have heard it said do not swear falsely, but I say do not swear at all, by heaven, by earth, or by Jerusalem.  Let your word be yes, yes or no, no.  Anything else comes from the evil one.”

    Today, Jesus finishes out His sayings about true righteousness.  It doesn’t get any easier.  “You have heard it said an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth, but I say if someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer them your left also.  Give your shirt as well as your cloak.  Go the extra mile.  You have heard it said you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say love your enemy and bless those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.  Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

    There you have it.  This is true righteousness.  Perfection.  Just as God is perfect, you be perfect as well.  This concludes Jesus’ vision of what it means to be truly righteous.  As I said last time, true righteousness consists of having one’s heart in complete and total alignment with God’s heart.  True righteousness is a heart condition for out of one’s heart comes anger and lust and failure to commit and fear of saying simply yes, yes or no, no.  Out of the heart comes the desire for revenge and retribution.  Out of the heart comes the desire to hate one’s enemy.  Only a changed heart can defeat such things.  Only a heart that is completely and totally oriented toward God and toward what is good can accomplish what Jesus says in this Sermon on the Mount.

    And as I said last Sunday, so I say again.  We cannot do it.  We cannot willingly make ourselves good.  There is a part of us which seeks our own self-interest.  There is a part of us which continually seeks to take care of our own selves and those closest to us at the expense of others.  There is a part of us which puts our own ego; our own righteousness over others and sees others as less than us.  This part is constantly in rebellion against God and is constantly unleashing all those things Jesus warns us against.

    You know this.  You see it all the time.  You participate in it.  We all do.  None of us can escape it.  So if this is the case...  If we know we continue to have these things come out of our hearts despite our best efforts...  If indeed our righteousness cannot ever exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees and then therefore we cannot ever enter the Kingdom of heaven...then what’s the point?  If we cannot achieve perfection, then why does Jesus set it as the goal?

    I think there are at least two very good reasons for this.  The first reason is one I have articulated before, and it comes from sports.  The record holder for the highest career batting average is held by Ty Cobb.  His career batting average was, get this .366.  This meant, he got a hit generally 1 out of every three times he came to bat.  Mind you, he didn’t hit a home run every time he came to the plate–even though that would be the ideal.  He didn’t get on base every time he came to the plate to bat–even that would have been awesome.  He didn’t even get on base half the time he came to bat.  36% of the time he came to bat, he got on base.  And he’s in the baseball Hall of Fame.  Can you imagine giving a child a pat on the back for making a 36 on a test?  Yet, that’s what folks did with Ty Cobb.  They applauded him for his efforts.

    Now, do you think Ty became disgusted with the way he played by batting .366 for his career?  Do you think he became disgusted with himself because he couldn’t hit a home run every time he came up to bat?  Do you think he thought of quitting baseball because he wasn’t able to get on base every time he went to the plate to face a pitcher?  No.  Of course he didn’t because there was always the chance to hit the home run.  There was always the chance of achieving a little piece of perfection.  There was the goal, dangling out there begging to be reached.  Generally, we can approach humankind in a couple of fashions.  We can set the bar low, and believe me, folks will reach it and then stop.  Or, we can set the bar high and just see how close people come to reaching it.  One of these ways will unlock greater potential.  One of them won’t.  I’ll let you decide.

    The other reason for setting perfection as a goal is a little different.  It isn’t about unleashing potential–it’s about keeping a person humble.  You see, if God is the only one who can be perfect, and perfection is the only way to achieve true righteousness–true holiness, then I can never be holy on my own.  I can never be righteous on my own.  I will never reach the pinnacle of perfection.   Every time I try to reach it, I will fail.  By my own efforts I can never achieve it.  If I realize this, where does this leave me?  Where do I end up if I know I cannot achieve what is required of me?  Well, I will probably give up.  If it is something I want badly enough, I will probably get depressed and angry.  I will probably shake my fist and have tears well up in my eyes because I cannot get what I desire so badly.  And then I resign myself to my failure.  At this point, and only at this point am I willing to acknowledge my need for help.  At this point, God usually reveals to us something wonderful:

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    My achieving righteousness does not depend upon my work but on God’s work.  My holiness does not come about because I am superhumanly good, but it comes about because Christ is superhumanly good.  My salvation depends not on my righteousness but on Christ’s righteousness.  Only in my humility can I recognize this. 

    When perfection is the goal, when the bar is set high, we reach for it and are challenged by it.  When perfection is the goal, we are humbled by it and recognize our need for grace.  We may never be perfect people.  We may never be a perfect congregation, but we need that vision before us to challenge us, to humble us, and to help us live God’s Word daily. Amen.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Evidence of Natural Law?

An intriguing article from CNN: Are We Born with a Moral Code?

Some pertinent snippets:

Philosophers and psychologists have long believed that babies are born "blank slates," and that it is the role of parents and society to teach babies the difference between right and wrong; good and bad; mean and nice.

But a growing number of researchers now believe differently. They believe babies are in fact born with an innate sense of morality, and while parents and society can help develop a belief system in babies, they don't create one.


So what does this tell us? Paul Bloom, author of "Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil" and a professor of psychology at Yale, says these studies show that even before babies can speak or walk, they judge good and bad in the actions of others because they are born with a rudimentary sense of justice.  But Bloom, who is married to Wynn, says this sense of justice is "tragically limited." Although babies are born with an innate sense of morality, they are also born with flaws.
He writes: "We are by nature indifferent, even hostile to strangers; we are prone towards parochialism and bigotry. Some of our instinctive emotional responses, most notably disgust, spur us to do terrible things, including acts of genocide." And the role of parents and society is to overcome these limitations and further develop the innate moral beliefs that already exist in those baby minds.

 I personally could have saved them thousands of dollars and hours of time if they'd have listened to the Christian worldview.

#1. Everyone is born with a sense of the natural law.  We know there is a right and a wrong.  Kids pick up on injustice and unfairness at a very, very early age.  (Get two 18 month olds in a room.  Give one a piece of candy.  Don't give the other one a piece.  See what happens.  This study just took it back 15 months or so.)

#2.  Even our understanding of the natural law is limited.   "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."  "I know the good I ought to do, but I do the very opposite of what I know to be good."  (That's St. Paul, by the way.)

Now, I know this is a news story.   I know such stories are usually used to stir controversy.  I also do not know the numbers involved in the story.  The methodology seems to be pretty sound, but I don't know any of the margins of error or probabilities.  This may well be like other psychological studies that have often taken place: the initial study shows incredible results, but the next one has quite the diminished result and the next one even less.  More will need to be done.

