Saturday, April 04, 2009

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 39

Servants see the big picture.

An oft-told story has it that a man walked by a construction site one day and asked a worker, “What are you doing?” “I’m laying bricks,” the worker said gruffly. The man could see that, but he wanted to know what the bricks were to become.

So, he asked a second worker what he was doing. This laborer said, “I’m helping to build a great cathedral. Just imagine it: Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, will praise God here!” That man understood the big picture.

Unless you understand the bigger picture of which you’re a part as a servant of God, you may become like the first laborer or worse yet, you could give up on servanthood.

What is our bigger picture as servants? After reminding us that every believer in Jesus Christ is a priest whose life and service is meant to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” the apostle Peter says that we’re really “aliens and exiles” in the world. Our real home is with God. Then, Peter says: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” (First Peter 2:9-12).

When we serve others in Jesus’ Name, they see the goodness of God and will want to know more about the Savior Who gives everlasting life with God to those who believe in Him (John 3:16-18). Our serving and sharing Christ will give others reason to welcome the day when Jesus returns to establish His everlasting kingdom. That is the very big picture of which our Christian servanthood is a part.

If we remember that each of us has our own indispensable roles to play in God’s plan, we’ll serve God, Church, and neighbor with enthusiasm, energy, and fulfillment our whole lives.

Servants see the big picture.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

"What's a sweetheart like you...

...doin' in a dump like this?"

(You can also listen and read the lyrics here.)

Dylan sings a praise song.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Best New Books on Lincoln?

This is a list from American Heritage.

I'm most intrigued by the Kaplan book because Lincoln was, primarily, whether as a lawyer or a politician, a writer. He was, from what I know, the best writer among our presidents. His ability to use language to, by turns, convey and interpret information and then, inspire, among other things, is incredible.

More on Robert E.A. Lee

Lee was the pioneering maker of documentary films whose work with the Lutheran Church--including A Time for Burning, is mentioned here. Lee recently died.

Here is a profile of the filmmaker from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which I just ran across.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 38

Servants tackle what they’re not good at doing.

After an evening Lenten service, which included conversation about Christian servanthood, a friend approached me. “Mark,” he said. “I should have mentioned that one of the best things we can do is get out of our comfort zones and try things we think we can’t do or that we’re not interested in doing.” He went on to explain that in his experience, serving outside his comfort zone caused him to see how faithful God is in helping His servants. He also found God-given talents he didn’t know about.

When Moses was an eighty year old shepherd living in Midian, God called him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt toward a promised land. It was a frightening job, one that would start with confronting Egypt’s king, the Pharaoh, the world’s most powerful man. Moses was a reluctant servant. He offered God one reason after another for why he wasn’t the right person for the job. First, Moses said, “I’m a nobody. Who am I to do this?” Then he said, “God, I don’t really know Your Name. I wouldn’t know what to say if people asked who I was speaking for.” Then he asked God, “What if they don’t believe me? And how about my speech impediment?”

To each of Moses’ objections and questions, God had an answer. “You may be a nobody, but I will be with you,” God said. “And, My Name is Yahweh, the great I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If the Israelites or the Egyptians don’t believe that I sent you, there are some show-stopping signs that I can do through you. And as to your deficiencies as a speaker, I made your mouth. I’ll make it work like it should or sometimes, I’ll draft your brother Aaron for the task of speaking my message.”

After hearing all this, Moses finally said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” The bottom line was that Moses didn’t want to go outside his comfort zone. He eventually did, however. And though Moses was far from perfect as the earthly leader of the Israelites, history shows he did a pretty good job. (Exodus 3:1-4:17)

Servants tackle what they’re not good at doing.

Bible Passages to Ponder: “It's criminal to live cautiously...” (Matthew 25:26, The Message). “I will be with you...” (Exodus 3:12)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

U2's Hymn of Praise from 'No Line on the Horizon': Magnificent

Two Quotes: Statements of Faith

"Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure." (Reinhold Niebuhr)

"I can stand up for hope, faith, love
But while I’m getting over certainty
Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady

Out from under your beds
C’mon ye people
Stand up for your love" (from Stand Up Comedy by U2)

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 37

Servants need never burn out.

