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One of the greatest treasures I own is a small tin box of letters my grandfather and his family exchanged while he served in the US Army in France during World War I.

Those letters reveal a wealth of information about the day-to-day lives of my family nearly 100 years ago.  They also show me a different side of my grandfather as a man in his early 20s, rather than the 70-year-old  that I knew growing up. I had never truly thought about my Grandpagrandfather’s  willingness to  volunteer to sacrifice his life for his country, if necessary, and how far the battlefields of France must have seemed from the wheat fields of Kansas.  His thoughts and the thoughts of his brothers and sisters, their hopes, and their obvious concern and love for each other shine through in the letters.

The pages of the Bible contain similar insights for us today.  Aspects of God’s personality revealed to us in the actions and words of Christ.  The willingness of a human Jesus to sacrifice his life so that we might truly live.  The love and concern and advice that the early disciples and churches shared for one another.

If you’re feeling unloved and alone, or like you don’t really know God or don’t believe there’s a plan for your life, flip through the pages of the greatest love letter ever written. May God’s hope and obvious love and concern for you shine through on every page.

“Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us . . .”—Ephesians 5:2

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire . . . with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” –James 3:5-6,9

One of the most rampant urban legends that pops up in every rural community is the certainty that a large mega-retailer wanted to build a store in town but “they” kept them out. (I’m aware of the campaigns against Walmart and Home Depot in some larger communities. I’m talking about spot-in-the-road towns that barely have populations to support grocery stores, let alone mega-retailers.)

angry-face-715449At one public meeting I attended where that statement was made, I looked at the gentleman and said, “Who is `they’?”  He stammered a bit and said, “You know . . .  `them’.”  “Well, who is them?”  I asked.  He blustered a bit more and then said, “Well, the city council, I suppose.”  Although I assured him that I attended nearly every council meeting and never heard a discussion or saw a vote taken to deny a building permit to any retailer, I’m afraid I never convinced that gentleman to question the source and reliability of fodder tossed around the local coffee shop each morning.

Although Christians try not to take the Lord’s name in vain, (Commandment #3), what are the limits on not bearing false witness against your neighbor (Commandment #9)?  Aren’t we taking the Lord’s name in vain if we pass along negative stories about other people–who are God’s creation, just as we are?

The most troublesome aspect of our tendency to criticize a vague “they” for the problems of a business, community, school, church, or country lies in the way those attitudes discourage and demoralize large groups of people.  Even people who are healthy, financially stable, happy with their jobs and activities, and have good personal relationships with their family, co-workers and neighbors can get caught up in mass hysteria when exposed to negative comments and attitudes.

Our best example of that fact?  Backbiting statements and innuendoes circulated about Jesus stirred up the crowd—and was ultimately responsible for his arrest and death.

We should take a stand against wrong.  That, however, involves getting our facts straight, examining our motives, and becoming involved in finding solutions that bring about positive change.

Psalm 139:44 is a sobering thought: “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” We should approach every conversation as if God is listening in—because we know God is listening in on our every conversation.

The opposite of talking is not listening.  The opposite of talking is waiting.—Fran Lebowitz

 Summer months have a different rhythm. Maybe it feels that way because we set so much of our lives by the school calendar.  Perhaps Kansans pace themselves a little differently when the temperatures climb above 100 degrees.  Even in churches, we tend to suspend many of our usual meetings and activities during the summer.

 Maybe those of us who grew up in less “organized” times never quite get over the feeling that summer should be slower.  For me as a kid, summer meant stacks of books, poking around in the creek, evening drives to check cattle, snapping green beans with my grandparents.

 These days, we’re not very good at not being productive 100 percent of the time.  We only value action and results.  We just can’t wait.

 Waiting is not the absence of activity.  Webster’s definition of the word “wait” is to “observe carefully” and “to be watchful” and “to remain in readiness for some purpose”.

 Summer months as a kid meant I could read books and explore places in nature I didn’t have time to pay attention to during a busy school year.  Summer meant the opportunity for more time and longer conversations with my parents and grandparents. The learning didn’t stop—I could just be more observant about important people and everyday things in life that passed me by when I was too busy.  

Waiting is most difficult when we go through seasons of anxiety and trouble and uncertainty—we become impatient and want answers NOW—even when we understand that God reveals those answers in due season.  It’s the period of waiting where God teaches us to trust and depend on Him, and not our own abilities. 