However, the conclusions shouldn't be a mystery to anyone with a Christian worldview.

Of course, the next question which must be answered if indeed this study can be replicated:

If we have an innate sense of the natural law, from whence did it come?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Do We Have a Purpose?

This morning, as I was running, my thoughts turned to whether or not human beings have a purpose.

Of course, I believe we do.  As a believer in God, particularly the Christian God, I believe we were created for a reason which is highlighted in the Christian worldview.

But my thoughts actually turned to several debates I have watched on Youtube; particularly those debates involving Richard Dawkins.  Richard was asked questions about the purpose of human life several times, and (if I am remembering correctly) he seemingly dismisses them as absurd questions.

Many seem to be revolted at Dawkins' comments, but I think I understand them.  I think.

Dawkins, as a biologist does not think in terms of purpose.  Plants and animals don't have a purpose.  They are, and they strive to survive.  A dog does not think of itself as having a purpose.  Neither does a cat, dolphin, eagle, giraffe, whale, and so on and so forth.  As far as we know, no animal ever debates and wonders about why it is here.  IF (a big if) we are simply another animal in a long line of animals that has ever lived on this planet, then why should we be any different?  Why should we contemplate our purpose?  The question is actually irrelevant and not worth asking.  We are here.  We evolved from other animals.  We are driven to survive, and one day we will either evolve or die out.  End of story.  There is nothing more to contemplate.

IF, (as I said earlier) we are simply another animal.

Now, here is the rub, at least as I see it.

IF (a big if) we are simply like another animal, then what is to prevent us from acting like animals?  I mean, I study nature--not as a biologist, but as a hunter.  I know how animals act in nature--and even in domesticated settings.  They vie for power; for food; to be the apex predator or mate.  They cooperate, but only when it is in their best interest to cooperate--so that they can get something out of it.

  • I had two female dogs who wanted to be dominant.  They fought constantly; horribly; terribly; over things my wife and I considered minor.  But any "minor" pack violation would set them off.  We ended up having to keep them separate for over 8 years.
  • One day, while sitting in a deer blind, I heard the most God-awful sound.  A hawk swooped down out of the sky and killed a quail right before my eyes.  The strong killed the weak to devour it and gain strength.
  • Oftentimes, the offspring of another male is killed by a dominant male looking to spread his genes.  Survival of the fittest and natural selection.
  • Beta males and females turn to manipulative ways to further their advancement within particular colonies of species bypassing honesty and justice for self-serving need.
  • Again, observations from a deer stand: one morning I watched 11 whitetail bucks in a field.  Half the time they spent eating the other half fighting for dominance.
  • Nearly every animal species lives in a hierarchy.   There are those at the top and those at the bottom.  Those at the top live well.  Those at the bottom aren't so lucky.  That's just the way nature is organized for the most part.
  • Polygamy is the rule in nature.  Monogamy is the exception.  
Why should we, as humans act any different?  Is there a good reason why we shouldn't perform any differently than what the vast majority of nature's species?  Here is one of the many places those who espouse Dawkins' worldview run into trouble.  IF we are nothing more than animals, then WHY shouldn't we simply act like them? 

I'm waiting...

And will remain waiting. 

Philosophers have wrestled for eons trying to figure out what distinguishes us from other animals.  Whenever something has seemed adequate, it is usually found lacking in some particular manner.  This is why Stephen Hawking famously said, "Philosophy is dead."  Philosophy hasn't been able to give us the answer. 

Hawking tries from a scientific perspective.  So does Dawkins.  In my estimation, they leave much wanting.  They fail to offer any insight as to why we should behave any differently than any other animal in the animal world. 

This is one of those reasons, I believe science is incomplete.  Because of its base assumptions, it cannot address these important questions.

Something more is needed.

I believe we need purpose.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Love Thy _____________ Neighbor

Perhaps you have seen the viral pic going around Facebook:

I don't disagree with the pic at all.

It's true.

I mean, Jesus didn't put any qualifications on His definition of neighbor.

So, why do so many Christians seemingly come across as intolerant and nasty toward their neighbors?

I've heard several basic reasons:

1. "I am showing them love by helping them see how sinful they are and how much they need to repent.  They must be convicted by the Law!"

2. "They must be repentant first.  They receive God's love when they repent.  (And, then I will love them once they repent.)"

3. "It is not loving to allow someone to continue to live in sin.  They must be confronted."

I'd like to offer another reason. 

The shirt is quoting Jesus who quoted a part of Leviticus 19:18, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.

Some might argue that Christians who aren't loving one's neighbor are guilty of loving one's self too much.  I won't belabor that point because sin is often seen as a curving in toward one's self.  So why would Jesus quote Leviticus 19:18 then?  If loving one's self leads to curving in towards one's self, why quote it?

I think there is a profound difference between a narcissistic love of self (sin) and a love of self because one is loved purely by the grace of God.

Let me try and explain as best as I can.

If I believe I am saved by my works--works/righteousness, then I build my own ego up.  I am repentant.  I put God first in my life.  I strive to love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength.  I have to do this, so everyone else has to do what I do!  If they don't do the things I do, then they aren't doing it right!

If I am saved purely by the grace of God, my ego is shattered.  I cannot follow Christ's commands.  I cannot fulfill the Law.  I cannot be righteous.  Only Christ's righteousness can save me.  Only Christ's death can atone for my failure.  I can't love my neighbor because I am unlovable.

And it is in the midst of my being unlovable that God acts and has acted.  "For God so loved the world..."

When I realize Christ has died for me in my unrighteousness--that He died for me when I was unlovable, I find compassion.  I realize my deep need for Him to save me, and I realize that my neighbor has that same need.  I realize that it wasn't the Law that brought me to faith but Christ's compassion.  I realize that I am still broken and in need of healing--a healing only Christ can bring.  I am broken.  My neighbor is broken.  Christ loves me.  Christ loves my neighbor.  Christ loves me in my brokenness.  I can love me in my brokenness and realize God can still use my brokenness to accomplish His purposes.  I do not need to grovel on the ground like a worm--for God's grace has been bestowed upon me.  No longer am I narcissistic, but I marvel that God has redeemed me, and I have confidence in God's grace.  This confidence allows me to love myself in humility.

Narcissistic, self-righteous love is not capable of loving one's neighbor. 

Love of a self that has undergone transformation through the grace of God is.