Servants can burn out, of course. But why do they? I can cite two major reasons.

First, there’s the 80-20 rule. It says that in any organization, 80% of the work gets done by 20% of the people. Conversely, 20% of the work gets done by 80% of the people. Servants burn out when they shoulder more than their share of the responsibility for serving in the church, at home, at work, or in the community. All Christians need to see that the call to faith in Jesus is also a call to service (First Peter 2:9-10) and that every Christian is gifted for service (Romans 12:1-8).

But there’s another reason that servants burn out. The apostle Paul writes in Second Corinthians: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (Second Corinthians 9:7). The attitude Paul describes relates to more than just our financial giving, helping us to see several things:

(1) Burnout can be the result of wrong motives. When our giving--whether it’s of our money or of ourselves in service to others--is rendered “reluctantly or under compulsion,” it will burn us out. There's nothing more wearing or destructive to our spirits than "have to" religion.

(2) Burnout is avoided when our giving and serving result from having “made up” our minds to be givers and servants because of what Christ has done for us. Our minds are the filters through which we look at life and by which we gauge our experiences. If our minds are renewed in Christ (Romans 12:2) and we’re intent on being servants of God and of others, our whole experience of service will be positive, in spite of whatever difficulties we may encounter (Philippians 4:5-11).

By surrendering ourselves to Christ in “daily repentance and renewal,” we’ll become willing servants. We’ll become what Paul literally calls “hilarious” givers (Second Corinthians 9:7).

Servants need never burn out.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

How Can We Keep From Serving?

[This, the last of a series of midweek Lenten sermons for 2009, was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]

Ephesians 2:1-10
Each year, Jewish believers celebrate something called the Feast of the Tabernacles or the Festival of the Booths.

It remembers the forty-year period during which the ancient Hebrews, freed by God from slavery in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness before finally arriving in the land that God had long ago promised their ancestors.

During those forty years in the wilderness, they mostly lived in temporary booths or huts. (Another word for these structures is tabernacle, which basically means tent.) The purpose of the annual Festival of the Booths is to remind modern believers that God cares about aliens and strangers and that for people of faith, our only home is with God. To this day, many Jewish believers erect tents or huts in their yards to celebrate the Festival of the Tabernacles.

A prominent German scholar of the New Testament, Joachim Jeremias, once visited a Jewish friend in Israel during this festival. The friend led Jeremias to his backyard to show off the family’s festival tent. There was nothing distinctive about it except for two signs, one posted on the left and the other on the right side, of the opening. One sign said, “From God.” The other read, “To God.”

Those two signs, with just four words, describe the wilderness wanderings in which you and I and everyone we know are living right now. The Bible says that we were formed by God in our mother’s wombs. It also tells us that one day, every one of us will stand before God. We move from God to God.

The Bible affirms that you and I are on that same journey. That could fill us with fear. The New Testament book of Hebrews affirms that, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Even those certain of their places in eternity and of God’s love would agree that only a fool or a misinformed person wouldn’t be a bit weak in the knee about coming face to face with the omnipotent, perfect God of the universe.

Yet, fear need not have the last word in our relationship with God.

In our Bible lesson for tonight, the apostle Paul writes to the first century church in the Asia Minor city of Ephesus. Before coming to faith in God, many of the Ephesian Christians had little notion that they were on this journey from God to God. Ephesus was a place with lots of idol worship and especially heavy-duty worship of the world's favorite god, the almighty buck.

At the beginning of our lesson, Paul reminds them of their former life, when they were mired in sin, ignorant of God, and going nowhere.

But Christ changed all that. When they’d heard the Good News of new and everlasting life for all who renounce their sin and entrust their lives to Jesus, God enacted a midcourse correction in their eternal journey, turning their lives around, back to God and eternity with God.

“By grace you have been saved through faith,” Paul reminds the Ephesians, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Christians should never be blasé about God’s passionate desire to change the courses of our lives and eternal destinies. We always have reason to celebrate and to wonder!

