Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

Kneeling Isn’t a Sin

I should confess, from the start, I don’t watch professional sports.  I’m not into it.  I actually have some strong objections to professional sports, for a number of reasons.  But, for now, and for the sake of this particular conversation, let’s just say, professional sports aren’t my thing.

But, I’m aware, especially with the release of the new Nike ad, starring Colin Kaepernick, of the controversy surrounding professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem.  Though the “kneelers” have many supporters, there are many others, including our President, who are deeply offended by their actions.  Everyone, on both sides, seem to have strong feelings, for or against.  Few, are neutral!

While my point is NOT to debate the rightness or wrongness of professional athletes  – or anyone else, for that matter – kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, it only seems fair to begin by attempting to objectively explain both sides of the debate.

At the start of the 2016 season, NFL.com quoted Kaepernick, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  To Kaepernick, and others who have followed his lead, kneeling is an act of protest against the unfair treatment, and killing, of African-Americans by an unjust system of law enforcement and criminal justice, and the expression of their First Amendment right to free speech.

From the opposite perspective, encouraging the NFL to require players to stand for the National Anthem, in May, 2018, Fortune.com quoted President Trump saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem.”  I’ve heard other’s, of similar perspective, argue that kneeling during the National Anthem is a direct offense and assault on all who’ve fought for our country, and the freedoms we all enjoy, including professional football players.

My point, here, is not to argue for either side of this debate, or the rightness or wrongness of this particular form of protest.  A brief study of the facts will demonstrate, incontrovertibly, racial discrimination does, in fact, exist, in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems, to shocking degrees.  If you don’t believe that is true, study the facts.  Like I said, the facts are undeniable.

But, the facts aren’t really the point, are they?  Something about the act of taking a knee deeply offends some Americans – I mean, REALLY offends!

Some players who kneel have thoughtfully articulated their motives and intent.  Kneeling, thus far, is not a violation of NFL policy.  Kneeling, doesn’t break the law.  In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have significant impact on game attendance, viewership, or profitability.

But, it sure does make people mad!

So, yesterday, after a sermon on discipleship and spiritual transformation, I was asked my position on the kneeling controversy, and if my denomination has an official position for or against it.  I have to imagine this person wasn’t listening to my message, if kneeling was the topic on his mind.  It’s not the first time I, as a pastor, have been asked my opinion on this.  Usually, the person asking is against the players kneeling, and assumes I am too.  And, asking me, as a pastor, implies the “asker” assumes the act must have some theological significance.

In other words, if it offends, it must be a sin.

It’s not.  It’s not a sin.  Kneeling, during the playing of National Anthem, may be offensive to you.  It may even be “wrong.”  But, it’s not a sin.

Whether or not professional athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is the “right” expression or venue for protesting this particular issue isn’t for me to say.  As a white man, who has never experienced the particular injustices being protested, I have no right to judge or condemn the rightness or wrongness of the particularity of the protest.  Arguably, if the act has offended, it’s achieved it’s purpose.  The question is whether those offended will condemn the act, or willingly listen and learn about the reason for the protest.  And, will the protest lead to real societal change?

Christians – particularly white, patriotic, American Christians – offended by players kneeling, ought to keep in mind Jesus’ awkward relationship with the authorities of his day.  Jesus offended, with frequent regularity.  The religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – were constantly offended by Jesus’ actions, by his teachings, by his lack of respect for their religious practices and traditions, and even their positional authority.  You may recall Jesus treating the political rulers, Herod and Pontius Pilate, rather dismissively, saying he was the King of a heavenly kingdom – which happened to be invading the Earth!

Though Paul taught about maintaining peace with political authorities, he also said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:12)  In essence, earthly governments and laws can be evil, and evil must be exposed and resisted.

The entire Book of Revelation is a deeply-coded protest against Caesar and the Roman Empire.  I’ve no doubt Caesar and his supporters would have been deeply offended, if they just could have figured out what all those colors, numbers, and beasts represented (them!)!

And, like Jesus, in New Testament times, offending the governing rulers often led to dire consequences!  Offending those in power, and in the majority, often does.  Maybe, that’s the point players are trying to make.

