Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hope and Change - The Real Way

Everywhere one looks these days, people are giving their commentary on 2010 and preparing for a new year. The significance of the events of 2010 vary depending upon who is talking and what they consider important about the quickly fading installment in time we call 2010. I know you think I'm about to jump on that bandwagon, but not so. There is little any of us can do about the past, but there are ample opportunities to construct for oursleves, our families, and our God a future that will be far superior to our past.

Among all the outcomes of 2010 over which you had control, what outcome displeases you most? What would you change about 2010 if you could? Once you have identified your life's displeasures, you have a starting point to begin to fashion a new outcome for 2011. The adage is true: "If you do what you've always done, you will get what you've always got!" If that's what you want, don't change a thing. If that's what you want for your church, don't lift a finger. But I suspect you are not totally satisfied with your life or the life of your church and would love to make constructive changes. You have not made these changes in 2010 either because you thought they were too difficult or because  you lacked the personal commitment to make the change. Now, if you are ready to do things differently, I have a few suggestions that will make you a better person,  a better citizen, and a more effective Christian. Whoa, you say? You think I'm meddling in your personal life, huh? Not like you think. I just want to motivate you to improve mentally, physically, and spiritually. All of us need to do all of those things, so stay with me. You have nothing to lose but a few minutes of a has-been year that will soon be gone anyway!
  1. First, take time for yourself and your family. Block out the time on your calendar, iPhone, Android, or whatever if you need to. Stress is mental before it is physical, so take time to relax and renew yourself regularly in 2011.
  2. Second, do something regularly to exercise your mind: puzzles, reading, thinking, and discussing what's going on in the world. You stay sharp and have enjoyable, relaxing interaction with family and /or friends. A side benefit here is that those of us who know very little about what's going on in the world will become better informed on many topics.
  3. Third, be active. Scripture says the body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, but most of us are guilty of treating our bodies more like a dump than a Temple. Some of us work out regularly, while others wish we could motivate ourselves to work out at all. You say, "I lost my job and can't afford the gym or YMCA." Walk! Get a cheap pedometer and walk, setting whatever goal challenges you and then pushing to meet that goal. Too cold? Walk at the mall. Too far? Walk around your house! Your fitness for duty in the kingdom is directly proportional to the degree to which you take care of your mental and physical well being.
  4. Prepare yourself to grow spiritually. There are many things we all can do to improve our spiritual fitness and connectedness with our Lord and his church. Those listed here are a but few of the important ones.
    • Find a daily devotional such as The Upper Room or Our Daily Bread and read it every day.
    • Take time to read scripture every day. Read it in conjunction with your daily devotional or follow one of the many Bible reading plans you can find online. I'm not an advocate for just reading the Bible through from cover to cover, but rather reading the scripture with the prayerful expectation that God will give you a fresh word from a verse you may have read many times before.
    • Pray. Pray to stay connected with God, so you are always sensitive to God's leading in your life. God knows your needs and is working out his plan if you are connected. Patience. Things happen in God's time. And remember, there are no coincidences - just situations in which God chooses to remain anonymous. Pray for others. Pray for forgiveness. Pray for your church, its leaders, and its ministries every day. Check this for more on prayer.
    • Join at least one small group for study and/or fellowship. Whether it is a weekly Bible study or a knitting group, being with others who share your interests is stimulating anf fulfilling.
    • Find ways to serve the needs of others who need your help. It is more difficult to get depressed or self-centered when you are focused on serving others.
    • Give your resources to God through the church of your choice. God established the church on earth as the instrument through which needs would be met and people would come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. He requires the first one-tenth as our tithe to him. Our 'offering' is the amount by which we exceed our tithe. What? You cannot afford to tithe? You tithe and more to the waiter/waitress at the restaurant. Is God not more important? Friend, you cannot afford NOT to tithe. Try giving God the first ten percent for the next two months, and see what happens. Don't wait until YOU think you can afford it. That day will never come. But if you give on faith, God will honor that gift, blessing you and the ministry to which you give. Besides, ALL of it is God's anyway, so get out of the way.
    • Find a place to serve God in the church. Regardless of your passion, there is likely a fulfilling and needed place for your gifts and abilities in God's church. Not sure? ASK! "Well, they did this survey, and I volunteered; but no one ever called me." Don't wait for someone to invite you. God already did! He tells us all to "GO and make disciples." Call the church office. Find a way to get involved in 2011. What? You don't have time? You have as much time as anyone else - 168 hours every week - and YOU decide how to use them all. Try using your time more efficiently, and see how much God can do through you.
    • Share your excitement about what is going well in your life and the life of the church where you are, and go light on the criticism, unless you have a solution or wish to be a part of the solution. Remember, most of the workers in any church are volunteers, and all of us make mistakes. So find the grace to overlook the failings of others just as you hope they will when you come up a bit short. 
These thoughts are NOT resolutions. Resolutions routinely fail because we view them as rules or imperatives and not as a chosen better way of living that we WANT for ourselves and others. We do what we want; we spend what we want; and we find time for what we want. The best guage of your faithfulness is your calendar and your check register. They reveal your real priorities. If you view the above list as a set of rules for 2011, you will end up like the Pharissees whom Jesus condemned. The rules will be a burden. You are looking for new hope, strength, and joy found in totally serving the Lord who created you, saved you, and sustains you. Find peace and rest in God, and then serve the One who is the best with your very best. You will be surprised at the change that can happen in you and in the church through which you serve if you can live consistently a life that honors God in 2011. Have a Happy and Blessed New Year!!

