Sunday, January 29, 2017

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
Deuteronomy 6:4-5
            When I was in high school I discovered a writer by the name of Kenneth Roberts.  He wrote historical fiction, mostly about the American Revolution, a period I found very interesting.  I think I read every book Roberts wrote—at least all the ones in my local library. 
            Roberts was a writer and editor with the Reader’s Digest when he became concerned about the way historical fiction was being written.  He felt the authors of those books took too much liberty with the historical aspects of their stories.  He wanted to correct the record, so he left his post to write his own novels.  His history was not only accurate, but in some cases, revolutionary (no pun intended).  For example, his opinion of Benedict Arnold was very different from the commonly held belief.
            For me there is only one flaw in his writing.  Most of his novels centered around a love story with the male narrator as one of the participants—not bad in itself, but each one followed the same formula:  boy meets girl/boy doesn’t realize the value of girl/boy finally falls for girl and they live (supposedly) happily after.  Again, this isn’t bad in itself, but in Roberts’ hands it was so formulaic that as soon as the characters were introduced you could predict the outcome.  Obviously, each male narrator was looking for the love of his life in the wrong place.
            This is not the only way we look for love where we shouldn’t.  There are so many we could fill several pages with them.  There are, however, some general categories we should examine.
            Sometimes we look for love not from a person, but from an object.  We fall in love with a car, a TV set, a piece of jewelry,  a house—any object that fills our heart with a desire to possess it.  Once we have it, we give it all our love, all our attention until it becomes the center of our life.  At that point we no longer own it; it owns us.
            Sometimes we look for love in a cause.  This is not bad in itself, but it can become a serious problem.  We fall in love with the cause until it consumes us.  Every waking hour we can possibly give is spent in our cause.  We lose perspective.  We no longer care about friends, family, getting involved with other worthy endeavors.  Everything we have—time, talents, money—are given to our cause.
            Sometimes our job becomes our love.  There is no time to spend with family.  No time for community projects.  No time for hobbies.  No time to relax.  Any time spent away from our job we see as wasted.  How can we give even a part of ourselves to some other passion—no matter how important or worthwhile it may be—when our job calls to us with a siren voice?
            The problem with falling in love with things, or causes, or jobs is that they can’t love us back.  Inanimate objects can’t love.  Organizations can’t love.  Because they are incapable of love they cannot give.  They can only take.  Because they cannot satisfy our desire to be loved they can never return our love, and so our affair is strictly one-sided, our affection unrequited.
            Where should we look for love?  First, from God.  Jesus tells us (Matthew 6:33) that our primary objective should be to seek the kingdom of God.  If we do that, our other needs—including our need for love—will be met.
            God loves us.  Because that is true, our love will never be unrequited.  Moses says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

            That’s looking for—and finding—love in the right place.

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Matthew 28:16-20
            Evangelize!  Oh, how we hate that word!  When we hear it our minds conjure up all sorts of unpleasant scenes.  We see those gospel tracts—poorly written, poorly thought out—that someone hands us as we walk down the street, or we take from a rack in a doctor’s office.  They have only one purpose:  to scare us out of hell and force us into heaven.  If you’re anything like me, you don’t like to be forced into—or talked into—anything; and my scare quotient has gone down significantly over the years.
            Our minds turn to those door-to-door evangelists, the ones who, while sincere in their conviction that they have only one mission in life (to preach as many souls into heaven as possible before God calls them home) are so annoying in their persistence that they turn off more people than they attract.  Secure in their belief that they are right and whatever we believe is wrong, they talk us to the point where we might prefer heaven’s alternative just so we won’t have to share accommodations with them in the afterlife.
            We remember those well-meaning street corner preachers we’ve seen in busy city downtowns, calling out their message to the passing crowds while suffering the ultimate indignity:  being ignored by the people they are trying so hard to reach.
            When we read Jesus’ final words to his disciples as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, some or all of these pictures come to mind, and we say, “No thanks.  I’ll spend my time in some other activity.”  The problem is that evangelism is not an optional part of the Christian life.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Go, if you have nothing better to do,” or “Go, if you’re not too embarrassed,” or, “Go, if you have a few minutes to spare.”  Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and earth are given to me.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Go!”
            But evangelizing makes us uncomfortable.  We know if we start preaching to family members, or neighbors, or co-workers, or fellow students we will be shunned.  When they see us coming, people will lock their doors and hide, or cross to the other side of the street, or develop a splitting headache.  We don’t want this to happen.  We don’t want to be ignored, isolated, made to feel as if we don’t belong.  Human beings are communal, and we want to be part of the community around us, not marginalized and avoided.  What should we choose:  risk becoming nonpersons in our community, or shirk our Christian responsibility?
            May I suggest an alternative path?
            Jesus never preached.  He taught.  Before he taught he attracted people by the way he lived.  Sure, he did miracles—turning water into wine, casting out demons, healing all manner of diseases—and we can’t do any of that.  We can do what he did before he performed even one miracle.  Jesus lived his life so that everything he did pleased and glorified God.  Remember what he said in the Sermon on the Mount?  “Let your light so shine before people that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
            At the root, that’s what evangelism is:  living our lives so that people see the gospel in us.  That’s so much better than having the gospel preached at us.  Edgar Guest wrote a poem:  I’d Rather See a Sermon Than Hear One Any Day.  Look it up.  I think you’ll agree with his words.

