Saturday, July 19, 2003

Changing Your World:
Through Compassion
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 20, 2003)

Recently, I read some words spoken this past December at JFK Airport in New York City. They were said as the shoeboxes of Operation Christmas Child, packed with gifts for children in impoverished and war-ravaged countries (some of which were given by the people of Friendship) were being sent overseas. The speaker was a man who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and who is a deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ, the lead singer of the rock band U2, Bono. Listen to what he said:

"Two and a half million Africans are gonna die next year because they...can't get a hold of the drugs that we take for granted in Europe and America. That's not a cause, that's an emergency.

"These, these children that are going to receive these boxes on Christmas, this may be their last Christmas a lot of them and [it] makes me [feel] sick in the pit of my stomach. I think it's absolutely unacceptable. I don't think we should have it, I don't think our Father in heaven will have it, and there's a lot of people here from the church today, pastors: let me share with you a conviction: God is on His knees to the church on this one. God Almighty is on His knees... begging us to turn around the super tanker of indifference on this subject of, of AIDS.

"[AIDS] brings the best out of the church, like you see today in this response to these children [many of whom are] suffering with HIV, but if we're honest, it has also brought the worst out of the church; judgmentalism, a kind of sense that these people who have AIDS, "Well, they got it 'cause they deserve it." Well, from my studies of the scriptures, I don't see a hierarchy to sin. I don't see sexual immorality registering higher up on the list than...greed [which is a problem]...we suffer from in the West."

For me, those are convicting and convincing words and I believe that they reflect the heart of the God we know through Jesus Christ, the God I claim to follow. I feel that if you and I are going to change the world for the better, we simply must live with the same compassion that God has shown to us through Jesus Christ! Compassion was at the heart of everything Jesus did when He lived on this planet. He died and rose for us out of a compassionate desire to see our sins forgiven and to have us with Him forever.

Our Bible lesson for today finds Jesus with His twelve closest followers, disciples, who were also called apostles. That word apostle is interesting; it means sent one. In a way, all followers of Jesus are apostles: He gathers us to Himself to be loved and encouraged at a pep rally like this on Sunday mornings and then, He sends us into the world to pass His love on to others.

We see how that works in our lesson. The apostles have just returned from a mission trip in which they shared the love, forgiveness, healing, and hope that Jesus gives to those who follow Him. And they’re pumped, excited! Jesus invites them to come with Him to a quiet place where they can debrief, pray, and recharge their spiritual, emotional, and physical batteries. But everywhere they go, they encounter people in need. We’re told that Jesus looked on these people with compassion and He cared for their needs. In Jesus’ Name and with His power at the center of our lives, you and I need to do the same thing. To change our world and to change the world around us, we need to be compassionate.

But what exactly does it mean to be compassionate? First of all, I think it means getting outside ourselves and being sensitive to what life is like for other people. When we exhibit compassion, we notice the highs and the lows that happen in other people’s lives. Jesus had that perspective. He calls us to be as compassionate toward others as He has been toward us.

Years ago, Dave Hamilton and his friend Billy loved to go to the rugged riverbanks of the Pacific Northwest to fish. But Billy returned from a tour of duty in the Vietnam War with both legs amputated. That made it impossible for him to go to those remote spots where he and Dave had once fished. Dave felt compassion for his friend and for others in similar situations. He approached a group for which he did volunteer work and asked if they couldn’t create a campsite where disabled people could come to enjoy the outdoors. In 1992, a place called Friends Landing was opened. It includes fishing piers, boat launches, and tents and every bit of it is wheelchair accessible. Even the trails that go through the forest are paved. It all started when one man got outside himself to see things from somebody else’s perspective. You and I can be compassionate toward those in our lives by looking at life through their eyes: the neighbor who has just lost a loved one, the parent wrestling with a rebellious child, the kid everybody loves to hate. Extending compassion to someone else is simply enacting Jesus’ golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Being compassionate also means being interruptible. Jesus always had a mission, but He rarely had a deadline. Jesus has given us a mission—to share Him and His love. We can’t let our schedules or agendas get in the way of fulfilling it. Our hearts need to be open to helping others with their spiritual, emotional, physical, relational needs.

Several times a year, even though sometimes I would rather not do it, I volunteer to be the on-call chaplain for Clermont Mercy Hospital. I did it for another two weeks recently. One night last week, I had just gotten home after our small group and doing some work here at the building afterwards. Earlier, my daughter had called me to say, “Dad, I bought some ice cream for you so you can have it when you get here.” When I arrived, my son was all-smiles as he pointed to the TV set. There was a PBS documentary about one of my heroes, Martin Luther. Phil wanted to watch it with me. I went to the kitchen and scooped out a generous helping of ice cream with chocolate sauce and had just sat down to watch the show when the hospital beeper went off.