But, we live in a different place and time.  We live in a nation of laws, intended to be just.  We live in a nation that allows, and supports, freedom of speech – even when it offends.  When injustices occur, in our nation, public protests result; like it or not.

So, what is the appropriate Christian response to NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem?  There isn’t one.  But, may I, humbly, suggest the following…

  • Remember, the Bible always sides with those who are victims of injustice.  Whether you agree with this particular form of protest, or not, learn about the injustice it is protesting.  Don’t allow the offense of the protest to blind you to the reality being protested.
  • Remember the Bible’s teachings about not judging, allowing for diversity of opinion, and even loving your enemies.
  • Remember, the Bible affirms the sacred value and worth of every person – even the person who offends you.
  • Remember the biblical teaching on humility.  You might be wrong.
  • Remember, patriotism is not the same as faith in Christ.  While you may deeply love your country, love for the Kingdom of God is something entirely different.  Our primarily allegiance is to a heavenly King and his laws.  What offends you, politically, isn’t necessarily a sin.
  • And, perhaps this is an opportunity to reflect on how the values of professional athletics align (or don’t) with the values of the kingdom of God.  Maybe, from a Kingdom perspective, there’s a lot more sin to be offended by in professional sports, than whether or not a player stands for the National Anthem!  But, that’s a conversation for another blog.

Perhaps some advice, for Christians, from the Book of James, is a good way to close… My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

Have I offended you?

Worship: Where is everybody?

Worship:  Where is everybody?

Last Sunday, I played guitar and sang at our contemporary worship service.  I don’t play in church very often, and I don’t claim to be very good.  In fact, I play and sing so rarely, my meager abilities are always on the far-to-rusty side.  But, in spite of my rust and musical limitations, I love the rare opportunities I lead people in worshiping God in song.  At one point, Sunday, as I sang, I was overcome with emotion and nearly cried.  Crying and singing is really, really hard!

While I don’t play and sing in worship, often, I do preach on an almost-weekly basis.  Preaching is my true passion.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon preparation.  I hear some preachers struggle with sermon writing.  I hear some preachers struggle with nerves, delivering sermons.  I hear some preachers are worn down by preaching EVERY week.  I don’t struggle with any of that.  I love it, from beginning to end!  I’m not claiming to be a great preacher – I just love doing it!  If I could give 100% of my time to preaching prep and delivery, I gladly would!

In fact, I enjoy all facets of worship – traditional/liturgical and modern/contemporary.  I love planning worship.  I love spontaneous worship.  I love singing hymns and contemporary worship songs.  I love traditional liturgy and technology.  I love the “smells and bells” of “high” church worship, and hands lifted in praise, in contemporary services.

I love planning worship.  I love leading worship.  I love worshipping from the pew.  I love all of it.

But, in spite of my passion for worship, I have growing sense something about worship isn’t “working.”

Throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, Sunday morning worship – regardless of form or style – has been the primary function of every local church I’ve known and served.  Yes, churches have meetings, Bible studies, missions, fellowship, etc. throughout the week.  But, worship draws the crowd.  Worship requires most of the church’s collective time, energy, focus, talent, facility, and funding.

What’s the largest (and least used) building on a church campus?  The sanctuary.  What’s the largest portion of the budget?  When you add up everything – from salaries, to utilities, to property maintenance and insurance, to the cost of music – I suspect Sunday morning worship represents the largest chunk of a church’s expenditures.  Why do churches require so much parking?  Only one reason: Sunday mornings.

Likewise, throughout my entire Christian life and ministry, worship attendance – across the nation and across denominations – has been, and is, statistically in decline.  Sanctuaries and church parking lots are less and less full on Sunday mornings.  Even the super-successful, fastest-growing mega-churches are noting a decline in weekly worship attendance.

Why?

One reason is, younger people aren’t attending worship services like the older generations.  We’ve all heard about the growing numbers “nones” and “dones.”

Another reason is the growing affluence in our country.  In spite of many claiming to have financial struggles, overall, more and more people can afford to travel, participate in sports, buy a boat, go to a concert or movie, renovate their home, pay to run a marathon, own a boat, or go to the beach for the weekend.  When you can’t afford to do those things, you might be more likely to stay home and attend worship.  But, when you can, you do.

