Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding Truth in Freedom

Finding Truth in Freedom
John 8:31-36
            My good friend Rob Long is the community editor of the DeSoto Times-Tribune.  Recently he wrote a piece titled “Banning Books Not the Answer.”  He argued that it is wrong to ban books if for no other reason than the protection of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  Long also discusses the banning of speakers with unpopular ideas from college campuses—places where the free exchange of ideas is both appropriate and necessary.
            I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments for more than philosophical reasons.  Banning the expression of ideas is not only bad practice, it is also bad theology.  More on that later.
            Long cites the pilgrims, who came to the New World so they could say what they wanted about God.  He also mentions suffragettes, African-Americans, farm workers, conscientious objectors—all of whom espoused causes that were unpopular.  Many of them suffered persecution, bodily injury and even death in defense of those causes.  Yet they marched, and wrote, and spoke, and picketed—called attention to their cause any way they could because they knew the Constitution guaranteed them the right.
            In recent years men and women have come forward with complaints against church leaders for molesting them when they were children.  Today, athletes express their concern for their fellow citizens by making physical statements before they take the field.  Most recently, women are coming forward with stories of abuse by those who believe their positions of power allow them liberties with women’s bodies.  The Constitution guarantees their right to speak out.
            But what about those who represent views that most of us find reprehensible, views that espouse negative attitudes and behaviors towards people who are different from them—views that, if adopted, would reduce parts of our population to second-class status or remove them from the country.  Should we allow these people to speak their minds?  Should we allow them on our college campuses?  Wouldn’t it be better if we silenced them, told them to go away, to stop bombarding us with their hate-filled speech?  Long says “No!”  They have as much right to speak as anyone else.  Their right to free speech is also guaranteed by the Constitution.
            The danger is that when we ban any form of speech, we set loose the pebble that leads to the rockslide.  You can’t ban some speech without running the risk of banning all speech.  It can set in motion a domino effect with terrible consequences.
            Some of the most controversial ideas in history were set forth by Jesus Christ.  What he said angered the leaders of his country so much they put him to death.  They found his ideas so offensive—so dangerous—that they got rid of him.  He had no constitution to protect his right of free speech. 
Ironically, Jesus never tried to stifle his critics.  He argued with them, criticized them, but never denied them the right to say what they believed.  He went further.  As his life slipped away he forgave them for silencing him, knowing that they did not understand how wrong their actions were.

Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  He was referring to spiritual truth, but his statement is universal.  Only by hearing all points of view; only by being exposed to all ideas; only by weighing all arguments can we understand an issue.  And only when we have heard it all can we—in freedom—come to know the truth.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Great Commission

The Great Commission
Matthew 28:16-20
            Found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, The Great Commission is Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples.  Following the resurrection, Jesus told the women who had come to the tomb that he was going to Galilee and he would meet his “brothers” there.  Matthew tells us the eleven remaining members of Jesus’ inner circle met him on a mountain in Galilee and worshipped him.  Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching.”  This is an abbreviated version of his last words, but it’s the essence of his final instructions to his closest followers.  Go.  Make disciples.  Baptize.  Teach what I have taught you.  This is The Great Commission.
            We are Christ’s current disciples, so these are our instructions also.  We are to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach.  There are some churches which believe these words so strongly that they make this their primary—in some cases only— function.  Their goal is to make sure as many people as possible come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  Some churches focus so intently on the first part of the instructions (go, make disciples, baptize) that they shortchange the last part (teach).  I suggest that this last step is as important as the other three.  Coming to Jesus is the first step.  Once we lead someone to Christ and baptize him/her, the next step—the ongoing step, is to teach. 
            Jesus said, “[Teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  In the gospels we find a pattern of Christian life that is both demanding and fulfilling.  While John 3:16 is often called “the gospel in a nutshell” (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life), perhaps Jesus’ most important teaching is the Christian life in a nutshell: “Love God; love your neighbor.”  To fulfill this commandment takes a lifetime of commitment, study, prayer, and application, so it is important that we begin teaching Jesus’ lifestyle as soon as someone comes to know Christ.
            When we place Jesus’ words at the center of our teaching, and let everything flow from them, we fulfill the Great Commission.  Unfortunately, we too often get sidetracked in the minutiae of church membership—what we call doctrine, what our competitors (other denominations) call dogma.  Whatever name we use to identify these rules and regulations, they too frequently get in the way of “love God; love neighbor.”
            Here’s a suggestion:  Let’s look at our doctrinal/dogmatic statements and measure them against Jesus “greatest commandment.”  Do our doctrines interpret Jesus’ words in ways that help our people grow spiritually?  Do our doctrines “fulfill the law and the prophets” to quote Jesus’ commentary on the greatest commandment?  Do our doctrines encourage (perhaps urge, or push are better words) our new converts—all our members—to greater service in the name of Christ, remembering that he said the highest calling we can fulfill is that of servant?  If our membership requirements cannot answer these questions with an unqualified Yes, it’s time to look for new requirements.  If we’re not leading our members to love God and our neighbor as Jesus loved, we’re leading them astray.
            Go—wherever God leads you, whether around the corner or around the world.
            Make disciples—not church members, but followers of Jesus Christ, with all that means.
            Baptize—into the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior.
            Teach—as Jesus taught, what Jesus taught. 