Oy! For half a second, I must confess, the thought crossed my mind, "Just ignore it. You’ve had a long day." But I called the hospital and learned that a woman had just died. Her family was asking for a pastor. So, I stuck the ice cream into the freezer and drove to the hospital. There, I spent time with several generations who survived this ninety-five year old woman who had died. The family, while waiting for their own pastor to show up, simply wanted a pastor with whom they could pray. We prayed several times together and in between, I learned that this woman—Hazel—had remained strong until just hours before she died.

Not only that, I found out that she was a person of remarkable faith who had followed Christ through her whole life. Just a few weeks before she died, another old woman approached Hazel’s granddaughter and said, “You know, I used to be an atheist. But when I saw the way your grandmother loved Jesus and other people, I just knew there had to be a God. She’s the reason I’m a Christian!” I felt incredibly blessed and inspired by my time with that family. I was glad that I responded to that beeper!

As you leave here today, I want to challenge you (and me) in three ways. First: I ask you to be open to the interruptions that come your way. Interruptions present us with opportunities to share God’s compassion. Let yourself be interruptible!

Second: Plan to be compassionate. Build it into your life. Start collecting those shoe boxes and the gifts you’ll tuck inside them for Operation Christmas Child once more this year. Check out the information on the lobby bulletin board about providing school supplies for kids in our community. Contact Carol Barrett and get involved with our outreach program. We need to build compassion into our lives, planning for it.

Third: Join me in praying about something I’ve been dreaming of and talking about for a long time. Sometime in the next eighteen months, I would like for a group of Friendship folks to go to some spiritually or economically impoverished country on a mission trip. It could be Mexico or Haiti or England or even somewhere in this country. It’s a big world that keeps getting smaller. Going to other places and offering the compassion of Jesus will enlarge our hearts and help others to see Jesus. Charity and compassion begin at home, it’s true; but they must never stop at home. God so loved the whole world that He sent His Son and you and I are called to love that same whole world. So, pray about it: ask God where He wants us to go on a mission trip in order to share and serve and love and be compassionate in His Name. Ask God if He might want you to go on this mission trip—to expand the horizons of your personal compassion. Ask God if He wants you to dare to do something so great that it cannot possibly work unless He is empowering you and inspiring you. Taking such a dare will deepen our faith!

But whether you feel led by God to take a mission trip or not, I believe that the God Who went to a cross and rose from the dead is on His knees today begging you and me to love the world as much as He loves us. He calls us to be compassionate. If we will share compassion as He begs us to do, our worlds—starting with us and moving out to those we touch—will be changed! And that will be a very good thing.

[The true story of Dave and Billy can be found in the July, 2003 issue of Guideposts.]

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

(Comments on passages from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that have jumped out at me in my studies through the years.)

Proverbs 4:23:
Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

With our heart, as well as with our minds and with computers, garbage in, garbage out. The condition of our hearts will determine how we live. Jesus speaks of this in Luke 6:45:
“The good person out of the good treasures of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of the evil treasure, produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

When we focus on God and on what is good, our hearts are strengthened and good things flow from us--no matter what the circumstances of our lives. In the New Testament, Paul says, "...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8)

Proverbs 4:26-27:
"Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil."

These verses are a good reminder for me. I know that I have unhealthy levels of uncertainty in my life precisely in those times when I have been lax and neglectful of my relationship with Christ and of the things that He shows me through prayer, Bible-reading, worship, and the advice of people more grown-up in their faith lives. These lines contain a promise that if we're steadfast, all our “ways will be sure,” one would surmise even when we feel unsteady and unsure of ourselves. We need to keep following Christ: He knows where we're going.

Proverbs 5:6:
"She does not keep straight to the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it."

These words about the “loose woman” no doubt apply to any of us when we defiantly walk away from God, seeking our own path. The verse says, “her ways wander, and she does not know it.” I have learned that sin makes us delusional. Many times, when I do the things that I know are wrong I don't realize it at the moment because by wandering away from God, I've created some elaborate and personally convincing rationalization. When that happens to us, we think that we're in control when we’re most imprisoned: trapped and we don't even know it. By contrast, when we surrender to Christ, He frees us to become ourselves and we see things with greater clarity. (Chrck out: Proverbs 5:22-23)
"...a Christian is not a man [sic] who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble--because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out." [C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity]

"My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." [First John 2:1b-2]

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Changing Your World:
Through Amazing Grace
Ephesians 2:3-14

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 13, 2003]

For several weeks now, we’ve been talking about changing our world. Today I want to talk with you about the one thing that is guaranteed to change the world in which we live: grace.