            When we think of an evangelist, if we’re thinking positively, we think of Paul, standing in the city center of Athens, or Ephesus, or Corinth, preaching the gospel loud and clear, and we say, “I could never do that!”  We don’t have to.  If we live the gospel, right down to our bones, we’ll never have to say a word.  People will see the gospel in us and want what we have—the love of Christ overflowing onto everyone we meet.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What God Requires

What God Requires
Acts 26:24-29
            You’ve probably seen people—usually young athletes—wearing T-shirts with the message, “Failure is not an option,” or some such words.  One I remember says, “We didn’t lose.  We just ran out of time.”
            Strong words indeed, and fine sentiments, especially if you want to inspire someone to persevere when the situation looks hopeless.  However, we know that in real life failure is not only an option, but a result that is sure to occur.  Those of us who have lived a while have known many failures.
            Recently I ran into several quotes on failure—in fact, they inspired me to write this.  Here are a few of them.
            Robert F. Kennedy said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”  True words, and worth remembering.  If we’re afraid to fail, we’ll wind up afraid to do anything.  Like the man who was given the one talent in Jesus’ parable, we’ll hide our abilities away, never failing, but never accomplishing anything of value. 
            Failure is part of the learning process.  We can’t grow unless we venture out, away from the shallows of our meager successes and explore the deep waters of the unknown.  Perhaps Thomas Edison said it best: “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  This may sound like the “We didn’t lose” T-shirt, but it isn’t.  It’s an optimistic way of looking at the learning process.  Edison is correct.  Every unsuccessful way he tried to make any of his marvelous inventions work added to his store of knowledge.  And who knows:  perhaps one of the ways that didn’t work for one invention led to the success of another invention!
            Along the same lines is the (unknown) person who said, “The only way to avoid mistakes is to gain experience; the only way to gain experience is to make mistakes.”  Sounds as of this person was working in Edison’s lab—or should have been.
            I’m sure Paul must have made quite a few mistakes in his ministry.  Every minister I know has made at least a few—some (me included) have made more than a few.  When we read the book of Acts we see/hear about Paul’s many successes, but we also find a few times when his message wasn’t received.  Perhaps he used the wrong words, or those hearing him weren’t ready to receive the gospel.  After all, the only perfect teacher in history is Jesus.  All the rest of us who preach and teach fall short of that mark.
            Today’s Scripture reading is the conclusion of a longer story.  Paul is being held in a sort of protective custody where his enemies can’t get to him, although he does have some freedom of movement.  Two successive Roman governors have heard him speak and been moved by his testimony.  They have not accepted his message, but they are unwilling to send him to Rome for judgment by Caesar, perhaps because they know the decision will go against him.
            Finally, after some years, King Agrippa arrives and Paul appears before him.  As eloquently as he knows how, Paul tells his story, presenting the gospel to Agrippa.  When he is finished, Agrippa says, “Paul, almost you persuade me to become a Christian.”  Almost—but not quite.
            Paul’s failure?  Perhaps.  We never learn the rest of Agrippa’s story, so we don’t know for sure.  What we do know is what Cheryl Jones Gage said: “God doesn’t expect us to be successful, but He does expect us to be faithful.”  Faithful service is something we all can do.

            Even in the face of failure Paul was faithful.  Are we?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Fighting the Good Fight