In my estimation, there is too much of the first kind of love, and a great need for the second.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Singing in Harmony with God

    I do not know if it is my age or if it is something else, but my tastes in music have changed.  For the longest time, I thoroughly enjoyed it when a soloist would take the stage and belt out a particular piece of music.  I thought this was the best singing had to offer.  Perhaps it is singing in our gospel group that has changed my taste, but I now have a much, much higher appreciation for harmony.  For some reason, music becomes more meaningful, more touching when several voices sing together and fill out the chord.  Recently, I was introduced to Pentatonix an a capella group.  They did a cover of Lourde’s “Royals”, and in my estimation, if you listened to Pentatonix, you’d wonder why their’s isn’t more popular.  I think it’s 100 times better because of the harmony.  So, what does all of this have to do with our lessons for this Sunday, especially that Gospel lesson from the 5th Chapter of the book of Matthew?

    The core Gospel proclamation of Christianity is obvious.  John 3:16-17 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  Further, this core proclamation occurred by pure grace.  It happened without any action on our own part.  Christ died for us while we were still sinners and completely unrepentant.  For those of us who know this message at our deepest core, we also have come to know that no matter how hard we try–no matter what kind of new leaf we try to turn over, we cannot stop sinning.  We know we still fall short of the glory of God.  We are not perfect.  Sometimes, it’s painfully obvious.

    With this in mind, we hear Jesus tell us this morning, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    Whoa!  Wait a minute.  What happened to grace?  What happened to God’s unconditional love and mercy?  What happened to Christ dying for us while we are still sinners? 

    Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.  What’s going on here?

    Let’s look at this within the context of ancient Israel.  First, let’s recognize who the Scribes and Pharisees were.  These were two Jewish groups who thrived during Second Temple Judaism.  The Scribes were, of course, those who wrote on and interpreted the Law.  They were held in very high esteem as those who were blessed by God as they wrestled with interpreting and living the Torah.  The Pharisees are often Jesus’ main nemesis throughout the Gospel stories.  The Pharisees longed and yearned for the coming Kingdom of God, and they had a very particular understanding of how that Kingdom would arrive.  They believed that the Jewish people needed to be holy and pure so that the Kingdom would come.  They believed that the Jewish people needed to be obedient to the purity code with all its various intricacies in order for God to take notice.  Basically, the Pharisees believed if a person ate the right food, associated with the right people, washed hands in the right way and right times, tithed to the temple appropriately, offered the right sacrifices, and so on and so forth, then they would be seen by God as holy and righteous.  Once they were seen by God to be holy and righteous, God would finally forgive Israel for its sins, drive off Israel’s enemies, and establish Israel as the world power and beacon of light and hope God promised Abraham it would be.  When it came to keeping this code, the Pharisees were the supreme example of righteous living–at least as far as most of the populace was concerned.

    So I am sure Jesus caused a few heads to be scratched when He said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.”  Is it possible to be more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees?

    Apparently so, because Jesus then begins laying out what it means to be truly righteous.  #1. “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’ but I say if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  Stop and think about that one for a minute.  Anger must disappear.  This is true righteousness.

    #2. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ but I say if you even look at a woman with lust in your heart, you have committed adultery.”  Stop and think about that one for a minute as well.  Lust toward a person of the opposite sex must disappear.  That is true righteousness.

    #3. “It was also said, ‘You can give a woman a certificate of divorce.’ but I say if you divorce a woman except on the grounds of unchastity, you cause her to commit adultery.  And if you marry a divorced woman, you commit adultery.”  Pause once more to consider Jesus’ words.  Life-long commitment is the only option.  That is true righteousness.

    #4.  And last, at least for this little snippet of the Sermon of the Mount.  “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ but I say, don’t swear at all.  Let your word be yes, yes or no, no.”  Reflect on that for just a second.  How many of us accomplish that one?  True righteousness makes no excuses, doesn’t try to be tactful, doesn’t try to explain one’s position or be nuanced about it.  True righteousness says yes or no.  No wiggle room.  Period.

    Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  How is that possible?  Jesus gives it to His disciples on the hill that day and to us without hesitation. 

    You see, the Scribes and Pharisees had all the externals going on.  They were doing all the commands of Torah to keep themselves holy and pure.  They were following the law, and from the outside, they looked squeaky clean.  They looked like they were pure.  They looked like they were holy.  But in reality, they were a brand new Corvette Stingray with a flawless exterior with a rusty modified Fort Pinto engine underneath.  The inside didn’t match the outside.

    This was problematic, and for this reason Jesus made that intriguing comment in the middle of this teaching, “29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

    Now, when you first hear this, you might think Jesus was being literal.  Go cut your hand off if it causes you to sin.  Go pluck out your eye if it causes you to sin.  But everyone would have recognized what Jesus was really getting at.  A HAND DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO SIN.  AN EYE DOES NOT CAUSE YOU TO SIN.  Where does sin come from?  Where does anger come from?  Where does lust come from?  Where does a lack of commitment come from?  Where does the fear of being straightforward and honest come from? 

    It comes from the heart.  Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.  How is this possible?  Well, the Scribes and the Pharisees weren’t righteous.  They had the externals, but their internals weren’t so good.  Their hearts weren’t oriented toward God.  Their hearts were oriented toward themselves.  For, by God, you know that everything revolves around me.  If I do the right things; if I say the right things; if I follow the commandments the right way; if I believe the right things and tell everyone I love Jesus; if I come to church every Sunday of the month; if I put the right amount of money in the offering plate; if I do all these things and more, then I have a claim on God.  He has to listen to me!  He has to give me what I ask for!  He has to unleash the Kingdom of God.  He has to grant me health, wealth, and security.  I hope you catch the sarcasm here.

    So often, we think the externals save us.  We think the externals bring about the kingdom of God.  We think the things we do make us holy and righteousness.  But we can and do a lot of good things for the wrong reasons.  And Jesus calls us on it.

    If your heart isn’t in line with God, then you will never enter the kingdom of God.  Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God.

    So, get your hearts in place!  Make your hearts right!  Turn them toward God! 

    If it were only so easy!

    Me telling you to do that this morning is equivalent to me telling you, “You have a blockage in your heart, give yourself a bypass.”  Do you think you are capable of doing such a thing?

    St. Paul writes in the seventh chapter of Romans, “I know the good that I am supposed to do, but I cannot do it...Wretched man that I am!  Who will save me from this body of sin?”

    Paul knew he suffered from a heart condition.  We suffer from that same condition?  Who will save us from this body of sin?  Who will save us?

