Don’t Labor Under False Pretenses

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It was years ago when I first heard of Lawrence Hummel. National news wires reported the death of this self-educated janitor who wore his lawyer’s hand-me-downs, but left over $600,000 to Bethany College in northern West Virginia, where he mopped floors for 30 years.

Hummel had amassed a million-dollar fortune from the stock market with knowledge gleaned from discussions with professors and from economics classes at the college. Even so, to the end of his life Hummel continued to live frugally.

“If you saw him and talked with him, “ said Joseph Gompers, his lawyer, “you might confuse him with a bum. But he wasn’t. He was a warm, compassionate person who cared about people.”

The story made news because Lawrence Hummel was different. According to the standards of contemporary American culture, he was even something of a misfit. He saw no need to turn his wealth into any of the normally accepted symbols of the American dream: clothes, travel, homes, or cars. Work had a higher purpose. Thoughtful Christians have always claimed the same thing—that work has a purpose beyond paychecks and interest rates.

Today as you enjoy your “Labor Day” take a few moments to realize the worth and value of your labor. Too much of America is trying to conduct business with little concern for right and wrong. Morality is supposedly a personal matter. But followers of Christ know better. Like Lawrence Hummel, we have an unusual view of work. We hold that the gospel brings responsibility, dignity, and purpose to what happens in the shop or office. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter. And God has purposes for our work that go far beyond our day-to-day tasks.

As you enjoy your “Labor Day,” determine not to labor under false pretenses. What you do and how you do it . . . matters to God and to others!

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

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I was sweating acne and sporting bellbottom pants when I first heard the Rolling Stones’ song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Named the 100th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in its 2004 list, it was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and released in 1969 on the Let It Bleed album.

While not an actual “news nerd,” I confess a reasonable obsession with news and current events. To that end, my reading and listening of recent relevant happenings, leaves me walking around in a “you can’t always get what you want” kind of daze.

• Internationally, the ethnic and religious cleansing in northern Iraq by ISIS is being called “the Rwanda of our time” by Dan Hodges of The Telegraph.

• Nationally, the catastrophe in Ferguson, Missouri where yet another unarmed black teenager is killed by a white police officer is a cesspool of allegations and overreactions.

• Locally, I talk with another mother that has custody of a “heroin baby” and struggles constantly with a husband who refuses the tough love option of refusing to give money to his addicted kids.

• Then there is the blended family where an intelligent, but emotionally damaged 8 years old is using the guilt of her dad and the vengeance of her mother as kindling for the ongoing flash fire that may ultimately consume both families.

• And finally, there is the pastor of a small congregation who has spent almost a year gathering information for a courageous outreach into a depressed and needy community yet his sleep is interrupted by the explosive dynamic of staff relationships and congregational contentment.

All of these scenarios rock with the haunting reality of the Rolling Stones lyrical truth: “you can’t always get what you want.” And just as each situation bears closer analysis, so our song requires a closer listen.

The three topics discussed in the song address the hot button issues of the 1960s and 1970s: love, politics and drugs. (Hmmm . . . does this list look familiar to our previous observations?) Most significant is the pattern outlined in the song. First, there is optimism, then disappointment and finally, there is an acquiescent practicality that saves the day:

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

Is it possible that every experience of life can in some way be redeemed or reconciled in a way that exceeds the pop psychology highlighted in Breaking Bad’s fictional character Saul Goodman or as the writer’s intended it to sound, “S’all good man?” Is our collective response to life’s difficulties simply reflected in the flippant refrain of Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Good”:

But there’s nothin’ to worry about
’cause it’s all good
It’s all good, I say it’s all good

Life lived with an honest sense of sanity and perspective and hope demands an answer to that question. Is it possible that the dark, desperate, and deeply unsatisfying moments of life can be honorably redeemed or are we simply left to dance the dance of denial to the melody of “It’s all good, I say it’s all good?”

The longer I live and the more I listen to the heartbeat of hurt and disappointment surrounding our world, both locally and internationally, the more I am convinced our only defense against the hardened cynicism of disappointment which left untended will result in life altering bitterness is the capacity to pay attention to what matters most. We hear it as children making our first steps, “pay attention,” we reflect on it as teenagers choosing our first friends, “pay attention,” and much too often we regretfully forget it as we make our first feeble attempts at adult life, “pay attention.”