Our Bible lesson for this morning is all about grace. It tells us that out of an attitude of grace, God long, long ago planned to free us from our slavery to sin and death by sending Jesus into our world to die and rise for us. But what exactly is grace?

In his book, Grace Awakening, Chuck Swindoll has a way of explaining grace that really hammers its meaning home for me. He writes:

"...imagine you have a six year old son whom you love dearly. Tragically, one day you discover that your son was horribly murdered. After a lengthy search the investigators of the crime find the killer. You have a choice. If you use every means in your power to kill the murderer for his crime, that would be vengeance. If, however, you’re content to sit back and let the legal authorities take over and execute on him what is proper—a fair trial, a plea of guilty, capital punishment—that is justice. But if you should plead for a pardon of the murderer, forgive him completely, invite him into your home, and adopt him as your own son, that is grace."

The parent who chose the difficult course of giving up their right for vengeance or justice would, at the very least, change their own life and the life of the killer he or she set free. This is exactly what God does for us through Jesus Christ. We are, according to the Bible, sinners who deserve to be damned and separated from God eternally. But through Jesus, God extends grace to us. Through Christ, God gives us acceptance and forgiveness we don’t deserve. The New Testament says, “...while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The undeserved acceptance and forgiveness of grace changes our lives and the lives of those with whom we share it!

In the World War Two saga, Saving Private Ryan, a group of American soldiers give their lives in order to save the life of one private whose brothers have been killed in battle. Just before he dies from wounds sustained in saving Ryan, the crusty commander of the mission, played by Tom Hanks, tells Private Ryan to go and live a life worthy of the sacrifices that had been made for him.

It’s a weird thing. Before we receive grace, we have the crazy notion that if we do enough good things, maybe we’ll be acceptable to God. Some people, like Benjamin Franklin, I’m learning from the new biography of him written by Walter Isaacson, then set out to do as many good things as they possibly can.

Other people though, aware of their own faults, just give up, figuring that no matter what they do they’re going to hell anyway. They adopt a kind of “eat, drink, and be merry” attitude. But they’re rarely ever truly merry.

When grace enters people's lives though, they’re so grateful for the second chance they’ve been given, that they live differently. Like Private Ryan, they set out to live lives that display their gratitude for their undeserved gift.

The God of all creation left heaven and died for us and then rose for us. He did this to give us a second chance at life forever, God’s original plan for us. Grateful for such amazing grace, people who follow Jesus then live differently.

Jesus told a story or parable once about the final judgment of the world. He said that two different categories of people will stand before Him: the goats and the sheep. To the goats, Jesus will say, “You didn’t feed me when I was hungry, didn’t give me water when I was thirsty, didn’t clothe me when I was cold, didn’t welcome me when I was a stranger, and didn’t visit me when I was in prison. You’ve chosen hell. Go there now.”

To the sheep, Jesus will say, “You fed me, gave me water, clothed me, welcomed me, visited me. You’ve chosen God’s Kingdom—heaven. Go there now.” The goats will protest, “But, Lord, when did we ever fail to do these things for You?” Jesus will say, “When you failed to do all these good things for the least important people in your lives, you failed to do them for me.”

Many people look at this story from Jesus and say, “A-ha, you see, if you’re a nice enough person, God will bless you.” But when people say that, they completely misunderstand the story! You know that because of the reaction of the sheep to Jesus' words to them. They’re as incredulous about their good fortune as the goats are about their misfortune. The sheep say to Jesus, “Lord, when did we do all these good and wonderful things for You? We don’t remember them at all!” Jesus will tell them, “When you fed, clothed, visited, welcomed, and gave water to the most insignificant nobody, the people everybody else thought didn’t matter, you were really doing it for me."

Now the reason that the sheep—the believers in Jesus—won’t be conscious of the good things they’ve done is simple. They weren’t keeping score. They were just living their lives. Grateful for the new and everlasting life Jesus gave them, they just did what came naturally: they loved as God had loved them...they served as they had been served...forgave as they had been forgiven...gave as they had been given to. They loved and served unstintingly, without pre-conditions or expectation of repayment. Grace is amazing, isn’t it?

