Monday, September 26, 2011

What Goes Around ...

Stay with me on this, it may be of encouragement to you. We are going to look at a concept that seems to span religions, and even secular life. Jesus said, "you will reap what you sow", many religions have the concept of Karma even in today's vernacular, we hear - What goes around comes around. Many televangelists and others in the Prosperity Gospel crowd use a verse in Luke's Gospel to encourage their followers to dig deep and give. They promise that when they give, they will get more in return, "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Luke 6:38 - NIV).

My problem is that when I hear a verse like that quoted, I always want to see what the actual paragraph is talking about. If you will indulge me, I would like to look at the context here and let this paragraph take on a much larger meaning.

"But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Luke 6:35-38 - NIV)

Let's break this down. He says do not judge, and you will not be judged. So, what I hear in the phrase is that if you are a judgmental person, you will receive judgment. I don't know about you, but I often run into people who have made judgments about people -- You have all heard it. Whenever a person starts to tell me "dirt" on a person I usually say "I don't want to know". I am usually thinking at that point, I wonder what they say about me behind my back. What Jesus is saying here is that judgmental people usually are friends with other judgmental people. They share their fears, doubts and gossip about people they have written off or judged. Judgement dovetails very neatly into the next phrase Jesus says.

Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Judgment and condemnation are very close friends. I remember a few year ago when it turned out that  televangelist Jim Bakker was using raised funds to cover up a tryst with Jessica Hahn. His ministry was destroyed and he eventually went to prison. However, during this time another televangelist, Jimmy Swaggart, declared to his worldwide audience, "Jim Bakker is a cancer on the Body of Christ!" Not long after this, Jimmy Swaggart was found with a prostitute and crashed and burned.

In my experience, many people use judgment and condemnation to appear righteous while covering their own dirty laundry.

Now to the other side of the coin. He goes on, Forgive, and you will be forgiven. He had just spoken about loving your enemies. He also said that God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. When I think of Mother Teresa, who dedicated herself to serve in the slums of Calcutta, I think of forgiveness. She is a person that people admire, with the exception of a few of the judgmental and condemning crowd. If you are struggling with a problem in your life, of the three mentioned so far - which one would you rather talk to - Judgment, Condemnation or Forgiveness?

Now we come to the phrase we began with, give, and it will be given to you. I am not convinced that this is limited to a monetary gift. I think it can be sharing what you have. Giving is not limited to the rich, we can all give comfort and yes our money. Jesus calls us to be instruments of his healing touch and his love. Often times, giving is hugging a person who is hurting, visiting a widow or being there with a friend who has seen their life shredded before them.

So here is what I believe this passage is saying:
If you fill your life with judgement, condemnation, forgiveness or giving - that is what you will get. If I may quote Jesus,

"A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure you use, it will be measured to you." 

So, now comes the time of self reflection. Which group do you find yourself in? In the span of your life, which is only a hyphen between two dates on a tombstone, how are you perceived? What have you left in the wake of your life? Judgment? Condemnation? Forgiveness? Giving?

Get ready, because what goes around comes around. And according to Jesus - more than you can handle.

Peace ~Al

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Sermon

My son's girlfriend, Emilee, shared this video with me, I don't think she thought it would wind up here. As I saw the images and heard the words from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I had tears in my eyes as I saw the dichotomy between how Jesus envisioned the Kingdom of God and where the world is today. For many reading this blog the images are foreign to your world - that are only seen on the News or some show. For Jesus this was a daily event. His followers were made up of people, who were marginalized by the culture of His day. The religious leaders often condemned him for being with "those kind of people".

For the most part, the majority of people reading this are in their home, apartment or even sitting in a coffee shop with WiFi. We may have the occasional crisis. Maybe you forgot to charge your cell phone, maybe you thought you had more gas in your tank and now you have to fill up or you have the flu. The scenes in the video above were not from a Third World country - they were all in Los Angeles. We are a blessed people. Even many of the poor among us, now at 46% according to the Congressional Budget Office, have cable TV, cell phones and some of the comforts we take for granted. I grew up in a place that could have been juxtaposed into that video and you wouldn't have noticed. 