Another reason is technology.  Now, thanks to the internet, you can watch or listen to the very best preachers and worship bands, often “live,” from the comfort of your own home and Laz-i-boy recliner, in your boxers and bathrobe, rather than getting dressed, dragging the kids, dealing with the traffic, sitting in a hard pew, and being hounded about giving your tithes and offerings.  Oh yeah, you can avoid human contact too!

Which leads to another reason: consumerism.  Rather than viewing worship as something we do, together, in service and duty to God, we’ve turned worship into a spectator sport – a form of spiritual entertainment.  If worship is just entertainment, we’ll never compete with what the world has to offer.  Whether it’s a 3-D surround-sound movie theater, a sporting complex, or Walt Disney World, church-as-entertainment can’t compete.  Nor should we.  We aren’t in the entertainment business.  But, as long as we approach worship as consumers, rather than contributors, worship will be little else.

And, another reason is the current climate of divisiveness in our country.  We are as divided and polarized as ever.  I find everything I say “from the pulpit” is scrutinized more than ever before, for signs of hidden biases and agendas.  I do have biases and agendas.  But, they aren’t hidden.  You don’t have to search for them.  I’m usually pretty open and honest!  If people don’t agree with the pastor’s preaching, rather than being challenged to think and reconsider their beliefs, they just leave.

I’m sure there are as many reasons for NOT regularly attending a worship service, as there are people who regularly do not attended worship services.

So, I’m beginning to wonder, what if it’s time to reevaluate the Sunday worship gathering as the PRIMARY function of a local church?  I’m NOT suggesting we should stop worshipping together.  Rather, I wonder if, in the not-too-distant future, corporate worship will be in smaller, less formal settings, and not necessarily in church sanctuaries, on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps worship will happen more organically, and even more frequently, when Christians gather to share a meal, or for a small group Bible study, or to serve together.  I wonder if worship, in the future, will be more relational, more face-to-face, more conversational.  If wonder if worship will be less professionally driven – by paid preachers and musicians – and more lay-led.  I wonder if worship will happen less in sanctuaries, and more in homes, parks, coffee shops, yoga studios, gardens, around dinner tables.

And, I wonder if Church will become more dispersed; perhaps, fewer large-group gatherings, and many more smaller gatherings for study, service, worship, prayer, fellowship, accountability, etc.

Think of worship in the Bible.  Yes, we can all think of some large gatherings – the Sermon on the Mount, the day of Pentecost, the annual Jewish festivals in Jerusalem.  But, I get the impression that most corporate worship, in biblical times, wasn’t very much like what it’s become.

Please hear me.  I’m not trying to be prophetic, predictive, or prescriptive.  I’m not implying any “shoulds.”  I love the ministry of corporate worship, and am saddened to watch it decline.  It’s what I know and what I love, and I hate the idea of losing it.

But, I’m just wondering.  I’m wondering.

I do think there’ll continue to be a place for the Sunday worship gathering, at least in the foreseeable future.  I do think corporate worship continues to be worthy of our best efforts.  I still think there’s a role, thankfully, for professional preachers, worship leaders, organists, etc.  I still think there are opportunities to offer both traditional (and contemporary) worship services, as well as new and innovative worship experiences.  There are still churches with growing worship attendances, and we should pay attention to how and why that’s happening.

But, perhaps its time to expand our minds.  Perhaps its time to expand our understanding of what worship is and who it’s for.  Perhaps its time to expand our vision for what Church can be.  Perhaps – brace yourself – it’s time for change.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Fruitfulness

Fruitfulness

One of the trees in my bonsai collection is a calliandra – more commonly known as a “pink powder puff.”  “Pink powder puff” doesn’t sound particulalry manly, so let’s stick with more scientifically precise terminology!

My calliandra bonsai ought to look like the one pictured above.  But, it doesn’t.  I’ve owned the tree for almost ten years, and it hasn’t yet produce a single pink powder puff yet.  I’ve watered.  Fertilized.  Pruned.  Re-potted.  I’ve tried more sun and less sun; more shade and less shade.  I’ve begged and pleaded.  I’ve done everything short of singing to it.

Still no puffs.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not a bad looking bonsai – not my best, but not bad.  But, a calliandra is SUPPOSED to produce pink powder puffs… and, dang it, I want my powder puffs!!!