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”

    You see, by Jesus’ death and resurrection and the unleashing of the Holy Spirit into the world, God works to turn our hearts toward Him.  Through the Word become flesh, God acts in you and me to pound our hearts into submission and orient them toward Him and His love.  God enters into our very being to stomp out anger and lust and lack of commitment and selfishness and fear.  God lives within us as our hearts are convicted by the power of the Gospel.  And when our hearts are convicted by the Gospel, they beat in line with God’s heart.  They begin to sing–not a solo by any means, but they sing in harmony with God.  They join the chorus of God’s own song for the world which says, “I love you.  I died for you.  You are my child!”

    Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Because of Jesus, your righteousness does exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, not because it is your own but because it is based on Jesus’ righteousness.  Jesus died for you that your heart may be turned toward Him.  And when your heart is singing with Gods, then you are truly Living God’s Word Daily.  Amen.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

I Know they are Trying to Help, but...

The subject line stood out in the church email inbox:

Winter Weather Threatening Weekly Contributions?

Now, admittedly, I live in Texas.  Winter weather does not often pose a problem for weekly services.  I've never had to cancel church because of an ice storm or being snowed in.  I understand this is problematic for other parts of the country in which I live.  Yet, I am all too aware of how weather does affect church attendance.

Late last year, we had copious amounts of rainfall one Sunday morning, and we only had 55 people show up for worship on that Sunday.  Given that there were flash flood warnings in abundance, it's understandable.  Yet, inclement weather isn't the only hindrance for church attendance.  Beautiful weather often is as well.  I mean, who wants to spend a Sunday morning cooped up indoors when the sun is shining, the breeze is slightly blowing, the temps are in the 70's, and there are numerous ponds stocked with fish beckoning--or, it is only a short drive from the coast?

The reality is: people have choices.  They have choices as to whether or not the come to church.  They have choices in how they choose to contribute.  Never mind that; however, there is a solution to the problem:

Bad weather often means low turnouts and reduced offerings. If weekly contributions are attendance dependent, break free in 2014 with electronic giving solutions from ... Services.

Consistent donations—no matter what the weather

Recurring contributions don't stay home when bad weather strikes. When your members start giving electronically, their contributions will continue exactly as scheduled.
For all your donation needs, there's a...solution.

I know this company is trying to help.  I understand that very well.  I understand their desire to make sure non-profit organizations--churches--have a steady stream of cash flow.  I understand there are churches who live paycheck to paycheck--or offering to offering to provide the correct terminology.

But I am still uncomfortable with the marketing behind this.

You see, I like to think that I trust the folks who are members of my congregation.

I like to think that I trust them to take care of the financial obligations of this church.

I like to think that I trust them to give to the Lord's work because they are cheerful givers.

I like to think that I trust them to make up their giving if they miss a Sunday or two or three because of absence.

My dad had an uncanny way of teaching me about the role of church; the role of clergy; dealing with offerings and all that sort of jazz.  First off, he made no bones about clergy being ordinary people.  "They put their pants on the same way we do," Dad would say.  But then, he'd go further, "Pastors should just preach the Gospel and then shut up."

Preach the Gospel and then shut up.

I thought I understood dad's comment then, but I think I was wrong because I hadn't begun to grasp the reality of the Gospel.  I think I understand it better now.

Preach the Gospel!  Preach what God has done through Jesus Christ.  Choose to focus on Christ crucified!  Proclaim the goodness of God and His grace!  Let the Gospel fall on the ears of people.  Let the Holy Spirit change their hearts and minds.  Don't focus on the Law and telling people what to do.  Let the love of God penetrate their hearts and bring them to the fullness of faith.  You are just the messenger.  God does the real work.

I think I get that.  It's awful hard to put that into practice.  I mean, if you see worship attendance slipping and offerings going down and people getting anxious; it's really easy to slip into platitudes.  It's really easy to slip into searching for solutions.  It's really easy to email companies and say, "Yes!!  Help me ensure this church's revenues don't slip!"  It's easy to check out the giving statements of individuals and families within the church and make a few phone calls to people who aren't giving what you think they should give.  It's really easy to focus on the instructions the Bible gives to tithe; to pass the plate; to give to everyone who begs.

It's a lot more difficult to preach the Gospel, shut up, and then allow God to go to work on people.  It's a lot harder to trust them to do the right thing when you are looking at fewer people in pews and less offering in the plate.

But if this faith is about our relationship with God and then our relationships with others...

Then trust is very, very important.

I know they are trying to help, but I'm going to go with trusting my congregation.  I'm confident they will do the right thing.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Revisiting Salt and Light

Last week, I received an abnormal amount of hits on one of my previous sermons "Salt and Light." 

Every three years, this particular teaching of Jesus is placed before pastors and congregations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  Last Sunday was the appointed time for this text:

13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Apparently, some folks had reached the bottom of the barrel when it came to looking for sermon hints, and in a last ditch effort, several read mine.  :-)

As I saw the hits mount, I decided to read that sermon again.  I don't think it was all that bad, but as I read through it, I thought to myself, "Where is the grace?"

There was none.

My sermon focused completely and totally on action: my action, my congregation's action, the things we were supposed to do.

Where was forgiveness?

Where was God's love for us?

Where was the transformation of heart and soul gifted by the Holy Spirit?

It just wasn't there.

And a straight forward reading of this text, with no other context, doesn't have much grace at all.

But if you place it within the larger context of the Gospel message...

You ARE the light of the world...

You ARE the salt of the earth...

Intriguing use of words there by Jesus, is it not?

You ARE!

Not, if you follow me and believe in me and do what I say, then you will be.  No.  You ARE!

We are created to be light for the world; salt for the earth.  It is our purpose.  We didn't ask for this.  We didn't seek out this purpose.  We didn't ask God for the light to shine through us--God put it there.  We are created to shine light into a world of darkness by doing good works and glorifying our Father who is in heaven.

The problem: we like putting a bushel basket on ourselves.   And it's not because of some sort of humility driving us to do that.

There is a part of us that craves the darkness.  There is a part of us that craves being superior to everyone.  There is a part of us that craves the baser things of life, and when light shines on such things, it shows them for what they are: sinful.

And so, we cover the light.  We hide the light so it doesn't shine and reveal the fact that we enjoy sinful pursuits and perverted pleasures.  We hide the light so it doesn't show our complicity in systems which promote poverty and abuse and subjugation.  We hide the light so it doesn't reveal our darkest secrets and desires of greed, lust, envy, anger, and the like.  We hide the light so that we can go on thinking we are good people because we don't act out those very thoughts.