Occasionally, the real world breaks through our carefully insulated lives. Something happens that causes us to question - "Why"? We find out a friend has cancer, an earthquake hits a highly populated area, or a tornado hits. Here in Norther Nevada we have been hit with two events that have shaken our community, I am sure you have seen them on the news. About a week or so ago, a disturbed man walked into an IHOP Restaurant and opened up with an AK-47 on the people having breakfast. A person from our congregation was shot and wounded, the persons on each side of her were killed. The question over and over being asked was, "Why". Then this past Friday afternoon, with thousands gathered to watch the Reno Air Races, a WWII era plane crashed into a portion of the crowd. For a fairly small and close knit community these were a one/two punch.

This morning at our church's Assembly, our minister Gary Cage, had some things to say about why God allows suffering and evil in this world. Gary is a thinker and no one expects a great deal of platitudes and cliches coming from him. He has a PhD in Philosophy and he also has worked as a professor for the past thirty or so years. He asked this question:

"Why is there evil and suffering in this world?"

His answer caught be off guard. He said evil and suffering exist because  God allows and sometimes causes it. We normally  hear the trite justifications made by many well meaning Christians that evil and suffering are the work of Satan. Really? Is Satan so strong and powerful that the Sovereign God of the Universe can't stop him? Is it the free will of humankind - that some are evil? Is God not powerful enough to stop a Hitler or a Stalin? No, if we are to believe that Yahweh is truly God Almighty - we are left with the conclusion that yes, He does allow and sometimes causes these things. I have trouble getting my head around that. Go ahead and noodle on that and we will get back to the words on that video.

The Bible NEVER promises we will be free of pain, suffering and evil. It does say that there will be a group of people who have decided to stand against the grain and dedicate their lives to easing pain, caring for the suffering and standing up to those who are evil. If there had been no Hitler a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have never emerged. As a Christian he could not support the Nazi Regime. He was a prominent Pastor, Theologian and eventually a martyr. He was in the German resistance and was hanged by the Gestapo in April of 1945. We have seen people in our own age who have stood up and said, "This far no further". Martin Luther King Jr. faced impossible odds, but his faith allowed him to have a dream. Gandhi stood up to the entire British Empire with peaceful resistance. (It is said that  Gandhi read the "Sermon on the Mount" each day. When asked why he wasn't a Christian, he replied, "When I meet one, I'll become one." -- OUCH!)

My call to you this week is to realize, that yes, there is evil and suffering in the world but you can be part of the solution. The words Jesus spoke were most likely preached to various groups of people. In Matthew it is called "The Sermon on the Mount". Luke has a very similar sermon that is commonly called, "The Sermon on the Plain". I have always been drawn to Luke's account because I find it more jagged - more to the point. Here are those words from Luke's Gospel:

"And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
"Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
"Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.
"Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets"
(Luke 6:20-26 - ESV)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Americanization of God the Commodity

I recently read two books that have had a profound impact on me. The first was I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Christian . . . and I Liked Him Better Then, by Rubel Shelly and the second, The Pastor, by Eugene Peterson. They were very different books, but at times carried the same message. The premise of Rubel's book is that over the past 1700 years or so the church has lost sight of its reason for existence. He begins with this quote:

"Religion has often suffered from
the tendency to become parochial,
self-indulgent, self seeking . . . . It has
often done more to canonize prejudices
than to wrestle for truth; to petrify the sacred
than to sanctify the secular"
- Abraham Heschel

The Church over the last 1,700 years has become many things. What started as a group, mainly marginalized and shunned by the rich and powerful, transformed in a few hundred years into a political power.

Paul wrote, "Brothers, think of when you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were noble by birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." - I Corinthians 1:26-29 (NIV) 

I am not going to go into the atrocities that were acted out in the name of Jesus - I think we are familiar with those. What I would like to discuss or plead for the church to go back to its roots from the church of the First Century. I am a member of The Restoration Movement that started in the late 1700's. A number of ministers decided jettison all of the creeds, dogma and division and simply be Christians. Not Catholic, Baptist, Unitarian, Presbyterian Christians -- just Christians.