Seasons of waiting—both in our personal lives and in our life as the church—are not seasons of doing nothing.  They are an opportunity for us to reflect on God, our faith, to pray, to listen, to study, to sit and observe—to rest and refresh, but remain in readiness to act when we’re called.

 “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up on wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”—Isaiah 40:31

 

“We know love by this–that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”–1John 3:16

I have always wanted to be asked to give a commencement address, because I have a piece of vital information to pass along to freshly-minted graduates.

Since I haven’t been asked AGAIN this year, I’m going to write it here instead.

Ready?  Here it is:

No matter where you work (and yes, the purpose of all of these years of education is so that some day you will have a job) there will always be someone who makes twice as much money as you for doing half the work.

(If you don’t think this statement is funny, you might be who I’m talking about.)

It might be a bit of an exaggeration.  At the least, you will have a coworker who makes approximately the same amount of money you do and manages to do only about a fourth of the work.

So why is it so important to me that the kiddos know this?  Because how you respond in that situation defines your character and attitude for life.  And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a workplace.  I know plenty of relationships suffer because one person works harder at it than the other.  I’ve served on numerous volunteer boards with people who worked as hard at their responsibilities for the greater good as they did at their “real” jobs.  And others who signed up just to be able to list the organization on their resumes.

So, when faced with those kind of people, we can respond in two ways.  We can get really ticked off and decide we’re not going to put out any more effort than they do.  Or, we can do our jobs and throw ourselves into our relationships to the very best of our abilities.

In John 10, Jesus says he is the “good” shepherd–not “good” as in “nice”, but “good” as in, this is the kind of dedicated shepherd you want taking care of your sheep.  A shepherd tough enough and courageous enough to go to battle against predators. A shepherd responsible enough to brave the elements 24 hours a day to keep watch on the sheep.  A shepherd gentle enough and sympathetic enough to lead sheep to safe pastures and call them by  name.sheep

A “good” shepherd–“good” as in “model” shepherd.  A kind of shepherd sheep like us should listen to and trust and follow.  A shepherd who puts the welfare of the sheep ahead of his own. One who loves his flock enough to lay down his own life.

Sheep, like people, do some stupid things when they ignore the shepherd and go off on their own.  I read a story several years ago about an entire flock of sheep that committed mass suicide when one jumped off a cliff and the rest followed.  (There you go–your mother had reason for saying, “And I suppose if all your friends jumped off a cliff, you’d want to do that too?”)

Moral to the story: If you decide you want to choose a fellow sheep for your leader, you’d better take a long, hard look at where he’s heading.

At any given moment in our lives, we are being led by who (or what) we believe in, and we are in a position to lead other people by our actions.

So here’s your challenge, Class of 2009: Show us what a world of sheepish leaders led by the Good Shepherd might look like.

 

 

 

 

“Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out . . .” –Acts 3:19

We watched Will Smith’s movie “Seven Pounds” last night on DVD.  I suppose it was only a coincidence that my sermon title this week is “The God of Second Chances”.

 

Will Smith in "Seven Pounds"

Will Smith in "Seven Pounds"

In the movie, Smith plays a man responsible for a terrible accident in which seven people die, but he survives unscathed.  (One of my worst fears, by the way–may God be merciful enough to only let me die when I do something stupid.)  Smith begins to methodically plot his suicide, choosing the potential recipients of his organs based on whether or not they are good people.

 

I actually liked the movie, even if I disagree violently with the theology.  I ached for  Smith’s character, with no apparent knowledge of a God who forgives even when we’re unable to forgive ourselves.   And I ache for a world that dispenses mercy only to the “deserving”, only to those who prove themselves worthy.

It’s important to know the background behind Acts 3.  Peter seems to come down hard  on the crowd  for their participation in Jesus’s death. Some called for Jesus to be crucified.  Many more, probably, were good people who did nothing.  Good people who decided not to get involved.  

But the real reason Peter’s sermon has impact is because he bears a greater burden for Jesus’s death than they do.  They acted out of ignorance, he tells them, unaware that Jesus is the Son of God who fulfills the prophecy of the Messiah.  But Peter?  Peter knew Jesus.  Broke bread with him every day.  Personally heard his teaching.  Swore he’d defend him–right up to the time the soldiers drew their swords to arrest Jesus.  Then he and the other disciples fled like scared puppies.  Peter denied knowing Jesus–three times.

But God came back for Peter.  Peter didn’t deserve a second chance.  Turning your back on the Son of God is pretty unforgivable. (And don’t forget the Apostle Paul’s second chance, who, in a former life took great pride in persecuting Christians.)

