Friday, November 19, 2004

Thank You, Mark Sides

Mark Sides is a person I only know through blogging. From his site and from his kind emails and comments on this blog, I know him to be an earnest follower of Jesus Christ who seeks to live a life pleasing to God. I admire that.

Earlier today, Mark honored me by mentioning my series on 'When Tragedy Hits the Innocent' on his blog. Thank you, Mark; I truly am honored and I hope that each one of the entries can help those who suffer and those who strive to help them.

Mark has a whole lot of interesting things to say. I hope that you'll visit his site.

Below are the links to all four parts of 'When Tragedy Hits the Innocent.'

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 1

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 2

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 3

When Suffering Hits the Innocent, Part 4

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Before I Lay Me Down to Sleep...

here are a few blogs I'd like to recommend to you.

Leadership is a group blog to which five different individuals contribute. I like it. Check out the recent post on Squandered Gifts.

Instapundit, according to many sources, is the single-most popular site in the blogosphere. Like his politics or not, blogger Glenn Reynolds is a witty post-modern Renaissance man with an indecipherable affection for Gilligan's Island.

Hugh Hewitt has two particularly interesting recent posts. The more recent deals with the decision of Target to not allow Salvation Army bell-ringers at the doorways of their stores. Apparently, people from across the country are outraged. Good! I've always liked Target, but there is something bizarre about a retailer making a killing on Christmas while preventing a Christian service organization the opportunity to raise funds for services they'll be rendering in the Name of the Christ Whose birth we're celebrating. Hugh also has some thoughts on moral values and the recent election.

Lunch-Time Thoughts on Moral Values in the Recent Election

In the wake of the November 2 election, many pundits are wrestling with the implications of exit polling showing that, for supporters of President Bush, moral values ranked as the number one concern. Many wonder if, before long, there will be any Christians who count themselves as Democrats.

It's certainly true of the congregation I serve as pastor that the overwhelming majority are Republicans. And ours is part of the so-called, mainstream church, a Lutheran congregation, not associated with the so-called Christian Right in many ways.

But I think it's also true that among Christians who are Democrats, there are feelings of resentment, hurt, and some anger that the faith-rootedness of their political views are disdained or ignored.

For many older Christians, the connection of faith (and, by extension, God) to the Republican Party is a new phenomenon. The repository of the best moral values for many Roosevelt and Kennedy supporters was always the Democratic Party. For them, policies which they saw as helpful to the elderly, handicapped, and discriminated-against all were rooted in Christian moral values.

That connection between Christian morality and Democratic politics, in spite of issues like abortion and gay marriage, seems to still inform the views of some Christian voters, especially older Christian voters.

Democratic luminaries appear to be attempting to tap into that history. James Carville, in a recent joint appearance with wife Mary Matalin on network TV, said that Democrats addressed more of the moral and value issues that Jesus deemed significant than did the Republican Party. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has made a similar argument.

But these and other Democratic discussions of their superior moral values, really beg the question.

The fact is that the moral issues raised by Democrats in this election, rightly or wrongly, weren't the ones seen as important by the overtly "faith-based" voter in 2004.

The Democrats have a point insofar as the full-range of morals and values questions confronting our nation were not addressed effectively by either party in the past campaign. (Pastor Craig Williams is addressing these on his excellent web site.) War and peace, wealth and poverty, and other moral issues may well be appropriately addressed in the political process.

But the Democrats are clearly out of touch with the majority of Christians’ thinking when it comes to abortion and gay marriage. Those were the moral issues that most swayed a large portion of George W. Bush's majority on November 2.

It's doubtful that any amount of "moral values" window dressing will help Democrats make their case to the American people. Without their exhibiting some substantive appreciation of the reality and the legitimacy of the concerns of most faith-based voters, the Democrats will probably not realistically vie for the White House for some time to come.

Prayers for Family of Hassan and for Iraq

The murder of Margaret Hassan, the aid worker, whose love for the people of Iraq was reciprocated by many in that country, is a dreadful tragedy.

