Monday, October 27, 2014

The Importance of Reformation Sunday


 Why is Reformation Day so important?

    C.S. Lewis, in his appendix to the book The Abolition of Man showed how nearly every single culture in the world; every single philosophy; every single world religion espoused one particular axiom.  In effect, C.S. Lewis showed that the axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a universal truth and teaching found in every culture and teaching.  That’s a rather astounding thing considering how diverse cultures are throughout the world.  It’s rather astounding since they all begin with different assumptions about how the world works and how it came into being.  It’s rather astounding that as varied and as different as we are as human beings, there is one universal thing we all claim to grasp and understand.  We should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. 

    But there is an interesting corollary to this universal axiom.  It’s a corollary that is not usually talked about in various academic circles.  Because if the axiom “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is indeed a universal teaching, the corollary which follows is, no one does it.  No one does to others what we would like them to do unto us. 

    Think about it.  Think about it really hard, and think about it honestly.  How many of us are as patient with others as we would like them to be patient with us?  How many of us as are considerate of others as we would like them to be considerate of us?  How many of us are forgiving of others as we would like them to be forgiving of us?  How many of us truly talk as kindly of others as we would like them to talk kindly of us?  How many of us are as generous to others as we would like them to be generous to us?  And the list goes on and on and on.  If we are honest with ourselves, we do not even come close to following this universal axiom.

    And if we are honest with ourselves, we know we have no excuses.  We know what we should do.  We know how we should act.  But we don’t do it.  Either because we can’t or because we won’t.

    St. Paul knew this.  He knew it well, and so he penned these words from the third chapter of the book of Romans, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”

    What is Paul saying?  He’s saying exactly what I just said about doing unto others.  We know we should, but we know we don’t.  And when we are honest with ourselves, we are silenced.  We know we have no room to talk.  We know we have no room to tell anyone else to shape up because we are out of shape.  We know we have no room to condemn anyone else for failing to follow the teaching because we don’t follow it ourselves.  Our mouth’s are silenced.  And if this axiom comes from God–which most folks believe it does, then we must be held accountable to God because we have broken His command.

    And here’s where things begin to get a little interesting.  Because here is where Christianity begins to make a clean break with the rest of the world.  Every other philosophy and every other religion’s answer to accountability is thus, “Try harder.”  Yep, you heard right.  If you aren’t doing such a good job of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, try harder.  Work harder.  Try to be a better person.  Satisfy God and justify yourself by following that command. 

    And why shouldn’t that be the answer?  I mean, that is what we are taught from the time we are infants and throughout adulthood.  When you are starting to walk and you fall down, parents say, “Get up and try it again.  Sooner or later, you will get it!”  When our kids have trouble in school learning math or reading or writing, we say, “Practice, work harder.  You will get it!”  When we start working at a job and not doing so well at it, our supervisor (if he or she is patient) says, “Keep after it.  You will figure it out before too long.”  Over and over and over, we get told this.  Over and over and over, we implement it.  Sometimes we are successful, and oftentimes we get the idea in our heads that if we simply just keep trying; if we just keep after it long enough; things will come together and we can accomplish anything!  Nothing can ever hold us back!  And where does that lead us if we truly have this mindset?  Where does this lead us in regards to others who struggle and have a hard time?   Do we become patient with them?  Do we become understanding with them?  Do we offer them positive encouragement over and over and over?  Maybe some of the time, but certainly not always.  For it is far too easy to become contemptuous and angry at those who don’t seem to get it as quickly as ourselves.  It is far too easy to become self-righteous and say, “I was able to do it; they should be able to do it too.”  And we look down our nose at others.  Do unto you like it when others look down their nose at you?  Of course not.  Very few do.  But this is inevitably where “try harder” gets you.  It gets you right back to breaking the command–the very place you tried to get away from to begin with.

    Christianity is different; however.  Christianity offers a different path.  Instead of try harder, Paul lays out the alternative:
    “For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”  Following the law doesn’t justify us.  It only leads to despair or self-righteousness.  It cannot break us out of the cycle.  It can only show us what we have done wrong.  I wouldn’t know I was breaking the speed limit unless I saw the speed limit sign.  Because there is a sign, I know I am breaking the law!  Slowing down doesn’t justify me from having broken the law in the first place!!  So what does?  What does justify me?  What makes things right?

     “21 But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”  The answer Paul gives is, “It’s not your actions.  It’s Jesus’ actions.”  By breaking the command of God, you have earned His punishment.  You have earned His anger and His wrath.  You must pay the price for doing what you know to be wrong.  God cannot allow such breaking of the command to go unpunished because then God would not be just.  But instead of you facing the punishment; instead of you facing God’s wrath, Jesus–the God made flesh–stepped in on your behalf.  Jesus, offered Himself to die and endure the wrath of God upon the cross so that you wouldn’t have to.  This is the sacrifice of atonement Paul spoke of.  He took your place.  He took the punishment which you were destined for.  You couldn’t do unto others; Jesus did.

    In some ways this doesn’t make sense to our way of thinking.  If you commit the crime, you should be held accountable.  If you do the wrong, you should face the punishment.  If you break the law, you should face justice.  On one level, we know this very, very well.  But let me put it to you another way–a way I think you may grasp very easily.  Most of us who are parents have a rule for our children: don’t play in the street!  It’s a pretty hard and fast rule for many of us.  Now, what parent who sees his child playing in the street with a car approaching would allow the car to run over the child because, after all, the child broke the rule and deserves what he or she gets?  What parent would allow his or her child to be gravely injured or to die because the rule got broken?  What parent would allow this tragedy to befall his son or daughter?  None that I know of.  And yet, I know of many a parent, who would gladly and willingly run into the street, breaking the parent’s own rule to save his or her child.  I know many a parent who would gladly die to save his or her child from immanent death.  Take my life instead because I love my child.  The answer would not be try harder to follow mommy and daddy’s rule.  The answer at that point–when the rule is already broken and death is immanent–is save your child even at the expense of your own life.

    “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 by Him.”

    And now, we put our trust in this saving action.  We put our faith in this saving action.  We do not trust ourselves to follow the commands because we know we cannot fully accomplish them.  Instead, we throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus who did follow the commands and who took our place.