I am not sure when I first heard or accepted it, but slowly I began to understand that life lived deeply and meaningfully is not simply choosing one path and pursuing it doggedly to the end. It has much more to do with how we pay attention and discern when to change paths or directions because the situation and circumstances allow and sometimes even demand it. Life lived on the far side of disappointment and bitterness is the result of responding with grace and faith when our journeys are interrupted and left unfinished.

This becomes clear in the final line of the “you can’t always get what you want” refrain. It says, “But if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need.” The “trying” speaks to our need to pay attention and getting “what you need” identifies the opportunity for every part of life to be redeemed or reconciled in a way we may not want, but we ultimately need.

People of faith see this in the life of Jesus. Leonard Sweet says, “Jesus didn’t know any waiting rooms—he knew only living rooms.” His point is an important one, especially to those who live with the terror of time, always trying to get to the next place or accomplish the next thing in hopes of outrunning our sense of disappointment and bitterness.

While we spin our wheels in “waiting rooms,” Jesus insisted on moving every experience of his life into the “living room.” Every moment had meaning because Jesus knew the author and finisher of time. Every second had power because Jesus knew the creator and sustainer of time. Every day had potential because Jesus knew the maker and redeemer of time.

No, we don’t always get what we want . . . but if we pay attention and live with grace and faith, we can find our way to the “living room” where we might get exactly what we need! Thanks be to God.

Is There Such a Thing as a Sanctified Selfie?

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I do not often swim in the pool of American evangelicalism, but when my study (of the scriptures) and the stories (of those in ministry) collide, well, I dip my toe. Such is the case with the ongoing stories of transgressions and apologizes offered by Seattle-based mega-church pastor, Mark Driscoll.

I will not write here about the issues and concerns surrounding Pastor Driscoll (they are easily accessible on the internet), but I would like to voice one important observation I thought relevant to this discussion.

In my recent study of Romans 7-8, I realized that the Apostle Paul’s declaration of personal contradiction (“I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do the very thing I hate.”) found in Romans 7:15, is what my friends at Homiletics magazine call a kind of divine “selfie.” By definition, a “selfie” is a “picture of yourself, usually taken by yourself.”

Somewhere in my journey with this familiar but frightening text, a new thought came. As I spun the definition of a selfie around in my head, I easily acknowledged the first part of the definition, “a picture of yourself.” However, it was the second part that caused a stutter in my logic, “usually taken by yourself.”

While I do not personally know Pastor Mark and have not read all the “he said, they said,” machinations that have followed this popular pastor over the last few years, I did sense that perhaps the real issue and danger for any pastor facing accusations for which they must apologize is the haunting question, “Did I apologize because I got caught or because I recognized I did something that warrants an apology?”

The first happens as the result of someone holding up a mirror to my transgression, but the second occurs when the Spirit of God sensitizes my heart and mind to that personal contradiction that Paul pleads about in Romans 7-8.

The first apology happens as the result of someone pointing to my problem, the second kind of apology happens as the result of a prompting of my heart.

The first is embarrassed by the mistake of the past; the second is empowered by the opportunity of the future.

The first brings the weight of guilt from being caught; the second brings the joy of grace from being rescued.

The first worries about reputation, the second seeks reconciliation.

The first wallows in “total depravity” (“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”). The second is humbled by radical grace (“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”).

So is Pastor Mark and the rest of who desire to align our lives with Christ just poor vessels of humanity weakened by predispositions and corrupted gene pools or are we as the Psalmist said, “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5)? Are we dust or divinity?

I count myself among those who lean toward the divinity side of that equation and one of my theological tenets for that conclusion comes from the late Dallas Willard and his classic book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. He identifies 3 stages of personal redemption with the third stage being a real, psychological process where “we consciously direct our bodies in a manner that will ensure that it eventually will come ‘automatically’ to serve righteousness as it previously served sin automatically (p. 117).”

Willard goes on to quote powerfully from Oswald Chambers: The question of forming habits on the basis of the grace of God is a very vital one. To ignore it is to fall into the snare of the Pharisee—the grace of God is praised, Jesus Christ is praised, the Redemption is praised, but the practical everyday life evades working it out. If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made our nature our ally. The practicing is ours, not God’s. God regenerates us and puts us in contact with all His divine resources, but He cannot make us walk according to His will.

It is one thing to take a “selfie” of our dusty side and publically own our wrinkles and imperfections. It is another to take a “selfie” of our divine side and privately own our continued distance from God’s resources for righteousness.

I wonder, is there such a thing as a “sanctified selfie”?

The time is always right to do what is right.