Just this afternoon, I got a telephone call from a woman who was a member of the first parish we served in northwest Ohio. I’m presiding at the wedding of one of her daughters this summer and she asked if, at the rehearsal, I could also baptize her two grandchildren.

We also chatted. “You know,” she told me, “God is hard to understand sometimes. I never considered myself a great Christian. I believed and I tried my best. But I always thought my husband was the committed one and I was sort of along for the ride. If you had told me seven years ago that I’d start and own a Christian bookstore, I would have told you that you were crazy. Yet God led me every step and opened every door.”

And then she said, “But sometimes, I ask God, ‘Why?’”

You see, God’s grace and the way of life he made for this woman beforehand were things she never would have guessed. Now she's walking in the life that God had in mind for her, a gift more fulfilling than she could have ever imagined. And all she can do is offer back a life of service in Christ’s Name.

And this is where servanthood, the topic of our Lenten midweek services begins and ends: In the God from Whom we first received life and in the God Who gives us new life in Jesus Christ.

I don’t know why God loves me. I find myself much less lovable than God apparently does. And yet, God does love me and you.

Once our lives were going nowhere. But, in Christ, God claims us as His own and changes us for all eternity. As Paul writes later in Ephesians, “now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

In the face of such undeserved love, grace, and favor, how can we not be servants?

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 36

Servants understand that sometimes, people will take advantage of them.

Jesus once asked rhetorically: “Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn't first sit down and figure the cost so you'll know if you can complete it?” (Luke 14:28, The Message) People who want to be servants in Jesus’ kingdom deserve to know all the facts, even the unpleasant ones.

Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. You might have expected him to be grateful. But, knowing that the religious authorities had it in for Jesus, the healed man went out of his way to finger Jesus for the sabbath day healing he knew so outraged them. The man took advantage of Jesus’ power to heal, betrayed Him, and ignored Jesus’ admonition, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:1-14)

If people took advantage of Jesus when He served them, you can be certain that people will take advantage of your servanthood, too!

A woman I know used to work in downtown Cincinnati. Often, as she walked to the parking lot for her nightly commute, she passed people begging for money. “I always give them something,” she told me. “I know there’s a good chance they’ll use it to buy a drink or some drugs. But I’d rather err on the side of mercy than on the side of judgment.”

It isn’t easy to be a servant of God. In a very real way, it means bearing the cross with Jesus. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” Jesus said (Luke 14:27). But Jesus’ cross also comes with a promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25). Jesus’ followers can afford to give themselves away, serving in Jesus’ Name; Christ has already given them eternity.

Servants understand that sometimes, people will take advantage of them.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25).

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"DUI charge is filed, but man never left bar stool"

I'm sure it seemed like the perfect plan in the garage. But not so much.

More on The Elms' 'The Chess Hotel'

I mentioned here having picked up the 2006 release by The Elms, The Chess Hotel. I also mentioned that their previous work was clearly heavily influenced by The Beatles and their sense of melody.

Most of the tracks on The Chess Hotel are different from The Elms' previous work. Even an acoustic-based track like Bring Me Your Tea, has an edge. Most of the tracks rock. Here, prime influence appears to be their fellow Indianan, John Mellencamp, especially noticeable on Black Peach.

I'm especially fond of The Way I Will and The Downtown King.

It's different and I like it.

Think That God Doesn't Care?

Think about this.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 35

Servants sometimes ignore their SHAPE.

Over the past week, we’ve talked about how servants find the kinds of servanthood for which God seems to have designed them by paying heed to what Rick Warren calls their SHAPE. That’s the acronym he uses for a servant's spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences.

But sometimes, servants ignore their SHAPE and simply do the thing that most needs doing. Servants recognize that the words, “That’s not something I’m good at,” which are meant to sound humble, are often little more than a polite way of refusing to serve when service is needed.