    “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”  And since we are justified–we are made right by what Jesus has done and not what we do, can we boast?  Can we brag about how well we have done unto others?  Can we brag about how well we have followed the Law and made ourselves right with God?  Can we brag that we have done enough to warrant God’s love for us?  No.  We can’t.  Because we did nothing.  Jesus did everything.  We are justified apart from the works of the Law.  We are justified by Jesus and trust in His action not our own.

    Oh, there are more than a few folks–even within the church–who would like us to operate the way the world works.  There are more than a few folks–even within the church–who would like to think our salvation is contingent upon our actions and our ability to follow the Law.  They would gladly tell us to get our lives in order lest we find ourselves damned.  They would gladly tell us we must do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God lest we incur God’s wrath.  They would gladly tell us to stop drinking, smoking, dancing, and expressing our sexuality or the devil will play with our souls for eternity.  They would gladly tell us we must give 10% of our income to the church or God will strike us down.  They will gladly tell us God sends things like the Ebola virus or famine or drought to punish us for what we do–hoping that we will repent and cease our destructive behavior.  They will gladly try to rope us back into trying to be like every other philosophy or religion that is out there.  They will gladly try to get us to try harder.

    But that is why we need Reformation Day.  That is why we need to be reminded of the Gospel.  This is why we need the Martin Luther’s of the world–we need to be reminded that Christianity is not basically about what we do, but about what God has done through Jesus Christ saving you by His grace through faith.  Amen.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Politics, Subpoenas, Preaching: Houston, We Have a Problem

Well, not really.

Some of you may have read about the city of Houston issuing subpoenas to a group of pastors seeking all sermons, text messages, conversations, and the like regarding the city's non-discrimiation ordinance and its mayor.  Cue a firestorm of commentary. 

Some have proposed "rendering to Caesar the things which are Caesar's."

Others staunchly say the city has gone too far, and we must stand for religious freedom.

I'm not exactly sure either "side" quite gets it.

The American citizen in me wants to take a "stand" for religious freedom and ask my congregation to join in on November 2nd, but I ask myself, "Is this the way of Jesus?  Is this how the Church initially dealt with such matters?"

The Christian in me ponders such questions deeply, and I am not exactly sure quoting Jesus' "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and the things to God the things are God's" is the appropriate response.  The reason I have for this would fill another full blog post, so I won't jump into that here.  Perhaps more appropriate would be Jesus' teaching to His disciples as He prepares them for what is in store for them as they proclaim the Gospel:

"9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit." (Mark 13:9-11)

Implied in Jesus' words is persecution.  You will be arrested (for that's what happens before they bring you to trial).   You will be jailed (that's what happens before they bring you to trial).  The authorities will not agree with what you are proclaiming (that's why most were arrested).  Use such things as an opportunity (not to demand religious freedom) to proclaim the Gospel.  The Holy Spirit will give you the words to say!  Testify (bring your testimony) before them!

Paul honed this to perfection throughout the book of Acts.  He was arrested numerous times, and every time he proclaimed the Gospel.  To the jailers.  To fellow prisoners.  To the authorities.  To the governors.  Mind you, he had broken the laws of the Roman Empire.  He practiced a religion which was not on the authorized list.  Confessing Jesus as Lord was undermining Caesar's authority as lord.  Paul could (and was) charged for sedition.  Paul never (that I can remember) begged for Christianity to be accepted.  Instead, he longed to preach the news of Jesus so that hearts may be changed.

He was martyred.  

So were a whole lot of others.  Which begs the question: how did they handle it?

They did not renounce their faith.  They did not file lawsuits trying to change the law.  They stood firm in their faith.  They sang songs of praise and worship.  They prayed that their captors may be forgiven.  They faced death--oftentimes singing praises at those moments--because they had a sure and certain hope of what was to come.  "Go ahead," their actions proclaimed, "take my freedom; take my income; take my possessions; take my life, for I know Who really is in charge."

There was no rendering to Caesar.  There was complete rendering to God.  

I think this same pattern was picked up during the Civil Right's Movement in our nation not too many decades ago.  I mean, it was within black churches that plans were laid, boycotts were organized, sit ins were planned, marches were put together; petitions were brought forward.  The ruling authorities were not happy with such measures, and they tried to put a stop to all of the movement to overthrow Jim Crow.  Arrests were made.  People were imprisoned.  And they stood on their faith.  They did not kowtow.  They did not stop organizing or working for the betterment of society.  They faced the authorities and proclaimed, "Thus sayeth the Lord!"  They were willing to face persecution and use it as an opportunity to proclaim their faith--a faith which led them to take a particular political position.

Just as I vehemently oppose Jim Crow (after the fact), I vehemently disagree with the city's actions to subpoena sermons.  But I also disagree with the fallout and commentary put forth by each side.

Indeed, it would be easy to simply hand over the sermons.  It would be equally easy to make a case for religious freedom.  It would be much harder to do both.  

If the law of the land is unjust, break it.  Do not hand over your sermons.  Be prepared to face the consequences.  Don't file a lawsuit using power to fight power.  Become powerless.  Be prepared to be brought before governors and the ruling authorities so that you may have an opportunity to testify.

Then, show where your true allegiance lies.  Proclaim the Gospel.  Share what God has done.  Go through the sum and substance of why Jesus had to die for the world and how a Christian seeks to follow God's ways even though those ways clash with the prevailing culture.  Show how God's incredible action through Jesus is based in love, and that no condemnation is being shown, but that one is seeking the good of the city because following God's will would be good for all.

I just don't see such things happening in Houston.  And maybe, if I weren't so insulated sitting in rural Texas, things would be different.  Maybe I would be jumping on either one of those two prevalent bandwagons.  And if I were subpoenaed, maybe I'd be wanting people to stand for religious freedom as well.  

But maybe not.  Maybe I would be looking at this as an opportunity to proclaim the Gospel.  For that is what any Christian, I believe, should long for--to proclaim as clearly and as unashamedly as possible what God has done through Jesus.

Monday, October 20, 2014

There is No Other God: A Letter to My 2014 Confirmands

October 19, 2014

Dear Confirmand,

            This letter is based on Isaiah 45 verse 5.  “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me, there is no god.”

