Monday, March 27, 2017

Following Jesus: Being a Good Steward

When we hear the word "relationships," we think of our relationships with other people. In our present context, we might also think of our relationship with God. If pressed to mention other relationships we have, we might think of our relationships with ourselves or with our pets. But there is another relationship we have and which shapes us: our relationship with the things we possess.

Anything we have we either acquire ourselves or it is given to us. It may be given to us by people we know well, such as an inheritance or a gift, or people we don't, such as a grant or again, as a gift. When we acquire something ourselves, we either do so honestly, by working or paying for it, or not, by theft or deception. But however we get things, we can never retain them forever. Everything, be it possessions, money, an ability, health or looks, can be taken from us by malice or misfortune. And everything will be taken from us by death. So it is wise to look at everything we have as on loan.

The Christian view of this situation is that everything we think we own has been given to us by God on a temporary basis. As John the Baptist says, “No one can receive a single thing unless it was given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27) It follows that we cannot justifiably envy the specific possessions others have. We are not talking about rights here, which everyone should have, but material things. And our attitude towards them should be that of Paul when he wrote, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Timothy 6:7-8) Most of us today would add our smartphone to that but if you see what, say, Syrian refugees are dealing with, you realize that food and clothing, shelter and safety are the real essentials. All of us in this church have that and instead of whining about our first world problems, we should be grateful for the abundance we have. And out of our abundance we should help those who don't even have the basics.

And while God gives good things to us to enjoy he also expects us to use them for his purposes. Which means largely to help others. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” At the place my family rented for the first several years we lived in the Keys we had a Key lime tree (or bush). And it yielded dozens upon dozens of Key limes at a time. My wife used as many as she could to make lime aid and Key lime pies and put bags of the things in the freezer for later, but there were too many for our family to use. So we would take shopping bags of them to our respective workplaces for anybody who wanted them. We also had banana trees and again would share with others out of the abundance.

Certain enterprising folks would say we should have sold them to others and made a little money. And one way to make a living is to monetize your gifts. If you have a good voice, become a professional singer. Are you good at sports? Become a professional athlete. Are you good with tools? Become a mechanic or a construction worker. Are you good at arguing about rules? Become a lawyer. That is a valid way to find a career. And if you love what you do for a living, and can continue to love it when it becomes a daily job and business, great.

The problem arises when you use your talents only when someone pays you. Imagine if elementary school teachers only taught Sunday School if they were paid, or if carpenters would not volunteer to help Habitat for Humanity because they wouldn't make money, or if nurses on mission trips to poor countries wanted to be paid as if they were working in the US. There was a scandal a few years ago when it was revealed that a lot of organizations that hold fundraisers for charities pay celebrities hefty fees to appear at the events. If a rock star or a movie star is at a charity event, you think it's out of the goodness of their heart. You don't expect them to be going home with a large amount of the money you gave to cure cancer or feed the hungry or build a hospital for children. If they are asking for anything other than what's needed to cover basic expenses for travel to the venue and food, they are not giving but taking.

Legally you can charge whatever the market will bear, but if you never share your gifts except for monetary reward, not only will you not receive the mental and physical health benefits scientists have observed in those who volunteer (higher life satisfaction and will to live, lower depression and anxiety) you will not reap any spiritual benefit either. We are created in the image of God. God is love. We are most like God when in relationships with others that arise from and are governed by love. God did not create us out of loneliness or any need on the part of the divine persons in the Trinity. We were created out of the overflowing abundance of God's love. When we act altruistically, we are acting out of something deep within our makeup. We are doing what we were created to do.

God gives. He gives us life. He gives us all abilities and talents. While we can use these things as we wish, they are not actually our own. They are entrusted to us only for a certain amount of time. They all must be returned to him eventually. And the condition in which we return them will determine what he will entrust us with in his new creation. Paul speaks of people entering the kingdom without much to show for what they have done for God, rather like a builder whose shoddy work went up in flames, but who personally was saved. (1 Corinthians 3:15) We are to be good stewards of our time and talents.

Let's say I gave my granddaughter a baseball bat to play with and told her how to use it. And let's say that the next time I visited her I found out that she had been using it to hit people and break things. I would take it away from her and give her a time-out. And in essence that's what God does. He has told us how we are to use what he has given us: in a loving manner towards him and towards everyone he has made in his image. If we fail to do so but admit that and ask for help, he will always give us another chance. But if we never begin to learn how to use the limited life, gifts and powers of this life, why should he entrust us with much greater life, gifts and powers?

But as we said, he has given us general rules for how we should be stewards of his gifts. In Genesis 1:26-28, we are told that God created humanity to rule over all life on earth. But lest you think that means we can do whatever we want, it says in Genesis 2:5 that we were essentially intended to act as gardeners to God's creation. A good gardener does not destroy what he is supposed to cultivate.

So when Cain cheekily says, “Am I my brother's protector?” the answer is “Yes.” We are to nurture and preserve and help one another. We are to be stewards of all God has entrusted to us, including our ability to affect the lives and well-being of each other.