20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

You see, the Pharisees and scribes were the purity folks of Jesus' day.  They were the folks who concentrated on following all the rules to a tee.  They were the folks who put on an air of holiness, and Jesus tells His followers their righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.


Well, the scribes and Pharisees might have had an external facade, but it was the inside that counted.  That's where true righteousness comes from.  True righteousness comes from having a heart oriented toward God--a heart that unashamedly and humbly puts itself on a lampstand to shine light into a room.

And who can have such a heart?  Who can make their heart do such a thing?

Not us.  Not on our own.  St. Paul wrote in the 7th Chapter of the book of Romans:

19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

We know the good we should do.  We know the light we should shine.  We know we shouldn't have certain thoughts of anger, lust, greed, envy, and contempt.  But we have them anyway.  We don't do the good anyway.  As much as we would like our hearts to be oriented toward God, we keep fighting to have them oriented toward ourselves.

Yet, despite this, Christ still died for us.  Christ still offered Himself on the cross to reconcile us unto God.

Only a love like that can change a heart.  Only a love like that, once it's power infiltrates through our barriers can change a person.  Only a love like that can bring a person to his or her knees with thanksgiving and humility and awe and wonder.

"You ARE the light of the world..."
"You ARE the salt of the earth..."

What terrifying, humbling, and empowering words at one and the same time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Be an Example of Jesus!....???

Perhaps it was youthful exuberance.

Perhaps it was a core thought and belief.

I'm not sure.

While attending a recent worship service, we were summarily dismissed with the following words or something similar:

Go into the world!  Be an example of Jesus!

The one dismissing us changed the wording in the bulletin which read this or something similar:

Go into the world following the example of Jesus!

Roughly a year or so ago, I'd not have given such a thing a second thought.  Roughly a year or so ago, I would have heartily done the exact same thing without reservation.  But now, I'm not so sure.

BE an example of Jesus.

How does one do that?

Now, if we are supposed to be great moral teachers expounding on what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves or teaching time and again what it means to treat others as we wish to be treated, then I suppose BEING an example of Jesus wouldn't be to difficult a thing to accomplish.  It's pretty easy to go around telling others what they should be doing.

But is that the sum and substance of what Jesus was about?  Was Jesus just an example of what it means to live with God and with one another?

As I read through the Gospels, I see Jesus wearing multiple hats.  First, He was a healer--and not just in the physical sense.  Yes, He cured diseases.  It was an integral part of His ministry.  But those healings had a greater significance.  They also were about wholeness--the healing of one's entire being.

In Jesus' day, if you were sick, then folks thought it was because something you had done to deserve it.  God was punishing you.  Illness not only carried a social stigma--no one wanted to be around a sick person; it also carried a religious stigma--you were on the outs with God.  When Jesus healed someone, He literally was showing God loved that person and had forgiven them.  It was a complete restoration of body, mind, soul, and community.  This is the healing Jesus offered then.  Am I capable of providing such healing?

Hardly.  I am far too limited in my abilities to do such a thing.  God has not granted me those kinds of healing capabilities.  As far as I know, I haven't really seen anyone who has the kind of healing capacity Jesus showed in the Gospel Narratives.  The only one who can bring that kind of healing, in my estimation, is Jesus.

Secondly, Jesus led with grace every time He encountered someone who was not of the religious establishment.  That's important in my estimation.  Every time He encountered someone the world had labeled "sinner", Jesus offered healing, salvation, hope, and even literal life saving.  Now, when He encountered the religious establishment, He kicked tail and took names.  He knew the difference between the two groups.

I'm not too sure I have that capability.  I like to tell folks how it "should" be.  I like to tell folks what they should be doing--regardless of where they are in life.  I don't like offering them love and compassion and grace right off the bat.  That costs me something.  They might not reciprocate.  They might thumb their nose at me in the long run.  They might abuse my niceness.  I'm guarded.  Plain and simple.

Jesus wasn't guarded.  He bestowed grace and healing.  He gave people wholeness and then asked them to respond.  He didn't expect them to do anything first.  He acted first and then asked for obedience.  It's just too darn easy to do things the opposite way.

Thirdly, Jesus' main purpose was the reconciliation of the world with God.  There really is no need to delve deeply into this one in this post.  Such a thing can only be accomplished by God and I can't eve come close to that example.

BE an example of Jesus!  How?  Is it even possible?


I don't think it is.

This is why I believe Christianity isn't about what we do.  We can't do what Jesus did unless we are simply trying to tell everyone else what to do.  And if we take this approach, well, then, we will get nailed by the "do as I say and not as I do" crowd.  For if we preach the life Jesus called us to live and we cannot live it....

Grace leads me to follow Jesus with the knowledge I do it imperfectly.  Grace leads me to strive to walk in His footsteps as best as I can knowing I'll never even come close.  Grace leads me to strive to imitate Jesus knowing I will stumble and fall long before I accomplish such a task.

Before I encourage anyone to be an example of Jesus, I'm going to make darn sure that person knows the grace of Jesus.  Only He can orient a heart to follow Him.

Monday, February 10, 2014

I Decided to Know Nothing Except Christ Crucified

    St. Paul writes, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

    Most of my life and in most of my time as an ordained minister, I have tried to do the exact opposite of what St. Paul says in these opening words of the second chapter of 1 Corinthians.  I hate to admit this.  I really do.  I hate to admit that for most of my career, I have tried diligently to learn as much as I can and then show how learned I am.  I have tried using lofty words of wisdom in my sermons, on my blog, in Bible study, and in conversation.  I have oftentimes been convinced that such lofty words of wisdom will convince many in today’s society of the reasonableness of Christianity.  I have oftentimes been convinced that Christianity has all the answers to all the questions that exist and that if I just learn them and articulate them, well, then I can have a tremendous impact in the lives of others.  I have oftentimes been convinced that our churches simply need to get with the right train of theological thought–the right train of wisdom, and then all will be well. 

    I don’t think I am alone in what I have done and to some extent continue to do.  It’s the way the world works.  I mean, just browse through the comments section on any particular political article.  Jump onto an internet message board and read through any particularly controversial thread.  Look at what stands out when people engage in dialogue about such subjects.  Well, first filter through the comments which are simply baseless attacks.  Then, read the more serious ones.  See what they do.  Time and again, they list: point by point; reason by reason why their “side” is correct.  Time and again, they will provide links to studies, articles, and citations to bolster their particular point of view.  Time and again, they will show statistics and numbers to prove their particular position.  All of the facts must be shown, and once the facts are presented, then one shouldn’t be able to argue with my position.  After all, I am right!  I have the facts on my side.  I have thoroughly researched this issue, and by God, I know what I am talking about.