My non-blooming calliandra reminds me of a teaching of Jesus,

“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”  (Matthew 7:16-18, NIV)

“By their fruit (or pink powder puffs) you will recognize them.”

Jesus used the metaphor of a tree and it’s fruit as a warning against false teachers.  You may recall, Jesus was frequently critical of religious leaders, who appeared outwardly pious, but were inwardly mean, stingy, and ungodly.  Basically, to paraphrase, Jesus said, “Look for the fruit.  If the fruit is good, trust the source.  If the fruit is bad, no matter how religious or pious the person outwardly seems, be wary.  Be very wary.”

This teaching could also be applied in reverse.  Sometimes, a person may not seem particularly pious or religious.  But, “look for the fruit,” and you might discover more in them than immediately meets the eye.

What fruits?

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5, NIV)  He was talking about love.

Galatians 5:22-23 says, “The Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT)

You might think of other “fruits” of the Christian life – tithing, service, study, worship, and varieties of other “Christian” behaviors.  But, at least according to these two passages, the fruit of abiding in Jesus, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, is mostly related to our character.  And, character has everything to do with how relate to others; how we treat others.  The bottom-line seems to be, a fruitful Christian has a character something like Jesus’.

As you may recall, the people most condemning of Jesus’ religious behavior (healing on the Sabbath, associating with sinners, touching the sick) were specifically the ones Jesus warned us about.  The religious leaders, who constantly opposed and criticized Jesus, “appeared” perfectly religious – they tithed with exacting precision, they prayed loud eloquent prayers in the public squares, they associated with the “right” people, they avoided sins and sinners like a plague, they washed their hands vigorously, and they dressed impeccably.  But, Jesus compared them to freshly white-washed tombs – fresh and clean on the outside, but filled with death and stinking decay.

In stark contrast, Jesus was open-handed and open-hearted with EVERYONE.  He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.  His followers were commoners.  He embraced the sinful and the sick.  He honored outcasts – like Samaritans, gentiles, and even a Roman Centurion (the commander of the enemy occupiers!).  Jesus was consistently welcoming, kind, and compassionate.  He spoke of love, demonstrated love, and embodied love.  He even loved and forgave the ones who nailed him to a cross.

Recognize the goodness of a tree, by the good fruit in produces.  Recognize a godly person by their character.  Is a person’s character more like Jesus’, or like the Pharisee?

My point isn’t to judge – the Bible is pretty clear about that.  My point is, perhaps we place so much weight on outward morality and behavior, and far too little on character.  Though I strive to live a consistent, faithful, obedient, moral life, I would much rather be known for my kindness, generosity, mercy, and love, than how much I tithe, or how little I cuss, or how many verses of Scripture I’ve memorized.  I do tithe.  I don’t cuss… very much.  And, I do know a fair amount of Scripture by memory.  But, do I love?  Do I love like Jesus?

What kind of fruit am I producing?  What kind of fruit are you producing?

 

Sermon Preparation

Sermon Preparation

Prayerfully planning, researching, writing and rehearsing a substantive, relevant, Truth-filled sermon requires a significant amount of time – MUCH more time than the average person-in-the-pew assumes.  Somewhere along the way, I learned a good sermon requires one hour of preparation for each minute of preaching.  In other words, a twenty-minute sermon should require twenty hours of prayer, study, reflection, writing, and rehearsal.  Though I’ve never actually timed my weekly preparation time, I suspect that’s about right.

This makes sense to me.  The sermon is the one time, each week, the pastor can have the most impactful contact with the most people.  That twenty minutes (or twenty-five, or thirty…) is an opportunity to teach, speak Truth, cast vision, offer hope, and draw a large number of people closer to God – all at the same time.  Though a pastor may be in contact with large numbers of people throughout the week – via meetings and visitation – nothing can compare to the potential impact of the sermon.

And, my personal conviction is, I owe my very best to my congregation.  If anyone – much less hundreds of “anyones” – is willing to sit quietly for twenty minutes, or so, listening to me preach, they deserve the best sermon I can give them.  My congregation deserves that respect.

The Word deserves that respect!  God deserves that respect!  My sermon, every week, ought to be the very best I can possibly offer!