Typically, when we talk about stewardship we focus on time, talents and treasure. And what is amazing is how little God asks of us in regards to 2 of those 3 categories of gifts. He asks for 1/10 of our money (less than the government does) and 1/7 of our days (a lot less than our job.) Talent is harder to quantify. Even if you primarily use your talent for the church, that usually means more than just an hour on Sunday morning. There's choir rehearsal during the week, cleaning the church and grounds, preparing food for events, preparation for Sunday School, committee meetings and composing and printing and collating the bulletin. Those can add up to a few more hours a week.

But in one sense we should use our talents to serve God always. Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men...” Now he was addressing slaves at the time but it applies to anyone who works for a living. Society needs people using their talents in all kinds of capacities. And we see what happens when people's ultimate loyalty is to their job or company: they don't care how their products or services or processes affects others. They will dump waste in public waters; they will make up accounts for unwitting clients and charge them; they will release dangerous products and not tell the public and even resist recalling them. It's interesting that a 2015 study of whistleblowers shows them to be, not disgruntled slackers, but people who are highly paid, highly educated, conscientious and religious. That's what enables them to ultimately choose fairness over loyalty to the company. Or their decision can be seen as loyalty to a higher power than that of their bosses.

Someone once said, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.” Often this is erroneously attributed to Martin Luther but the sentiment is still valid. What Luther would add would be that the shoes should be good because your neighbor needs shoes and needs well-made ones. We need well-made cars and reliable medical devices and honest banking procedures and scrupulous caregivers. If you are a Christian you should do whatever you do wholeheartedly and dedicate it to God. If the industry or company you work for is making that difficult, if it does shoddy work, or exploits people or rips them off, work to reform it. If you can't do that, if the business model is inherently harmful or destructive, such as human trafficking or another criminal enterprise, you should quit and do something you can feel good about. You might even start an organization that helps people damaged by that business, such as JC Girls, a ministry that helps those leaving the sex industry, or New Beginnings-Big Country, a Christian program of transitional housing for women coming out of prison.

Something that we tend to forget when we talk about stewardship is our original job: taking care of creation. We have more than 7 billion people on this planet, and we have created economies of scale that exploit our earth and its resources ruthlessly and unsustainably. Drinkable water is getting scarcer; our winters are getting shorter; entire species of animals are moving toward extinction. We can almost—almost—excuse the pioneers of the industrial revolution. There were a lot fewer people then and the planet's riches seemed inexhaustible. The situation has changed drastically and we know a lot more. You can't blame animals for overbreeding and eating every blade of grass in their environment. They don't realize that they are ensuring their own starvation. We know better. We need to use all our ingenuity to preserve and restore our environment so we and our descendants can live. Again, will God entrust his new creation to those who destroy the current one?

And if you have no talent in these areas you can still support their efforts. If you aren't an environmental scientist, or skilled in animal conservation, you can financially support those who are. If you can't be a missionary, or build schools in Africa, or practice medicine in Haiti, or bring fresh water to distant villages, you can support our denomination's efforts in those areas. If you can't sing in the choir, or read the lectionary in front of a crowd, or fix the church's air conditioner, or mow the lawn, you can give to support the everyday operation of the church. In one of his lists of gifts, Paul says if one's gift is “contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously.” (Romans 12:8) Even this should be done wholeheartedly, for, as Paul says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

This points to the fact that, as always, it is God's intention that we become the kind of people who don't need to be told this. As we become more Christlike, we should be more aware of God's gracious gifts, more conscientious in using them properly and more generous of our time, treasure and talents. And more trusting in God's grace. One reason we hold back from God is that we worry that we won't have enough time, treasure or talents for ourselves. As Jesus pointed out in his Sermon on the Mount, worry is antithetical to faith. If we are doing what God wants us to do, he will provide what we need. (Matthew 7:25-34) We can trust him on that.

Ultimately, stewardship is about how we see our relationship to God. If we think of our lives, our talents and our money as our possessions and God as a genie who is obliged to fulfill our wishes, that relationship is severely deformed. If we see God as the source of all the good in our lives, the one who gave us our life, our talents and our ability to make money, and if we use all of those things to express our gratitude to him and our love for all those people and things he has created, we will strive to be good stewards.

We are like children who use the allowance our father gives us to buy him a gift. We will always be in his debt but what matters is not the exchange of things but the love given and received and given back again. All we are and have is God's gift to us. What we do with all that is our gift to God.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Following Jesus: Worship

In Aldous Huxley's satire of the future, Brave New World, he envisions a utopia where time is measured not from the birth of our Lord but from Henry Ford. Science and hedonism rule everything and there is no religion but there are community sings where people get together. They seem to be a substitute for worship and indeed there is a character called the Arch-Community Songster of Canterbury. And just as Huxley's novel has foreshadowed scientific and social trends on the current world, so he has with a movement to have atheists and agnostics meet on Sundays to “hear great talks, sing songs, and generally celebrate the wonder of life.” (link here) Such services are being held in Houston and London where they plan to build an atheist temple. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Unitarian Church says he provides such services for secularists and humanists “who have the same human needs for community, compassion, meaning and marking the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death.”