One can imagine, for example, that the priest and levite who passed by the wounded man in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan might have justified their refusal to serve with those words, “That’s not something I’m good at.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Sometimes, God calls us to do things we’re not good at, so that we realize that without His help, we can do nothing, but that with God, all things are possible. (John 15:5; Matthew 19:26)

Shortly after I became a Christian, our small home church in Columbus wanted to offer a Vacation Bible School (VBS) to the community. But we were shorthanded and the people who had led the program in the past were tired. I had never taught elementary school-age children and had never run a VBS before. But I had always enjoyed attending VBS as a child and thought that it could be a means by which our church could reach out to the children and families of our neighborhood with Christ’s love. On top of all that, it was just something that needed to be done. So, I volunteered to run and be a teacher in our VBS that summer.

It didn’t necessarily reflect my SHAPE. But I learned a lot about God, about children, and about our congregation and we had a VBS that taught our congregation’s children and the community’s children about Jesus Christ.

The only ability God cares about, someone has said, is availability. Are you available when God needs a willing servant?

In order to serve, servants sometimes ignore their SHAPE.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33).

Monday, March 30, 2009

Do Christians Play Hide and Seek with Non-Christians?

Read Carolyn Arends' thoughts here.

How to See Jesus (The Sermon That Wasn't)

[I wrote two different sermons for yesterday's worship. This is the one I didn't give.]

John 12:20-33
The story’s told of a Palm Sunday when most of the family was able to go to worship, but the youngest, a little boy, stayed home, sick, with an older brother. When the rest of the family got back from worship, they were all holding palm branches. “What are those for?” the littlest brother asked. “They were to hold over Jesus’ head when he passed by,” his dad replied. “Man,” the boy griped, “the first time I didn’t go and Jesus shows up!”

People want to see Jesus. There’s a yearning inside of every person to be connected to the One Who made us, Who knows all about us and loves us anyway. Some of you have heard me tell the true story of the missionary in China and his conversation with an elderly Chinese man. The elderly man wanted to know what the missionary was doing in China. (This was before the Communists took over in the late-1940s.) The missionary told the man about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and how all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus will live forever. The old man began to weep. “All my life I knew He was there,” he said of Jesus, “I just didn’t know His Name.”

Jesus answers, as no one and nothing else can, the yearnings we have for connection to God, for reconciliation and peace with others, and for the power to face the worst that life brings, all because of His grace, His willingness to endure the worst of this life, and His capacity to give us resurrection hope.

Even though next week brings Palm Sunday, today’s Gospel lesson from John, takes us a to a brief interlude on that day, after Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem to the cries of “Hosanna!” from the crowd.

Just before our Gospel lesson, John records a comment of the religious authorities. They see the adulation with which Jesus is welcomed and they’re nervous. They grumble, “The whole world is going after Him.” The whole world seemed to want to see and follow Jesus.

Then comes the incident recorded in our Gospel lesson. It begins not with Jesus’ fellow Judeans, but with some Greek-speaking people who are in town for the Passover. They go to two of Jesus’ disciples—Andrew and Philip, both of whom have Greek names and who, earlier, were the first of Jesus’ disciples to tell others of their fellow Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.

“We want to see Jesus,” the Greek-speakers tell Andrew and Philip. Uncertain about what to do next, the two of them go to Jesus and tell Him that there are people who want to see Him. If you’re not careful, you might think that Jesus doesn’t respond to this request. But, in fact, Jesus explains how all people, including you and me, can see Him.

He begins by saying, ““The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…” Later, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John explains that Jesus is saying that He will be crucified.

Jesus, God-enfleshed, took a cross He didn’t deserve. To the people of His day—Jews and Greeks, the ideas of a dying God or a dying Messiah were not what they expected. A Savior or God who dies with us is also contrary to what a lot of people who call themselves Christians expect. Many Christians view Jesus as a rabbit’s foot. Pray or say the right thing or make the right offerings, they think, and bad stuff will go away.

Others though, look at the cross as the place where the mighty God of creation cleared away all the obstructions that once kept them from seeing God, or life, or the world, or themselves clearly.

I read a few years ago about a woman who was dying. She knew it and she accepted it. But she said something interesting: “I would never wish this on anyone. But this has been the greatest experience of my life.”

Why did she say that? Because she realized that all the crutches that we use to validate our lives, to make ourselves comfortable, to deny our mortality, are baloney. Yet, at the bottom of the deepest pit into which we descend in life, there is Jesus.