    Oftentimes, the rebuttals are swift, and one of my favorite ones is, “So, you have a degree in whatever subject matter is at hand, I suppose?  You are a climate scientist, a social scientist, a biologist, a biblical scholar, a doctor, a political science major, a lawyer, or what have you.  The rebuttal is that unless you have studied the subject matter and have a degree in it, then you are not qualified to speak with any kind of authority on the matter.

    It’s part and parcel in the way the world works.  We love appealing to our experts.  We love appealing to those who have numerous letters behind their names.  Of course, if certain experts disagree with us, then we will find other experts, but hey, that’s the game, isn’t it?  Lofty titles.  Large degrees.  Plenty of status.  That’s what awes people into believing what you have to say. 

    I am reminded at this point of a joke I love to tell.  It’s about a church congregation president who decided to call on several members who hadn’t been in church for some time.  He goes to see Farmer Joe. 

    Farmer Joe is out in the field chopping cotton.  Bob parks his car down in the turning row and walks up to Joe.

    “Hey Joe! How’ve you been?”

    “Aiiight,” Joe replies.

    Bob continues, “Haven’t seen you in church in a while, Joe.  Thought you might like to come back.”

    Joe wipes the sweat off his brow, spits in the dirt and says, “Well, why should I come back to church?”

    Bob says, “Joe, you have got to come and hear the new preacher we got!  He’s fantastic!”

    Joe slowly says, “Well, what makes this here preacher so special?”

    Bob replies enthusiastically, “Joe, he’s got a B.S. an M.S. and a PhD!”

    Joe shakes his head and says, “Well, that settles it.  I ain’t a comin’ to church as long as that preacher’s there.”

    Bob is taken aback.  He can hardly believe his ears.  “W-w-w-why?” he stammers.

    Joe spits in the dirt and says, “Well, we all know what B.S. is.  M.S. is just more of the same.  And PhD is piled high and deep.”

    Don’t laugh too hard now.  I personally have a master’s degree.

    But there is something to be said here.  There is something to be said regarding those who try to proclaim the message of God based in wisdom and lofty words.  There is something to be said about those who claim to have special knowledge of God and how God operates.  There is something to be said for those like myself and others who have tried time and again to use knowledge and reason and other such things to talk about God–to try and convince everyone that we’ve got it down pat when it comes to knowing and understanding God and His ways.

    And that something is not necessarily pretty.  You see Paul was onto something when he proclaimed the Gospel to the Gentiles. “I didn’t come with words of wisdom.  I chose only to know Christ crucified that your faith may not rest on worldly wisdom but on the power of God.”

    You see, Paul knew it wasn’t what he knew that counted.  Paul knew it wasn’t about what he had accomplished.  Paul knew his resume wasn’t the important part of the equation.  Paul knew very well that it wasn’t about anything he had done that mattered.  If people were resting their faith on what Paul had done, there would be problems.  But if they rested their faith on what God had done, well, then that was quite a different story.  And now we must ask: what has God done?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through Him.

    On the cross, Jesus died–God died–to reconcile the world unto Himself.  God died to pay the price of forgiveness–to take away our shame, our guilt, our debt to Him.  It was on the cross that the world’s redemption took place.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

    I am beginning to change, my brothers and sisters.  I am trying to leave behind this notion that I must be filled with lofty wisdom and knowledge and understanding.  I am trying to leave behind the notion that I have to be super-knowledgeable about Christianity, the Bible, all sorts of theology.  I am working to focus on the main thing: Christ crucified and the grace that flows from the cross.  It’s all about that grace.  It’s all about what God has done.  None of us need a degree to proclaim it.  All of us can do it, and when we do, we live God’s Word daily.  Amen.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Great Reversal or Don't Wait Until Death is Imminent

Yesterday, I had lunch with a man who is dying of cancer.

Don't get me wrong.  He's hopeful--as anyone would be hopeful.  But he also knows the facts.

His cancer is not responding to the latest chemo.

Docs told him it wouldn't be very long.

He's losing copious amounts of weight.

But, he's at peace.  He's getting things in order, but hoping he will live.

I noticed something about him that I have noticed repeatedly about folks who are facing imminent death.

There almost always is a great reversal.  Almost always.

The things once thought of as trivial become important, and the things once believed to be of utmost importance become trivial.

Maybe another way of saying this is: the things we take for granted become precious and the things we think precious become taken for granted--minor.

Family and their well being becomes prominent.  Things once argued over (what to wear, whether one is right or wrong about a minor fact, what kind of music one prefers, what kind of car one drives) all become irrelevant.  Expensive cars, good paying jobs, cheering on one's favorite team diminish in importance as time becomes a precious commodity to be spent with those who one loves.

Faith asserts itself.  Whereas prayer and times of quiet reflection seemed so tedious and superfluous, they now become profound times of healing--not in the sense of physical healing, but spiritual and mental healing--which lead to peace and acceptance of what is going on.  Marveling at the good, the beautiful of creation happens time and again throughout the day--not just on special occasions.

Why is it that for many, this only occurs when confronting one's mortality?
Why is it that we get convinced so easily that trivial things become important and important things are trivial?
What is it about this world we live in; this culture we are a part of that keeps us so focused on, well, us?

Perhaps when confronted with the final loss of "us" in death; before we go to be with God, we come to see it's really not about us.  It is about us in relationship with others.  It's not about how my needs are satisfied by what I want to pursue.  It's about how I seek the good of others as they seek my good.

One of the most interesting things I have heard to explain the nature of God--the Christian perspective of the Trinity--is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, have lived from eternity in a mutual relationship of glorifying one another.  The Father glorifies the Son and the Spirit.  The Son glorifies the Spirit and the Father.  The Spirit glorifies the Son and the Father.  The constant glorification and love that the "persons" of the Trinity give to each other fulfills them completely.  They had no need for anyone or anything to give them glory or worship.

So why create humans?  Not to receive, but to share.  To share the wonderful sense of love and fulfillment of this relationship.

Too many times, folks only begin to understand this when their death is imminent.

Why wait?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

It's Not Creationism VERSUS Evolution

CNN linked it.

So did FOX.