As I've shown before, there is a lot of scientific evidence that faith in God is beneficial to the physical and mental health of individuals, as well as society. A recent scientific study showed that religion was necessary for the smooth transition of a community from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural settlement. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford has found that religion allows us to bond with many more people than our brain size would normally allow. Religion also involves emotional storytelling, singing, repetitive movement and often dancing, all of which, Dunbar's research shows, trigger the release of endorphins and facilitates social bonding. People who worship science often have a problem with religion but now some are acknowledging the data, believing however that it is the community activity rather than the content that is essential. But there is no denying that humanity has a need to worship. The oldest song we have found is a hymn to the wife of the moon god. After graves, the oldest buildings in the world are temples. And, by the way, the graves of Neanderthals show evidence of ritual as much as 50,000 years ago.

It seems we cannot help but worship. And this makes sense since children naturally believe in God, in an unseen agent who acts upon the world and gives things purpose and meaning. Studies have shown that you cannot disabuse them of the notion until around the age of twelve. And so as far back in history as you can go you find people worshipping God.

We said in our sermon on prayer that praising God is more for our benefit that his. And sure enough, scientists have found that regular church attendance (the only way they can measure religious faith) is associated with lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, lower levels of inflammation, increased levels of dopamine and a boost in the immune system.

But what are the spiritual benefits of worshiping God?

Worship is a contraction of “worthship.” You are ascribing worth to someone or something. People grow to become like what they worship. We see what happens to people who worship money or might or celebrity or themselves. Worshipping such idols, things that are not worth ultimate allegiance, deforms a person spiritually and morally. A new study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that one of the surprising facts uncovered by the recent election is a growing number of conservatives who call themselves evangelicals but don't actually go to church. These unchurched “evangelicals” are less hostile towards gays but more hostile toward blacks, Latinos and Muslims. Some researchers opine that the admittedly limited integration in churches might counteract that tendency in people who do attend regularly. But, according to the Atlantic article by Peter Beinart, “In their book, Religion and Politics in the United States, Kenneth D. Wald and Allison Calhoun-Brown reference a different theory: that the most-committed members of a church are more likely than those who are casually involved to let its message of universal love erode their prejudices. Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion, and emphasizing race and nation.” When you remove God as your ultimate value then something else will fill that power vacuum, and things like politics and race are very strong candidates.

Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.” Serving the God who is love is arguably a better thing than the other idols people follow. And coming together to celebrate in word, song and ritual what we find worthy about what God in Christ has done for us is important. We are social beings and we love to get together and rejoice over the things we love. Folks flock to attend concerts by their favorite bands, rallies for politicians they support, pop culture events they enjoy like Star Trek or Doctor Who conventions. Why should we not gather to proclaim our love for the gracious God who is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus?

Worship involves 3 main elements: prayer, proclamation and praise. Prayer we discussed in the first of this sermon series. In communal worship we pray together. That of necessity widens what we pray about and how. Instead of us merely thinking about ourselves and those we love, corporate prayer takes into account our world, our nation, the universal church, and the concerns of races, genders and groups other than our own. It's real easy to say God loves all people but when I am praying with and for other people it brings the point home in a way my personal prayers rarely do. In community prayer I must seek and find the image of God in folks of another race or gender or ethnic group or religion. I must remember that what I do to others I do to Jesus. Praying in a group takes me out of myself and puts me in touch with the God whose concerns are much bigger than I usually think about.

Proclamation of God's word is vital in that it puts before me ideas and ideals that I subscribe to but often take for granted. I need to be reminded of them so they don't go dormant in my thoughts, words and actions. In addition, I hope to learn something new about them or see them from another perspective. And even if I think the preacher is wrong, I must grapple with why I feel that way, how did he come to those conclusions and is my reasoning solid and complete or have I missed something. Anything that deepens my grasp of my core beliefs and values, anything that throws them in a new light, every useful insight is important.

In a world that contradicts and often mocks what I see as the essential spiritual truths about life, it is good to meet with others who see these things as invaluable as well. And it is good to praise what we see is good and helpful and wise and restorative. And it is good to do so using all the gifts God has given us: music, art, poetry, movement and more.

Now you may think that worship is best when it is done as well as it possibly can be. And while I think we all need to do our best when praising God, I don't think that means that we need to beat up on ourselves when we don't come off as smooth and as professional as bigger churches with paid worship leaders and bands. I am heartened to see people doing their best even if it wouldn't pass muster with the folks that produce shows for TV or Broadway. If someone doesn't quite have the range of a trained singer, doesn't read the lectionary as smoothly as Morgan Freeman would, doesn't move as gracefully as a dancer, that's OK. I don't do everything perfectly either. I'm sure God enjoys our attempts to praise him the way we enjoy seeing our children sing and perform for us. The love and effort is what is important. We are not professionals but people doing what we can to praise the God who gave us gifts, both great and small, and we are grateful for them. And we want to show that gratitude.