The apostle Peter says that Jesus not only bore death and our sins on the cross, He also went to the place farthest from God, to hell itself, out of love for us.

It’s hard to see Jesus when things are going well: when we’re strong and healthy, when we’re happy in our relationships, when the paychecks are fat, or when we can party down. These things can delude us into thinking that we’re in control and always will be. But in the cross experiences of life, we call out to God and, if we’re open to Jesus, sense a nail-scarred hand holding us up. We see Jesus in the cross.

Jesus also says, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all people to myself.” John says that here, Jesus refers to being lifted up on the cross. But, in accordance with the overall theology of John's gospel, in which Jesus' death and resurrection are part of one grand sweep, that phrase can also refer to Jesus being lifted out of the tomb. The Savior Who meets us at the cross also lifts us into new, eternal life with Him. Jesus turns death into the portal to life with God.

But the word that “lifted up” translates from the original Greek also can mean exalted, praised. Taken this way, I believe that Jesus is telling you and me as His followers to lift Him up not just in our prayer lives and not just in our worship together, but also before the world.

We’re not always very good at this. In fact, there are times when Christians act so hatefully or so indifferently to those around us that people are turned away from following Jesus.

One of the greatest people of the 20th century was Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu whose nonviolent revolution allowed his native India to gain independence from the British. As a young lawyer then living in South Africa, Gandhi came close to becoming a Christian. He studied the Bible and fell in love with Jesus. But the churches he encountered in South Africa supported the injustice of apartheid, the separation of blacks from whites and the subjugation of blacks to a position like that of slavery. Gandhi himself was treated as an inferior because he was dark-skinned and a foreigner. Years later, Gandhi said, “I might have become a Christian had I not met one first.”

What conclusions about Jesus might some people derive from meeting you and me?

Without hypocrisy and with full honesty about the fact that we Christians are nothing but forgiven sinners, we should be willing to lift up Jesus as the source of our hope and daily strength.

In fact, if you have any interest in the question of how churches—including Saint Matthew—can grow, it’s to be found in our willingness to tell our nonchurchgoing neighbors, friends, coworkers, and classmates about Jesus, to invite them to worship with us, to invite them to our Christian activities.

If we’re willing to do that, we’ll find lots of people who want to see Jesus. A survey released just this past week said that, “Over half of Americans say they would visit a church if they receive[d] a personal invitation from a family member, friend or neighbor…” The survey also found that, “people are most willing to hear about a local congregation through a family member (63 percent) and through a friend or neighbor from the church (56 percent). Less than half are open to receive information about a church any other way, such as through an advertisement.”

The fact is that Jesus means for you and me to be His advertisements in the world. People see Jesus when we lift Him up.

That’s why I hope that you’ll invite nonchurchgoing friends to be with us on Easter Sunday, get involved in our servanthood team’s efforts to help feed our hungry neighbors, and also help our new parish health ministry as it seeks to help our neighbors care for the bodies, minds, and spirits God has given to every person.

We can see Jesus today.
  • We see Him in the cross where He shares our lives and leads us to the empty tomb where He shares His eternity with all who believe in Him.
  • We see Him too, whenever He is lifted up, whenever those who bear His Name feed someone who is hungry or give hope to the hopeless.
A member of Saint Matthew told me last week about a time when they were hospitalized. “I can’t describe it, Pastor,” this person told me. “The whole time I could feel the prayers of the people of Saint Matthew.”

We are blessed to be part of this Christian family. But the church is meant to be more than a holy huddle where we enjoy convivial company.

We’re part of the only organization in the world instituted by Jesus Himself and our charge is simple: to lift Jesus up so that a dying world can have new life from the only One Who can give new life, God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ.

Our world, which, in so many ways, seems to be falling apart, needs the Savior and the new life we’ve been called to lift up.

Find a ministry, some way to share Jesus with those around you, whether it’s something we’re already doing here at Saint Matthew or it’s one that you think needs to happen, whether you need the help of ten or twenty of us or you can do it on your own, and lift Jesus up.

Our Savior is counting on you. This community, this world, needs you—you, now, today to lift Jesus up. It’s the greatest work you can do, no matter your profession. It’s the greatest privilege, no matter your age or station in life.