    I wanted to write this letter to you on the day you are being confirmed.  I wanted to spend a little while letting you know what you are doing today and how important it is.  When I was your age, I didn’t think confirmation was all that big a deal.  It was something we Lutherans did–like the Catholics and others, but I personally didn’t see much significance in it.  It was one more hoop I was supposed to jump through to be an adult member of the church.  And that is exactly what you will be after today, but the focus of confirmation isn’t just about this.  It’s much, much more.

    For today hearkens back to the day you were baptized.  You were much smaller than you are now.  You couldn’t make any decisions at all.  You didn’t ask to be baptized.  You didn’t ask to be a Christian.  You didn’t even know God or Jesus.  Yet, your parents wanted you to be a Christian.  They wanted you to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.  They wanted you to follow Him throughout your life.  They promised to raise you to become a Christian.  It was their promise; not yours. 

    Today, that changes; however.  Today you are going to stand before this congregation and say, “Today, I affirm what my parents did years ago.  It’s no longer their promise which holds me to the church–it is my own promise.  I now want to follow and serve Jesus Christ.  He is my Lord and Savior.”  This is a very important stand you are taking–a very important stand.   You may not quite understand this now–in fact you might not have thought about what I am going to tell you at all.  It’s okay, though.  It’s only been recently that I have really come to start understanding just what it means to be in a relationship with Jesus.  It’s only recently that I really and truly understood what the Gospel meant.  It’s only recently that I have come to see just how different the Christian faith works in this world.

    You see, for the longest time, I wanted to be important.  I wanted to be valued.  I wanted what I said and what I did to count.  I wanted people to tell me what a good job I was doing.  I wanted people to like me.  And I wanted to make a name for myself.  As a pastor, you get this one of two ways: either by growing a church bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where people can’t help but see what you do or you toe the party line and suck up to the power structure so that they will bring you up through the ranks.  I’m not one to suck up to people in power and authority.  I never have done well with that, so the other alternative was to make a church grow–and grow big.  Do you know what this caused me?

    It ended up causing me a lot of grief.  For you see, when things were going good at church and people were joining the congregation, I was happy.  When everyone was getting along and our pews were full of people, I was all smiles.  Everything was wonderful.  But, you know, things do not always work out in the way we want them too.  Our church hasn’t grown as fast as I wanted it to.  There were some people who left the church for various reasons, and it hurt me.  It hurt me a lot.  I thought I had to make everyone stay because my value and my worth came from whether or not this church grew and grew and grew.  And when it didn’t grow and grow and grow, I became angry and tired and frustrated.  It was my own fault really.  I was simply doing what the world had taught me to do.  I was following a lot of false gods.

    You see, the world teaches us from the time we are born that our value; our worth; and our happiness comes from what we do.  You all know this very well by now; so well you probably think this is how everything works in life.  You know this very well as you go through school.  If you want a good grade, then you have to study and prepare and do your homework and school work.  You know that if you want to participate in athletics or cheerleading or any extra-curricular activity, then you have to keep your grades up.  You also know that in order to fit in with a particular group at school, then you have to dress a certain way or act a certain way.  If you don’t do those things, you will not be accepted.  You have also reached that age where designer labels matter.  It’s not enough to buy a pair of blue jeans; they have to have the right label so that no one will judge you or laugh at you.  You also know that your value in sports and in activities is directly linked to how well you can perform.  If you can hit a baseball well, you will be in the starting line up.  This is just how the world works.

    And it won’t change much as you grow.  More and more you will find things telling you that if you want value; if you want happiness; if you want some sort of worth, then you will need to do certain things.  If you want a good job, then you will have to get an education.  If you want to be happy, you will need to buy a certain type of car. If you want to experience peace, then you will have to give up money to travel to a certain vacation spot.  If you want your children to be happy, if you are blessed with children, then you will have to buy them a particular toy.  Over and over and over again, you will be told this.  Just about everything in the world operates this way.

    And if you believe this; if your mind and heart is captured by this, then you will find yourself just like I was: tired, worn out, angry and burned out.  You will find yourself wondering if you really have worth and value.  You will wonder if you will ever find true happiness and joy.  And whether you know it or not, it will be your fault because you will have spent a lifetime pursuing a lot of false gods instead of the One True God–the God who says in our first lesson this morning–there is no other God, except Him.

    Now, this might sound a little bit arrogant.  I mean, aren’t there a lot of people who worship in other religions?  Aren’t they sincere in their faith?  Don’t they try to be devout people who do good things?  Why in the world should we say that the God we worship is the only True God and that they are not worshiping our God?   Shouldn’t we be respectful instead of thinking that we are better than them? 

    Here is the thing, if you are worshiping the One True God, then you will be respectful and humble.  You will care for people who you disagree with.  You will give people freedom to go their own way, and you will still love them even if you know that way is headed down the wrong path.  If you worship the One True God, then you will recognize that other people can be good and moral and nice–sometimes even being better and nicer and kinder and more loving than you.  But you will still realize that they are pursuing false gods.  You will still be able to recognize that the way of the One True God is vastly different than the way of every other god and especially the way of the world.

    I will try to show you how.  You see, last November, I went to visit my grandfather.  He’s 95 now, so he has a world of accumulated wisdom.  My grandfather was a pastor, and he and I talked a lot when we visited.  He talked a lot about the things he did as a pastor.  As he talked, I learned a lot.  He never served a large congregation.  He was a country pastor.  He never worked his way up into the higher offices of the church.  You could say that he never really advanced very far in his career if you wanted.  He never wrote a book or became a famous theologian.  He knew this, and he was more than okay with it.  I know this because as he talked to me, he said something that hit me to the very core.  He said, “You know, I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”

    That stopped me dead in my tracks because up until that time I realized what I was trying to do.  I realized I was trying to accomplish a lot in the eyes of the world.  I was trying to get my value and worth and happiness from my accomplishments.  I was buying into what the world said, “Do this, and you will be loved and appreciated.”  But our Christian faith does not say this.  Our Christian faith says something completely and utterly different.  Our Christian faith says being on good terms with the Lord is the most important thing, and that does not come about from anything we do.

    And this is the most important point that I want you to hear this morning as you confirm your faith.  This is the central thing I want you to grasp and hold onto.  The world says, “Do this and you will be accepted.”  All other religions say, “Do this and God will love you.”  Christianity says the exact opposite.  Christianity says, “God accepts you; God loves you; now live into that freedom.”