Worship is ultimately about gratitude. Our word for communion, Eucharist, is just Greek for “thanksgiving.” In our service we thank God for creating the world and us and for acting in the world to redeem us, climaxing in what God has done in Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. We read from the Hebrew Bible, from the psalms, from the New Testament and from one of the gospels every Sunday. We listen to an explication of the written Word of God and/or meditation on the living Word of God. We sing about God's mighty acts. We confess our sins and hear God's promise of forgiveness. We come together as the body of Christ to share the Body and Blood of Christ. We are sent out into the world to proclaim the gospel with our lips and our lives. And it is all done in a spirit of gratitude for God's love and mercy.

Worship is not all that we as a church do but it is a vital part of what we do. Humans have a need to worship something and we direct that need towards the only thing worth worshipping: the God who is not an aloof creator but one who, when his creatures were in distress, entered into his creation, lived and died as one of us, rose from the dead and who also lives in each of his as his Spirit transforming us into the image of the God who is love, who is light, who is life, and who deserves our praise and gratitude and service.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Following Jesus: Community

We honor people like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther himself, for changing the world. And if it hadn't been for them, these changes would not have happened or at least not in the way it did. But if a community hadn't formed around them, those changes also wouldn't have happened. There are other people, whom you probably haven't heard much about, like Floridian civil rights crusader Harry T. Moore, or Gopal Krishna Gokhale who worked for self-rule in India, or Arnold of Brecia, a 12th century monk who preached apostolic poverty before St. Francis and is considered a precursor to the Protestant Reformation. They also had potentially world-changing ideas but they didn't achieve as much success. These people become footnotes to history. Maybe the time wasn't right or they weren't able to convince enough people. A person changes the world by changing other people. Attracting a certain critical mass of supporters has a multiplier effect.

And the same is true of Jesus. Had people not flocked to him he would be as obscure as Simon of Peraea, a slave of Herod the Great, or Athronges, a shepherd, both of them messiah-wannabes. And in fact, like those others, Jesus was killed by the authorities. His place in the world's memory would have faded as well had it not been for his followers. Instead of either going back to their old lives or switching allegience to the next would-be messiah, they stayed together and attracted more and more followers. This is directly tied to the fact that they had seen and proclaimed a risen Christ, a fact that destroyed their fear of death. Historians are at a loss to explain the survival of the Jesus movement beyond his death without the resurrection.

And just as Jesus foresaw his own death and resurrection, he foresaw the church, the continuation of his mission to establish and extend God's royal reign. Everything that is true of the Kingdom of God should be true of the church because it is to be the community of those who are redeemed by Jesus. It is the body of Christ. In it we should see people following Jesus and becoming more Christlike.

This might seem like a digression but stick with me. When Walt Disney conceived of EPCOT, it was not supposed to be what it has become. EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was to be an actual city of about 20,000 residents with businesses in the center and concentric rings of community buildings, recreational complexes, schools and residential areas radiating out. As Walt put it, “It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.” But instead of a model community of the future, we got an amusement park.

And something similar seems to be happening to the church. It's not exactly what Jesus wants it to be. Instead of a community, it is often just a place to meet. Peter Berger accused the church of often meeting just to make noise! That's harsh. There is content to our meetings: we pray, we study the Bible, we praise God in spoken word, song and music, and we share the Eucharist. We also meet to engage in activities for the good of the church and sometimes for the good of the outside world. But the real question is do we actually come together as a community?

According to Wikipedia, a community is a social unit of people who have something in common or who share common values. It also defines a community as “a group of people whose identity as a group lies in their interaction and sharing.” By those definitions we are a certain kind of community. What we have in common is a belief in Jesus as God's son, our Lord and Savior, and we share the values he embodied and espoused. In that sense we function as a community that shares a common interest or passion. But just as Walt Disney wanted EPCOT to be more than a new and improved Tomorrowland, Jesus wants us to be more than just his fan club. He wants us to be a community of action, one that works to spread not only knowledge of him but to put his teachings into action. In the Great Commission he told us to make disciples in all nations, to baptize them and to teach them to observe all that he has commanded us. (Matt 28:19, 20; emphasis mine) In other words, don't just tell but show.

What are the rules by which this community should live? Jesus supports the moral commands of the Old Testament, especially the 10 Commandments, but he expands and deepens their scope, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount. Thus it is not enough to refrain from murder; you must also refrain from rage and insults. It is not enough to refrain from adultery; you must also refrain from indulging in lustful contemplation of someone who is not your spouse. It is not enough to keep your oaths; you should not make oaths at all but simply do what you say you will.

Jesus tells us to do the reverse of our natural responses. Rather than taking revenge, we should absorb injustices against us. Rather than hate our enemies, we should love them. And when we do good, like giving to the needy, praying, or fasting, we should not make them public spectacles but keep them between ourselves and God. We are not to worry nor to pass judgment on others; we are to trust God to take care of our needs and leave all final judgment to him. We are to concentrate on working on our own flaws.

