Saturday, December 31, 2011

No Time Outs Here

The year 2011 is gone, and we greet a new year. What will be different about 2012 other than its designation? As we look around our world things are in chaos. That statement could refer to international affairs or the disarray in our closet or file cabinet. Chaos is what ensues when order is not maintained, whether in a garden patch or in a person's life.

We try to bring order out of chaos at Christmas time. The Christmas season continues until Epiphany on January 6. Our efforts to make this the most wonderful time of the year often have the opposite result, and we just get stressed out and miss the whole point of Christmas - Peace on Earth and Peace in our spirits. We then try to compensate by making new years resolutions, thinking that somehow we can make that process the redemption of both the holiday stress and the unrealized goals of the year just passed.

There is a problem with making resolutions that sets us up for failure. They are our resolutions. They reflect what we say we want to be different about the new year. Further, the effort that we brought to bear on these issues in 2011 is the same effort we will make in an attempt to bring a different result in 2012. I remember a characterization about doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting a different result, but it was not very complimentary. When the same effort fails again, we want more time and make a multitude of excuses about how others can do it, but we cannot. If we just had more time, we could do it, too.

"Life is like football," the late Coach Vince Lombardi said. "It is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport." In life we collide with our circumstances and call time out. But there are no time outs in life. If we withdraw from life to lick our wounds, there is a high probability that we will miss a valuable opportunity. Unlike football, in life we have to play every minute, because every minute is important to the outcome. Spend time on things that count, that have eternal significance. Look forward more than you look back.

It's fine to make new years resolutions - after you seek God's will for your life. Then your plans will be God's plans. It's fine to pursue these annual resolves but not in your own strength. That's why they might not have worked out too well last year. The power of God present in the Holy Spirit can bring your promises to remembrance. But more importantly, the Holy Spirit can bring you clarity of vision and an abundance of personal strength that will enable you to keep the commitments worth keeping.

Friday, September 2, 2011

But I Can Explain...!

There is a lot of talk these days about talk - the gist of it being that we tend to be people who talk a lot about our problems but do little to solve them. Oh, we certainly want our problems solved, and most of us are not opposed to being a part of the solution, but maybe later. It's easy to see in the work of churches and other volunteer organizations. People want good programs and good work, but they want it to be provided by someone else. Even in response to something as simple as teaching a Bible study class, we often get a litany of reasons why the persons being asked cannot do it now. But they might be able to do it later. The persons saying no have "reasons." We might call them "excuses." What's the difference? Often very little except in the perspective of the one who is speaking.

We have similar circumstances on the national stage now. The economy created no new jobs in August for the first time since February 1945 - the month my parents married! Everyone knows our economic situation is very serious. Many have ideas to help lift us from this downward spiral, but nothing is being done with these ideas. Everyone is awaiting the President's address next week to see if there are new ideas people can agree upon. So far, we have heard a lot of excuses from each side as to why the ideas the other side espouses will not work. We observe from the sidelines and are compelled to scream: "Try something!" And preferably something that has not already been proven to be ineffective.

Moses found himself in a spot like this in Exodus 3 and 4. You will recall he had grown up in the court of the Pharoah and held the title Prince of Egypt. We find him in Exodus 3 tending the flocks of his faither-in-law, Jethro. God visited Moses and spoke to him through a burning bush commanding him to go back to Egypt and tell Pharoah to let his posple go. Moses did not want to do it, so he came up with a host of excuses. He was not eloquent. He stuttered. He would not know what to say. No one would listen to him. I don't even know your name, Lord! Every excuse Moses came up with was dispensed with quickly by God. Finally, Moses said, "Lord, please send someone else!?"

That is what it usually boils down to. Solving problems is hard work. Creating that which will make differences in the lives of others takes time and effort. The fact is that most of our excuses are masks covering up the reality that we just do not want to be bothered. We do not want to join the controversy. We do not want to risk the displeasure of others. We would rather be comfortable that productive. We would rather see mediocrity than invest the time and energy necessary to do great things. The problem is that God never calls us to mediocrity, and God never settles for it. Churches, governments, and individuals struggle because we are content with half-baked plans that really don't work. And they don't work because we don't want to leave our comfort zone to be part of the solution.

Problem solving is easy to talk about but is usually difficult to do. We start by agreeing to find and identify those areas where there is little disagreement. When there are ideological and theological divides, it is more difficult to identify those areas of commonality. But what excuse do we have for talking at one another rather than with one another? It may be that we will not agree, but in many areas, we have never tried. Moses went as the Lord commanded after he ran out of exucses. Most of us do better than Moses when it comes to making up excuses. Yes, most are made up, so we don't have to take time to do what we don't want to do. We deceive ourselves, our follow citizens, and often try to deceive God as well. But God knows our hearts, our motives, and our end game.