    The world and every religion wants you to earn your own way.  The world and every other religion wants you to justify yourself–justify your value; justify your work; obtain your own happiness.  Christianity says Jesus gives you love and acceptance and value and true happiness without any work on your part.  It is the exact opposite of the world.

    And Jesus gives this all to you despite the fact that you are imperfect–despite the fact that you are a broken piece of this broken world.  I know I don’t have to tell you this too much.  I remember very well what it was like in school.  There were kids who used to pick on me all the time and highlight my imperfections.  You probably have that happen to you as well.  And the way I used to make myself feel better was to pick on others and highlight their imperfections.  I didn’t know any other way, but I do now.  I accept my flaws.  I accept my brokenness, and I ask Jesus to change me.  He’s got a lot of work ahead of Him in that regard, but He willingly works on me.  And on you.  And on everyone who calls upon His name.  Why?

    Because He loves us.  “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.” 

    Christianity is the only religion or philosophy in the world that teaches that God dies on behalf of the world.  It’s the only religion that says you are accepted before it ask you to do anything.  It is the only religion in the world that gives you value even when you really don’t deserve it.  And when someone gives you something you know you don’t deserve, you do not become arrogant.  You become humble.  You become thankful.  You become respectful of others, and you want them to know that God has done the same for them that He has done for you. 

    It is my sincere hope for you today that as you confirm your faith, you realize just how rebellious you are being.  You are turning your back on a world and on all the false gods who want you to earn your value and worth and to justify yourselves.  You are saying to them, “I wish to follow a different path.  I wish to follow the One who has already loved me; already given me value; and already given me joy.  I renounce all you false gods, and I place my trust in the One True God.  The God who died for me.  I put my trust in Jesus.”  May we all have the courage to do just that.


Pastor Kevin Haug

Friday, October 17, 2014

Remembering My Grandmother

I believe the good Lord creates each and every one of us with a filter to help us keep our mouths from blurting out every single thought that comes out of our brains.  This filter is very helpful because it prevents very awkward situations from occurring time and time and time again.  I am convinced my grandmother's filter was corrupted.  The thoughts just rolled right on out without anything impeding them.

It made for more than a few awkward and humorous situations.

For instance, Grandma was never one to accept new technology on her own.  She was quite content to deal with what she knew.  A big part of this was her frugality.  If she could do without something, she would.  Why confuse matters with the latest and greatest?  Even if things could make her life easier.

Take the time Grandma finally got a microwave.  She never, and I mean NEVER wanted a microwave.  "Why do I want a microwave?  I don't need a microwave.  Don't y'all ever get me a microwave.  I don't need no (explicative) microwave."  Did I say she didn't want a microwave?

Well, the rest of us had kept up with the times, and we knew the value of a microwave.  My parents especially were tired of going over to Grandma's house to cook and heat up things and dealing with the inconvenience of not having a microwave.  Therefore, for Christmas, sometime in the late '90s, my folks bought Grandma a microwave.  They wrapped it up and put it underneath the tree.

Grandma always opened her gifts last (partially because we all wanted to hear what she was going to say.  You know, the whole lack of filter and everything.).  On this occasion, we were not disappointed.  We gave her the box, and immediately she started ranting, "This better not be a microwave.  I don't need no (explicative) microwave."

She removed the wrapper.

"It's a (explicative) microwave.  You know, you just need to take that back.  I'll never use it.  You just need to take that back!!!"

Awkward and humorous.

The reaction was typical and expected.  Water flowed off the duck's back, and the microwave was set up in the kitchen over the loud objections.  A few weeks passed.  A month or so, and Grandma was using that microwave like there was no tomorrow.  About three weeks ago, her microwave went kaput, and she demanded a new one.  It had become indispensable.   Like  her cordless telephone.  And her satellite television.  And a host of other things that she found helpful even though she had ranted against them previously.

Sometimes, it took Grandma some time--and a little effort on behalf of her family to get her there, but she eventually did.

But one thing we never had to "get her convinced of" was the need to spoil her grandchildren.  Grandma exceeded in that arena.  I personally was the grand recipient of a lot of spoiling.  I will not speak for my sister or my cousins at this point, but I will damn sure let you know, she spoiled the crap out of me.

One story highlights this marvelously.  In my early teen years, I was enamored with Transformers.  I owned several toys (and still have them).  One week, Eckerd Drugs was having a sale on the Insectobots.  I wanted them, and Grandma was keeping my sister and I.  Grandma promised we could take a trip into town, and she would get them for me.  I was going to hold her to her promise.

There was just one problem.  Grandpa had parked his pickup behind Grandma's car.  We couldn't fit in the pickup, so it needed to be moved.  Here the problem manifested itself: the truck's battery was dead.  Disappointment rose mightily.  I wanted those Transformers--badly.  (Selfish, sure.  I know better now.)

"We could push the truck out of the way," I suggested.

So, my 60+ year old grandmother, my sister, and I pushed the truck out of the way to go get two little toys which I thought were such a big deal back in those days.  I don't know how many of your grandmothers ever pushed a pickup truck out of the way to take you to town, but mine did.

Such was her nature of generosity.

Grandma showed that forth in many other ways.  For four summers, I worked at the Banquete Grain Co-op.  My parents had bought me microwave meals to eat for lunch and supper, but those things must have looked unappetizing to my grandmother.  Every evening, she cooked extra and packed me a home cooked meal for my day.  She had breakfast ready for me when I awoke.  There was a snack in the evening when I got off work.  She washed my clothes when I stayed, and we would visit in the evenings.

She took care of me when I worked just like she took care of her husband and her kids growing up.  Grandma sacrificed time and again so that her kids and grandkids could have.  It was her nature.

It's not surprising.  She chose Proverbs 31:10-29 to be read at her funeral:

10 A capable wife who can find?
   She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
   and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
   all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
   and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
   she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
   and provides food for her household
   and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
   with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
   and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
   Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
   and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
   and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
   for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
   her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
   taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
   she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
   and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
   and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
   and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
   her husband too, and he praises her:
29 ‘Many women have done excellently,
   but you surpass them all.’ 

As this passage was read this Monday, I saw many reflections of what my grandmother tried to do.  If indeed my grandmother held this in her heart (which I expect she did), then it is little wonder she did many of the things she did.  Despite some of the off the wall things that came out of her mouth, her actions showed beyond the shadow of a doubt a woman full of kindness, compassion, and love--especially love of her family.