Jesus also holds to an ethical hierarchy which puts the commands to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbor as we do ourselves above all other moral demands. Not only do these 2 commandments supercede all others, all ethical rules should derive from them.

As for new commands, Jesus really only gives us one: to love one another as he loves us. In other words, act in self-sacrificial love towards others.

Jesus even gave us two ethical rules of thumb to help us in situations where there may not be a specific command. The first is the Golden Rule: treat others as we would like to be treated. Nearly every religion has some form of this. And the second is to see Jesus in others and treat them as if they were Jesus: feeding the hungry, clothing the threadbare, quenching the thirsty, welcoming the foreigner, visiting the sick and the imprisoned. What we do or neglect to do to them we do or neglect to do to Jesus.

As his followers, we should emulate our Lord. Jesus helped all who came to him, even if it meant breaking lesser religious rules. And when they didn't come to him but he saw their need, like the man born blind, or the widow at Nain, he proactively helped them. He was thoughtful about others, such as telling the parents of the little girl whom he had just revived to give her something to eat. She had been very sick and could use the nutrition. He did not shun the disreputable, like tax collectors and prostitutes, seeing them as spiritually ill and in need of his healing. Even though Jesus preached against adultery, he saved the life of an adulterous woman whom the law said should be stoned to death. To Jesus the total wellbeing of each person he encountered was paramount.

As his body on earth, we need to exemplify the divine love to which we are called. As new creations in Christ we need to display the new thing that God is doing. The church should be Jesus' experimental prototype community of today. We need to be a community where we not only obey the greatest commandment but the second greatest as well. We need to be a community where there are no insults or anger or sexual harrassment. We need to be people who say what they mean and do what they say. When dealing with those with whom we disagree there should be no retaliation and no hate. We should not indulge in passing judgment on anyone.

And what should we do if there is more than disagreement but actual harm done? In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus gives us an approach to use. First, go to the person whom you feel wronged you privately and try to patch things up. If he won't listen, then try again with 1 or 2 other people as witnesses. Only if the person is still recalcitrant should the matter go before the whole church. Often when we are wronged, we do the opposite. We let everybody know, which makes it harder to approach the person and resolve matters. That's especially true in the age of social media. Often the accused gets piled on before they can get their side of the story out. It's always better to talk with the person one on one first and see if you can't work things out without involving everyone else.

Just as love and forgiveness and peace should reign within the community of Christ, that should be the way we approach the world. Paul tells us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” (Romans 12:18) Scripture does not condone presenting a belligerent posture towards non-Christians. There is no place for the hostile in-your-face acts of the Westboro Baptist Church or preachers who call people names or demonize them. It is also counterproductive to spreading the gospel, the good news about the healing, forgiveness and grace offered by God in Christ. As one speaker at a Campus Crusade event I attended pointed out, we should never have an exchange that goes like this: “Hey, have you heard the good news?” “No. What is it?” “You're going to hell.”

That is not good news. We need to remember that God sent his son because he loved the world so much. As followers of Jesus, we must also love the people of this world—all the people. Surveys show that a lot of folks don't go to church because they find it too judgmental or hypocritical. Yet Jesus routinely tops lists of the most admired people in history. Obviously people do not see enough of Jesus in us, his followers.

On the night before he died Jesus said, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) There is a lot of hate and anger and fear in the world. Those things are not solving the world's problems but making them worse. And when they fail to make things better we resort to force. It's a cycle we keep going through. And you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. We need to try something different.

To paraphrase the old Burt Bacharach-Hal David song, “What the world needs now is love—God's love.” Jesus showed us that. As his students and followers, we need to do that too, not only with our lips but in our lives. In Ephesians 5:8-9 Paul says, “ were at one time darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of the light—for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth....” Light is vital to us. It helps us see where we are going. It reveals what is good and exposes what is bad. It elevates our mood and sunlight is essential in helping our bodies produce vitamin D, which in turn increases our absorption of calcium and phosphorus from food, and plays a key role in our bone growth, immune system and blood cells.

So let us indeed walk as children of the light. Let us reflect the glory of God in all that we think, say and do. Let our church be a model of the love and grace and healing found in Jesus Christ and let us shine our light to guide others to him, the source and goal of all that is good.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Following Jesus: Studying the Bible

During the Sundays in Lent we are looking at 7 essential elements of following Jesus. On Ash Wednesday we spoke of how prayer is just talking with God and is not terribly different from how you should communicate with your spouse. But you should also listen to your spouse, Now, aside from mystics and prophets, not many of us hear God's voice, at least not in an auditory way. My experience is that as I talk to God, his responses form in my head. If I say “Lord, I can't do _____,” the rejoinder “You can with my help” immediately occurs to me. The answers often formulate themselves in my mind as I formulate my questions and objections before God.