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, reminding us that 85 years ago MLK was born and 45 years ago he was gunned down while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

On Monday of this week a retired police officer shot and killed a man at a Wesley Chapel, Florida theater because he had used his phone to text his daughter during the previews of the movie, “Lone Survivor.”  Even to the casual observer, America is a victim of the virus of violence.  This virus, like a sexually transmitted disease, lies dormant and then flares-up with a throbbing sense of urgency.  We are shocked it has again happened.  We knew it would but somehow it surprises us.

As King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  While I stutter in knowing exactly what to do, I do know with certainty that we, “the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” must never despair.

As we grieve for the family of the man who died, Chad Oulson, a Navy veteran, we should also pray for the retired police officer, Curtis Reeves, who perpetrated this evil.  It would also behoove us to always remember the words of the Bible, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

We might also remember the words of the civil rights leader himself:  “The time is always right to do what is right.”

First Class!

It came easy.The idea to share a story from my writing over a decade ago for my father-in-law’s funeral, was a no-brainer.For most of my life with him, he always responded to my greeting, “how are you doing?” with two simple words:“First Class!” So, it is in his honor and hopefully for your enjoyment that I share it with you here.

It came as a surprise.  Matter of fact, it had never happened.  There I was sitting in first-class seating on an American Airlines flight out of Orlando, the gift of a crowded flight and coach-class seating draw.

It was so strange.I didn’t know how to act.However, I quickly noticed there was a certain etiquette to being first-class.By definition, it means “given or entitled to preferred treatment and handling.”Now I know what it means.

Being first-class means acting like you belong there.Holding my ticket stub and nervously watching every person board with a “Yes, I do belong in this seat” look on my face is not appropriate behavior for a first-class citizen.Sitting in only half my seat and wondering what to do with the rest is not the proper posture for the upper crust of frequent flyers and world travelers.So, I got over it.

Being first-class means acting like you expect to be treated kingly while roosting on your royal throne.It means not being surprised when you get your choice of drink served in a real glass, even before the buckle on your seat belt is snapped.It means not screaming with delight when you discover the meat and rolls with your meal were actually heated separately.It means not bellowing, “you’ve got to be kidding me” when offered the choice of a red or white wine with your meal.It means not using your pre-dinner, warm washcloth to wash your seating area, but waiting to see the others use it to freshen up their hands and face before the feast.So, I got over it.

While peering out the airplane window into the clouds, I could not keep from drawing a faith parallel to my first-class experience.My first-time encounter with the grace of God was a lot like discovering we have been moved to a first-class window seat next to the pilot when we actually spent all we had a lower-class coach seat next to the roar of the engines.But unlike my first-class experience, I have never gotten over my grace experience and neither did Arthur O. Little.No, he lived with the daily declaration that his walk with Christ was always, “First Class!”

“We read to know that we are not alone.” William Nicholson, Screenwriter of Shadowlands

One of the first things I did with Jensen, my 3-year-old granddaughter, when I got back from vacation was do with her what I had been doing by myself, albeit on the beach.  I read to her.  

She took me to her room, showed me her new “stuff” and then pulled a book off her shelf and wanted me to read it to her.  It was a book about “Little Cloud” and I read it to her twice.  

So, it got me to thinking about the benefits of reading and my “reading” led me to an article entitled “8 Benefits of Reading (or Ways Reading Makes You Better at Life).”  I like the second title best. 

The eight reasons the author gives are as follows:

Enhanced smarts

Reading reduces stress

Greater tranquility

Improved analytical thinking

Increased vocabulary

Improved memory

Improved writing skills

Helps prioritized goals

While I like all the reasons, I am most drawn to 1, 2 and 8.  I am a lifelong learner and reading is the key to my progress.  I need times when I reflect and lower the stress that surrounds me.  I need to sharpen the priority of my goals.

That said, I want to recommend two books.  One of them is the book being used in the series I am teaching now, Wild Goose Chase.  The other one is written by a lawyer friend of mine, Lyn Robbins, who is going to be leading my deacon retreat in a couple of weeks and it is titled, In the Court of the Master.  Both are well written and will meet at least 6 or the 8 reasons about why you should read.  So, go read and realize “we read to know we are not alone.”

Sounding Off About Sacred Delight

Ready or not, here it comes!  It, in this case, is the weekend that signals the arrival of summer, Memorial Day weekend.  From the “did you know?” category, did you know there was a time when Memorial Day, the day set aside to honor those who gave their lives for our country, was always on May 30?  However, in order to guarantee a three-day weekend, Memorial Day was placed on the last Monday in May.         