My prayers are that her family and friends will be comforted by God as they mourn.

I pray also that God will bring peace to Iraq soon.

Just for the Fun of It: Favorite Singer-Songwriters

It wasn't until the Beatles came along that singer-songwriters became a well-established element of the music scene. (They were inspired by Buddy Holly to follow this path.) Below are my top favorite singer-songwriters. (At least they are for tonight.) Tell me yours by using the Comment button below:

1. Paul McCartney

2. Bob Dylan

3. Bruce Cockburn

4. James Taylor

5. Bruce Springsteen

[Honorable mention: John Lennon]

Your Opinions of 'Imperial Hubris'?

Imperial Hubris is another one of those books that has awaited my attention for some time: my son bought it for me a few months ago. The book, the authorship of which was originally ascribed to Anonymous, is the handiwork of Michael Scheuer. Until this past Friday, Scheuer was employed by the CIA and from 1996 to 1999, he headed the unit charged with tracking and understanding Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorist network.

I'm about one-third of the way through Scheuer's book and I must say that I'm reading it with mixed emotions. It seems to me that he is guilty of some hubris, as he is an equal opportunity critic of just about every decision-maker in the US government---Democrats, Republicans, and civil servants in the upper echelons of the CIA.

If Scheuer is only half-correct in his assertions about al Qaeda, then the West has only half-reacted to the threat it poses. But I will hold off on making any definitive comments on Imperial Hubris until I've finished reading it.

In the meantime, if you've read it, would you like to share your opinions and impressions by clicking on the Comment button below?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

'Living Faith' is a Great Read

I finally finished reading Jimmy Carter's Living Faith last night. It's a book that will have an impact on me for a long time, I know. In another post, I wrote about its earlier chapters. But I want to enthusiastically recommend it here. Living Faith is the testament of an intelligent and accomplished man committed to living in relationship with the real God we meet in Jesus Christ and striving in very practical ways to love God and love neighbor. No matter what your politics, you're likely to love this book!

The book's next-to-last chapter, 'The Lord I've Come to Know,' is, I feel, its best. "A crucial stage in the growth of my faith came when I began to see that the teachings of Christ could be applied to secular existence," Carter writes. That has certainly been true of my faith journey.

Back when I was twenty-two years old, married two years, my wife's pastor came for a visit to our apartment. "I've come to ask you to be the junior high youth group leaders," he said. I was taken aback. "I'm not even a Lutheran," I told him. That statement was true enough. But I failed to tell him the whole truth: I was an atheist.

Yet, my wife and I got involved in youth group. I saw the impact that Christ had on the lives of the church's young people and their parents. They weren't play-acting. The God they said they'd come to know through Christ was real to them and he had an impact on them.

On top of that, for the first time in my life, I felt as though through our work with the youth, I was actually accomplishing something. Yet, I couldn't see that I was actually doing anything at all. An unseen hand was working in my life. I got involved in the ministry (a word meaning, service) of Christian faith and through it, God actually spawned faith in me. I began to see that a living God made it possible, in Carter's phrase, to apply Christ's teachings "to a secular existence."

Carter writes movingly and convincingly about this experience:

Previously, I'd focused my daily activities on ambitions...All of these goals I achieved.

The first real defeat in my life had come in 1966, when I lost the governor's race to a racist opponent...I felt that God had let me down. After all, I thought, I've done a pretty good job of being a Christian! Don't I deserve better than this?

Carter then speaks of the mission trips he took to the North and which I've described in another post. Working side-by-side with humble Christians who shared their faith in simple ways, Carter gained what he calls "my first exposures to the miraculous qualities of Christianity."

"But," he writes, "it also brought home to me in a stronger way than ever before the disparity between my secular ambitions and the example of Jesus Christ."

Then come these two amazing paragraphs:

When I turned to the Gospels, the Jesus I met had a very different way of life from the one I was building for myself and my family. Jesus had no money, no possessions, no house; he turned away from his mother, brothers, and sisters; he was abandoned in time of trouble by his friends and followers; and he died when he was still a young man. How could this be my God?