It all flowed from a deep abiding faith.  A faith which was not blatant and in your face, but that was lived out.  A faith which was rarely talked about, but was central to her life.

My sister informed me that my Grandma had final approval of her obituary.  When Grandma was shown the first draft, she nodded rather approvingly, but then added, "It's okay, but where is my baptism date and my confirmation date?"  Two simple items--left out by many in these times, but items of vast value and importance to my grandmother.  Others may leave them out, but she would have them in her obituary.   She was a child of God, by God, and that was the most important thing of all.

She entered into the fullness of that childhood at around 6 o'clock Friday, October 10, 2014.  The promises of God to her were made complete.

Thanks be to God for my Grandma: Estella Kieshnick Haug.  Until that day when we meet again...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

God's Wrath

    During the summer while I was teaching a class on the basics of Christianity, I talked a bit about the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.  For those of you who may not be familiar with this part of biblical history, let me give you a quick refresher.

    The Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians and through the mighty, miraculous acts of God, they had been freed.  A man named Moses, who was called by God, led the people out of Egypt and toward the freedom of the Promised Land.  They traveled to a mountain called Sinai, and while there, God made a covenant with the people.  God would look after the people and bless them, and the people would worship God alone and follow His commands.  All parties agreed to this arrangement. 

    After this agreement, God called Moses to come up on the mountain.  Moses was gone an extended period of time, and the people became concerned.  In their anxiety, they turned their backs on the covenant they had agreed to and forged an idol out of gold.  Of course, it was a calf.  They worshiped and held a celebration to this god who led them out of Egypt.  As you can imagine, God’s anger was kindled mightily against those who were worshiping this false god.  Moses came down off the mountain and exposed the people to God’s wrath–many were consumed by that wrath as God literally opened up the earth and swallowed them.

    In our day and age, some might scratch their heads in bewilderment at God’s actions here.  I mean, why kill thousands of people for simply worshiping another god?  What were they hurting?  They were just following their hearts and beliefs.  They weren’t killing anyone or stealing or anything.  Why would God get so angry and upset over something which is rather trivial–at least according to modern standards?  Why didn’t God simply forgive them instead of consuming them?  Here’s what I told my class.

    A God who does not become incensed at sin is not a God worth worshiping.  Let me say that again: a God who does not become incensed and wrathful at sin is not a God worth worshiping. 

    That might give some of you pause, especially given what many folks believe about the Christian God.  I mean, we in the church proclaim over and over and over that God is love.  And this is most certainly true!!!  One of my favorite passages of scripture to quote is 1 John 4: 7-8.  “7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  There’s actually a camp song I learned as a child which goes along with this passage, and perhaps because I learned that song, this passage is burned into my brain.  And that is a good thing.  It is important to know and understand and realize God is love. 

    But don’t confuse the fact that God is love with the fact that God is also a God of justice.  God is not simply one to walk around with a flower lei around His neck; putting flowers into firearms; and saying, “Let’s just love one another.  Everyone will come into my love eventually anyway.  Peace, man.”  God’s anger burns brightly at sin.  In fact, I’m not sure I can adequately convey to you this morning just how angry God gets when He sees us falling away from His ways.  Hell fire and brimstone doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

    I mean, I’ve known pastors and preachers who yell and scream about hell and damnation.  I know they do so to scare the living daylights out of people and get them to repent.  This is not my method of preaching.  “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” the saying goes.  And this is true.  But, if you think God is simply honey, then you don’t get the fullness of what God is about; and you certainly will not understand the Gospel.

    I mean, as I read through Scripture, as I read about how God hates sin, I can’t yell.  It’s as if I am sitting in a horror movie, and the fear is so great, I cannot even scream.  God’s wrath is that terrible.  It’s that menacing.  And we just don’t seem to get that anymore.  We don’t seem to understand how God looks at our imperfections–our unwillingness to follow His commands–our inability to live out His teachings–and His wrath is kindled.  God is angry!  Tell me you don’t see the same thing in our Gospel lesson this morning from the 22nd chapter of the book of Matthew.

    Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to...”  Think about this.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who threw a wedding banquet for His son.”  Those first invited turn him down.  He gives them another chance, and this time the king’s messengers plead with those invited.  The best of the best is prepared for the banquet.  “Come to the wedding!!!”  The invitation is sincere.  It is heart-felt.  The king wants to honor his son and have the guests celebrate, but they refuse again.  This time, they get nasty.  They move onto things they consider more important.  They refuse to listen to the slaves, and some become violent with the king’s messengers.  They beat, torture, and kill the slaves.  And what does the king do next?  Sometimes we gloss over this passage because we know Jesus is making a comparison with God.  We don’t like hearing what God does next to those who flat out refuse to come to the feast.

    He sent his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city.

    Does this sound like a God of love to you?

    Does this sound like a king full of compassion and charity to you?

    Wrathful.  Vengeful.  Angry.  These are the words that come to mind.

    But who now will come to the wedding?  Who now will honor the king’s son?

    “Go out into the highways and crossroads and invite anyone and everyone to the feast,” are the instructions.  “Those who were first invited were not worthy.  Throw open the doors.  Let everyone else in.  The party must go on.”

    Now, this sounds more like it.  This sounds more like the God we know and love.  All inclusive.  All loving.  The good and the bad are let in.  Everyone is having a great time. 

    But here we go again.  The parable does not end there.  The king comes in to check on the guests.  He comes to see how things are getting along at the party, and the king stumbles upon a man who is not dressed appropriately!! 

    “How did you get in without a wedding robe?” the king asks.

    Now, before some of you who were raised to wear your Sunday best to church start looking disapprovingly of my blue jeans and boots, let me fill you in on something here.  Remember, first off, the king brought folks from the streets and intersections of the roads.  These folks were of all walks of life.  They were good and bad; rich and poor.  They all came to the feast, and not all of them had wedding robes to wear.  However, it was customary that if a person could not afford a wedding robe, a king would gladly provide one for them for free.  This is not a place to cry, “Wear your best clothes to church!!”  This is something much, much different.  This is about a guest who was provided with the clothes to wear, and he refused to put them on.  He refused to be clothed in the proper manner when all was given to him. 

    “Throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  He’s not allowed to be at this party anymore.”

    For not wearing a robe?  Thrown out because of his attire?  The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. 