What helps is that I have steeped my mind in the written word of God. While I can't always quote chapter and verse I read the Bible enough to have a pretty good idea what it says on various issues and I can Google to find the passage and get the exact wording. But just as my familiarity with Sherlock Holmes would make me suspicious of any story in which he believed in spiritualists and mediums, my familiarity with scripture gives me a pretty good idea of what it does and does not say. Then I check it out to make sure. And occasionally I am wrong, which is why I keep studying it.

In 2013 we did the Bible Challenge, which consisted of reading the whole of scripture in a year. I salute the people who took up the challenge with me and those who read my daily blog posts as I reread the Bible. But you know who puts most Christians to shame? The inmates at the jail. They typically read through the entire volume in 2 to 3 weeks. Of course, they have little else to do. But it is possible for those of us with more demanding schedules to read the Bible in as little as 90 days. And if you take a year, it is easy.

That said, I recommend not only reading but studying the Bible. For one thing, it is not one book but 66, written by roughly 40 authors. It is not just a tome of moral instruction but also of story, history, poetry, parables, legal texts, letters, visions, and a family saga that encompasses love and romance, treachery and tragedy, politics and intrigue, nobility and triumph. And it is also an ancient Near East document written in a couple of Semitic languages as well as Greek, with customs that go back millennia. There are several good Study Bibles out there that will help you understand the whole array of biblical literature.

And if you don't have a study Bible there are websites like and where you can read the Bible in any number of translations and languages and get lots of commentaries to study as well. You can get these sites as free apps as well as the Logos app which gives you access to a whole library of scholarly but readable reference works by Intervarsity Press, and the app which will read the Bible to you in various translations, with music and dramatization if you like. I also like the Touch Bible app which has the easiest navigation for finding a passage or a verse. And on YouTube you can find every Psalm sung in every musical form you can think of.

So there's no excuse not to read and understand the Bible. But I will give you a Cliff Notes tour of the scriptures.

The Bible begins with 5 books that make up the foundation of Judaism. The Torah is Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, a mixture of story, history, moral and legal principles.

Genesis tells us the beginning of humanity's dealings with God, in a form that was readily understandable to those in the Ancient Near East but simple enough to be understood universally today. It tells us that human beings, both male and female, are created in God's image. As such, we are moral agents in the world. It also tells us how we have totally botched up taking care of God's creation and each other, turning a paradise into something like hell on earth. It tells us how God decides to use the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to bless all the peoples of the earth. (Genesis 12:1-3) We follow that family as its members both reflect and fail to exemplify the image of God in mankind. Genesis concludes with the sons of Jacob or Israel moving into Egypt to avoid famine.

In Exodus we find that after hundreds of years in Egypt, the children of Israel have become a slave class. God hears their cry for help and sends Moses to lead them out of Egypt and back to the land he promised to Abraham and his descendants. This climaxes in chapter 20 where God enters into a covenant or agreement with the people of Israel. If they will be his people, he will be their God. The rest of the Torah is the extended version of that contract, plus priest craft and a census, interspersed with the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness for 40 years. That's where most people get bogged down so I recommend reading a chapter of the New Testament each day as well.

Joshua tells the sometimes harrowing, sometimes rousing story of the Israelites conquering the promised land and its apportionment among the 12 tribes of Israel.

Judges tells how the land fares as a lawless, loose federation of tribes, led occasionally by charismatic individuals called judges.

Ruth is a story of faith and romance about King David's grandparents.

First and Second Samuel cover the transition of Israel to a monarchy and stories of the warrior-king David. First and Second Kings tells the story of his dynasty, the split of the nation into a northern and a southern kingdom and the tale of the rival royal houses until both nations are conquered and taken into exile. The books of First and Second Chronicles recaps Biblical history with special emphasis on the nation of Judah.

Ezra and Nehemiah recount the people's return from exile and their efforts to restore the kingdom of Judah once more.

Esther tells a story of how a Jewish princess in a pagan land saves her people.

After those books of history come the wisdom literature of the Bible. Job recounts the drama of a good man undergoing a terrible ordeal and wrestles with the problem of why bad things happen to good people.

The Psalms are the hymnbook of the Hebrews, covering the whole range of human emotions in relation to God, from sorrow, anger and indignation to compassion, praise and hope.

Proverbs collects the aphorisms of Jewish sages, elevating the concept of wisdom.

Ecclesiastes is a down to earth meditation on life and death and how to live.

Song of Songs is a poetic wedding drama with some surprisingly racy passages on erotic love.

The rest of the Old Testament is the writings of the prophets, often unpopular spokesmen for God, who comment on the current and future states of the northern or southern kingdoms. They offer warnings of judgment as well as promises of restoration, depending on how the people respond to God's call to return to him and to healthy relationships with their neighbors, especially the downtrodden. Some, like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, contain difficult-to-interpret visions of the future. Hosea is an enacted parable of God's love for his adulterous wife of a nation, while Jonah is a parable of God's love and forgiveness for all, even those outside his people. In the prophets we also get glimpses of the Messiah, a promised prophet, priest and king whom God will send to save his people.