I began to realize that when I envisioned a supreme being, he was more like Muhammad, the founder of Islam, a patently successful man in earthly terms: a powerful warrior, political leader, founder of a great institutional church. This was in many ways the opposit of the Jesus of the Gospels, or the image of the "suffering servant" in Isaiah, whom Christians identify with Christ: physically unattractive, uneloquent, scorned, rejected. The more I thought about the discrepancy between my image of God and the image in the Gospels, the more it tortured me, not for Jesus' sake but for mine---because I was so different from the divine human being I claimed to worship.

Back when I was an atheist, I wrestled with an image of God very like that promoted by Islam: an implacable war-God Who delighted in befuddling and lording things over finite, almost witless people like me. (I sometimes struggle with similar images of God.) Such a God might be feared or even loved in a sick, co-dependent way. But He could hardly be considered a liberator of the human spirit, a gracious forgiver of sin, or a Deity Whose love for me might in turn, incite love for Him in me or desire for intimacy with Him.

But in Jesus, we meet a different God: Perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient, to be sure; but also compassionate, giving.

Contrary to the pseudo-religion being hyped in some contemporary best-selling books, the notion of Jesus' deity was not a late development. Within just a few years of His death and resurrection, Christians are recording conversations in which Jesus affirmed His God-ness, as did His followers.

Sometime between 53 and 60 A.D., for example, the evangelist and preacher Paul writes about Jesus from a prison cell where he's incarcerated for his faith in Christ:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

The apostle John writes of Jesus:

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, Who is close to the Father's heart, Who has made Him known. (John 1:17)

And yet this Jesus, as Carter came to know, makes God not just knowable, but desirable. Paul writes about this, apparently quoting a hymn that had already become current among the early Christians (yes, I quote this passage all the time):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)

In all the other world religions, a distant God must be reached by human effort, through obeying laws or requirements of righteousness. The Christian faith is the only religion that recognizes our human inability to reach God. But in Christ we see that God is willing to reach all the way down into the depths of human experience to touch us.

The Bible puts it this way:

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:21-26]

In Jesus we meet the God of the universe Who is a God of grace, anxious to have us turn from sin and turn to Him for life, everlasting life He offers for free. When this life enters those with faith in Christ, it frees them to entertain what I would call a holy discontent, what Jimmy Carter described as an awareness of the disparity between Christ and himself. It also empowers us, once again using a phrase of Carter's, to apply Christ's teachings "to a secular existence." That becomes easier to do when you live in the daily assurance that whether we live or die, we belong to Christ forever.

Carter talks about this. He says that going on Habitat for Humanity building trips in dangerous inner-city areas of America sometime presents daunting risks. At one project in Miami, he says, one of the volunteers with whom he was working was killed by a pistol shot. But, he writes that:

The awareness that my God walked this way before me makes it possible to sustain such an effort.

The Lord he's come to know, Jimmy Carter says, is very different from the stern Maker he once pictured Him to be. He writes gratefully:

To emulate the perfect life of Jesus and to comply with his teachings is impossible. God, being perfect, cannot condone sinfulness, and the punishment of our violation of divine laws is separation from God. But through our faith in Christ, who was perfect and who personfies grace and truth, we can be totally forgiven and reconciled with God, for "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23)

I heartily recommend Living Faith, this great testament of faith in Jesus Christ, written by our thirty-ninth President.

Monday, November 15, 2004

More on 'Good to Great'

I've been summarizing and applying the lessons found in Jim Collins' book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't for the leadership of our congregation.

This book challenges some of the conventional thinking about leadership, be it in corporations, government, social service institutions, academia, or even, the Church.

For one thing, Collins demonstrates the deadly effects that charismatic leaders (by that he means leaders with outsized personalities and sometimes, outsized egos, not adherents to neo-Pentecostalism) can have on organizations. When organizations become focused on pleasing a hero at the top of the organizational flow chart, rather than doing its work, the mission becomes blurred, the organization gets mired in mediocrity, and there is no smooth transition of leadership.