    If you don’t understand God’s wrath.

    If you don’t understand God’s justice.

    If you think God just lets us do whatever we want whenever we want with no consequences.

    But God is not that way.  The parable shows that irrefutably.  God’s anger burns hot against sin.  Even ones we consider inconsequential.  Why?  Because He abhors evil.  He abhors when violence and hatred arise.  He abhors it when we hurt one another and take advantage of one another.  And such pain must be paid for.  Such violence must have an answer.  Think about it, if you are taken advantage of, do you just rub it off?  If someone angers you or breaks your trust, do you continue to have the same sort of relationship with them as before?  If someone steals from you, do you just write it off and let bygones be bygones?  Do you rejoice when such things happen and just say, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just love them and they will be okay.”?  Does anyone actually do this?  No.  Deep down, we don’t.  We know crimes must have some sort of punishment.  Justice must be served; for without justice there is complete and utter chaos.  And if justice is not meted out in this world?  If God knows about such injustice and He just overlooks it?  What then?  Do you have a God worth worshiping if He overlooks such things?  Do you have a God worth worshiping who turns a blind eye to violence and hatred and pain?  Do you have a God worth worshiping if He simply says, “Oh well, this all happened, but I’m sure folks feel sorry for it.  They can come join me without consequence.”?  Is this the kind of God you worship?

    No.  Not at all.  God becomes extremely wrathful at sin.  Even small ones.  For those small sins lead to larger ones.  Think about the progression in how Sunday mornings were once reserved for worship and family.  Think about how they slowly progressed to the point where some select sports now schedule tournaments on Easter Sunday.  And we who let things slide early on can now just scratch our heads in bewilderment.  God doesn’t do that.  God’s wrath burns hot against small sins as well as large ones–whether you’ve rejected the invitation or failed to wear the robes provided for you.  God’s anger burns.

    This parable does not seem to have much good news in it.  Not if we are honest with ourselves.  For oftentimes we are much like those first invited to the wedding feast fo the Son.  We know we are supposed to follow the Son–to worship Him regularly and dine with Him and celebrate His goodness.  And yet, we find other things to do.  We get involved with other activities–sports, outdoors, sleeping, work.  We place all these things of value in front of our relationship with Jesus.

    And even though we know we’ve been invited to the party, most of the time we don’t wear the appropriate clothing.  “For as many of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourself with Christ.”  So said St. Paul in Galatians 3.  But how many of us during the course of the day really feel like we show forth Jesus?  How many of us believe we truly are wearing Him and being a good representation of Jesus?  Be brutally honest.  From what you know about Jesus, do you honestly think someone would mistake you for Him?  Not much of a chance of that, is there?

    And so, if we are honest with ourselves, we see that we are like those who refused to come; or we are like the one cast out because we failed to wear the clothes provided.  It would seem as though all hope were lost to us.

    But there is one who hasn’t really made an appearance in this parable.  Who was the wedding banquet thrown for?  The Son.  What if, the Son comes to His Father and says, “Dad, wait a minute.  Before you consume everyone because they are not worthy...before you cast those who are not wearing the robes out into the outer darkness...let me act on their behalf.  Let me take their punishment.  Don’t destroy them.  Yes, they deserve punishment.  Yes, they deserve your wrath, but let me take it.  Let me save them.  For I love them.”  And what if the king said, “Yes, Son, you may take their place.  My wrath will be satisfied because of what you do.”? 

    And what if the Son was stripped of His robes?  And beaten?  And tortured?  And crucified all for the sake of those who deserved God’s wrath?  And what if, the Father, the King were so distraught and so overwhelmed by what His Son did, that He raised His Son from the dead to show that death would not be the end?  That love and justice could meet in an absolutely beautiful event?  Where God’s wrath would be satisfied and His love could be extended?

    Would that be a story worth sharing?

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that all those who believe in Him would 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 save through Him.”  The wrath of God has been satisfied.  And you are welcome at the banquet because of it.  Amen.  

Monday, October 6, 2014

When Gay Marriage Causes Family Strife: Or How to Love Someone I Vehemently Disagree With

    As I promised in my “Pastor’s Ponderings” email a week or so ago, I will be dealing with a submitted question that we received through our new website.  Anyone is welcome to ask questions you would like me to cover in a sermon at any time, so if you have a topic you would like me to cover, don’t hesitate to ask.

    The email we received stated, “Need help/understanding in the part we as a family play when members are involved in a same sex marriage. We have a relative who married in June. Can't and don't want to turn them away, but with Holidays and family gatherings approaching”

    Now, obviously, this email is from someone who views such marriages as sinful and out of the norm.  There are some in our society, and even in our congregation who do not view such things as sinful.  For these folks, there is no problem in what has been done, and it would cause no strife at all.  Usually, their response to someone who has such concerns would be, “You just need to get over it and change your mind.  They really aren’t doing anything wrong.  God made them that way, and you should just accept them as they are.”  Essentially, they would tell you, you are the one with the problem, not your relatives.  You are the one who needs to change, not them.

    On the other hand, there are those who believe just as strongly that homosexual marriage is sinful and the problem resides with those who engage in it.  They are the ones who need to change or keep their relationships completely and utterly private so that it doesn’t cause any discomfort to anyone else.  Keep such matters to yourself and do not flaunt it in my face.  I don’t want to see it; or hear it; or think about it.  It’s your problem, not mine.

    This tends to be the extremes that we get pushed toward in dealing with such matters, and the real issue is never tackled by either side.  The real issue is not who has to change.  Let me say that again.  The real issue is not who has to change.  The real issue is how do we live and interact with others who do not share our views about life and morality.  Again, I will repeat: the real issue is: how do we live and interact with others who do not share our views about life and morality.

    In the extremes of this issue, one side says, “I can’t interact with you unless you fully accept me.  You have to change.”  The other side says, “I can’t interact with you unless you change your lifestyle or bury it deep.”  Both expect the other to change to accommodate because, “by God, I am right.  You are wrong.  I don’t need to change, and you do.”  This leaves little room for maintaining a relationship when lines get drawn so firmly.  In fact, when lines are drawn in this manner, it makes for some very, very uncomfortable situations, to say the least.

    But what if there was a way forward in which acceptance is not a requirement for relationship?  What if there is a way forward in which we could love someone and interact with someone even if we consider them unlovable?  What if we can indeed accept that another’s position is wrong, yet love that person anyway?  Is such a thing possible? 

