Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Power of Unlearning

The Power of Unlearning
Acts 8:1-3
We first encounter Saul in Acts 7:58.  Stephen is being executed for his appearance before the Sanhedrin.  His defense of the gospel is so impassioned, so eloquent, that he has been condemned to death.  We are told, “And the witnesses [those who were stoning Stephen] laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”  A few verses later (Acts 8:1) we read, “And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution.”
Following this episode, Saul becomes an outspoken persecutor of Christians, entering people’s houses, dragging them out, and putting them in prison.  If we skip ahead to Acts 9:1 we find Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” so enraged by this new religion that he obtains permission from the high priest to pursue Christians all the way to Damascus.
What a progression!  Saul begins by watching over the coats of the men who stone one Christian—a passive role.  Next we find him approving of Stephen’s murder.  From there he becomes a persecutor of the church to the extent that he is willing to leave Jerusalem and go in search of those he hates while “breathing threats and murder.”
John Seely Brown had something to say about Saul’s attitude:
            Learning is important for both people and organizations.  But the real challenge today is unlearning, which is much harder.  Each of us has a “mental model” that we’ve used over the years to make sense of the world.  But the new world…behaves differently from the world in which we grew up.
            Before any of us can learn new things, we have to make our current assumptions explicit and find ways to challenge them.  This is no academic exercise, and it doesn’t come naturally.
            In fact, the harder you fight to hold on to specific assumptions, the more likely there is gold in letting go of them.

It almost sounds as if Brown had Saul in mind when he wrote this, doesn’t it?  Saul began as a noncombatant in the war against Christianity.  Instead of challenging his assumptions about the new world he found himself living in, he fought harder to hold on to them.  From (somewhat) innocent bystander he grew to be an active persecutor of the new faith, eager to imprison Jews for believing that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah whom God had promised.
Saul wouldn’t challenge his assumptions, but there was One waiting to challenge them for him.  We know what happens in Acts 9.  Saul is traveling the road to Damascus.  We can almost see the steam rising from him as he continues to breathe “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He is quite possibly drawing up in his mind a list of the things he will do to them before he turns them over to the high priest in Jerusalem.  He will show no mercy.  Torture—even death—are too good for these heretics.
And then the light dawns—a light so bright that it obscures even the fire of his white-hot anger.  His assumptions and prejudices melt under the power of this light.  He becomes physically blind as he receives spiritual sight.  The old world order dims as the new one dawns. 
What happens after this turning point?  Most of the rest of Acts is the story of Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the Middle East.  He becomes a combatant for Christ.  Gone are the thoughts of persecuting the church.  Instead, he becomes its most ardent defender, putting on the whole armor of God as he encouraged others to do.

What assumptions and prejudices do we need to challenge?  Is God trying to shine a light on the darkness of our old world order so we can become more ardent supporters of Jesus Christ?  How hard are we fighting to hold onto old ways of thinking and old habits when we could find gold in giving them up?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sharing the Load

Sharing the Load
Galatians 6:2
            Last week I quoted Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe’s self-introduction from the musical Smoke on the Mountain, by Connie Ray and Alan Bailey.  To refresh your memory, here is what he said:  “As Preacher, Choir Director, Chairman of Finance, Director of Education, and Youth Director, I’d like to welcome you to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.”
            I used this introduction to convey the idea that each of us must contribute our spiritual gifts for the good of the whole.  Everyone has to help if the church is going to fulfill its mission in this world—bringing in the kingdom of God.
            My wife is always the first one to read what I write.  She checks for typos.  Also, if I’ve written something that doesn’t make sense to her I know I have to explain myself better.  This morning, while we were walking she said, “I expected you to use that quote to move in an entirely different direction.”  What she suggested was at least as good as my idea, so here goes!  This is the direction she thought I would go.
            A colleague of mine recently said in a presentation to other ministers that congregations either deify or demonize their pastors.  I expect that’s true—and if the pastor doesn’t meet the first criteria that condemns him/her to meet the second one. 
            Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), none of us qualify for the first, and only a dastardly few qualify for the second alternative.  None of us is perfect, pastors or otherwise.  We know this, but it’s easy to forget.  If any pastor I know tried to live up to Oglethorpe’s job description, he/she would soon be burnt to a cinder.  No one can do all that work and survive.  There are only so many hours in a day, and some of them must be given over to eating and sleeping—to say nothing of family life, study, and just plain down time.  Remember, even Jesus needed to get away for time alone with his heavenly Father.
            Through the Holy Spirit, God has given each of us spiritual gifts, and we must use them so the church can achieve its mission; but that’s not the only reason everyone should contribute his/her gifts.  Paul got it right when he told the Galatians that they should, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
            Throughout the three years of his active ministry, Jesus prepared his disciples for the time he would leave them.  He knew they would have to carry on the work he had begun.  I suspect he chose those specific people because he knew somehow the gifts they had to share with the world.  Some were preachers.  Some were teachers.  Others were administrators, or adept at visiting and providing healing for the sick.  Some possessed the kind of insight that allowed them to dream dreams and see visions.  All of these gifts were necessary if this new religion, scattered in little pockets throughout the Roman Empire, was to survive.
            Nor could they work alone.  Each person’s gift provided a piece of the puzzle—a puzzle that couldn’t be complete unless everyone contributed.  They all had to bring their gifts to the table, where each gift could be complemented by all other gifts.