Through my years of reflecting on Memorial Day, I now understand it is not enough to remember the honored casualties of past conflicts.  Honestly, the best thing we can do in their honor is to ensure that they have not died in vain.  They died to build or to defend a better world.  The least we can do is to live for those same purposes.        

As I apply this understanding to our church, I am left with the question—are we doing our best to build a church that defends and offers a “better world?”  And what does “better” really mean?  Certainly, it means improved or superior, but maybe there is more to it.  When you look at the statement “It is better to give than to receive” in the Bible, it is interesting to notice the words offered as coming from the lips of Jesus:  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  (Acts 20: 35)        

“Blessed”—is a powerful word!  One of Jesus’ most powerful messages comes when he uses this word nine times.  It is the Sermon on the Mount and nine times he promises to the most unlikely that they will be “blessed.”  Max Lucado updates this word by defining it as “sacred delight.”  He says, “It is sacred because only God can grant it.  It is a delight because it thrills.  Since it is sacred, it can’t be stolen.  And since it is delightful, it can’t be predicted.”  (The Applause of Heaven, p. 11)         

How has God’s “sacred delight” thrilled you this week?  For me it has been easy and ever-present.  It came with a friend’s surprise and extended time of encouragement and affirmation.  It came when I opened my phone and found the picture and recording of my granddaughter’s giddy laughter.  It came with an understanding embrace of a joyful, faithful wife.   It came when I slowed down enough to honestly seek God’s presence.

As we begin our journey from spring into summer, may we do so with the clear and overwhelming direction of God’s sacred delight!

Flaky, But Faithful

For the past couple of weeks, snow has covered our yards so you will not be surprised if I talk about “snowflakes.”  How about the story of a man who named the snowflake?

Wilson Alwyn Bentley lived in Vermont and was fascinated by snow.  He found a way to put snowflakes on black velvet and photograph them, testing the hypothesis that no two are exactly the same.  He photographed and published more than 5,000 individual snowflakes, and was given a nickname — “Snowflake.”

Bentley, who lived from 1865 to 1931, examined snowflakes under a microscope and discovered they were all miracles of beauty.  “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design, and no one design was ever repeated,” he wrote. 

He is not the only person who should be given the nickname “Snowflake.”  We all should.  Each of us is a miracle of beauty, a masterpiece of design, and no one design is ever repeated. 

Are we irregular?  Of course!  All kindsof irregularities — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, you name it.  We are irregular human beings but still miracles of beauty, shaped in uniqueness by a loving and creative Creator. 

Psalm 27 begins with the words, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  If we are, in fact, God’s snowflakes — precious, unique and transient — then we need a Lord to sustain us.  Otherwise, we are going to melt, disappear and be lost forever. 

Bible scholar J. Clinton McCann points out how these words challenge us to make a choice between faith and fear.  Either we make the faith choice, seeing God as “my light and my salvation,” or we make the fear choice, looking for the answer to the question, “whom shall I fear?”

We do not have to go far to find something to fear.  We know we are vulnerable to physical illnesses, emotional distresses, relational breakdowns, economic stresses and spiritual crises.  Sometimes we feel as delicate and transient as snowflakes.  But if we make the faith choice, our future looks different.  We are not so vulnerable if we put our trust in God to sustain us.

In 1988, two identical snowflakes were discovered and photographed, disproving the hypothesis that no two are exactly the same.  Poor “Snowflake” Bentley would have been disappointed. 

But human beings can still be miracles and masterpieces while having important things in common — particularly our shared need for God’s presence and power.  We can hold onto our individual identities and distinctive characteristics while working together to choose faith over fear.  And there is nothing flaky about that!

 

Knowing Is Simply Not Enough

January is the month of hopes and dreams.  It comes from “Janus” who was an ancient Roman god of doorways, of beginnings, and usually represented by one head with two bearded faces back to back, looking in opposite directions.

For faith people with new beginnings, it is always important we know in what direction we are going.  For a church, that means correctly understanding availability and appropriation. 

In his book, Overhearing the Gospel, Fred Craddock points out, “Knowledge about ethical concepts does not make one ethical.  Burghardt DuBois, the great black educator, sociologist, and historian, upon completion of studies at Fisk, Harvard and University of Berlin, was convinced that change in the condition of the American black could be effected by careful scientific investigations into the truth about the black in America.