The world might demand a pound of flesh in exchange for our wrongs.  Jesus offered all of his flesh on behalf of the wrongs we’ve wrought. God doesn’t show up to condemn anyone–God only shows up to offer us a second chance.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.  With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.  There was not a needy person among them . . .–Acts 4:32-34

“Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy . . . See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.”–Tertullian (AD155-220)

Perhaps nothing confirms my Christian faith more than the behavior of Christ’s followers in the days following Easter.  They changed in surprising ways.  Suddenly, they were fearless spokesmen for the Gospel, despite ridicule and persecution.  Suddenly, the possessions they owned weren’t for their own benefit, but viewed as how they could be used to help others.  They had nothing to gain and everything to lose, but suddenly their lives and possessions paled in comparison to spreading love, kindness, forgiveness, and mercy, always giving credit to Christ and taking none for themselves.

I had a conversation recently with a church member about alleged tortures inflicted during interrogation of terrorist detainees.  I believe in protecting the safety and security of our country.  But I wonder how we  justify inhumane treatment of any person, even our enemies.  How does that make us different from the people we’re trying to protect the world from? (Note to anyone poised to make “bleeding heart liberal” comments: I am a registered Republican who voted for Reagan and both Bushes as well as John McCain, although I wish President Obama well in leading the country and think the First Family’s dog is very cute.)

Camp Concordia lies a few miles from my home.  A Midwestern prisoner of war camp during World War II, Camp Concordia housed nearly 4,000 German officers and enlisted men from 1943-45.  Many of the Germans served in work details on local farms left shorthanded because their own sons were in Europe fighting against, and being killed because of the human rights violations inflicted by Germans.  Yet in this little Midwestern community, the German POWs were mostly treated in the spirit of the Geneva Convention: “Prisoners of War . . . must at all times be humanely treated and protected, particularly against acts of violence, insults and public curiosity . . . prisoners of war have the right to have their person and their honor respected.  Prisoners who refuse to answer questions may not be threatened, insulted or exposed to unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment whatsoever.”

Camp Concordia

Camp Concordia

Sadly, I’ve interviewed American POWs held in Germany and Korea who suffered horrific treatment.  Yet, in Kansas, the enemy forged friendships with local farmers and businessmen, some that spanned decades, writes Lowell May in his book “Camp Concordia: German POWs in the Midwest.”  

“I am now convinced that the POW camp at Concordia has had an effect on the future of Europe, and, for that matter, the world.  A large number of the POWs became professors, diplomats and business leaders in Germany.  I firmly believe that what they saw and learned while POWs in the United States influenced their thought, and thus helped keep Germany in the Western cause during the Cold War.  More Importantly, how these POWs were treated here has helped bring the two countries closer together.”  Lowell, by the way, is a Command Sergeant Major, Retired, US Army, who served tours in Vietnam and Germany and spent much of his Army career in the military police, working in corrections.

May’s book includes a “secret” letter written to the camp in 1944 by the US Adjutant General:  “The detention in the United States of ever increasing numbers of German prisoners of war creates an unprecedented opportunity. These men will some day be repatriated, and as a group, will have a powerful voice in future German affairs.  Their opinions and feelings concerning America may determine, in a large measure, future relations between Germany and the United States.”  The letter announces the establishment of a program “to create and foster spontaneous responses on the part of German prisoners of war towards activities and  contacts which will encourage an attitude of respect on their part for American  institutions, traditions and ways of life and thought.”

Jesus boiled that memo down to “love your enemies”, and backed up his words with actions when he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, from the cross.

It’s not that hard to go to church and claim to be a believer.  What counts is how we are changed by what we believe.

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”–Mark 1:35

prayI’ve been thinking a lot about prayer lately–mostly how I don’t do it very well.

Most of my prayers are quick “This is the way I want things to be God–and I want them to be that way–Right Now.”

It’s interesting to wonder what Jesus prayed. As a human being, he was subject to the same temptations as us all.  Particularly, maybe, in listening to what other people wanted him to do, thought he should do, believed he should act based on their limited knowledge of God–versus what God actually wanted him to do.

We don’t know what Jesus prayed exactly, but we do know how: habitually, and alone.  And based on his actions, it’s apparent he listened to  God more than he talked.

Why do we think we can only pray with five-syllable words and long sentences, and prayer is only really, really effective if we go on . . .and on . . . and on?  What’s wrong with showing up, keeping our comments short,  shutting up, and sitting still long enough to really listen to God?