            So it is with our churches today.  Each of us has gifts, and we must use those gifts to lighten each other’s load.  No one—not the pastor, or the church secretary, or the elders or deacons, or any other individual or group can do the work alone.  Especially we must help bear our pastors’ burdens, giving them time to study, to pray, to spend time with their families, to get away from it all and recharge their batteries.  If we want our pastors to be more effective, we must help bear their burdens—and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Using Our Gifts

Using Our Gifts
1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 27-28
            In 1991 Connie Ray and Alan Bailey created a gospel musical, Smoke on the Mountain.  Set in 1938, it tells the story of a Saturday night gospel sing at a little country church in North Carolina.  The performers are the Sanders Family, a mother, father, brother and three teenage children.  They have been absent from the gospel circuit for a while, caught up in family affairs, but are now ready to re-enter the world of sacred performance and share their music and testimony with the world.
            Their host for the evening is Pastor Mervin Oglethorpe of the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.  In a sequel, Pastor Oglethorpe falls in love with and marries June, the oldest of the Sanders children.  When we first meet him he is not only full of the Spirit; he is also somewhat full of himself.  This is obviously his first full-time pastorate, and he takes himself rather seriously.  Here’s how he introduces himself to the assembled congregation, made up of several area churches.
            “As Preacher, Choir Director, Chairman of Finance, Director of Education, and Youth Director, I’d like to welcome you to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church.”
            Whew!  It sounds like all his congregation has to do is show up every Sunday morning, sit back, and watch this religious superman work his magic.  There’s one man doing everything, and a whole room full of spectators.
            That’s the picture the gospels presents, isn’t it?  Jesus is going about doing good, teaching his disciples, arguing with the religious leaders, while everyone else spectates.  That works for the gospels.  After all, the people were in the presence of the Son of God.  Why wouldn’t they let him lead?
            We get a different picture of Christianity in Acts.  Jesus has left this earth, and the disciples are now tasked with carrying on his work.  While Peter emerges as the acknowledged leader, he shares the responsibilities with his fellow apostles.  We know that even those of Jesus’ inner circle not mentioned by name are out in the world preaching, teaching, healing, and spreading this new religion.
            The person whose name we hear the most is Paul, who makes several missionary journeys, starting many churches, visiting them and others, and writing letters to them and still others.  He seems to be as superhuman as Pastor Oglethorpe, but here’s the difference:  he has his limitations, and he knows it.  He knows he can’t be in more than one place at a time, and so must develop leadership in the different churches to carry on while he is busy elsewhere.  We see his efforts clearly in his letters to Timothy and Titus, young pastors (much like our friend Mervin) who he advises and mentors so there will be someone to carry on when he is gone.
            In his first letter to the church at Corinth he speaks of spiritual gifts.  Everyone has gifts, he says, given by the Holy Spirit, and the church needs all of its members to use all of their gifts if it is going to grow, to prosper, and to make a difference in the world.  
            After speaking about the source of these gifts (the Holy Spirit), and comparing the church to the human body, Paul writes words that should make us sit up and take notice.
            “Now you are the body of Christ,” he says, “and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administering, and various kinds of tongues.”

            Many gifts given to many people to perform many ministries.  That’s the way the body of Christ functions best.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Need to Hate

The Need to Hate
Matthew 3:38-48
            “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents.  Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil.”
            Eric Hoffer understood human nature all too well.  While I’m sure he would have agreed that love is a more powerful emotion than hate (indeed, nothing can overcome hatred but love), of the two, hatred is far more easily and frequently aroused. 
Why is this so?  Why are we so much more ready to hate than to love?  I would argue that it has to do with fear.  We fear “the other.”  If someone looks different, behaves differently, believes differently from us, eats different foods or prays using different names for God, we fear him.  What if his way is right?  What if he belongs to the chosen group?  What if the celestial powers (by whatever name we choose to call them) prefer him to us?  Where does that leave us?
            As we look around we see many examples of movements that are built on hate—that have a devil at the center.  Isis, the Taliban and all their tentacles believe that the western, Christian world is the devil.  We must be eliminated so the world can become a place where their beliefs are at the pinnacle rather than ours.  The white supremacy movement believes that any other color debases and demeans their country and must be eliminated one way or another.  One of our political parties is fanning the flames of hate against the candidate of the other—in fact, before this current campaign is over each side will demonize the other to the point where the vast majority of people will be wary of turning on their TV’s.  Wherever we turn, we see campaigns fueled by hate, inviting us to join, to hate along with them, to fight their devil.
            What do we do?  How do we respond?  Which side do we take?  Are any of these groups correct?  Should we pledge allegiance to one of them?  Must we choose to hate someone?
            Jesus says, “No!” to all these questions. Time and again he told his followers to love.  Eventually they got it, and began a movement of love that continues—though in distorted fashion—today.  Even the gospel message has been corrupted by hate.  “If you love Jesus, then you have to hate_____!” (Fill in the blank with the name of any person, group, movement, idea, or philosophy you wish.  Someone has most likely already used it to complete the sentence.)
            Jesus still says, “No!” 
                        Does your neighbor hit you?  Turn the other cheek.
                        Does your neighbor take your coat?  Give him your shirt as well.
                        Does your neighbor force you to do something demeaning?  Do twice as much.
            What about hating my enemies?  Surely I’m entitled to detest those who are against me!
            Again, Jesus says, “No!”  Love your enemies.  Pray for them.  Care for them.  Because—and here is the truth we don’t like to face—we are all God’s children, and God loves all of us equally.  God doesn’t have a favorite child.  This isn’t like Tommy Smothers, who used to say to his brother Dickie, “Mom always liked you best.”  There’s none of that with God.
            But Jesus didn’t just say “Love your enemies,” he did it.  On the cross, he didn’t say, “Father, forgive this group, but not that one.”  He asked his father to forgive the great, all-inclusive “them”—to which each of us belongs.
            Does this mean we have to agree with those who are against us?  No!  Does this mean we don’t hold hating people and groups accountable for the acts their hatred engenders?  No!  But whatever we do, we must do it out of love. 

That’s what God says.