Drudge had a link for a time.

Didn't check the other networks.

Just didn't have the desire to, especially since the whole shebang is a set up.

Evolution VERSUS Creationism.

The Bible VERSUS We don't know.

Gimme a break.

I've done a lot of study in this arena.  I've read Dawkins (and Hawking) for good measure.  Brilliant scientists.  Not so good on the philosophy, though or actually finding logical conclusions to their given premises.  Still, well worth the respective reads only so you know where they are coming from.

I've also listened to and read numerous Christian scientists and mathematicians: Francis Collins, Ian Hutchinson, John Lennox, Troy Vorhees, and others.  Top notch stuff, especially from a Christian worldview.  None, and I mean NONE of these thinkers see any conflict between science and faith.

Of course, there are those who want there to be a conflict.

Read that again.  And again.  And again.

A lot of money and air time goes to those who want there to be a conflict.  "It's either/or!" they shout, without realizing both/and works really, really well.

Science is incomplete.  It will always be incomplete.  It rests upon certain fundamental assumptions which cannot be proven or disproven.  (For proof of this, read Goedel's proof.)

Faith rests upon certain fundamental assumptions which cannot be proven or disproven.  (See Hebrews 11)

The conflict comes from folks who are so dead-set in their own particular worldviews that they cannot allow for any sort of truth outside those particular worldviews.  It makes for great television/drama (not), but makes it awfully difficult for any sort of real reconciliation and dealing with some of the real problems in the world.

Science and faith, working together can accomplish much.  They actually need each other.  "Debates" and attention grabbing headlines don't help.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

For the Sake of Others or Why I now Have the Rugged Look

There is a very fine line between doing something because you cherish and need others to like you and doing something for others because they like what you do.

Please read that statement very carefully.  It's important, I think.

Late last year, my family and I went on vacation and enjoyed a wonderful trip to Arkansas to visit my grandfather.  Now, when I take a break, I break.  I relax in as many ways as possible including leaving my razor at home.

For most of my life, I have been clean shaven.  A few times I have worn a goatee.  Once I grew a patchy beard because of a Halloween costume.  Rarely have I gone long with any sort of facial hair.  Generally, it gets itchy, and I don't like trying to maintain it.  It's easier just to shave it all off.

Ah, but as vacation ended, the girls in my house all had something to say about Daddy's (and not to be left out) and Hubby's scraggy look.

"Daddy," my girls said, "Don't shave!!!"  They like the tickles when Daddy kisses them goodnight.

My wife likes them for other reasons.  Apparently, they add a piece of attractiveness to her.  I'm very cool with that.

The only person who didn't like the whiskers was Junior.  I don't blame him, but he was outnumbered.

I kind of liked the look as well, and it kept me from having to shave.  I decided to keep the scruffy look--in part because the ladies of my household loved it.

Now, I certainly didn't need their approval to keep the whiskers.  I didn't need their affirmation to go with the scruffy look.  It's not my satisfaction that is important.  I didn't need my ego stroked, but it does give me great joy to see the smiles on the faces of the ladies in my family.  I didn't adopt the scruffy look for my sake, but I adopted it for their sake.

Same with a new hat I purchased recently.  My wife likes Indiana Jones--it's a child of the '80's thing.  Right after Christmas, my family and I were in Bass Pro Shop.  I saw a hat that closely resembled Indiana Jones' hat.  I tried it on.  I showed my wife.  She gave me one of those looks.  I said, "I have a new hat."

I didn't need the hat.

I didn't want the hat.

I never would have bought the hat.

But, it gave my wife pleasure.

I love my wife.

It is my desire as her husband to do things that please her--not for my sake, but for her sake.

Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Treat others as you would have them treat you.

I want others to treat me and do things for me because they know it is something I like, not because they feel some sort of obligation to make me happy; not because they need me to like them; not because they want my approval.

I believe this is a grace-full approach.  Works-righteousness tries to earn anothers' approval by doing things for that person.  Grace does things for another simply for the sake of the other whether approval is gained or not.

That's why I am now sporting a scruffy look and wearing a rumpled up hat.

And I'm cool with that.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

An Offering Nightmare

I have a new found respect for offering envelopes.

Strange way to start a blog, perhaps, but let me explain.

Last week, I attended a theological conference.  I usually don't get too much out of these things--at least from the presenters.  I enjoy worship.  I enjoy the camaraderie with my close clergy friends and playing 42 into the evening and night.  No matter what, I generally find something to complain about, but that is the nature of the beast at these events.

Nothing, as of yet, has sent me over the edge, but this past week offered something that almost did--it came really, really close.

Opening worship was pretty cool.  I hadn't been a part of a jazz service, and the music at this worship was phenomenal.  The brass jazz band was led by a woman who could belt out the liturgy like no one's business.  The tunes were catchy and easily sung.  The sermon at least kept my attention even if the Gospel was rather hidden.

And then, it came time for the offering.  Good cause.  Water wells.  Provide clean water for folks throughout the world.  Goal of $7,500--one well per synod.

Then the rub.  There was no announcement about how we were to give our offerings.  Normally, they pass a plate.  Not this time.  No instructions given, but finally, a few people started heading toward the front of the worship space.

"Oh," I thought, "we are supposed to bring our offering forward."

I got up along with those at my table.  I headed toward the front.  There, I was confronted with an interesting sight: three buckets each marked with one of the three synods participating in this conference.

WTH?  Are we having a "friendly competition" with our offering to see which synod gives the most?

Apparently so (later, they announced the giving by synod).

I paused for a good 15 seconds taking in this scene.  I really was having difficulty processing this.  Offering?  A competition?  By synod?  To see which synod "gave" the most?  I found the whole scenario quite lacking.  No.  Not strong enough.  I found the whole thing to be completely wrong.

How could I protest such a thing?  I didn't want to cause any sort of scene.

I placed my offering in another synod's bucket.  It was the only thing I could think of at the time.

Now, most of you who read this blog regularly have seen a very important shift.  You've seen me "go far down the grace road" so to speak.  You've seen me begin focusing quite a bit on what God has done and the importance of Christ crucified in reconciling us unto God.  I believe focusing on this action leads us to a position of humility--not humility in the sense of "Oh, I am a terrible, horrible person," but a humility of "I mess up constantly and really, truly am no better off than any other person.  I need Jesus just as much as anyone else needs Jesus.  We're all on the same level of sin and need of grace."

No.  There is no but attached to those comments.  There is no, "this is such a blatant affront to my understanding of Christianity that I will now leave this denomination/synod/or whatever."  That's not grace.  Not at all.