“So he proceeded.  His research was flawless and his graphs and charts impeccable.  After waiting several years and hearing not the slightest stir of reform, Dr. DuBois had to accept the truth about the Truth:  Its being available does not mean it will be appropriated.”

Good words for a new year.  It is not enough that we know Christ died for us and, through His resurrection, provided a way for eternal life.  It is not enough that we know about the abundant life that is possible through a daily walk with Christ.  No, knowing all of that is simply not enough.  That is called availability and what must follow is appropriation.

Appropriation is when we do something with that knowledge. Appropriation is when we make that information available to family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances that intersect our lives.  Appropriation is what happens when we realize that the Gospel always has two faces—the face of God as He searches for us and the face of God as He is revealed through us to others.  It was always meant to be that way.

So, may 2013 be the year that WE more clearly and dearly appropriate all that God through Christ has done and is doing for us.  Thanks be to God!

Evil, Tragedy and God

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It’s back again.  The “it” I am talking about is the tragedy and suffering question—why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?  The tragedy of December 14, 2012 will live in all of us for quite a while because it questioned both God’s love and His power.

So, from my daily devotional writer, Jim Denison, I want to use his thoughts and my experience to help all of us with this issue of the “evil, tragedy and God.”  Let’s break it down into “bite-size” pieces. 

Foundational to all that we will say, please realize that the “why” question is not one the Bible shies away from as we see in the life of Habakkuk.  He complained to God about the devastation of his people at the hands of the Babylonians:  “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.  Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?  Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”  (Habbakuk 1: 3)  Jesus even cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  (Matthew 27: 46).        

We who follow Christ are especially susceptible to this issue because we believe three seemingly contradictory facts to be equally true:

·      God is all-loving.

·      God is all-powerful.

·      Evil exists.

And for people who deny God, the easiest way to do this is to minimize one of these three conditions.        

First, regarding the love of God, many today view life as random coincidence and that if there is a “God” he has little interest in us.  He is a clockmaker, watching his creation wind down.        

Second, regarding the power of God, it is popular to see God and Satan, good and evil locked in a battle for supremacy.  Very popular a few years ago, the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People agrees that even God is not able to do everything he wants to do.        

Third, regarding the existence of evil, the worldviews are all over the map.  Hindu tradition views evil as an illusion.  Ancient Greeks saw evil as the product of the material world to be escaped through ascetic discipline or philosophical reflection.  The Buddhist treats evil as the product of wrong desires.  Hinduism likewise believes that suffering results from wrong choices.        

But as you might expect, none of these satisfy the deepest part of us.  Christians, sensing more, have wrestled throughout the history of our faith and have developed five basic approaches to the question of suffering and evil:

The spiritual warfare model … identifies that Satan is real and much of the pain and suffering in our world is attributable to his malignant work.  However, not all suffering is a direct result of Satan’s plan.  Our ability to make choices and counter what Satan is doing will in fact bring some level of pain and suffering.

The free-will model … is usually based on the following assumptions:  God created everything and he created it good.  Before the fall, evil was present but not yet reality, at least from our ability to choose it for ourselves.  God then created humans with freedom of will and we have used this freedom to bring evil into existence, which absolves God of the blame.

The soul-building model … believes that God can redeem any suffering and pain for God’s glory and our good.  The weakness of this view revolves around the existence of Hell, since it is not a soul-building or redemptive reality. 

The eschatological (big word meaning “future”) model … asserts that evil will be resolved in the future, making present suffering endurable and worthwhile.  This view does not solve how the promise of future hope makes present courage possible.

The existential model . . . is more practical than theoretical.  It says that God suffers as we suffer and gives us strength to withstand and even redeem our pain.  But it offers no real explanation for the origin or existence of suffering.

So, how can we “apply” all this information to our world of suffering? 

First, utilize the “free-will” approach to examine the origin of suffering.  Is there sin involved?  Is this pain due to the result of misused freedom?  Do a spiritual inventory but do not assume that suffering is always your fault.

Second, use the “soul-building” approach to ask—what can I learn from this situation?  Strive to be open to every source of spiritual source.  Stay close enough to Jesus so that you can hear his voice and feel his touch.

Third, use the “future hope” approach to ask—how can God redeem this present suffering for future good?  We may not be able to see the future, but we can believe that is real and that God is IN it working for our good.

Finally, utilize the “existential” approach to trust God’s help in the midst of our pain.  Nothing can take you from his hand (John 10:28).      

So, look at our world with a tear in your eye, knowing that God is still God and then go and live like you believe it.  Someone will notice!