The New Testament begins with the gospels, 4 overlapping accounts of Jesus, the Christ or Messiah, whom God sends to liberate all people from their enslavement to sin. From 4 different perspectives, they all tell of his ministry of healing and preaching and of his death on the cross, a shameful form of execution, and of his surprising resurrection. The book of Acts then follows the early years of the church, with special emphasis on the ministries of Peter and Paul.

The next 13 books are letters from Paul to his churches, to his colleagues in ministry and to an important Christian leader over the tricky question of freeing one of his slaves. Paul is an orthodox Jew with an unexpected mission to the Gentiles and his multi-ethnic ministry forces him to deal with issues of diversity and essentials. These letters are the earliest books in the New Testament, predating the gospels by decades.

Hebrews is an early Christian sermon revealing how the Old Testament relates to and foreshadows the New and especially Jesus Christ.

James feels like the New Testament's sole wisdom book, focusing less on theology than on the practical side of demonstrating one's faith in how one lives.

First and Second Peter focus on major problems that the churches were struggling with, including persecution from outside and false teachings from within.

The 3 letters of John continue the themes and heady mystical tone of the gospel of John, emphasizing the importance of love, truth and Jesus, the incarnate God.

Jude is a short book that recaps the prophetic themes of true worship and moral behavior.

Revelation is a prophetic book in the vein of Isaiah and Ezekiel. This book was a message of hope to a persecuted church, assuring Christians that when the worst is over, God will bring peace, healing and wholeness to the world. It is couched in deliberately difficult language to keep the Roman Empire from destroying the book. It starts with 7 letters to churches in various stages of faithfulness and laxity. The central chapters use images from the Old Testament prophets to depict a world in the throes of the final struggle between God and evil. The last two chapters give us a breathtaking portrait of a resurrected and restored paradise on earth where the God of love will live among his people and death and sorrow and pain are no more.

Overall, the Bible tells the epic love story of how God makes a beautiful world which his creatures fill with violence and ugliness and how God starts his long-term plan to win his creatures back. He even enters into his creation as a human being named Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) to take upon himself the consequences and brunt of our evil. He then pours out his Spirit upon those who open themselves to his love and transforms them into the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of his grace. The Bible ends with a glorious vision of this kingdom of God on earth and a prayer for Jesus to hasten and consummate God's plan for a new heaven and a new earth in perfect communion with each other.

Once you see the overall plot of the Bible, it is easier to figure out where each book fits in. Even so, it helps to check out reference works whenever you have questions. And you need to pay attention what genre each book is in. The stories in Judges and First and Second Kings read like Game of Thrones, depicting behavior that is sometime worthy of emulation and sometimes emphatically not. In fact, even the so-called heroes of the faith are fallible human beings who sometimes fall way below God's standards. No mere human is perfect. Yet God works through them. We can all relate to that.

In the poetic books, including parts of the prophets' writings, you need to make allowance for hyperbole and metaphor. Jesus uses both. You need to look out for Hebrew idioms and euphemisms. For instance, to “uncover one's feet” is to undress; stranger means foreigner or alien. It helps to compare translations, especially using more literal ones alongside paraphrases. No one translation can capture it all, though the Amplified Bible tries, basically by unleashing a thesaurus on some passages.

A good Bible dictionary can help you keep track of persons, places and things, as well as help you trace certain themes across the various books of the Bible. Commentaries can help you understand individual passages, and pick up on emphases and themes within books. Again you can get both through the Logos Bible app.

As students and followers of Jesus we live at a time when we have unprecedented access to the Bible and a wealth of scholarship. We need to know what scripture does and does not say. We need a deeper understanding of God so that we can cut through all the garbage out there about God, both from his detractors and from misguided and ill-informed supporters. We need to be able to, as 1 John 4:1 says, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God...” As Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice, and as Jesus saw in his temptation, “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” So we need to know not only what it says but what it means. We need to know context and nuance and how one verse that seems to make a sweeping generalization is modified by another verse on the same subject.

We also need to acknowledge that the Bible is not primarily a legal treatise, nor is it a science text, seeing as science was invented long after the last book of scripture was written. It is not really interested in how the world is constructed but why. It is about the meaning of creation and our place in it. If it is at all about “how,” it is about how to live a life of love and justice and peace. It is about how much God loves us and how far he will go to save us from self-destruction. It is about how to respond to that love.

The Bible is a portable library full of timeless wisdom and eternal truths. Jesus studied it to the point where he quoted it from the cross. As his students and followers, we need to get into the Bible deeply so we can know the mind of Christ. And we need to put what we learn there into practice.

But where can we do that? We'll talk about that next Sunday.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Following Jesus: Prayer

In my marriage preparation classes, we, of course, deal with the expected issues. Like the importance of love, trust and hope: Nurture those qualities. Like children: How many? Or do you want any? Have you discussed the matter between yourselves? Like adultery: Don't do it. Your marriage may be able to survive adultery—the way you may be able to survive a head-on collision. But I don't recommend it.