Collins' book is filled with research that questions many other conventional wisdom about leadership.

I highly recommend this book. No summary, particularly one by me, can possibly do it justice. I believe that Good to Great will come to be regarded as a seminal book.

Below is what I've shared with our leadership in summarizing the next portion of Good to Great:

Chapter 6 of Collins' book is titled, 'A Culture of Discipline.' He opens with a quote from the psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl. Frankl, you probably remember is someone I myself have quoted many times. A Jew, he was taken prisoner by the Nazis during World War Two and survived life in a concentration camp. He lost most of his family, including his wife. But like Admiral Stockdale, he survived his brutal incarceration and during the experience, learned much about human beings.

The Frankl quote with which Collins leads the chapter is this:
"Freedom is only part of the story and half the truth...That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplanted by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast."

Collins then tells the story of George Rathmann, who in 1980 cofounded a biotechnology company called Amgen. His experience and that of Amgen is particularly relevant to Friendship and to other recently-planted congregations. That's because this start-up company avoided the pitfalls into which many of their ilk fall...pitfalls into which I've seen many start-up churches also fall.

As Collins puts it: "
Few successful start-ups become great companies, in large part because they respond to growth and success in the wrong way. Entrepreneurial success is fueled by creativity, imagination, bold moves into uncharted waters, and visionary zeal. [The very things, I might add, that were clearly characteristic of Friendship in our early years.] As a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its own success---too many new people, too many new customers, too many new orders, too many new products. [In the case of Friendship, while growth has not been explosive, it has been steady. Established members are virtually unaware of the news members' presence and because of this, don't think to invite them to participate in various ministries. Furthermore, expectations of the congregation spike and a connection to the particular vision and mission of the church dissipate.] What was once great fun becomes an unwieldy ball of disorganized stuff. Lack of planning, lack of accounting, lack of systems, and lack of hiring constraints create friction. Problems surface---with customers, with cash flow, with schedules."

So, Collins says, someone on the board says that it's time for the company to grow up and bring in professional management. But that can bring stagnating changes as well. Various processes and chains of command are introduced.
"What was once an egalitarian environment gets replaced with hierarchy...'We' and 'they' segmentations appear--just like in a real company." Order is created, but "members of the founding team begin to grumble, 'This isn't fun anymore...' The creative magic begins to wane...The cancer of mediocrity begins to grow in earnest."

I have seen similar things happen in scores of start-up congregations. (Another wrong reaction I've seen in them is that they simply give up, feeling that there is nothing they can do to forge ahead faithfully and adventurously. They forget that "with God all things are possible.")

Rathmann, says Collins, avoided
"this entrepreneurial death spiral." Instead of establishing stifling rules and regulations, he put disciplined people in positions of responsibility. Collins explains Rathmann's formula as follows: "Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline [through the placement of the right people in the right slots]. When you put these two complementary forces together--a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship--you get a magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results."

Of course, a church is not a company. The church doesn't control who becomes part of its fellowship, except insofar as members subscribe to the same faith. But the leadership of a congregation should work hard to bring to leadership positions the right people--people willing to take the risks to which faith in Christ calls us and who exercise internal discipline in the pursuit of the congregation's mission and vision.

As part of a culture of discipline, Collins says, back in 1968, a man named Bernard Semler became CFO of Abbott Labs. It was Semler who introduced "Responsibility Accounting," the very concept with which I hope we will operate at Friendship. (Although I had never heard of the term until reading it in Collins' book.) As Collins explains Responsibility Accounting, it's a system "wherein every item of cost, income, and investment...[is] clearly identified with a single individual responsible for that item." This approach liberated the entrepreneurial spirit, tempered by a culture of discipline, and the impact on Abbott Labs was sustained greatness.

In Friendship terms, Responsibility Accounting, means assigning each program area chair complete freedom and the expectations of responsible stewardship over their piece of the annual budget. (It would also mean assigning such responsibility to sub-set program areas.)