Excuses are dishonest whether they come from the President of your Sunday morning Class or the President of the United States. If we spent as much time, effort, and resources on solving the problems of life as we spend on our excuses, the world would look different and so would the Kingdom of God. Examine the excuses you are giving for not being involved. Be honest with yourself. Put aside your excuses, and realize that there are some things upon which all of us can agree. We can work from there to build a new understanding. Or we can do as Moses wanted to do: We can stay with the sheep and just make noise.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt Ceiling - An UnGodly Mess

He paid a debt he did not owe, because we owe a debt we cannot pay. That's often the description of the debt Jesus paid on our behalf to atone for our sins. It may seem strange to talk about debt in the theological sense when all we hear is debt in a political context on every news outlet. There is a deadline (August 2) when calamity presumably will befall the world financial order if America's debt limit is not increased. The debt ceiling has been raised 74 times since March 1962, usually with little fanfare or notice. This time it is different. This time there is a fundamental battle about the purpose and role of government under girding this debate. The philosophical differences are deep seated and show little signs of being resolved - even with only 6 days remaining at this writing.

Debt by definition is a specific agreed upon amount or commodity that is promised to be paid back in the future, usually with interest, in consideration for some immediate gain or favor. An obvious example is the use of credit cards. We promise to pay the purchase amount plus any accrued interest to the credit card issuer in exchange for obtaining an item or service immediately. 'Immediately' is the problematic word here. We have become people who are willing to promise almost anything to get what we want NOW. We don't want to save for it, and we don't want to deprive ourselves. We want it now! And we are willing to do what it takes to get it NOW.

In many ways our government is reflective of its people. I know. Your initial reaction is, "No way!" Yes, way. Most of those 74 raises in the debt limit were the result of wars and various social programs designed to improve the quality of life for those who lacked the advantages of full participation in society. Even the Social Security Trust Fund was used in addition to these debt limit raises. Real money in the Social Security Trust Fund was replaced with government securities promising to pay that money back. Yes, we borrowed from ourselves in that way and many others and have never paid it back.

We deplore the scene being played out in Washington these days between those who believe that government is the answer to our economic problems and those who believe we have too much government already. Those who think government is the answer truly believe we can spend our way to prosperity. I know we tried that in 2009 with the Stimulus Bill, but these proponents would argue that it was not enough. Another spending measure like that one would turn things around by putting more money in the economy. Those who believe we already have too much government argue that cutting the size of government and government spending does two things: (1) It allows people to keep more of the money they earn thereby creating new jobs, more commerce, and as a result, more revenue, and (2) It cuts down on government intrusion into people's lives through regulations that often have unintended adverse consequences. The debate we are seeing is not about just a debt ceiling, but it is a struggle for the soul of America. What do we believe, and how will we govern ourselves going forward?

God's word is not kind on the subject of debt. Jesus' own words tell us that, if we focus too much on money, we will lose site of the Kingdom of God. The love of possessions and the love of the means to obtain more stuff is at the root of all evil according to scripture. That sounds like we are out of focus as a nation. Money begets power, and power corrupts our very souls, if we do not guard them. The rich should not be hated. I know some very affluent people who are both humble and generous in the good they do with the treasure God has entrusted to them. But when we love the money and the power rather than the good things that can be done with both, we are toying with destruction as individuals and as a nation.

One more observation: Financial chaos creates almost unbearable uncertainty. We don't know what to do, because we don't know what will happen. So we do nothing. We are a stressed out people being led by a stressed out government. That's no way to live according to Jesus. His told us not to worry but rather to cast our burdens upon him. I've heard a lot of ideas from people in Washington - some of whom were once friends and colleagues. But I have heard no one call us to prayer for the nation. I have heard no one talk about the morality of allowing debt to accumulate that we may never be able to repay. The financial mess we are witnessing must have practical and apolitical minds working on it. But it also needs the wisdom and power of God brought to bear. "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and heal their land." 2 Chronicles 7:14. Maybe that's the deal we all need to be working on.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Important Stuff!

