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“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.

 

 

 

 

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.

“. . . Master, I knew that you were harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”  Matthew 25:24-25

One of the occupational hazards of working for a newspaper is having your mistakes on public view for thousands of people to see.  Even when you check and double check your facts, invariably, some mistakes occasionally slip through.  

The first time one of my mistakes made it to press, I approached my boss with fear and trembling, certain he would fire me on the spot.  Instead, he sat me down and said “Remember this: the only people who don’t make mistakes are the people who aren’t doing anything.”

As the years went on, I was shocked to discover how many people never make mistakes! 🙂 (If you don’t get that joke, you may be one of the people I’m talking about.)

As I was readIng Matthew 25:14-30 this week, The Parable of the Talents, a funny thought struck me.  In Jesus’ story, two slaves are rewarded for doubling the investment their master left with them, while one is punished for taking his master’s talent and burying it in the ground for safekeeping.  What would the outcome of this story be if the first slave, who doubled his master’s money from five talents to 10 talents, would have instead said, “Uh, boss . . . that money you gave me . . . I invested in a little company called Enron, and er, well, uh . . . it’s all gone.”

I think the answer to that question lies back a few chapters in Matthew, when a king forgave his slave a debt of 10,000 talents.  In Matthew 25, the fact that the slave hadn’t lost any of his master’s money is no consolation to the master.  The inference is that the master would have preferred the slave to risk everything and lose, than to not try at all.

I’ve recently had a number of conversations about effective church evangelism.  How do we invite people to church?  Will we offend them?  How do we approach someone who is sick, someone who is dying, someone who is bereaved, someone who just lost their job, their house, just went through a divorce or just came back from bailing a child out of jail?  We are so afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, we don’t say or do anything at all.

The answer to those questions may lie in what we believe “a talent” in this parable represents.  From a strict historical perspective, a talent in Jesus’ day was an enormous amount of money–equal to three years worth of wages.  In modern times, we use a play on words and liken a talent to our own unique skills.  In both cases, this scripture becomes a parable for investing our money and our talents to furthering the kingdom of God.

I’m considering a third comparison to the talents–what about the enormous gift of forgiveness and grace and mercy we’ve been given by God?  Do we go out and “invest” that gift with others?  Or do we bury what we understand about God’s forgiveness and mercy deep within ourselves, out of fear that we might make a mistake, might say something wrong, that someone might take offense? Perhaps that we might have to admit to someone that our lives are messy and full of mistakes, and why we believe God loves us anyway?

There’s a lot of information this parable omits that I want to know.  The master returned “after a long time” (v. 19).  Were all the investments the first two slaves made smart and prudent?  Did the stock market crash in the middle of the master’s journey?  Did they endure setbacks with patience, trusting that they might not see immediate returns, but long-range gains?  Did they look at mistakes as opportunities to learn instead of reasons to never try again?

The other thought that strikes me about this parable is the phrase that the master divided the property among the slaves “to each according to his ability.”  Perhaps the first two slaves had proven their abilities to take calculated risks.  They studied and learned their business, basing their decisions on thoughtful planning. The third slave didn’t want to put that kind of time and effort into growing the talent the master had entrusted to him.  

Since many times we think of this parable in terms of stewardship, this is the question it raises in my mind: Are we good stewards of the mercy Christ has bestowed upon us?  Do we put in time and effort to continue to grow our understanding of God–in a way that we are prepared to take calculated risks to share the good news of Christ’s mercy with other people?

“Then Jesus said . . .”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they touch you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

After my parents became disillusioned with the Catholic Church back in the 1960s, I mostly became a “home-schooled” Christian, sometimes with the help of distance learning technology: ie: the old clock radio sitting on the kitchen table.  (Remember when a new-fangled digital clock had little flip numbers?)

Anyway, my mom’s favorite radio show and our own “church service” on  Sunday morning was the Oral Roberts family. I can still hum tunes Richard and his first wife, Patty Roberts, sang . . . “Something Good is Going to Happen to You” and “Greater is He That is In Thee, Than He that is in the World.”  

As I grew older, it appeared to me the Roberts family was perhaps more interested in building their own kingdom on earth than the kingdom of God.  Yet, I can’t discount the role they played in nurturing my early interest in the faith.

Some people turn their back on Christianity, pointing to the holier than thou attitudes of Christians who can’t live up to their own preaching.  Being a healthy skeptic to anyone trying to exercise authority, the lesson I learned from the people on the radio on my parent’s kitchen table was to listen to, and evaluate, the message–but never, ever, worship the messenger.