The result of this approach, according to Collins, is that you foster both financial discipline and creativity, a conclusion that only makes sense.

There is one other point from this fantastic chapter that I want to display...

Says Collins:
"The good-to-great companies at their best followed a simple mantra: 'Anything that does not fit with our Hedgehog Concept, we will not do. We will not launch unrelated businesses. We will not make unrelated acquisitions. We will not do unrelated joint ventures. If it doesn't fit, we don't do it. Period."

In other words, great organizations--as my study of History shows to also be true of great people--learn how to say, "No" to those things not central to their identities or that will help them become great in the one area they've identified as the place of their potential for greatness. (Collins says that great companies have "Not to do" lists!)

Applying this insight to Friendship, it means that there may be some perfectly wonderful ministries in which we could involve ourselves, but if they don't fit our identity as a church, we shouldn't do them.

This is a particularly tough discipline to introduce in a congregation. Often church members and church leaders see themselves as citizens of what I call "the kingdom of nice," rather than "the kingdom of Christ." When we're focused on being nice, we placate people who have good ideas, even if they don't seem consistent with our identity or mission. Church leadership focused on being nice, like marriage partners who focus on that rather than being genuinely loving, authentic people, say, "Yes" to everything. The result: dissipated efforts and resources, failures, mass mediocrity.

Even Jesus commended a focused mission. He told His disciples during His time on earth that for as long as He was around, they were only to go to "the lost sheep of Israel," His fellow Jews who were in need of His Good News.

This is a lesson which the disciples appear to have learned well. After Jesus had died, risen, and ascended, each of the early proclaimers of the Gospel adopted different mission fields. James, Jesus' brother, focused his efforts solely on his fellow Jews. Stephen appears to have been exclusively focused on Greek-speaking Jews. Peter had a ministry that included Jews and Gentiles, but which was more centered on Jerusalem and Asia Minor. Paul was an emissary to the Gentiles, who formed the churches he started around the fellowship of Jews and Gentiles who believed in the Hebrew God whom he found at area synagogues and places of worship. They each knew what to say "No" to, this maximizing their effectiveness in their defined mission areas. That may be one reason why the early Church went from good to great in a generation!

More thoughts spawned by Collins' book later.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Farewell, Booknotes!

For years now, the only television show I've reliably tuned into nearly every week has been Booknotes. C-SPAN's series of hour-long interviews with non-fiction authors has been a treasure trove of diverse information and insights on history and public affairs that I have long valued.

The show, which has been a cornerstone of C-SPAN programming for fifteen-and-a-half years, will be passing from the scene in December. Brian Lamb, host and C-SPAN's CEO, has understandably decided to no longer do the show. According to a C-SPAN press release, Lamb has averaged spending about twenty hours each week all these years reading and preparing notes for every broadcast. That's a lot of time and Lamb simply needs to free himself for other pursuits.

But I'm going to miss Booknotes a lot. Lamb's interview style is as sparse and no-frills as the set on which the program is taped. He's really like no other journalist on TV today. Through his style, he manages to give a sense of what a book is about, allowing the authors the freedom to present themselves unfiltered by interviewer biases.

While C-SPAN is going to offer other interview programs and interviews with authors using different inquisitors, the loss of Booknotes will, for a time, leave a void.

In any case, thanks a lot to Brian Lamb for fifteen-and-a-half great years!

De-Arnold the Debate Over Proposed Constitutional Amendment

A group in California, led by supporters of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and clearly with his blessing, tomorrow begins a campaign to amend the US Constitution in order to allow foreign-born citizens to become President.

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution currently stipulates that, "No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President..."

A "natural born Citizen" is one who is born in this country or who is born of at least one American parent.

There have been occasional moves to amend this requirement in the past. I recall that at the zenith of his pop star celebrity, Nixon national security adviser and later, secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, a similar constitutional amendment was floated. (Kissinger, of course, is originally from Germany.)