Lift Jesus up and help a needy world come to Him! Amen

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 34

Your SHAPE will change over time.

I’m not talking about what will happen to some who spend time in the weight room or to others when middle age hits. I’m talking about what will happen to your personal SHAPE, what we’ve been addressing over the past few days. SHAPE is an acronym created by Pastor Rick Warren standing for spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences.

It’s likely that as you grow in your dependence on Jesus Christ and grow older, God will give you new passions (heart), new experiences, and new abilities. This in turn will likely cause you to change the ministries in which you become involved.

John and Mary (not their real names, in case you hadn’t guessed) were deeply involved in ministries of serving within their congregation from the day they were married. Both were committed Christians. For years, John took hot meals to elderly people in their small town and sang in the church choir. Mary was the volunteer janitor and played the piano for worship. But, after they retired, they began to look for new opportunities to serve. John said that at about that time, they noticed all the teenagers in their community who seemed listless, without direction. So, he and Mary asked their pastor if they could help with the congregation’s youth ministry, with the idea of reaching out to kids who weren’t part of the church. The pastor was enthusiastic in his affirmation of them.

It took awhile, but eventually, John and Mary had become the instruments by which about twenty kids who, along with their families, had been spiritually disconnected, got involved with the Church and came to know Jesus Christ.

John and Mary are now in their late-sixties, still active in youth ministry, something they hardly could have imagined ten years earlier.

Moses was eighty years old when God called him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Everything up to that point had been preparation for the most important ministry of his life. As you maintain a lifelong commitment to serving God, you will change and so will your area of serving. There’s no such thing as retiring from the kingdom of God.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (Philippians 1:9).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

"I don't think government is good, just necessary..."

I caught some flak last November, just before the election, when I suggested that, in an ultimate sense, from a Christian perspective, it didn't matter who was elected to be president.

Without meaning to diss democracy, elections, or the importance of government or citizenship, I still believe that.

Yesterday, on a trip to Columbus and back for one of the high school boys divisional state basketball championships, I did as I often do, read to my wife while she drove the car.

The books we read during our trips tend to be historical or political. The last one we tackled, as I recall, was Write It When I'm Gone, reporter Thom DeFrank's account of candid interviews he conducted with Republcan former president, Gerald Ford. That was a breezy read that underscored my sense of what a decent guy Ford was and how fortunate the country was to have him in August, 1974.

Yesterday brought us to reading George Stephanopoulos' incredibly well-written, literate political memoir, All Too Human, a remembrance of his time with Bill Clinton's campaigns for the presidency and his White House years.

But Stephanopoulos also explains something of his journey before going to work for Clinton. The son and grandson of Greek Orthodox priests, it was assumed that young George would follow the family trade. He became, instead, a political operative. He's remarkably candid about the pull of power in politics and the potential it offers a person to do good while doing well, as well as its capacity to convince those in or close to power to settle for perks rather than substance.

Stephanopoulos is a liberal whose politics are clearly shot through with the sensibilities--spiritual, intellectual, and social--inculcated into young Christians who grow up in the Church. During the second year of his Rhodes Scholarship in England, Stephanopoulos studied theology and ethics, delving into the thoughts of people like Martin Luther, Reinhold Niebuhr, Augustine, and Aquinas.

But what especially interested me in the early pages of his book was Stephanopoulos' discussion of something he'd experienced while in Sudan, there ostensibly to help provide relief work, but really to have an adventure. While he was in Sudan, a coup ousted an old regime and replaced it with another. This is what Stephanopoulos says about that day and some of what it taught him:
The rest of the day I wandered through Khartoum wondering if this was what a real revolution was like. The air was charged with happiness and hope, energized by the belief that everything would be better now that the bad guy was out and the new guys could govern. But I was struck by the sight of a dazed old woman who was observing the celebration from her cardboard home by the side of the road. What does she think of all this? Will her life be any better tomorrow than it is today? Or is some human misery beyond the reach of any revolution? Is it possible things will get worse.