I’m a bit cranky on this last day before the 2008 election at all the voices shouting at me about how I’ll vote if I’m a Christian.  (I’ve already voted, by the way, so save your breath.)  I’m increasingly troubled by the tendency for the average church-goer to soak up whatever doctrine the preacher or denomination spouts without searching and researching Scripture themselves to get God’s take on the world.  I’m also a little grumpy at the non-church-goers who reject Scripture based on man’s say-so instead of reading it for themselves.  (Or listening, if you want to make good use of commute time.  James Earl Jones does a great job of reading the Bible–the voice of Darth Vader as God, which really gives some punch to the judgment and condemnation passages in the Old Testament.)

Perhaps my biggest gripe about the conversations this election year is that Christians come off looking like terrified, racist, self-righteous radicals.  If we’re practicing what we preach in church, we look to Christ as our savior, not the president.  Jesus said, “Fear not”–so what are we so afraid of?  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be preaching and practicing?

P.S. #1: The Internet Monk has written a great essay on the Bible at http://www.internetmonk.com/articles/B/bible.html. 

P.S.#2: Read the rest of Matthew 23:1-12 to explain why I am so adamant about NOT being referred by any Religious Title that starts with a Capital Letter. 

P.S. #3: Yes, I happen to be a woman who preaches in church every Sunday, which I know some people consider to be among the seven deadly sins.  (Note to self: find out what the other six deadly sins are, and why they are deadlier than any of the other thousands of sins we can commit.)  If this is bothersome to you, listen for Christ’s message, even if you aren’t so wild about the messenger. It ain’t about me.


“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”–Matthew 22:37-39

Okay, I have a very un-pastoral confession to make.  There have been people in my circle of family, acquaintances and co-workers through the years that I haven’t liked very much.  Some are self-centered, obnoxious bores. A few are catty, malicious, and negative in general.  A couple spout opinions I find bigoted or just plain wrong.

Only two things keep me from unloading on these people with both barrels.  The first is the commandment Jesus quotes from Leviticus: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The second is a comment my mom made one day after dealing with a particularly trying relative: “Sometimes the unlovable need love the most.”

Religious people through the centuries have spent much time deliberating what Jesus meant by “neighbor”. I think he meant exactly what he said: Show love to those near you.  Most of the time that will mean your family and friends and co-workers, who, God knows, can be a handful at times.  (My dad’s favorite saying was “familiarity breeds contempt”.)

Jesus said to love your enemies.  Who knew we’d be related to so many of them?

Truthfully, it’s much easier to love strangers. That’s why we so eagerly send money to foreign missions, while passing judgment on our neighbor down the street on welfare. Or, carrying on a family grudge for decades.  Or, develop ulcers fretting about that co-worker we just can’t stand.

I hope the people I don’t like believe I’m their friend and someone they can count on.  Loving someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or their choices, or even like being around them.   Loving someone means you hope your actions on their behalf work for their benefit, to build them up.  Maybe even change a few of their bad attitudes.

But, if you want people to listen to you, first you have to show them you care about them.

Sometimes, I admit, there are people I can only love in close proximity for very, very short periods of time.  I find myself repeating the Apostle Paul like a mantra: Love is patient, love is kind.  It is not rude. It is not easily angered.  It keeps no record of wrong.  (God, I’d really like to keep just a little record of wrong.)

If love is an action verb, loving the unlovable is like the Olympics of Christian behavior.  We try.  We try to do better.  We practice.  We train.  Sometimes we earn the gold.  Sometimes we’re disqualified for unsportsmanlike behavior.

But we love, because God first loved us–and God knows, we’re all pretty unlovable at times.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Exodus 14:15

How many times do we pray, being careful to 1) Not pray for anything big or seemingly impossible; and 2) Not pray for any resolution to a situation that God might require us to be an active participant in the answer? The Israelites cried to God for years to release them from bondage from the Egyptians–but, as the Book of Exodus recounts, then they regularly complained about the ways God led them to freedom. As the waters of the Red Sea lapped at their toes, God told them that the answer to their prayers required them to move, take action, go forward.

A story by comedian Steve Allen is reprinted in the book “Holy Humor” by Cal and Rose Samra:

During an ecumenical gathering, someone rushed in shouting, “The building is on fire!”

The Methodists at once gathered in a corner and prayed for the fire to be extinguished.

The Lutherans began to compose a notice to be posted on the door that fire is evil.

The Congregationalists shouted “Every man for himself!”

The Catholics passed a collection plate to cover the damages.

The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson, who was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and make a written report  for possible action at the next session meeting.

God does not expect us to take leaps of blind faith, but leaps of action guided by sincere prayer.