Frankly, this effort frightens me a bit. While there may or may not be merit to altering the Constitution in this way, it strikes me that doing so simply because of the popularity or charisma of one prominent figure is reckless. trivializing the Constitution.

This is especially the case when one considers that Schwarzenegger's extremely short tenure as governor has, in part because of its duration, been a mixed bag of success and failure. He is an untested figure. The White House isn't a place for people who have not spent a long time at least thinking deeply about the vital issues of our day or engaging in the art and science of leadership.

Schwarzenegger's life story is a compelling one. His charisma is undeniable. He may even be qualified to be President. But to amend the Constitution in a spasm of adulation over his celebrity is a really bad idea.

I would say this. If the proponents of this amendment genuinely want to fight for the principle of allowing naturalized citizens to become President, they ought to make their case without reference to any individual. To do so, they ought to include a simple stipulation in the amendment. It would read something like this:
No naturalized citizen living on the date of this article's adoption shall be eligible for the Office of President.
Only with the addition of such a provision can we have a clear-headed debate on the merits of allowing naturalized citizens to serve in our nation's highest office, a debate absent the hysteria of celebrity.

The Constitution isn't something to be messed with lightly. (A reason that even many conservatives oppose amendments that would define marriage.) It isn't there to indulge the Horatio Alger-fantasies of one attractive public figure or our vicarious desires to participate in them.

There may be merit to allowing naturalized citizens to become President. But before we do so, let's de-Arnold the debate.

Working for a Purpose

Second Thessalonians 3:6-13
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 14, 2004)

I have to make a confession: I’m a sucker for chick flicks. I've never seen a James Bond movie. I've only seen one of Clint Eastwood's films. But I love chick flicks.

One of them becoming a favorite of mine is Return to Me, starring Minnie Driver and David Duchovny. In it, Driver plays a young woman who lives and works with her grandfather, the proprietor of O’Reilly’s Italian Restaurant in Chicago.

In one scene, it’s late on a Saturday night and Driver’s character stands on a balcony outside the second-floor apartment that sets atop the restaurant. She sees her grandfather, played by Carrol O’Connor, outside, taking out some garbage. She calls down to him, “Do you need help with anything, grandpa?” “No, darlin’” he says, “I’m blessed with work.”

Truth be told, we don’t always feel blessed by our work.

Some of you have gone through the agony of being without a job or of working at one that either fails to meet your financial needs or your need for work that’s meaningful for you.

Some have nasty bosses who make going to work a daily trial.

But all of us can say, I think, that the ability to do work--the brain, the brawn, the endurance--are real blessings.

Work can also be a blessing when it’s useful and when it seems to match our unique talents and passions.

Our Bible lesson for this morning is a reminder of what blessings work can bring to us and to others...and of what curses idleness brings.

Let’s set the scene. The first-century preacher and evangelist Paul planted a church in the city of Thessalonica. As was Paul’s habit, he got the church going and then went somewhere else to share the good news of Jesus and start another church in another town.

But, someone has said that Paul’s departure from Thessalonica kicked off a reaction similar to that of an elementary school class when the teacher has to leave the room for a few moments.

A contingent of the Thessalonians became enamored of the idea that the risen and ascended Jesus was going to return soon. So, a bunch of them decided that there was no point in working. They just quit doing any work, whether for pay or at home or in the church.

And they were going around town interrupting the daily routines of other followers of Jesus who hadn’t stopped working, urging them to quit, and gossiping the day away. With nothing but time on their hands, unwilling to get involved in the mission of their congregation because they were “short-timers,” they became verbal terrorists, complaining about one thing and another, including the church.

Paul got wind of this and was offended. So, he sent this letter to the Thessalonians which is now in the New Testament portion of our Bibles. In the part of the letter that makes up today’s lesson, Paul makes three points. (Now there’s a surprise: a sermon with three points.)

First, he says, that the gifts of salvation, forgiveness, and everlasting life with God are not a license for laziness. He writes, using a Greek word associated with the passing on of military orders from upper echelons to those of lower rank, “Now we command you, beloved, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us...”