    I think it is.  Full disclosure at this point.  I believe very strongly that Scripture condemns homosexual marriage.  I believe that any sexual relations outside the bounds of a marriage relationship between a man and a woman is sinful.  God intended this gift to be used between a man and a woman within those boundaries.  I think Scripture is absolutely clear on this despite those who want to offer up all sorts of other interpretations.  I know what you have to do to get those interpretations, and if you applied those methods to the whole of Scripture, you basically can make the Bible say any darn thing you want it to say and excuse any and every behavior known to humankind.  That being said.  I also have relatives who are homosexual.  My wife’s uncle came out of the closet quite a few years ago and was in a very steady relationship until just a couple of years ago.  My wife and I regularly met and stayed with her uncle and his partner.  I also have an aunt who I am pretty sure is homosexual, but she hasn’t exactly made public profession because it would cause quite the ripple in the family.  Yet, she and her partner have been together decades, and I love them both dearly.  Therefore, I come at this issue from the particular standpoint of one who believes that homosexual marriage is sinful, but loving family members who are and who quite possibly are homosexual and have had long term relationships with exclusive partners.  How can I hold such things in tension?

    There are a couple of things that guide me along the path.  The first is St. Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth.  This particular passage does not get a lot of playtime in churches as it takes a back seat to Jesus’ comment in Matthew 7, “Thou shalt not judge because with the judgement you give, you will receive.”  I have argued all along that Jesus’ admonition here does not mean we aren’t supposed to judge things as right and wrong–that would be absurd.  I mean, honestly, does anyone believe we should say, "I cannot judge a child abuser because Jesus said I shouldn't judge?"  That is the consequences of extending this teaching all the way down.  No one believes or practices this.  Even Jesus didn't--especially if you read through the Gospels.  We can and should judge right and wrong, but we shouldn't take it to eternal consequences.  We shouldn't judge whether or not a person is or is not loved by God.  I personally have argued this is exactly what Jesus meant, and I think  Paul fleshes that out perfectly in 1 Corinthians 5.  He says, “11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. 12For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? 13God will judge those outside.”  “Outside” refers to those who are outside the church.  They are non-believers.  We do not offer judgment here.  We only judge those who are within the church–those on the inside. 

    At this point, you may be ready to pounce on me and say, “Well, okay, but aren’t we supposed to get everyone in the church?  Isn’t the goal to get people to become Christian?  Aren’t we supposed to point out to others that they are sinful and they need to avoid hell–therefore, they need to stop sinning?  And what do we do about all those folks who have joined the church who still practice gay marriage and homosexual behavior?  Don’t we have to confront them as well?”  And I’m going to play the devil’s advocate for just a moment, because remember, this issue cuts both ways.  Because there is another side which is ready to pounce and say, “So what do we do about all those people who are rendering judgement on gays and lesbians?  What do we do about those who are judgmental and self-righteous; who look down their noses at anyone who believes differently than they do; who won’t love and accept people who are different than they are?”  You see, we still haven’t really resolved anything even with guidance from St. Paul here.  So, where do we go next?

    I think we go to the Gospel.  I think we’ve got to get to Jesus.  We’ve got to look at what He did and what He has done.  And to do just that I want to look at John chapter 8–our Gospel lesson.  Believe it or not, I have seen this lesson used both to condemn homosexuals and to bolster a case for acceptance.  But I want to get away from rendering such judgment for the moment, and I want to deal with this passage as it stands, and then to take us through the implications.

    The story progresses straightforwardly enough: a woman is caught in the act of adultery, and she is brought before Jesus by the scribes and the Pharisees.  Now, whether or not they were peeking in the windows or what to discover she was committing adultery, I don’t know.  What I do know is that her life hangs by a thread.  She knows that her life hangs by a thread.  The scribes and Pharisees know that her life is forfeit according to the laws of Moses.  Both Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 have passages demanding that the adulterer and adulteress be stoned.  (Which raises an interesting question of where the guy is in all of this!!!)  This woman is all but dead; she knows it, and the scribes and Pharisees know it.

    But they also know it is an opportunity to trap Jesus.  If Jesus allows this woman to be stoned, He will be seen as callous and uncaring.  If Jesus allows the woman to go free, He can be accused of telling people to break the laws of Moses–and of God.  “Teacher, this woman was found caught in the act of adultery.  According to the laws of Moses, we are supposed to stone her.  What do you say?”

    Jesus wrote in the dirt.  Apparently, He didn’t want to answer.  Apparently, He wanted folks to figure it out for themselves, but the scribes and the Pharisees kept pushing Him.  They kept asking.  They kept demanding an answer. 

    Jesus finally replies, “Let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

    We are told that one by one, all drop their stones and leave.  And here is where things get interesting, in my estimation.

    The only one left with the woman is Jesus.  Think about this for a minute.  Everyone else has dropped their stones and walked away, except Jesus.  Jesus is still there.  Why is this so important?

    Let me ask you this: is Jesus without sin?  Yep.  Think about that again for a minute.  If Jesus is without sin, could He have cast the first stone?  Could He have brought the punishment of death upon this woman who was caught in adultery?  Yep.  Absolutely.

    But does He?  “Is no one left to condemn you?”  He asks.

    “No one, sir,” she replies.  Yes, they have all gone, but Jesus is still there.  Jesus still holds her life in the balance.  Her life is completely and utterly in His hands.  Whether she gets that or not, I don’t know.  So I do not know how she receives these next words–they may have come with a shock as she realizes He could have cast the first stone; or they could have come with relief as she discovers He will not cast a stone Himself.

    “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says.  “Now go and do not sin again.”

    Think hard about those statements and in the order they appear. Think really, really hard about them and the actions leading up to them.  Think about what Jesus has done for this woman.  Think about how He just saved her life.  Think about how close to death she had come and how now she has another chance.  How do you think she will respond to hearing what Jesus said?  How do you think she will walk away from this encounter with the man who saved her life and then said, “Go and do not sin again.”?  Will she follow His instructions?

    Would you follow His instructions if He just saved you from a painful, horrible death?  I’d imagine you would.  If someone saves you and shows you great love in their saving acts, you generally take their advice and teaching. 