The problem is, most pastors don’t have twenty hours, every week, to devote to a sermon.  A pastor’s week is filled with myriad other responsibilities:  supervising staff, hospital visitation, denominational responsibilities, committee meetings, reports, leading classes and Bible studies, responding to crises, pastoral care and counseling, funerals, weddings, Baptism meetings, letter writing, event planning, follow-up with visitors, etc., etc.  And, in any given week, unexpected needs, opportunities, and tragedies pop up, consuming time that might have otherwise been used for sermon preparation.  And, don’t forget, pastors need Sabbath and family time, too.

Often, the result is ill-prepared, shallow, half-baked sermons.  Some gifted preachers have sufficient oratory and/or storytelling skills to pull off a sermon, high on emotional impact and entertainment value, yet fairly low on substance. I hope we all agree that’s less than ideal.

It’s not the preacher’s fault.  It’s just reality.  Ministry is hard.  Adequate sermon prep is often more time consuming than the preacher has to commit.

I’m not ok with that reality.  Like every preacher, I’ve preached my share of half-baked sermons.  I strive for that to be the rare exception, and certainly not the norm.  But, it happens.

A number of years ago, I discovered the value of long-range sermon planning.  When I say “long-range,” I mean, more or less, a year of sermons in advance.  For those preachers, tired of struggling week-to-week, I offer you my method…

Every year, I take a full week to do nothing but sermon planning and research.  Taking a full week away from the church isn’t easy – but it’s important!  And, this isn’t vacation!  In fact, I’d argue it’s the most important work week you will have all year long!

I usually do this sometime between Easter and Labor Day.  Before that week, I prayerfully develop a list of topics and themes that could possibly become series and sermons.  Before my week arrives, I gather a stack of books relative to the ideas I am considering.  This process alone takes several months.

When my planning week arrives, I go to some isolated place, away from distractions.  More often than not, I’ve spent those weeks in monasteries, in silence.  But, cabins, condos, and beach houses work just as well.  Last week, I was blessed to use a beautiful house in Eleuthera, Bahamas!  There have also been times I’ve locked myself away in my own house – but, that’s less than ideal.

Then I read, and read, and read – Scripture, books, blogs, articles, commentaries.  Over a week, I can read five or six books.  And, as I read, I take notes, writing down ideas for specific sermons.  As I read, I highlight passages that speak to me, so they will be easy to find later.  At some point, the list I previously prepared, my scribbled notes, and all of those highlights begin to form actual ideas for future series and sermons.

I’ve developed this chart, for each Sunday of the coming year…

Date:
Series Name:
Scriptures:
Sermon Title:
Sermon Purpose Statement:
Sermon Resources:
Hymn/Songs:
Prayers/Liturgy:
Audio Visual:
Other:

Once I have a basic idea for every Sunday of the coming year, I create a Word Document, and start filling in a chart for each and every Sunday.  I don’t always fill in every box during my planning week.  But, I fill in as much as I can.  I do write a purpose statement for every sermon, even if I’m not sure about the title.  I choose a primary Scripture text, and several supporting texts.  Then, as I finish each book I read, I fill in the “resource” block with page numbers of every underline or highlighted sentence that might be relevant to that particular message.  By the end of the week, most of the charts have far more info than I can possibly use in a given sermon, which means I get to pick and choose the material that seems most relevant and insightful.

By the end of my planning week, I have a solid plan for the coming year, and pages and pages of materials.  Of course, when the week of a particular sermon arrives, the sermon manuscript still has to be written, and practiced.  But, I find that task is, though still time consuming, SO much easier, since I already have abundant materials gathered.

The two greatest benefits to me, as the preacher, are…

  1. Planning allows me to relax.  If my schedule in a particular week becomes overly squeezed, I don’t have to panic about what I will preach, or when I I’ll pull a sermon together.  It might still be a challenge to get it finished.  But, that’s WAY better than starting from scratch!
  2. Because I read five or six books during my planning week, I generally have a sufficient “chunk” of materials to work with for the entire year. Then, as I read more throughout the year, I can just read for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment.  When I, inevitably, find something in my ongoing reading related to an upcoming sermon or series, I just open my Word Doc and make a reference.  I do the same when I get a new idea, or see something in Social Media, etc.  Throughout the year, my Word Doc gets fuller and fuller, richer and richer, both with info I’ve gathered from research AND materials that have spoken to me personally.