As the years have passed, America has become a country of consumers. We buy what we don't need, have to have the latest whatever and wanting everything "My Way". Take for example buying your middle or high school son or daughter cloths; you could go to Wal*Mart but they don't have the "right" jeans. Girls and now boys have eating disorders because they want to look like the models that advertise the things they want to buy.
It reminds me of what Paul says in Ephesians, "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more." Ephesians 4:19 (NIV)

Now add into that equation Christianity in 2011. In the United States, the great consumers we are, God has become a commodity. Like Goldie Locks trying out the beds owned by the three bears - This one is too hard, this one too soft -- ahh, this one is just right. It isn't entirely our fault. The picture at the top of the page is the statue George Carlin, dressed as a Bishop, rolled out. It was the "New" friendly Jesus - thinking it may inspire people to go to church.Churches are now run like corporations complete with organizational charts, huge budgets, buildings costing millions of dollars and focus groups to see what gimmick will fill their pews. Mega-Churches compete with the other churches in their cities and even within their own denominations for the most charismatic, attractive, minister. Not to mention looking for the successful in their communities to get that budget met.

Long gone are the small clusters of people meeting in various homes sharing their stories, successes and failures in their walk with God. Let me be naive for a moment.

When a church assembles, it is filled with people, some are hot, some are cold and some are lukewarm. Everyone of them has a story. Everyone of them have different needs and hurts. Rubel mentions that maybe Alcoholics Anonymous may be a better model to follow that the focus group inspired gimmicks. People come together knowing they have failures in their past and present and for some the future. There is no judgment because they are all sinners in need of God's constant grace. A place where secrets are not kept to save us from shame, but rather calls for help are answered with loving acceptance.

"I know I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one"

Here are some verses that may help you get a glimpse of what the church was to be like. It wasn't a place to network, punch your Sunday ticket or sit in judgment on those who are not among you. See if these verses speak to you:

"A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know you are my disciples, if you love one another" John 13:34-35

"Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" Romans 15:17

I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct [give advice to, counsel] one another" Romans 15:14

"Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing" I Thessalonians 5:11

"Carry one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" Galatians 6:2

"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" Ephesians 4:32

"Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed." James 5:16

"And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds." Hebrews 10:24

"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins" I Peter 4:8

Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Cost of 9/11

As we approach the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 I thought we should see how much that insidious event cost us. I know that there are all kinds on conspiracy theories running around but one thing I do know is that on that day almost 10 years ago 2,752 people died in a barbaric attack of our county. Yet that was only the beginning. Men and women from across this country volunteered to respond to this vicious attack, affecting thousands of families across our country. They sacrificed comfort, time with their families, jobs and educations to answer this attack. They certainly didn't do it for the money or the prestige, they did it out of a word that means little in our culture - DUTY and might I add HONOR.

They have fought valiantly in Afghanistan and Iraq. More often than not as collective ping pong balls of self serving politicians. During this time the United States alone  has lost 1,756 in Afghanistan and 4,282 in Iraq - (6,038). That is over 6,000 families who have lost a son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father. Additionally, an additional 33,602 were wounded, you would have to live with permanent blinders not to see our disfigured and amputee heroes walking or rolling in a wheelchair in our midst.

Then there are those who do not bear the marks from the result of an IED. They are the ones who have come back with a pain that runs deep within them. They may appear jumpy, angry, depressed or just quiet with that 1,000 foot stare. They may have become domestically violent or even criminally. Some have come home to spouses who have left them, a lost boyfriend or girlfriend. Chaplains are  dealing suicides, neurosis and even psychotic responses for people who lived and did their jobs in Hell - for us. 
As you remember 9/11, please remember the cost. The cost of 6,038 lives lost, 33,602 wounded and the uncounted thousands suffering from PTSD. Please remember the thousands of families that have been shaken to the core. The widowed spouse, the children who lost a parent and the fathers and Mothers who have lost or are trying to help a child. Also remember that there are approximately 171,425 troops still deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you see a person in uniform, thank them.

In the meantime politicians will debate and continue to use these sons and daughters as political fodder to bolster their different agendas. While here at home thousands are already fighting their own demons. Some are the Vets who are trying to hold on to what sanity is left, while others are attempting to put their families back together.

Pray for our families, our country and our enemies. (Matthew 5:44)