    And the question I have for each and every one of us here this morning is this: if you want another person to change what they are doing, are you willing to save their life and show them great love before you ask them to change?  Are you willing to endure the ridicule of modern day scribes and Pharisees–whether they be on one side or the other–to show such love in hopes that another person will change?  You see too often, we in the church are very willing to tell people, “Go and sin no more.  Change your life or you will go to hell.” or what have you without a single note of compassion, love, or mercy.  We expect the other person to change without any cost to ourselves.  And then we get angry when they get angry with us.  We end up in a vicious cycle of blaming and finger pointing because we ourselves have not been transformed by the Gospel.

    “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.”

    You see, Jesus didn’t just save that woman caught in adultery.  He also saved you and me.  We were and are living in sin.  We have been caught in our brokenness.  We have not followed the laws of Moses.   We deserve death. 

    But Jesus took our place.  Jesus died the death we deserved.  He saved us because He loved us.  And he still loves us.  He still has great mercy and compassion on us.  And when we realize this, it changes us.  It leads us to repentance.  It leads us to fight against the sin in our own lives.  And it leads us to proclaim what Jesus has done–to tell others what He has done for them as well.  Because when the Gospel takes root in our lives, we know that we don’t change other people.  We know we can’t make their hearts move in another direction.  Only Christ can. 

    Which finally brings us to the answer to the original question.  How do you deal with someone who you disagree with?  Who you believe is living in sin?  Who you would like to see change?  First, be changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Let it transform you so that you show great love to others.  Second, share what Christ has done for you.  Third, let Him bring about the change, for He will do the same to others as He has done in you.  Amen.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Worship...In (a) Church...That You Disagree With

Because of a lack of time--and the lengthiness of the post, I did not come full circle as I wrote about worship.  Today, I'd like to finish the thoughts on worship and come back to the extended quote by Timothy Keller:

If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God?  In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you.  For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship.  Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives?  The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands.  A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?  If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?  You won't!  You'll have a Stepford God!  A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.  Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten a hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.  (Kindle Location 1901-1907)

If we worship to come in contact with Jesus--to hear about what He has done and how we are saved purely and solely by His action...

And if it is at worship where we attempt to shut out all the other false gods of the world and concentrate on Jesus...

And if in the midst of doing so, Jesus begins tuning our hearts toward Him...

...then we should feel quite a bit of discomfort.

And I know we do not like feeling uncomfortable.  Take another quick look at the reasons I wrote for folks skipping worship on a given Sunday (or for an extended period of time):
  • I am spiritual, but not religious.  
  • I can worship God anywhere.  I do not need to be in church to do so.
  • I do not find anything compelling when I attend worship.
  • This person hurt me, and I do not want to run into them at worship.
  • I do not like the decision the church made, and I will not worship.
  • I do not like the way the pastor preaches. 
  • I do not like the music.
  • I want more organ music.
  • I want more contemporary music.
  • I like being anonymous when I go to church and do not like small crowds.
  • I like being welcomed and part of an intimate group and do not like large worship services.
 What do they all have in common?  Well, let me rephrase that question: who is at the center of all of these questions?

Me.  Myself.  And I.

It's understandable, really.  We live in a consumer oriented culture.  We live by the mantra, "Have it your way."  (Even though I detest Burger King.)  If we find a restaurant does not tickle our taste buds, we find another.  If a repair shop does not satisfy us with the job of repair, we find another.  If we do not like the prices at one store, we find another.  Hey, I'm just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to this.  I needed a part for my SUV, and after consulting with a few shops, I gleefully ordered it online and saved $30!!!  Saving money made me happy and much more comfortable.

And we really, really like our comfort zones. 

In quantum mechanics, there is a rule which governs atomic particles: those particles like to remain at the lowest possible energy state.  It takes extra energy to get them "excited" and changing or maintaining a particular position.  If everything is same ol', same ol', they simply will not change or move to another level.

The more I have studied humankind, I believe we too are influenced in the same manner.  We are all to happy to remain right where we are.  We are all to happy to stay entrenched in our thought processes, beliefs, and actions.  Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing in all circumstances.  For instance, you would be hard pressed to get me to change my belief that Jesus is the Son of God, second person of the Trinity, and resurrected Savior.  But am I so comfortable in that belief that I do not ask myself why I believe it to be true?  Am I so comfortable in that belief that it makes little difference in what I do and how I do it?  What challenges that belief and makes me think through why I believe what I believe and do what I do?

If I go to a church where I never end up asking myself those kinds of questions, I have a Stepford Church.  I have a church/congregation that simply affirms me and makes me feel good about myself.  I have a church that never challenges my ideas or makes me do the messy work involved in a REAL relationship.

And face it, real relationships are messy at times.  We disagree with others.  We misunderstand others.  We are forced to examine our own contributions to the problems in relationships.  We have to invest time and energy and money into real relationships.  We argue.  We fight.  Sometimes we don't talk to one another for a while.  But within those real relationships, we also find love, compassion, caring, and intimacy at a level far beyond most of the superficiality we experience each and every day.

You will find neither challenge nor true intimacy without engaging an "other" who is different from you and does not see everything just like you.

A few have asked me why I remain in a denomination that I tend to disagree with on many levels theological and philosophical.  Why stay in a denomination that I feel has gone astray doctrinally? 

Unless said denomination has people within it who challenge it (and vice versa) it will never grow, and neither will I.  Unless said denomination has people of differing theologies, it simply has Stepford Members, and if I find a denomination that fits all my beliefs, then I have a Stepford Denomination.  There is no growth, and there is no intimacy.

Whether it is a Stepford God, Stepford Denomination, Stepford Congregation, or Stepford Member, none of these are real relationships.  Relationships should make us uncomfortable as we engage the "other."  It's how we grow.

And if you are not engaging the Holy Other--Jesus the Christ, on an extremely regular basis, you are not growing; your heart is not being changed; you are maintaining your comfortable place at the lowest energy state.

Perhaps you are happy with such a thing.  Perhaps you believe you have no need to change or become a better person than you are.  Then church and worship definitely isn't for you.  Church is for people who know they fall short.  Church is for those who know they miss the mark.  Church is for those who know there is more to life than what they currently experience.  Church is for those who know they have plenty of room to grow.  Church is for those who want transformation of themselves, their relationships, and the world.

And that transformation comes from Jesus who changes hearts at worship.