Fighting the Good Fight
2 Timothy 4:7-8
            On Saturday, September 10, 2016, the Chippewas of Central Michigan University defeated the Oklahoma State Cowboys 30-27 on the final play of a memorable football game.  It was later determined that the officials had made an error by giving Central Michigan one more play than they should have had; thus the win.  Before the mistake was discovered, the Chippewas coach, John Bonamego, was asked about the upset.  He replied, “It’s only an upset for people who think it can’t happen.”  Brave words? 
            Surely no one would have expected that final score, especially on Oklahoma State’s home ground.  Comparing the two teams and the level of competition at which each played, the score should have been overwhelmingly in the Cowboys’ favor—but it didn’t happen that way.  Even excluding the extra play and its resulting score, for Central Michigan to stay close to what surely was (on paper, at least) a superior team must have been a shock to the Oklahoma State players, coaches and fans.  The Central Michigan win was an upset by any standards, but to be close enough at the end of the game for the upset to occur was an upset in itself.  Bonamego’s players had performed well enough throughout the game to be in a position, with one break, to win the game.  That was the true upset.  Looking at the game through that lens, Bonamego’s words were not so brave as they might have at first sounded.
            Upsets in sports usually happen for one of two reasons.  First, the team that should win plays badly.  Key players are injured or sick.  Coaches make serious mistakes in managing the game, or players make enough mistakes to change the outcome of the game.  Second, the team that should lose (the underdog) either plays above its normal ability (they do everything right), or the coaches have spotted some weakness in their opponent and developed a game plan to take advantage of it.  In the second case the underdog has outperformed the favorite, playing well enough to secure the win.
            Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he came to the end of the second letter to his young protégé Timothy.  In 4:6 he says, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.”  Paul knew he was facing not only certain but imminent death.  He knew he was about to be granted his fondest wish:  to be in the eternal presence of his Lord and Savior.  What had begun many years before on the Damascus road was about to reach its conclusion.  Although Paul knew there was still work to be done, he knew that it would be up to Timothy and others to do it.  Paul was going home.
            Like Coach Bonamego and his players, Paul had prepared for this occasion.  Like them he knew he had done the best he could getting ready for the final quarter.  He was in the homestretch.  The finish line was in sight.  He was ready.
            “I have fought the good fight,” Paul says; “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  Paul’s “game plan” had been well-prepared.  He had listened to and followed his Leader’s instructions.  He knew that victory awaited him.
            Are we prepared to fight the good fight?  When we come to the end of our battle will we be able to say like Paul that we have run the race to the best of our ability?  Have we kept the faith?

            It takes a lot of faith to believe a coach when he tells his players they can win over a stronger opponent.  Central Michigan had that kind of faith, so they were prepared to win a game against a team that should have overwhelmed them.  Paul had that same kind of faith, a faith that enabled him to win over an opponent much stronger than he.  Do we have that kind of faith?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

It's Still Christmas

It’s Still Christmas
Luke 2:21
            It’s December 26th.  I just finished reading a comic strip where the two young boys in the family are complaining that they’re bored.  The mother says, “You’ve got a whole room full of new toys to play with.”  The boys respond, “We played with them all yesterday.”  One look from mother and they decide they’re not bored after all.
            That’s what happens the day after Christmas in many households.  The toys are already old, or broken, or missing parts.  The family is eating leftovers from big holiday meals.  The radio stations and TV channels have gone back to regular programming.  No more Christmas specials.  No more Christmas music.  On to the next big thing.  Ready for Valentine’s Day?
            Stores try to make Christmas last a little longer.  Post-Christmas sales start today.  There was a story on the news about the bargains available out there.  The reporter said that stores expected to do about 19% of their year’s business in the next few days.
            But Christmas has just begun!  The Season of Christmas begins on Christmas Eve.  This is appropriate, since the Jewish day begins at sundown (read Genesis 1 to see how this works).  Christmas is twelve days long—just like the song says.  That song isn’t someone’s fanciful creation.  The Season of Christmas lasts until January 6—Epiphany (more about that later).
            Today’s reading tells us that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day after he was born.  This was sort of the completion of the birth process.  Luke also tells us (1:62-67) that Jesus’ cousin John was circumcised and given his name on the eighth.  We can assume the same thing was true for Jesus.  If Jesus’ birth celebration took eight days, then it certainly wasn’t over the day after Christmas.
            Perhaps we end Christmas quickly because we have become so tired of it during the month or more of preparation.  With stores beginning pre-Black Friday sales weeks before Thanksgiving, and the media giving us a steady diet of Christmas music and specials starting even before the turkey dinner has grown cold, we become saturated well before the actual day arrives.  We can’t be blamed for packing things up as soon as possible.
            But let’s not be hasty.  Let’s keep those decorations up a little longer.  Let’s enjoy the bright lights for a few more days.  Perhaps they will help us think more about the Light of the world, who John tells us about at the beginning of his gospel.  Let’s sing the carols a few more times.  We can put the Santa Claus songs to bed.  He’s already back at the North Pole making preparations for next year; but “Joy to the World,” and “Away in a Manger,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” have staying power.  Perhaps if we hear them and sing them a few more days the Christ child will find a more permanent place in our hearts.
            Our church doesn’t pack up Christmas until the Sunday after Epiphany.  That, by the way, is the celebration of the arrival of the wise men.  In many parts of the world Epiphany is the day gifts are given, a connection to the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the travelers from the east.  Sounds like a sensible idea to me.  Focus on Jesus’ birth on December 25—let him be the star of the show—and save the gift giving for another day.  It’s probably too late to make that change in our culture, but it’s good to think about.

            By keeping Christmas going for an extra week we linger a little longer over the Christ child.  We can contemplate more fully what his birth means to us.  We can be more deeply aware of God’s gift.  Perhaps if we could make Christmas last longer we might be able to keep God’s love in our hearts more completely.  What do you think?