That’s the Great Commission.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Art of Loving

The Art of Loving
1 John 4:7-12
            If ever there was a life lived in love it was the life of Mother Teresa.  She gave herself in loving service to those who needed love regardless of their physical condition, their social condition, their financial condition, or their spiritual condition.  While she did write about love, and talk about love, she also lived love, leaving us an example of how to live. 
            John says God loves us.  That’s a given.  God made each of us, and God loves each of us.  When we accept the gift of God’s grace, God’s love is poured into our lives, filling us to overflowing, until that love becomes a never-emptying fountain, spilling out onto everyone we meet. 
            “Beloved,” John says, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”  The only way we can demonstrate that we love God, is to love God’s children as God loves them.  How do we do that?  Our love can—must—be hands-on love, love in action.  We are Christ’s hands and feet, and we provide loving service to our brothers and sisters in Christ’s name.
            This was the essence of Mother Teresa’s life.  She loved—not out of any concern for herself, but because God’s love was such a strong force within her that she had no choice but to love.  Mother Teresa said, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.  It is not how much we give, but how much love we put in the giving.”  She knew the force behind the action, and the force behind the giving must be love in order to count for anything.
            God blesses us with so many good things that we overlook many.  Food, clothing, friends, family—all these and more are poured out on us so freely that we forget to thank God for them.  Our life routine becomes so full of blessings that we don’t stop to remember where they come from.  The common, ordinary things that happen to us each day give us opportunities for thanking God.
            From the time I began preparing to teach I was told that the surest way to understand a concept was to teach it.  If I could pass knowledge on to someone else, I had learned it.  The same goes for loving.  The only way we can repay God’s love for us is to pass it on.  Our love doesn’t have to be demonstrated in some large, overwhelming action.  Mother Teresa again: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
            God smiles on us constantly.  Sometimes those smiles come in good times, as God shares with us the joyful moments of our lives.  Sometimes those smiles come when we have made mistakes, and God smiles at us as a parent smiles at a child who has fallen short of the mark.  Sometimes those smiles come when our hearts are so full of grief and sorrow that we believe nobody loves us—but God does.  God wants us to pass that love—those smiles—on to others who need them as much—if not more than we do.
            One more quote from Mother Teresa: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”  True, true, true.  So often we allow our judgmental nature to get in the way of our loving.  How can we love people if we find fault with them?  Judging others is the opposite of loving them.  If God judged us as severely and as frequently as we judge God’s children, we’d be in serious trouble.  Instead, God loves us, and loves us, and loves us—with no end to that love.

            Larry Bosh says, “It is always the right time to realize that God loves you.”  And it is always the right time to pass that love on.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

What Is Life?