PLEASE HEAR THIS:  reading for pleasure and personal edification is MUCH richer sermon fodder than scrambling week by week to find another sermon topic, idea or illustration!

When I tell people about my process, many find it hard to believe a sermon planned a year in advance could still be relevant, pertinent, or Spirit-filled, a year later.

First of all, let’s never forget that God is omniscient.  If I approach this process prayerfully, and I do, then the Holy Spirit is fully capable of helping plan a year in advance.

Second, since I’m not actually writing the sermon until the week of, there’s still opportunity to make tweaks and adjustments to make certain the sermon is relevant to the moment.

Thirdly, just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I can’t toss it in the garbage if the Spirit leads me to preach something else.  This happens.  It happened on the Sunday following the Parkland shooting, last February.  But, thankfully, it doesn’t happen often.

My personal conviction is, planning does NOT inhibit the Spirit.  Instead, planning allows more room for the Spirit to lead and guide me to explore, process, and deepen my understanding of a particular topic or text, long before a particular sermon needs to be written.

So, preachers, raise the standard of your preaching!  How?  My advice is planning and preparation.  You may not like MY process.  But, you do need a process.  Plan as far ahead as you possibly can.  Take time – big chunks of time – to study and prepare.  Yes, your spiritual life if enormously important as well – there’s no substituting for that!  But, while I DON’T believe you can preach effectively, for long, with a shallow soul, I DO believe you can be deeply spiritual and still preach lousy sermons, due to lack of time, attention, and effort.  So yes, take care of your soul!  AND, take the time you need to prepare your sermons!

If you would like more details about my process, don’t hesitate to ask!

Let it rain

Let it rain

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”  Hebrews 6:7 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And God permitting, we will do so.”  Hebrews 6:1-3

In essence, some spiritual teachings are foundational, even “elementary.”  Repentance, faith, etc. are the basic materials for establishing a foundation of faith.  Good, strong foundations are important.  But, foundations are meant to be built on.  A solid foundation is essential.  But, a foundation is only a foundation.  Therefore, “let us move beyond elementary teaching about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”

My particular brand of Christianity is Methodist.  One of my favorite things about Methodism is our belief that, following conversion, God begins a new work in us, growing us toward full maturity in Christ.  We believe, with God’s help and our active participation, we will become like Jesus.  According to Hebrews 6:1-3, the “elementary” teachings about Christ are simply the raw materials for establishing a foundation for a life of faith.

For years, I’ve participated in home construction in a small Mayan village in Guatemala, called Chontala.  Most families in Chontala have traditional homes, made of adobe brick, like ones built by Mayans for millennia.  The main benefit of adobe is it’s free – just made of mud and straw.  The problem with adobe is it becomes brittle and unstable in earthquakes.  The homes we build are concrete block construction, which tend to be more stable in earthquakes and storms.

Before we can build the walls of a concrete block home, land has to be cleared, trenches have to be dug and leveled, and foundations have to be created from rock, sand, re-bar, cement, and concrete blocks.  Those are the elements of a solid foundation.  But, as Hebrews describes, the foundation is just the beginning.  Upon the foundation will be added walls, doors, windows, electrical, and a roof.  Then, families will add furnishings and personal belongings to make a new house a home.  Of course, most important are the beautiful families who will live in these homes.

Surrounding most of these homes are corn fields.  Corn is the primary crop of Guatemala, and a mainstay of a Mayan diet.  Corn seed, saved from last year’s harvest, is planted in fertile volcanic soil, and grows rapidly throughout the rainy summer months.  For countless generations, corn has been annually planted, harvested, and dried.  Some is eaten, and some is saved to be planted the following year.  It’s a simple, reliable, dependable, repeatable process, vital to Mayan life.

Daily, corn is ground and cooked into tortillas, tamales and atole (a corn-based hot drink, I don’t particularly like) – the basics of the Mayan diet.  From infancy to old age, corn nourishes the daily life and work of every Mayan.