Almost every week, I receive a piece or two of unsolicited mail from companies who have found secret caches of silver or gold that went down in some ship from the 1700s or a stash of uncirculated money that is suddenly available to the general public. The appeal is that you can own a part of this "unique" piece of history, but hurry, because time is running out. I get a chuckle out of that kind of urgent appeal when the coins have been "lost" for 300 years. But I know the appeal is to the nature of humankind that we want what others do not have; we want more of it than anyone else has; and we are willing to spend our treasure to achieve the desire of our hearts. Maybe I should say that we are willing to spend our treasure on what we perceive to be a greater treasure. The glitter of those ads and the lure of owning something so unique can easily cause us to pull out a credit card. (Don't worry. My collection budget prohibits participation in these promotions.)

Why do I care whether people buy rare coins or spend their treasure on dust collectors for the already crowded home? Because it is a spiritual problem. We are a society with 9.1 percent unemployment, yet we have more stuff than we can use or find places for. If you question that, count the number of self-storage facilities that have popped up in our area in recent years. I even have people seeking financial assistance from the church to store their belongings. While that is not a good use of our limited resources, it probably is a better reason than some of us have. Think about it: You store things you don't use and don't have room for so you can go out an buy more stuff you won't use and don't have room for that you will put in the new, larger storage unit next year. And we think our leaders are making bad decisions?!

The answer to the world's economic - indeed all of our problems is in the condition of the heart. In our scripture for this Sunday, Jesus tells us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. (Luke 12:34). That sounds so wrong! My heart is not in those old coins nor is it in stored away goods that I never see and therefore never use! But that's what Jesus said. Ouch. How many hungry people could be fed with what we spend on the false desires of our hearts? How many mosquito nets could be bought at $10 or less each to save the children of Africa from Malaria if we did not spend so much so foolishly on ourselves?

We remember the alleged words of Queen Marie Antoinette who reputedly said, "Let them eat cake." A telling reminder that the royals in France had no clue how the common people lived nor did they care to find out. We never put ourselves in the same sentence with those who are so arrogant, unconcerned, and so unfeeling, but I must ask, "How are we different?" I'm not talking about formal outreach programs where everyone gives a token amount or product; our conscience is eased; and we go back to our habits of spending far more than we should to give glory to ourselves, our homes, our yards - while families who have really tried go to bed hungry every night with no way to explain to their hungry children why no one cares.

My heart hurts at the pain we inflict on others by our indifference. Now, you are about to get me a crying towel and shake me back to reality. Right? Jim, there are those who are just trying to abuse our good nature and generous spirit. Sometimes, without a doubt that is true, and nothing makes me more angry. But that is also the dark side of our nature giving us a convenient excuse for disobeying the words of Jesus. I'm talking about the real suffering of the world that we won't look at on the way to work; The real depravity in our community that we are content to lock the front door and ignore. Our response reveals the condition of the heart. Sometimes I worry that the hearts of those calling themselves Christian is as bankrupt as the US Treasury. The interest rate in our hearts is not high enough to change lives, and it needs to be.

Old coins or new, they must not be hoarded. The treasures in the Kingdom of God are the people. People are precious. They are precious to God and should be precious to us. We need a heart for God's people and a desire to use the treasures and riches God uses to bless us to enrich the lives of others in substantial ways. Dear Lord, let it be so.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

There Goes the Sign - Again!

To those of you familiar with the ongoing construction to widen the road by East Cobb United Methodist Church, some of this is not news. Others who read from around the world will wonder  why I'm writing about our sign on Maundy Thursday. Well, read on. I hope there is something both groups can take from my ponderings on this holy day.

We had an old, big monument sign that was in place for many years, until the highway department said it must come down to make way for the wider, better road. So they destroyed it, and we had a temporary sign made heralding who we are and our worship times. Since then, I have lost track of the number of times that temporary sign has been flattened - several times by severe weather and several times by the highway department, accidentally or on purpose. Recently, they closed our exit for construciton, and today they built a traffic island at our only open entrance. (They assure us we will have the exit open for Easter.) It seems odd that the routine work to improve the world is interfering with the celebration of the holiest of time of the year. No, it was not calculated this time, but it is not the first time the world has tried to stop Easter.

On a night like this, Jesus met with his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover. He washed the disciples' feet himself, as there we no servants there to do so. When they were appalled that he would do such things, he gave them a "new commandment" or mandate (mandatum  in Latin from which we derive "Maundy," the name for this day. "Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos." ("A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another; as I have loved you" - John 13:34), Near the end of that meal, he took bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you." After the meal, he took the third cup of the Passover, the Cup of Redemption, gave thanks to God, gave it to his disciples, and said, "Take, drink, this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me." With that, everything changed. They were no longer curious followers, but they had become commissioned ambassadors for a cause they did not yet fully understand.

