Wednesday, July 31, 2013

As a reluctant witness, establishing the right priorities.

My thoughts this week deal with establishing the right priorities. With our minds, spirit and energy being pulled in a thousand different directions it is extremely hard to keep it all-straight. To follow the Lord with so many demands being placed on our lives is kind of hard. Kind of hard? No, it is really hard. Life challenging hard. Sweat producing hard. But, hey, Jesus never asked us to do the easy stuff.

One of the priorities that is kind of expected in a Christian’s life is the willingness to bear witness to the one who changed our lives. Should we always be ready to share the Good News that is in us? But in truth, we are really a reluctant witness to that reality… reluctant because we are not really sure how to do it, what words to use, how to approach others, etc. We all have spiritual scares because of being backed into a corner with an over zealous Christian. Most of us have experienced the pamphlet pushers… the in your face, “going to hell” proclaimers. As one friend shared with one of those “in your face… if-you-died-tonight-you-would-be-going-straight-to-hell” proclaimers, “If heaven is filled with people like you I would much rather spend eternity in hell!”  My friend did share with me the “proclaimers” response other than it did take his breath away and left him standing there with nothing more to say.

Establish Priorities is a challenge, establishing the RIGHT priorities are even more so. During my search for stories/illustrations to help us in our journey down this path I ran across this one by Rodney Buchanan.

I read a recent magazine article about a pastor and his encounter with some unbelievers while having breakfast. Here is how he tells the story: “My wife and I were vacationing in Estes Park, Colorado, and had breakfast in a coffee shop. It was empty except for four men at another table. One was mocking Christianity; in particular, the resurrection of Christ. He went on and on about what a stupid teaching that was. I could feel the Lord asking me: ‘Are you going to let this go unchallenged?’ However I was thinking, But I don’t even know these guys. He’s bigger than me. He’s got cowboy boots on and looks tough. I was agitated and frightened about doing anything. But I knew I had to stand for Jesus. Finally, I told Susan to pray. I took my last drink of water and went over and challenged him. With probably a squeaky voice, I said, ‘I’ve been listening to you, and you don’t know what you’re talking about ’ I did my best to give him a flying rundown of the proofs for the resurrection. He was speechless, and I was half dead. I must have shaken for an hour after that. But I had to take a stand. We cannot remain anonymous in our faith forever. God has a way of flushing us out of our quiet little places, and when he does we must be ready to speak for him.” 

Now I admire this pastor’s courage and his determination to be a witness, regardless of how difficult it was. A lot of Christians would have just sat there in fear or fumed, thinking about how terrible the things were that these men were saying. I realize that I have the opportunity of looking back with hindsight on the situation, but I wonder if there wasn’t another possible approach that may have been more positive, and perhaps had more impact, than rattling off a list of rational arguments for the resurrection. It seems to me that he missed the most important and impressive proof of the resurrection — his own life. I wonder if it would not have been more effective to walk over to the men at the table and say something like this: “You know, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and found it very interesting. If you don’t mind, I would like to pay for all of your breakfasts. The reason I want to do this is that, because of the resurrection, Jesus Christ has changed my life and lives in me, and wants to communicate his tremendous love for you.” 

Rational arguments do not change people, changed lives do. Changed lives change the lives of others, and thereby change the world. It is how we challenge the unbelief of a skeptical world. But not only would it possibly have been a stronger witness, it would have been an excellent use of money to buy their breakfasts. I think the point in what Jesus was saying in our Scripture reading this morning (Luke 6:17-31) was that people are always the priority. Helping people, whether physically or spiritually, is to be given priority over serving ourselves — especially when it comes to money. But money is usually our last holdout in our walk with God. It is what we surrender last. As you grow in the Christian life you realize that it is not your money anyway. Everything you own already belongs to God. It is a gift, a loan from him.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Discovering the "Martha" in ourselves - offering radical hospitality to the stranger in our midst (Luke 10:38)

SCRIPTURE: Luke 10:38 (TM)
As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home.

James W. Cox writes: You and I tend to offer hospitality to only a limited number of
people--persons whom we already know, mostly relatives and a few close
friends. But, in Abraham’s time, hospitality was extended to whomever needed
it--strangers and acquaintances alike. In fact, in its original form,
"hospitality" combines two separate words--one meaning friend and the other
meaning stranger. So, from the beginning of its usage, hospitality has
carried with it the idea of making friends out of strangers.