What Is Life?
Matthew 10:37-39
            You may remember the movie, Zorba the Greek, a 1964 film with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates.  Later (1969) it was made into a musical.  Perhaps the most memorable part of the musical is the song, Life Is.  The key line is “Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die.”  A little morbid, perhaps, a little cynical, but there’s truth in it.  Life happens—or as Robert Balzer said, “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.”
            There’s a funny email that made the rounds a few years ago.  A senior citizen was explaining his day.  He started on one project when he noticed something else that needed doing.  While he was collecting the items to do that job, something else came to his attention that must be done first.  Something else interrupted that task, and something else interrupted that task, and…until at the end of the day he was exhausted, but hadn’t accomplished anything.  “Life is what happens while you are making other plans.”
            Many times our lives seem to be following that path.  We feel like we’re working hard, but nothing gets done.  At the end of each day we’re exhausted—really wiped out—but the stack of work has not diminished.  Frighteningly, it seems to have grown larger than when we began the day.
            The Peace Corps appealed to older citizens to volunteer with these words: “If you’re not doing something with your life, it doesn’t matter how long it is.”  All too true.  Like the man who can’t seem to finish a task without being distracted by something that needs doing more urgently, like the times in our lives we’re so bogged down that work accumulates like bricks stacked in a doorway, we get sidetracked in the detritus of the day and overlook the opportunities for real service.
            Jesus knew how easily that could happen.  He wasn’t really anti-family although his words make him sound that way.  Instead, he was saying, “Don’t get so wrapped up in the small stuff that you miss the important stuff.  Your first task is to follow me, wherever that may lead.  Don’t worry about the opportunities you might have to give up, or the work, or the relationships.  Take the cross I give you and life will be rewarding.”
            Taking up a cross in the first century Roman empire was no small matter.  Crucifixion was the cruelest form of death the Romans could think of.  The person suffocated, agonizingly, over several hours, each breath coming harder than the last until death brought a welcome end to suffering.  Crucifixion branded the person as a common criminal.  It meant being stripped naked before being tied or nailed to a cross.  Corpses were left on the ground without burial.  When Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” he was saying, “If you’re not doing something with your life, it doesn’t matter how long it is.” 
Jesus still says, “Try to save your life and it will be worth nothing.  Give it to me, and no matter how long or short it may be, every moment will count.”  We don’t have to worry about death by crucifixion if we choose to serve Jesus, but there are other crosses.  There is the cross of lost relationships, the cross of lost employment, the cross of lost income, the cross of lost status.  Any and all these may happen if we choose to follow Jesus.  When we commit our lives to his service we may have to give up other things we hold dear.  Much of this world doesn’t trust those who put their relationship with God first.

Ah, but the rewards!  The rewards far outweigh the losses.  Life can be what happens while you are making other plans—what you do while you’re waiting to die. Or you can let God do the planning, and lead a life of service under the weight of a cross that will seem lighter each day.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Where Are You Looking?

Where Are You Looking?
Hebrews 12:1-2
            Satchel Paige, who pitched in the major leagues until he was 47, is famous for saying, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”  Paige had a lot to look back on.  Probably the greatest pitcher baseball has ever known, he didn’t begin his major league career until he was 42, relegated before that age to pitch in the Negro Leagues.  Like so many of his contemporaries, as well as African-American athletes before him, his race denied him the big-league career he should have enjoyed.  Sports fans were denied even more, because we missed so many outstanding performances by so many talented athletes.
            Paige could have been resentful at what he had been denied.  He had every right to be.  Instead, he chose to look ahead.  He chose to heed Soren Kierkegaard’s words: “Life can only be understood by looking backward, but it must be lived by looking forward.”  Hear Paige saying, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”
            Paige couldn’t help but be aware of his past, so we know he must have looked back.  What he would not allow was to let his life be determined by what had been denied him.  He may have looked back, but he didn’t let those backward looks define what he did with the rest of his life.  Too many people allow their past to control their future.  As Will Rogers said, “Never let yesterday use up too much of today.”
            When we understand our past we can use the lessons we have learned to make our present and our future what we want them to be.  While we cannot control all the elements of our lives, we can shape those lives the way we want them to be.
The author of Hebrews understood this.  Chapter eleven is often referred to as the “faith” chapter.  In it we read abbreviated accounts of many of the heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures and how they relied on their faith to see them through difficult times.  Then the author switches channels abruptly. 
“Therefore,” he says, “get rid of the baggage that ties you down.  Don’t look back with anger, or fear, or worry—or any other negative emotion.  If you do, something is sure to be gaining on you.  Instead, run your race.  Run it well, taking in stride all the obstacles that may present themselves.  But keep looking forward.  There’s where your attention must be riveted, there’s where your concentration must be.”
And what should we be concentrating on?  Jesus—because as Charlie DeLeo has said so beautifully, “All of our hopes and our dreams for a better tomorrow can be found in the blessings that God has provided for us today.” 
The sacred writer doesn’t exactly say so, but if we are to keep our eyes on the prize, our attention must be focused on the One who ran his race without looking back.  In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-8), Paul tells us how Jesus ran.  Instead of looking back to the glory that was his in heaven, he gave up everything to look ahead, to become human so he could show us how our race should be run:  with humility, obedience, and steadfast courage.
But don’t forget to enjoy life while you’re racing through it.  Jesus didn’t fail to have a good time even as he kept his eyes on his prize.  He took time for meals with friends, for sharing joy with children, and for attending weddings.  As Antonio Smith says, “Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.”

Satchel Paige would agree.