I'm still disturbed about our pitiful sign. It is not up and may never be again. Who cares? Because I now know I have it all wrong. I have been focused on what the world is doing to us and why that is so wrong instead of what Christ has done for me and what that means. If I add up every pressure the world puts on us, it could become overwhelming. We should be overwhelmed by the grace and wonder of God's love for us - that he would endure humiliation and the most awful death imaginable to take care of my shortcomings. Because we don't love like that, we can't understand that kind of love. Then it dawns on me: That's why the sign is destroyed over and over! The commandment was not to put up signs or even to build a church building. The command was to love! Maybe our preoccupation with our space in the world is interfering with finding our place in the world. Maybe we are the only signs God needs. After all, there is no message of love on any if those old beat up signs - just a statement of who we are - East Cobb United Methodist Church. Maybe who we really are and who God really wants us to be cannot be put on a sign. Just maybe it has to be lived out wherever the church is tonight - and tomorrow- and... well, you get he idea. So that wherever we go, there goes the sign!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

God Is Dead! And I Don't Feel So Good Either

A detalied study by the American Physical Society, published by Fox News on March 23, 2011, finds that nine (9) countries in the world are losing their religion - literally. The study concludes that religion is headed for extinction in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland. An equally disturbing finding is that Americans without any religious affiliation comprise the only religious group which is showing substantial growth in the United States.

What could account for such a decline? When times are bad, don't people historically come back to their faith as an anchor? Is anyone seriously arguing that times are good in our world toiday? People come back to their faith when they have one. We so compromised the teachings of Christianity in the last half of the 20th Century that many today have no faith base to which to return. When jobs are lost, war breaks out - again, and deadly devastation hits Japan, these bring on personal tsunamis for those who have no personal faith on which to lean. I understand and can hear some of you wailing already that belonging to an organized faith does not mean you are a person of faith. Many in our churches on Sunday are going through ritual motions and have no meaningful faith from which to draw strength. The point is: How did we let the condition of collective souls become so fragile? How did we get to be so arrogant that we no longer need God? We have heard it said that Christianity is only one generation from extinction, but we didn't expect it to be ours.

Rather than being the influence that the world needs, the church has allowed ourselves to be influenced by the world. We adopt the view that if one sincerely believes something, then it must have value. From that we derived the idea that if something is believed by enough people, it must be true, even if there is significant evidence to the contrary and teaching in scripture to back up that evidence. Do you follow the logic here? If we are sincere, then it is ok to hold those sincere beliefs. If we sincerely believe that God is our creator, does that make it true? Growing up, I looked forward to watching the Peanuts special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Linus proudly held up the sign saying, "Welcome Great Pumpkin." He believed that the Great Pumpkin would come on Halloween to the "sincerest" pumpkin patch and bring wonderful gifts as a reward. Well, you know what happened - the Great Pumpkin never came. Sincerity was not enough. The truth as Linus understood it was flawed. He was sincere, but he was sincerely wrong!

If the study is right, we are drifting away from the God who made us in favor of gods we have made. We cannot save ourselves. History proves that, and a quick glance at the natural, political, and military landscape of the world in 2011 verifies that there is nothing going on now to change that. In fact, the world is blundering through an unprecedented set of serious problems that we still think we can handle on our own. We have lost our moral compass in favor of moral relativity. We have no courage to stand up for what is right because the fear of offending someone is suddenly more important than doing or saying the right thing. I wonder how long those nine nations have? I wonder how long we have? I wonder what generations yet unborn will say when they go to the museums that were once churches and are told how the technological and scientific advances brought innovations that were inconsistent with the 'erroneous' beliefs of the church.

Dr. Thomas J. J. Altizer, while teaching at Emory University, wrote the controverisal book, Radical Theology and the Death of God. His position was not so much that God was indeed dead, but rather that we have killed God with our indifference and distorted view of reality. In the preface to his book, Oriental Mysticism and Biblical Eschatology, Altizer notes that the book:
". . . was written with the hope that the very abyss of faith in which we must live may paradoxically make possible a deeper encounter with the authentic meaning of religion. For “modern man” has lost his homeland in faith. . . . We moderns are immersed in a profane world that charges the immediate moment with absolute meaning and value. To us, religion can only appear as an alien reality. In our sensibility, the religious Reality can manifest itself only as the Other. Therefore man, qua modern man, cannot associate religion with “reality.” We have "lost our homeland in faith," and if we continue to alienate ourselves from the faith, we will lose our homeland.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Content of Our Character

Today we mark the 25th anniversary of the day set aside to honor the birth of  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since we've done a lot of reflecting recently, we are looking back on Dr. King's commentary on life for insight. While we may not like what we hear, he speaks to us and our time over the decades with words that are as relevant today as they were when he spoke them.