We love to entertain. Nothing is higher on our “to do” list than to have friends and family over for dinner and a game or two of cards. Hosting a Christmas Open House was a long-standing tradition. In one situation there were monthly Anniversary/Birthday Parties for the congregation… Those were the days, my friend… We thought they'd never end… We'd sing and dance forever and a day… We'd live the life we choose… We'd fight and never lose… For we were young and sure to have our way… but alas, those days have come to an end, except for having family and a few friends over. Stamina and energy are just not what they use to be.

Offering hospitality should not a matter of stamina, resources, energy, or opportunity. In fact, Radical Hospitality should be one of our highest priorities. Extending a greeting, a cool cup of fresh water, comfort on the journey, making friends out of strangers – this is our call. It is key to discipleship.

We like to pick and choose who we welcome into our home. We prefer to choose whom it is we include in our circle of acquaintances. If a person is “different” or seems “strange” or speaks only a foreign language or acknowledges a different faith than ours or even worse, “smells” … well, no, the circle is not drawn to include them. After all one does have to be “careful” in this day and time, don’t we?

Why would today be any different than Jesus’ day? Discipleship is discipleship. We should not look on the outward appearances. Isn’t it enough that the other individual is a child of God? Doesn’t everyone deserve the same greeting, the same welcome?

A real challenge faces the 21st Century Christians – the need to offer Radical Hospitality. Shouldn’t we go out of our way to make sure that our circle of friends and our churches are not guilty of “group think”? “Group think” is where everybody looks the same, talks the same, walks the same, thinks the same and even has reached the same income level. The challenge is for all of us to find the “Martha” in ourselves. This will definitely take us out of our comfort zone, but, hey, isn’t that a little bit of what discipleship is all about – asking us to do what we wouldn’t normally do; to go where we wouldn’t normally go; to stretch us beyond what we are comfortable doing. Just remember, God never asks us to do something that we can do, but he always asks us to do things that require the Holy Spirit.

Lord, you have got to be kidding, right… to welcome the stranger and the strange into our circle of friends? But, they are sooooooo different! Too different! We really need the Holy Spirit to pull this off. So, come Holy Spirit… come and make us different, make us act different, cause us to react differently, mold us to think differently. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

The goodness of God and the need for better heroes (Psalm 73:1-3)

SCRIPTURE: Psalm 73:1-3 (TM)
No doubt about it! God is good - good to good people, good to the good-hearted. But I nearly missed it, missed seeing his goodness. I was looking the other way, looking up to the people

Ted W. Engstrom tells this story: Babe Ruth had hit 714 home runs during his baseball career and was playing one of his last full major league games. It was the Braves versus the Reds in Cincinnati. But the great Ruth was no longer as agile as he had once been. He fumbled the ball and threw badly, and in one inning alone his errors were responsible for most of the five runs scored by Cincinnati.
As the Babe walked off the field after the third out and headed toward the dugout, a crescendo of yelling and booing reached his ears. Just then a boy jumped over the railing onto the playing field. With tears streaming down his face, he threw his arms around the legs of his hero.
Ruth didn't hesitate for one second. He picked up the boy, hugged him, and set him down on his feet, patting his head gently. The noise from the stands came to an abrupt halt. Suddenly there was no more booing. In fact, hush fell over the entire park. In those brief moments, the fans saw two heroes: Ruth, who in spite of his dismal day on the field could still care about a little boy; and the small lad, who cared about the feelings of another human being. Both had melted the hearts of the crowd. 
The sports page is filled with stories of baseball players who made some bad decisions in order to get ahead in the game. Our heroes have fallen. Great players wanting to be better cheated, took short cuts, did illegal things and now look, they are suspended or under a cloud of suspicion. Heroes fall.

Front-page news carries the stories of politicians who made horrible sexual harassing decisions that now threaten to ruin their careers. We listen to their stories and say to ourselves… why were they so stupid? What were they thinking? And heroes fall.

The question begs to be asked, as indicated in the Psalmist words, “who do we look up to?” Who are our heroes? Who wins the day for us? When all is said and done who stands head and shoulder above all others?

Is it the doctor who doesn’t charge the sick an arm–and-a leg? Is it the busy person who takes the time to listen to another person? Is it the individual who gathers food for the needy? Is it the uneducated man who continues to preach sharing the good news at the age of 92? Is it the little old lady at the grocery store that helps a frazzled young mother with her two children? Just who are the heroes for today? For you? For me?

Do we take the time to speak a kind word to these everyday heroes? To tell them thank you? To share how meaningful their simple acts of kindness are to us?

We just need new heroes… everyday heroes… Maybe you are someone’s hero. It might be simply your laughter or smile or patience or kind lifting word. In these simple acts we allow the goodness of God to shine through and lift the spirit of others… we become a hero for God!