Author Keith Miller tells of how he once planned to commit adultery. He arranged to meet a woman at a hotel, out of state. But when he got to the hotel room and prepared to make a telephone call to the woman, his mind filled with passages of the Bible. But interestingly, the passages he remembered weren’t those dealing with adultery; they were those that talk about the love of God. God was telling Keith Miller that whatever happened that night, He would still love Keith like His son. Miller slammed the phone down. He felt as though he couldn’t go through with his plans because he was overwhelmed with God’s love for him. He tried two more times to pick up the phone and call the woman. But each time, the sense of God’s grace and love flooded his heart and Miller put the phone down. Finally, he called out, “It’s no use! God—I am hopelessly in love with you.”

In this life, there really is a war going on inside of us. It’s a war between those things we want to do at any given time because they may feel good or be convenient and on the other side, those things we know we should do because they’re right. Sometimes, even people like Keith Miller, committed followers of Christ, lose that war. They cave into temptation and sin.

But there is reason for hope! The greatest story of all time was Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. You know it well. A man, representing God, had two sons. The youngest begged his father to give him his inheritance right away. The dad consented and the boy took his newly-received wealth to go out into the world. He went to a faraway country. There, he wasted all his money and he spent it on prostitutes, booze, and idle living. Broke, hungry, and miserable, the boy takes a job with the local pig farmer and is in such a bad way, he looks at the pigs’ slop with envy. He decides to go back home, beg for his father’s forgiveness, and ask if he can get a job. When he returns, it turns out that dad has been waiting for him with desperate yearning ever since the boy left home. Before the son can apologize or beg, his dad has his arms wrapped around him and is ordering the servants to prepare to party down. “This son of mine was dead and he’s alive once more; he was lost and now he’s found!” Don’t you just know that boy lived his life differently from that moment forward? Grace would have changed him for certain!

Maybe you came here this morning thinking that you would do your religious duty by showing up. Or maybe you came here under pressure from someone else and thought this whole worship thing was meaningless. But I’m here to tell you that no matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what mistakes you have made, God loves you! Our Bible lesson tells us that “long before He laid down earth’s foundations,” your heavenly Father had a plan. He planned on being a loving daddy who would welcome you into His loving arms. He planned on giving you undeserved grace. We can walk away from God and His grace. But for as long as we live on this planet, no matter what, we can still receive it. We can still receive Him. Whenever we do that, there’s a party in heaven...and our lives are changed forever.

[This series of messages is inpsired by one being presented by the pastors at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota. The story of Keith Miller is found in John Maxwell's 'One Hour with God' devotional materials.]
Congratulations to Pastor Kirsten Springmeyer, campus pastor for Lutheran Campus Ministry (LCM) at the University of Cincinnati, for being named Campus Pastor of the Year by the National Conference of Campus Pastors. Kirstin is a dynamic leader who has enhanced the visibility of LCM during her tenure there.
(Comments on passages from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that have jumped out at me in my studies through the years.)

Proverbs 3:26
"for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught."

This is the crux of things in Proverbs and in following Jesus, really. The Lord needs to be our confidence---not the opinions of others, not my income, not my college degrees, not anything but the Lord! And He has proven Himself worthy of this trust by dying on a cross for us and rising from the dead. Through these acts He proves both His devotion to us and His power to defeat everything that frightens or overwhelms us.

Proverbs 3:27-28:
"Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, 'Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it"--when you have it with you."

This passage seems to me to be about a lot more than financial indebtedness, although it certainly does encompass that. When it’s in our power to provide good to those to whom it is due, we should do so. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan gives me an idea of those to whom good is due: everyone who is in any kind of need! Of course, I fail to measure up to this more than infrequently! Deuteronomy 15:1-11 gives an extensive set of regulations regarding the lending of money to one’s neighbor.

Proverbs 3:29
"Do not plan harm against your neighbor who lives trustingly beside you."

The intangible of trust is the glue that holds communities together. If our neighbors are unable to live beside us trustingly, their lives are harmed. This is why faith in Christ is imperative. Christ makes us new people (Second Corinthians 5:17) who live voluntarily under His Kingdom of Love. This makes it more possible for us to trust one another and to take the risk of being more trusting of others. After all, when you're living in the certainty of God's unfailing love and support, you don't worry so much if a neighbor occasionally shafts you. And sometimes, in our reckless trust of neighbor, the heart of a neighbor who might otherwise shaft us will be turned to God and to love. This is how Christ builds community.