Paul goes on to remind the Thessalonians about the tradition of working hard at one’s job so as not to burden the rest of the church that he and his coworkers lived and taught.

I once read the story about Hank, a notorious hard-drinking, womanizing, trouble-making guy who became a follower of Jesus. Hank joined a local congregation and for the pastor and other members, he became a poster child for how God can change the lives of people who surrender to Christ. At his factory assembly line job, Hank was always talking about his faith, about last night’s Bible study, and on and on and on. One day, this convert’s pastor visited him at the factory and spoke with the man’s foreman. “I bet you sure can see a difference in Hank since he came to faith,” the pastor said. “I can,” said the foreman, “but I sure wish he’d talk a little less and work a little more.”

It is absolutely true that there is nothing that you or I can do to earn God’s love or the new life that Jesus offers for free to those with faith in Him. All we have to do is want Jesus in our lives and He’ll be there. All he needs is our invitation. But, whether it’s in our professions, at our homes, or in our churches, we have God-given work to do. Our work is a response to God's love for us!

Back in March, 1981, I was sitting in the office of the late Jim Schaaf, one of my seminary professors. Along with two other seminarians, I was taking a private class on the Lutheran Confessions with Jim. His phone rang. After he answered, he listened, and asked, “When did it happen?” I have no idea why, but with only those four words as a clue, I thought to myself, “Reagan’s been shot.” Jim got off of the phone and said, “Reagan’s been shot.” After that Twilight Zone moment, we talked about it for a few moments and then Jim said, “Well, he had his work to do and so do we.” And we resumed our class. God’s gifts are free, but they’re not a license for laziness. Until the day we die and go to be with Jesus, we will have work to do in this world.

The second thing Paul teaches us today is that work is a blessing and a privilege, allowing us to provide for others and ourselves. Paul tells the Christians: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

Now, the Bible scholarship I’ve consulted on this passage is quick to say that Paul is not addressing charity or government welfare programs here. Rather, Paul is saying that Christians who refuse to contribute their time, talent, and treasures to the mission of Christ in the world or who use their time to complain and throw stones at others in the church should not be allowed to participate in what was called the agape meal--the feast of love--that the early churches celebrated.

Agape, as you probably know, is one of four kinds of love identified in the Bible. It’s the highest form of love and has only been purely exhibited by God, especially when He came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. Agape love is selfless, self-sacrificing love. It’s the love Christ gave when He died on a cross for us.

Agape meals were the first century church’s gatherings around the love of Jesus Christ. Those meals included Holy Communion.

Paul is saying that those who don’t keep at the work given to them by God shouldn’t expect to enjoy the blessings of being part of the Church. They’re not living in the freedom that Christ gives us, the freedom to be our true selves. Instead, they’re living in license, lazily walking away from God’s mission for their lives. The don't live in response to God's grace, they take it for granted.

So, Paul teaches that God’s free gifts aren’t a license for laziness and that work is a blessing and a privilege given to help us love God and love neighbor.

Finally, Paul says, “Do not be weary in doing right.” A few years ago, pundits were speaking of America’s “compassion fatigue,” noting that contributions of time and money to charities and churches were diminishing. Following a steep increase in these things immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001, people’s giving of time, talents, and treasures fell like a stone again. It turns out that this year, people’s giving of these things is beginning to climb once more.

Paul says that our call as Christians is to keep being Christian when things are going well and when they’re not. Just as God loved us all the way to a cross (and still loves and forgives us), He calls us to love Him and to love others whether it’s convenient or not. He calls us to give of ourselves and our possessions whether doing so is convenient or not. God’s love for us never goes out of season and neither should our responses to His love.

As we contemplate how we will use our time, talents, and treasures in the mission of Friendship Church during 2005, may we remember what Paul teaches us today:

that God’s gifts are free, but not a license for laziness;

that work is a blessing and privilege, allowing us to provide for others and ourselves; and

that in response to God’s eternal love for us, we will never grow weary of doing God’s mission for us...on the job, in the church, and everywhere else.