I just want to put down why this bothered me so much and why I hope I never have to experience such a thing again.

First, the Law.  I kept having Matthew 6 run through my head as I witnessed this ordeal.

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

What is secret about parading up to the front of a worship space and dropping an offering in a bucket?  Not much in my book.  Not much.

I also had flashes of this story:

41 He (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

Giving apparently isn't about the amount, you know. 

I also thought, "I believe that as we gather in worship, we are the body of Christ.  We don't make distinctions in the body when it comes to the work we do.  The focus is to glorify God, not ourselves.  The focus should be on helping others with these gifts, not on who 'wins.'--not on which synod gives more or has the most generous pastors."

Now, the Gospel.  As deeply as I disliked this display, I know that God's work is still being done with the money collected.  As deeply as I resented this method of giving in worship, I still know God loves those who set it up just like He loves me.  I believe and trust this completely.

I personally would not set such a thing up--IN WORSHIP.  That's an important clarify-er.  I'm all for friendly competition in other arenas.  It does spice things up.

For me, worship is another matter completely.  Perhaps it shouldn't be, but it is.

And it is why I'll defend the use of offering envelopes now.

I get it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Religion Versus Grace

    When I was in first grade, I didn’t have any of my closest friends in my homeroom class.  This made life particularly difficult at lunch since I didn’t have anyone really to cut up with and talk to at the lunch table.  I longed for a friend to share that time with.  I don’t know if Jimmy picked up on my desires or if it was something else, but one day, as he sat across from me, he said, “Kevin, I will be your friend...if...if you give me your dessert.”

    You see, when I was in first grade, I wasn’t necessarily enthusiastic about eating in the cafeteria too often.  My mom fixed me a lunch most of the time.  There was always a sandwich and some chips, and for dessert, I usually had one of the several varieties of Little Debbie snack cakes.  For the early months of first grade, this was usually enough to satisfy my hunger easily, and to begin with, I felt like I could spare the calories.  I wanted a friend, badly, so I gave up my dessert.

    Each day, I’d give Jimmy my dessert, and each day he’d proclaim his friendship of me.  But then there came a day...  Yes, then there came a day when my stomach cried out in hunger.  I was a growing boy, and I had played to my heart’s content at recess, and I wanted to eat my dessert.  “Jimmy, I am really, really hungry today.  I really, really want to eat my dessert.”

    “But then I won’t be your friend.”

    “But I’m hungry.”

    “I won’t be your friend.”

    I thought for just a few moments.  I desperately wanted a friend, but I was hungry.  As I thought, I also came to the conclusion that I was tired of giving Jimmy my desserts. 

    “I’m going to eat my dessert.”

    “I’m not your friend.”

    And so it is with much of life.  For the most part, if we want to receive anything, we have to pay a price for it.  If we want a particular item in the store, we have to pay money.  If we want a good paying job, we have to pay to go to school or spend years climbing the corporate ladder.  If we want to be respected by others, we have to accumulate wealth or wisdom.  If we want to be loved, we have to show love to another.  There always seems to be strings attached–with a price tag–for things and for relationships.  Some even extend this particular aspect of human life to our relationship with God.

    The thinking goes, “If I want God to love me, then I have to be obedient to Him.  If I want to get God’s attention, then I have to do the things He commands me to do.”  This is what is at the heart of what many people in our society today consider religion.  If I am obedient, then I will get the blessings. 

    If I believe enough in God and trust God enough, He will bring me wealth.

    If I pray a certain amount each day, my sickness will be healed.

    If I put enough in the offering plate, the Lord will multiply it 10 fold.

    If I work hard enough for justice, the Kingdom of God will come to earth.

    If I use my prophetic voice and speak against wealth and privilege, then people will see how radical faith is and flock to church.

    If we do the right things, then we will experience the blessings.  Do you see how this supposedly works?

    In many congregations today, our first lesson will be read, and many will pick up on the final verse read.  I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this verse repeated by colleagues who are focused almost completely on the concept of justice, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Micah 6:8 This is what the Lord requires of us, and we have to do it!  All the focus and attention will go here, and many will begin proclaiming their vision of what it means to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  Many will talk about feeding the hungry, combating systemic poverty and racism, and treating others with kindness and respect.

    These are not bad things in and of themselves.  In fact, these things are indeed part of the Christian walk.  These are things we are called to do, but because our society today is so biblically illiterate, they come to think that this is what faith is all about–they come to think faith is about what we do, and they miss something so precious, so central, so important to what it means to be a believer in God and a follower of Jesus Christ.

    So much attention will be drawn to Micah 6:8 that Micah 6:3-5 will oftentimes be overlooked.  “O my people, what have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you? Answer me!  4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.  5 O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

    What is going on here?  Why are these verses so important?  They show us God’s actions toward Israel.
They show us what God has done for the people:

    1. He delivered them from Egypt and the house of slavery.

    2. God sent them leaders who gave them law and order.

    3. God delivered them from King Balak when Balak ordered Balaam to curse them.  God appeared to Balaam and prevented this from happening. 

    4. God gave them the land from Shittim to Gilgal and helped them conquer it, aiding Israel against their enemies.

    In each of these instances, God blessed His people.  God freed them, supported them, guided them, and established them.  God showered His blessings down upon them time and time again, and it is only after the blessings that the words are uttered, “what then does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” 

    The blessings come first, obedience follows.

    That is the tremendous difference between religion and grace.  Religion says, “Do this and you will be blessed.  Be obedient, and you will receive blessings.”  Grace says, “You are accepted, now do this.  You are blessed, then be obedient.”  Religion requires someone to work toward God and emphasizes our actions.  Grace celebrates what God has done and then asks for a response to what God has done. 

    And what has God done?  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.

    The grace and mercy of God was poured out for all of us on the cross where Jesus hung and died to redeem us from our sin.  On that cross, God paid the price for healing broken relationships, and three days later, God showed us the promise of eternal life.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has opened the kingdom of Heaven to all who are brought to faith by His Spirit.  God has revealed and given His blessings to each and every one of us, and He didn’t even ask for even as much as our dessert before giving it to us. 

    These are the blessings of God showered down each and every one of us.  Grace.  Pure and simple.  And how will we respond?  Will we seek obedience?  Is God’s mercy and grace and sacrifice enough to cause us to seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?   Sure.  At least it should be.  And it is definitely a part of how we Live God’s Word Daily.  Amen.