Friday, December 17, 2010

One More Stocking for Jesus, Mr. Chairman!

This is a busy time of the year. Nevertheless, I take the time to check in on what the so-called "lame duck" session of the 111th Congress is doing. There is rhetoric and indignation that numerous significant matters are still on the table with a little over two weeks left, if you count the two holidays! Oh there are good reasons for not having done the nation's work sooner. They put those reasons out with straight faces and expect us to believe that all of them have had the nation's best interest at heart all along. Any thoughtful person would know better. We have our intelligence insulted by those who claim they are doing their best, but some other member or some other party is "blocking" the actions that could change the world as we know it.

Criticism has been stern and steady from all political persuasions for the fact that Congress is still wrestling with issues that could have been decided months ago. Yet many who are critical also know well the problem of putting off decisions that can have long-term impact - indeed decisions that could change the world. Decisions made in haste often are faulty, and decisions made at the 11th hour are more susceptable to error than those thought through and arrived at through prayer and counsel. When we try to postpone the important decisions of life, no decision becomes a decision in itself. Even when we are paralyzed by indecision, that inability to act becomes the effective answer to the issue at hand.

Some decisions are more consequential than others. Ratification of the START Treaty and action on taxation levels for 2011 and beyond are arguably more important that energy subsidies and earmarks that appeal only to small segments of the population. Extension of unemployment benefits may be the most important issue to those who have lost jobs, but that could all change when they land that new and maybe better job. Perspective depends on where you are and what is important to you now. Our perspective may not be a thoroughly thought out decision point but rather a set of ideas that are appealing which we could not defend if we had to.

When people of faith procrastinate on decisions of faith, the results are almost never good. We are at the end of the year almost. What have you and I done this year to make the world a better place? What have we done to make God more real in the lives of others. How have we encouraged others? How have we met the financial and spiritual needs of those around us? What?! You don't like the answers? You wish we had done more earlier? I expect many in Congress feel that way about their situation, too. But doing the right thing late is almost always better than never doing it at all.

Whether we revisit this tardy dilemma next time is a product of our commitments to the responsibilities we have assumed and will assume. I wonder if church members and leaders were rated like Congress and the President, how high would our approval ratings be? What would be the criteria? While we are critical of our political leadership, let's stop and ask if we have done better as people of faith. Are we willing to go on the record with our faithfulness decisions. Can we defend the decisions we have made to give or not give, serve or not serve, care or not care, love or not love. We don't often consider the options to be so clear cut, but they must be. When we are tentative, it changes our world but not for the better.