Life is too short to have bad heroes. So, Lord, help us to choose more wisely and live more victoriously. It is hard to imagine, but Lord we do realize that somebody might be looking our direction… looking up to us… help us to redirect their attention towards you, the one who is good all the time. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The intimacy of getting to be known by the Good Shepherd (John 10:14)

SCRIPTURE: John 10:14 (TM)
I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me.

Dr. Andrew Bonar tells how, in the Highlands of Scotland, a sheep would often wander off into the rocks and get into places that they couldn't get out of. The grass on these mountains is very sweet and the sheep like it, and they will jump down ten or twelve feet, and then they can't jump back again, and the shepherd hears them bleating in distress. They may be there for days, until they have eaten all the grass. The shepherd will wait until they are so faint they cannot stand, and then they will put a rope around him, and he will go over and pull that sheep up out of the jaws of death. "Why don't they go down there when the sheep first gets there?" I asked. "Ah!" He said, "they are so very foolish they would dash right over the precipice and be killed if they did!" And that is the way with men; they won't go back to God till they have no friends and have lost everything. If you are a wanderer I tell you that the Good Shepherd will bring you back the moment you have given up trying to save yourself and are willing to let Him save you His own way.

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.

Getting to know you,
Putting it my way,
But nicely,
You are precisely,
My cup of tea. (from The King and I)

Within the biblical sense the word “know” has a deeper knowledge than mere head knowledge. Think about the relationship between the sheep and the Shepherd as intimate… personal, thorough, warm and friendly … it is a closeness that is reserved for ones soul mate.

So I am told that at the beginning of a relationship the hardest thing, especially the female, is to stand before her mate total and completely naked. The couple have arrived at a point of intimacy… no hiding… no covering up… no closets or doors or layers of clothing separating the two. That is the knowledge that the Good Shepherd would like to have with us.

Nothing stays hidden. No secret agendas. Totally and complete exposed. Everything is laid bare. All the flaws are revealed. No more covering it up, glossing it over. No more lies, half-truths, twisted reality – it all lies there on the floor before the altar of the Almighty… the “getting know you, getting to know all about you” syndrome of spirituality.

Are we ready for that deeper level? We might say yes, but is that answer honest? Actually, like the sheep in the Scotland story, we won’t reach that deeper level until we have followed all other options and opportunities. Not until we have no place else to turn. Hopefully we will begin the spiritual journey before we reach that point of spiritual desperation. Along this journey we will be diverted to try little things here and there that draws our attention away from the Good Shepherd. Remain faithful to the journey we will gradually peal away the layers until we stand before the Almighty totally and completely exposed and then we will know what it means for God to be “our cup of tea”.

Well, God, here we are again… taking off another layer… exposing ourselves a little more… we feel so vulnerable… so naked… but we so desperate desire your embrace… your love… your acceptance… your guidance… Boy, do we need your help!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"What is God's view of justice" by Bill Fisackerly

Today I’m sharing a newsletter written for his congregation by The Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Fisackerly, senior pastor of Gulf Cove United Methodist Church, Port Charlotte, Florida, for his congregation. His doctoral study, at Asbury Theological Seminary, was on the subject of “Worship Wars,” but this article reflections on God's view of justice in light of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial. 

When our children were growing up, MANY times we would hear them say, “That’s not fair!” In reality, there was no inequality happening; they just didn’t like the end result. Our response was often, “It’s not that it’s not fair, it’s just that you don’t like it.” With the recent exposure of the case against George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, there have been cries for justice. Which “justice” we want depends upon our point of view. The question I have to ask myself is, “What is God’s view of justice?”

The Hebrew word “mishpat” is used over 200 times in the Old Testament. It means, not only treating all persons equitably and judging solely on the basis of the evidence, but also ensuring that everyone receives their due or right. This terminology is most frequently used in reference to the widows, the orphans, immigrants, and the poor – those who had no legal rights to speak for themselves in Jewish society. They were considered leeches on society, as less than human because they either had no wealth to contribute or were born somewhere else.

The rich and the citizens didn’t consider that they were being unjust; they felt that they had earned their own rights and that others should, too. The prophets, however, believed that rights were not earned, they were inherent in being human, regardless of nationality, wealth, or social status. That is why most prophecy concerns the outcasts of society, with God taking the side of the poor. Until there is true justice, there can be no real peace. Any “peace” we try to set up that is not based upon God’s concept of justice will not last, and will lead to more pain and suffering.

What are we doing to bring justice? Do we spend most of our time with people just like us, or do we deliberately seek out those who are different? If we believe that all people were created by God and loved by Him, how can we harbor any prejudice towards anyone?