What we actually spend a lot of time on is constructive communication. Unless you are both telepathic, you need to learn how to communicate your thoughts and feelings to your spouse and how to listen to your spouse communicate his or her thoughts and feelings. You need to learn how to express yourself in a way that is honest but not inflammatory. You also need to know how to disagree in a healthy way so that you can, as a team, attack problems and not each other. This might seem like common sense but you need to be reminded of certain basic truths from time to time.

This Lent we are going to be talking about 7 elements of following Jesus. They shouldn't surprise you or sound exotic. But they are basic ways of maintaining your relationship with the person we call our God and king.

And the first thing we are going to look at is prayer, which is communicating with God.

Most of us think that prayer is just asking God for stuff. But that would be like thinking you only talk to your spouse or a friend when you need something. Think of how you would feel if the only time someone who supposedly loved you spoke to you was to ask for something. You can't build a good relationship on that alone.

My granddaughter, who is at an age when she needs to ask for things frequently, also discusses things that matter to her with me and sings for me and asks questions and says, “I love you.” That's how we should talk to our heavenly Father.

Nevertheless it's perfectly acceptable to ask God for things. In the Lord's Prayer we say, “Give us today our daily bread...” (Matthew 6:11) So we are encouraged to ask for our needs to be met. Jesus also said, “...I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” (John 14:13) Which sounds pretty sweeping. The only conditions are to ask (1) in the name of Christ and (2) that it may glorify the Father. Both of those can be taken to mean we should not ask anything contrary to his Spirit or which will do the opposite of glorifying God. Given how self-indulgences by televangelists like million dollar mansions and private planes and gold-plated bathroom fixtures have been occasions for deriding and mocking the gospel, such things fall outside Jesus' promise, as would asking for God to harm others. Again Jesus said, “Is there anyone among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Of if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11) God is not a genie granting us every crazy desire but a loving Father who will not give us what is bad for us no matter how hard we ask.

What else do you talk about with someone you love? The things that concern you. And sometimes you don't want the other person to start brainstorming solutions for you to implement but just listen and empathize. We can do that with God as well. If it is important to your child, it is important to you. And so it is with God. And one of the things that is great about Jesus is that he understands what our lives are like because he is one of us. He worked for a living; he lost a parent; he had problems with his brothers; he was misunderstood; he got tired; he got thirsty; he got sad; he was betrayed by a friend. We can say, “Jesus, I know you know what this situation is like. Help me deal with it.”

Another thing you do with someone you love is tell them that. You compliment them. And you do it to express your love. In fact, it is good to say out loud what we appreciate about the other person, because otherwise, after a while, we take them for granted. And it is good to remind ourselves why we got into this relationship in the first place. It also feels good to praise your spouse or child or parent. So we don't praise God because he needs it. We do it because we need it. We need to remind ourselves of God's good qualities and why we love him.

Another thing you talk about with someone you love is things that anger or upset you about them. Believe it or not, this is OK with God too. The psalms and the prophets have passages where they are honest with God about the problems they are having with him. They say things like “How long will this continue?” regarding God's anger (Psalm 6:3) and “Yes, my spirit was bitter, and my insides felt pain” and other troubling thoughts when seeing the wicked prosper (Psalm 73:21). Our God is big enough to deal with our negative emotions, even when they are directed toward him. The essential thing is to keep the connection open. One of my favorite passages is Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. (Genesis 32:24-30) The key part is when Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” He comes out of it with a limp—and a blessing. The worst thing to do is to walk away and not try to work out the problem in the relationship.

Another thing I tell couples to do is admit when they are wrong and to be ready to forgive when the other asks for it. It's really hard to keep a relationship going if there are unresolved wrongs, or when one person is sorry but the other won't forgive them. Probably one of the least popular ideas in Christianity is that of repentance. As I've pointed out before, it doesn't necessitate tears, sackcloth and ashes; it means to turn your life around and to rethink what you're doing. Even though this is essential to having a relationship with God, just as forgiving or asking forgiveness of your spouse is, these are the most difficult parts of those relationships. It's right up there with “We have to talk.” Nobody likes to be in the wrong. Nor, in the rare case where you are entirely in the right, do we like forgiving rather than gloating over the person in the wrong. But it is as necessary to the life and health of the relationship as first aid is to the life and health of a person. When something's wrong we need to get it repaired, even though that is no fun.

Prayer is simply talking with God. We need to do it every day; we need to compliment God as we would our spouse; we need to ask for what we need; we need to fess up when we are in the wrong; we need to ask for help in doing things we can't do alone or well, like forgiving others.

Jesus prayed a lot. It was his habit to get up early and go off by himself, away from distractions, so he could pray. If you're a morning person, you should emulate him. If, like me, you are most assuredly not a morning person, find a time that works best for you. But prayer is not an optional part of following Jesus. When you love someone, you should love talking to them.

You should also love to listen to them. And we will look at that Sunday.