A colleague, Rev. Chris Bryant of City on A Hill United Methodist Church, posted the following comment on Facebook today:

"What if we hung up 1 more stocking... for Jesus? What if before we opened presents we first gave a personal gift to him? What if we put in the stocking a small piece of paper sharing a committment to God? No one ever need see it. The small pieces of paper would stay in the stocking year after year, piling up and with it so could our commitments. What if our whole family did this? What might happen? What if...?"

What if, indeed! Decisions made for a higher purpose and faithfully lived out can change us and truly change our world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hope For A Fearful World

Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary, in response to a question about the latest Wikileaks dump of national secrets said, "We are the United States of America. We are not afraid of a man with a laptop who threw down $35.00 for a website." My first reaction is that Mr. Gibbs does not really understand fear. Perhaps he is correct in the collective sense that these leaks will not bring down the United States government. But what about the families who have loved ones in diplomatic service and intelligence services around the world? Do they not now fear for the safety of loved ones?

Fear is a paralyzing emotion when it grips us and holds on so completely. Some people never realize their potential because they are afraid to take that risk that might propel them to the success they envision. Investors today are reluctant to spend their cash because of uncertainty about the future of the economy and economic policy in the US. I know, 'uncertainty' does not sound as threatening as 'fear', but are they not one and the same? Whenever any external force causes you to pause, hesitate, become paralyzed as it were, there is an element of fear there. Ironically, this fear is the opposite of what the nation has sought in the past two years. We looked for hope and change. We got half of that package. Now is the time to look for hope.

Hope is difficult to see when there is no money to buy food. Hope is difficult to conjure up when 40 percent of the month  is left after 100 percent of the money is gone. Hope is a distant idea when the landlord says your family has to go on Wednesday when you both know you will have the rent money by Friday. Most of us do not face such deprivation, but we are afraid nevertheless. Will my job and benefits still be there next year? How will I educate my children? How can we make it on one salary? Will there be war on the Korean peninsula - again? How will I pay for my health care? Will my doctor take Medicare next year? Will there be a job for me after I graduate? Will increased spending result in a period of hyper-inflation that will outpace my income? There are so many circumstances seemingly out of our control. Often we are not bold to stand up and be counted on the issues of the day because of the polarized political climate we have had in this country for over a decade. We are consumed by fear and resignation: Fear that actions we take to protest the way things are will result in adverse reactions from our friends and those whose opinions we value; reprisals from our employers, professors, government officials, or even the IRS. Resignation because of a widely held view that one person's voice no longer matters. We fatalistically acquiese to policies and ideas we know will harm us and others because we feel powerless to do anything about it.

We are in a season of hope. Did you notice? No, not hope that we will get one gift over another at Christmas, but hope that there is a power in our world that conquers fear and adversity. The people of God had endured a difficult history. In the first century they were occupied by powerful and brutal Rome. There was little to hope for, since this occupying force seemed to be entrenched indefinitely. In the midst of economic hardship and military oppression, hope came into the world in the birth of Jesus - God with us. That seemingly insignificant event, told to the poor shepherds first, would transform the world. Nothing would be the same. Yes, there are still economic hardships, and there is still military oppression and wars, but there is hope. In John 14, Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives give I to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." The idea of "fear not" and "do not be afraid" appears 365 times in in one translation of scripture. That's no coincidence. God wants us to know every day that even if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we should fear no evil for God is with us. (Psalm 23).

Did anything I just say change your circumstances? Probably not. But the idea that we do not have to face any adversity alone should offer a new perspective. It's not us against the world. John Wesley, in his dying words, said, "Best of all, God is with us." God is with you and will give you strength and direction to get through whatever is causing you fear and anxiety today. He told us that he has "overcome the world." There are no exceptions. The God who conquered even death can meet your needs in spite of the uncertainty of the world. The angel told the shepherds, "Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy..." As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, know that hope is born in your life when you allow the power of his Spirit to help you through it all. We may not be afraid of a man with a laptop, but we are afraind of much the world hurls our way. God will never leave us or forsake us. Bring your fears to God and trust God through it all, and you will find hope in the midst of the darkness of this world.