(Could be God is sending this preacher a message in that last sentence. Note to self for next week’s service: Show Up. Keep it Short.  Shut Up. And Pray. With More Silence and Less Words.)

Mostly I think I’m not always so comfortable with what God has to say.  Little reminders to not be so judgmental.  Realizations that my days may not always be as easy and carefree as I want. In-your-face discussions about how much I actually trust God, and whether I don’t really trust my own abilities more.

Sometimes, in the mornings, I’ve made the mistake of praying that God connect me with the people God wants me to see that day.  The results have been amazing–and terrifying. I’ve never really loved that feeling at the top of the roller-coaster right before you drop.  But on those  days when I’m brave enough to pray that prayer–I’m really glad I signed on for the ride anyway.  Mostly because I know Christ’s sitting right there next to me, holding my hand as I hurtle into the unknown.  Those are the days I’ve come to see Him and feel Him next to me the most.

If  you read the rest of the first chapter of Mark, you begin to wonder how Jesus–with all the people he had to help and teach– could find time to sneak off on his own and pray.  

And when you think about that–why in heaven’s name do we think we’re too busy not to pray?

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.–Mark 23-26

Demons fascinate people.  Books on demonic possession become best sellers.  Movies starring zombies and vampires and evil spirits set box office records.

Funny to say, even some facets of Christianity are possessed by obsessive thoughts of demons duking it out with the angelic armies of God. Um–let’s see—don’t we believe that Christ’s death and resurrection overcomes evil?  So why would we perpetuate the idea that evil just might win in the end if we don’t mind our p’s and q’s? Evil is stronger than God–or equally strong, or almost as strong?  I don’t think so.demon1

Perhaps there are demon imps running around my living room–fortunately, if they’re there, I’ve never met any of them. (My son would like to blame them for the mysterious pink spots in the carpet, but I know that came from a spilled container of body wash in his gym bag.)

 I do wonder, however, by what scriptural authority anyone thinks spiritual warfare is a subject we should lay awake at night worrying about? Focus on evil, and all you’re going to going to see evil.  Is that what Jesus taught?

Take this passage from Mark. Jesus doesn’t engage in an argument with the evil that stumbles into the synagogue.  He doesn’t launch into a long sermon to convert evil to good.  

He doesn’t even break a sweat.  “Be quiet, and leave that man alone.”

The evil fights hard to hang around.  The evil doesn’t want to let go.  But there’s no epic battle of good versus evil going on in this passage.  Good isn’t threatened.  Good can’t be intimidated.  Good can’t be goaded into an argument.

Good–Jesus, God–just gives a command and evil has to leave.  End of story.

Perhaps there are demons, but I think human beings are plenty capable of causing all kinds of chaos on their own, without any help.  The demons I’m familiar with are man-made demons–addictions, tightly held grudges regularly fertilized with self-justification, prejudices, past hurts, fears, bad attitudes.  They grip us tightly and we can’t shake them. We focus on them. We nurture them and allow them to grow.  We use them to challenge God to leave us alone.

We can trust the authority of Christ to banish evil.  Starting not with outside forces, but the evil that lurks within us.

(For more information on the image of Satan included in this post, look here.)

And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”–Mark 1:17

That is probably one of Jesus’s more famous quotes.  (Yes, I know, in some circles it’s quoted as “fishers of men”, but most of the time I try to be a politically correct Presbyterian who uses diverse language.  Even if for simplicity’s sake, I still refer to God as “He”.)

But–let’s be honest here–we would much rather just go fishing than heed Jesus’s call to discipleship. “I don’t know what to say.”  “I’m not comfortable talking about my faith.”  “I’m not going to go knock on doors like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (No offense to my JH friends.  I admire your guts.  I feel guilty when you show up because you’re doing it and I’m not.)  And, my personal favorite excuse on the responsibility of discipleship:  “That’s what we pay the preacher to do.”

So, here’s a few fishing analogies to think about:

andygriffith11.  True fishermen spend a lot of time studying their craft.  They read fishing magazines.  They talk to other fishermen.  They go to Cabela’s and look at all the new fishing equipment.

The disciples spent a good deal of time (pretty much most of the three years of his ministry) learning from Jesus.  When he did send them out, it was with a detailed list of instructions to follow.  (Matthew 10:5, Luke 10:1-20).  Sometimes they asked a lot of dumb questions or spouted off false assumptions, but that gave Jesus an opportunity to teach them even more.

2. Fishermen know the best places and conditions for fishing.  You can blow up a baby pool in your backyard and sit all day with a line in the water, but that doesn’t make you a fisherman.  Fishermen go to the fish.  They know the fish aren’t going to come to them.