Machiavelli said, "The end justifies the means." Many of us still operate on that principle in both public and private life. When we look at the legislative and political process, we see questionable and repugnant practices being justified in the pursuit of a noble goal. Don't read partisanship into to this. The abuse of power, back room deals, and strong-armed political practices have been the tools of both major political parties. In our personal lives, we see companies and business acquaintances stonewall when there is a failure of a service or product we paid good money for. There is no regard for the relationship going forward. They were determined to make the sale and do not care about the outcome of their cold and perhaps manipulative regard for you.

Machiavelli was wrong. Dr. King should be heard again. Contrary to the Machiavellian approach so much of society follows even today, Dr. King said, “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” Just think for a moment how that would change our world. Any process - legislative, ministry, personal - and any point in the process, when placed under extreme scrutiny, would reveal nothing but a pure motive and a caring approach. Dr. King said, "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."  He placed the outcome of the affairs of humankind squarely on the shoulders of all of us and challenged us to love one another.

What then must we do? We should remember that, like a prophet, Dr. King spoke directly to us the solution to the world's problems:

"The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society."
      Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 1963

"Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: - 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "
      Martin Luther King Jr., "I Have A Dream" Speech, August 28, 1963

And a final thought that I believe to be the greatest hope Dr. King left us in his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The "content of their character?" Our character is who we are when no one is looking and when we know no one will ever find out. If the content of our character is good, would that not solve all the other problems facing humankind? If we have Godly character, the cable news shows would have nothing to talk about. If we have Godly character, the means are always as important as the ends. If we have Godly character, we know that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." [Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963].

We lived in Brimingham for many years because of my work and were aquainted with many who had been on both sides of the civil rights struggle there. The first church I served in Birmingham was the church where the leadership of old Birmingham had worshipped, the church where Gov. George C. Wallace had been invited to speak on many occasions. My family and I watched attitudes and character change. Later in his life, I had a professional relationship with Gov. Wallace and witnessed a complete change in him toward the segregationist stand that propelled him into national prominence. Many years later, things are better, but the content of our character stills requires continuous scrutiny if we are to "rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed." Forty-eight years after things boiled over in Birmingham, we still have much work to do. So, let us begin.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Finding Hatred in the Snow

Sometimes events and circumstances paralyze us. Two events in the past week did so. The Snow of 2011 has shut down the Atlanta area for almost a week now. Just today, people began to move about more normally. If you went to the store before today, you likely encountered empty shelves or perhaps even locked doors. We don't do well when our routine is messed up. Kids want to go back to school. Parents want them to - some even saying so in writing on the social media. It is ironic that we had time at home with our families when we were simultaneously reflecting on the horrible massacre in Tuscon last Satruday. The last time we had a "normal" day, the full impact of Tuscon had not settled in. Now it has.

Just as the snow changed everything in Atlanta for a week, the shooting in Tuscon has launched a nationwide self-examination that likely will have impact for weeks and maybe years to come. The President's 'come, let us reason together' speech, in a very unusual setting for a memorial, gave us pause. Did he mean it? I think he did. Will it make any difference? We shall see. In the wake of Tuscon, many blamed politics for igniting the shooting. Does anyone know the 22 year old gunman's political affiliation? I haven't heard. I'm sure it did not matter.

The disappointing thing is that honest political differences taken too far become visious and hateful comments that devolve into deep-seated hostility. That's what we saw this week. A friend of mine in conversation this week called for prayer for the victims and their families. The response from a lady in the conversation was an exclamation of hatred for a prominent national political figure, to which my friend agreed. What? You pray for those who are hurt and agree with a death wish for a public servant in the same minute?! In that context, what is the difference between the gunman's act on Saturday and ours? We didn't shoot anyone? That's it? We have the same hate. We just don't use a gun. We are hating each other to death! Can't we see that? I think the President does. I think many more see it today than had a clue last week. What about you? Do you see more clearly today?

The snow covered 49 of the 50 states this week, altering our routine just enough to stop and listen. We didn't like what we heard. We don't like who we have become. We can do better. We must. As the snow melts, may our hearts be warmed as well. Please God, give us the love and resolve to make a different tomorrow.