This is how I imagine the metaphor Hebrews 6:7 describes,“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”   Our spiritual lives can be like those Mayan corn fields; abundantly fertile, sown with ancient seed, watered with dependable rains, producing fruitful harvests, nourishing the daily lives of many, passing on seed to generations of planting and harvesting yet to come.

Mayan corn is a dependable crop.  It always has been, for countless generations

Likewise, spiritual growth and maturity is a dependable process, with God’s blessing and our participation.

The question is, are we still focused on“elementary teachings?”   Or, are our spiritual lives growing, like “Land that drinks in the rain?” 

As Paul writes,I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”  (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

My Mayan friends have no control over the rains.  They simply plant their crops, and trust the rain to come and do its work.  Similarly, we have no control over the “spiritual” rains that fall upon us, or the crops we produce.  Our job is to faithfully plant the seeds of God’s word in the soil of our souls, and to place ourselves under God’s rain as much as we possibly can.

And, where does God’s rain fall?  Worship.  Christian friendship.  Prayer.  Study.  Sacraments.  Contemplation.  Service, mercy, and justice.  Silence and solitude.  Spiritual direction.  Place yourself where the rains of God’s grace flow, with an open heart and mind, and we will grow.

We will become like Christ.  We will become who we were created to be.

Thomas Merton writes, “The secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. But unless I desire this identity and work to find it with Him and in Him, the work will never be done.” 

What do you desire?  Elementary teaching?  Or, to become like Christ?

 

 

I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

Hypocrisy and mourning

Hypocrisy and mourning

The Bible doesn’t say much about the Saturday between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke 23:56 says, “But (Jesus’ followers) rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”

John and Mark don’t mention anything about Saturday, at all.

But, Matthew 27:62-66 says, The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.  ‘Sir,’ they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’  So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.  ‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’  So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.”

Notice the difference?

On the Sabbath day, between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the followers of Jesus rested – as is the intent of the Sabbath – while the priests and Pharisees were hard at work, sealing the tomb of a dead man.

Work on the Sabbath, violates the Fourth Commandment.

Obviously, Jesus’ followers were exhausted, brokenhearted, mourning, and possibly afraid to be seen in public.  Their Sabbath, wasn’t a joyful one.  But, the contrast between the two groups is stark.  In spite of successfully defeating Jesus (or, so they thought), the priests and Pharisees were still “working” against him on the Sabbath.

“But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'” (Isaiah 57:20-21)

Which makes me wonder.  When Jesus and the disciples observed the Passover, the night before the crucifixion, did the priests and Pharisees?  Or, were they too busy for the Passover, plotting, planning and preparing for Jesus’ arrest?  Even if they took the time to eat the Passover meal, were they paying attention to the story?  Or, did they gobble it down in haste, mumbling the prayers, and then on to carrying out their evil mission?

Not observing the Passover, violates one of Israel’s most holy days.

No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites.

The literal definition of a hypocrite is someone who lives behind a mask.  They present an appearance that does not match the true intention.  Thus Jesus called the Pharisees “white-washed” tombs – clean on the outside, but full of death.

The experts in the Law, broke the Law.  But, the ones considered law breakers, by following Jesus, were actually much closer to the heart and spirit of the Law, even in their grief.

Then, on Easter morning, when the tomb was miraculously opened, “When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’  If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’  So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.”  (Matthew 28:12-15)

Lies, and more lies.  Isn’t there a commandment about that, too?

But, in spite of their lying, and bribing, and scheming; in spite of their very best efforts to supress the Truth; in spite of having an innocent man put to death; even sacrificing their own Laws and customs as they did it; there was nothing the priests and Pharisees could do to thwart Jesus’ mission.

They killed him.  That was Jesus’ plan.

They violated the Passover.  Jesus was the Passover.

They lied.  Jesus is the Truth.

They tried to seal a dead body in a tomb.  The grave couldn’t hold him down.

They worked on the Sabbath.  So did God, defeating death and raising the son.

They thought they’d won.  The victory belongs to Jesus.

And, while all of this was happening – the Pharisees scurrying and Jesus’ followers mourning – Jesus lay in his grave.  Dead.  Wrapped in strips of linen, laid on a cold, hard slab of rock.  Hidden, in the dark, behind a large stone.  Even in his death, the Pharisees felt threatened.

Imagine – just imagine – if any of them knew what was about to happen.