Likewise, showing up in church on Sunday morning is beneficial for your spiritual growth, but except in a few lucky cases, it’s not a place where fish just jump into the boat on their own.  You gotta get out there where the fish are.  You’ve got to cast your net–invite the fish in.  (There really aren’t a lot of good analogies for the disciples pulling fish out of the water and leaving them flopping on the deck that relate to discipleship.  Unfortunately, that mental picture does relate to what we do sometimes in nurturing the spiritual life of fellow believers.  Ouch–that hurts to think about. But for now, we’ll just think about casting our nets in terms of inviting people in to learn about Jesus.)

You can talk about fishing.  You can pray about fishing.  You can learn about fishing.  But at some point in time, you gotta go fish.  

I have heard that fish bite best when there’s a storm brewing.  The same concept works for people.  Questions like “Why am I here?”  and “Does God really care what happens to me?” always loom the largest when life’s waters are choppy.

3. You don’t need fancy equipment to catch a fish.  You can outfit yourself with state of the art rods and comfortable boats, but likely you’re not impressing the fish.  Plenty of fish have been caught with simple equipment.  

Same holds true with the idea that you’re not qualified to go fish for people because you can’t rattle off long passages of Scripture from memory and can’t recite all the books of the Bible, in order.  (I can’t either.) Vast theological knowledge impresses people very little.  Most of them just need to know that God loves them and cares about them, and maybe the real-life situations that helped you figure out that God loves you and cares about you.

Study the Bible.  Perhaps judiciously use Scripture as bait. (It’s OK to look it up in the index and refer to the Table of Contents). Just be sure you don’t try to beat your fish over the head with it.  (I think clubbing fish may be illegal in most states. )

4. Fishermen are always thinking about fishing.  They don’t always get to fish.  But they’re always looking for unexpected opportunities to go fishing.  The tackle box is ready.  The pickup is packed. They’re reading “Fly Fishing Today” and “Bass Monthly” on their noon hours looking for new techniques to try.

Fishing for people is all about looking for  opportunities and being prepared to act on them.  There may not always be perfectly planned occasions to fish.

But when the time presents itself, go fish.

Presbyopia: Farsightedness caused by loss of elasticity in the eye, generally occurring in middle and old age. From Greek presbus “old man” and op “eye”.

I noted the poster on my optometrist’s wall with interest Friday.  It’s a little disconcerting to have your denomination’s name associated with a lack of vision.presbyopia1

Saturday, I attended our presbytery’s quarterly meeting. We voted on the dreaded “gay ordination” amendment, which, of course, says nothing about gay ordination but everyone knows that’s what we’re talking about. 

The amendment passed in our presbytery. (Polity wonk alert! This does not mean the amendment is passed for the PCUSA.  It must be approved by 2/3 of the presbyteries with in the US before it would go into affect for the denomination.) The amendment  in part eliminates the words added in 1997 that require officers of the church to live “either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” and replaces it with wording that requires “Those who are called to ordained service in the church . . . pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of Scriptures . . . Each governing body  . . . establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.”

Only time and history will tell whether our presbytery was “far sighted” in passing the amendment, or whether we’re suffering from vision problems.

What it does do, however, is place a responsibility squarely on the shoulders of local congregations and presbyteries to actually  pray and talk about what our standards are and should be.  Frankly, I’ve always been a little bothered that we bandy about the subject of homosexuality like it’s the only really bad sin worth talking about.  Anger, greed, malice, self-righteousness–and! Gasp! the growing acceptance of heterosexual people in the world not living in chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage–we give those subjects only a passing wink, well, because, hey, nobody’s perfect.  If we’re going to have standards, then we’d better be prepared to be as judgmental about those sins as we are about homosexuality.

I wish the amendment would have left in one sentence: “Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sins shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”  While the original intent of that statement may have been to target unrepentant homosexuals, I think it calls all of us to stop justifying our sins and honestly work at becoming more Christ-like each day.  

The concern was raised that the new amendment waters down our convictions as the Church.  My hope is that it forces us to raise our standards, by considering all aspects of sin in our lives, not just our sexuality.

Presbyterians know that “presbus” doesn’t just mean “old man”, it also means “elder”.  It’s time elders stood up and led prayer-filled discussions and study on Scripture. 

What bothers me most were the number of churches within our presbytery not represented among the voting delegates.  Like our national form of government, we have no business criticizing the outcomes if we refuse to participate in the process.