Years later, the image sticks with me--not as a counsel of despair or an excuse for cynicism, but as a reminder to be humble about the promise of politics and the potential of government. Because I believe in original sin, because I know that I'm capable of craving a cold beer in a village of starving kids, because I understand that selfishness vies for space in our hearts with compassion, I believe we need government--a government that forces us to care for the common good even when we don't feel like it, a government that helps channel our better instincts and check out bad ones. But I also believe in containing government and tempering the claims we make for it. I don't think government is good, just necessary.
As a Christian, that's exactly what I believe. Governments are necessary. But they can't do everything.

Read the Stephanopoulos book if you get the chance.

Dying to Self

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio today.]

John 12:20-33
When I was growing up, the school day ended at 3:30. It took about a half-hour for me to walk home and dinner usually happened at our house at 5:00.

For the hour that passed between my getting home and dinner being on the table, my parents had a rule: No after-school snacking. They had a simple reason for this edict. “It’ll spoil your dinner,” they told me.

Whether this was true or not, it seems that both my body and mind have bought into the idea. To this day, I crack people up because, even though my mom and dad aren’t around to tell me “No,” I try to avoid any snacking before we sit down for dinner. “You want a cookie?” my mother-in-law will ask me a half hour before we’re to go out to eat. “No,” I’ll tell her, “it’ll spoil my dinner.”

But you know what? This little bit of self-denial seems to work for me. Even though I have a spare tire around my middle, I think I’d be a lot bigger if I snacked before dinnertime.

There are times when we may have to give up short-term pleasure in order to realize long-term gains. The student who puts in an extra half-hour to make certain that he understands the geometry law is likely to do well on the test. The athlete who runs another mile or spends a little more time in the weight room will probably perform better on the field, the court, or the track. The person of faith who takes a few more minutes each day to read the Scripture or pray gains greater peace and more guidance from God and is also sure to bring God’s power to bear on more concerns.

Self-discipline of any kind is rare because it’s so hard and it’s so hard because we’re confused about the meaning of freedom.

Ask the average person what freedom is and they’ll tell you something like, “Freedom is being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want.”

But let’s think about that definition for a moment. Let’s imagine a teenage boy whose hormones are popping. He might think that freedom consists of being able to have sex with any girl he wants, any time he wants. But if he exercises that kind of “freedom,” it won’t be long before he becomes a kind of monster, a sexist creep who thinks that members of the opposite sex exist only for his own pleasure. Should he cause a young woman to become pregnant, he’s unlikely to want to take any responsibility for it; after all, he may reason, he was just having fun, exercising his “freedom.” Then, of course, there’s the danger he poses to himself. There are the obvious things like STDs (sexually transmitted diseases): AIDS, venereal disease, and so on. There are even psychological dangers that result from two people who treat an intimate sharing of self, which is what God intends for marriage, as if it were a momentary joyride. Freedom isn’t being able to do what one wants any time one wants to do it.

Real freedom resides in being so free of the shallow values of this dying world that we’re able to reach toward our God-given potential as human beings!

Real freedom allows us to live as God designed us to live and to choose that freedom each day.

Real freedom means understanding that life in this world is a fleeting thing that can be gone in a flash. Freedom belongs to those who understand that this life is a short prelude to the life for which we were really designed, eternal life.

And each of us is presented with a choice. We can live as though this life is all there is, grabbing for every reward this dying planet can offer. Or, we can choose to use this life God’s way. The Bible says some interesting things about this choice:

In the Old Testament, Joshua, Moses’ successor as earthly leader of the Jews, says: choose this day whom you will serve, whether the [false] gods [of] your ancestors...but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. [Joshua 24:15]

In the New Testament book of First Corinthians, we’re reminded: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. [First Corinthians 15:19]

And speaking of the many times he suffered—from stoning to shipwreck, from beatings to imprisonments—that he had endured because of his faith in Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul, who would give his life for Christ, writes in the New Testament book of Romans: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18]

Living with the God we know through Jesus, gaining the freedom to be the people God created us to be, is such an incredible and undeserved blessing that God calls us to be absolutely willing to turn away from this world’s dead-end ways in order to hold onto the life that Jesus offers to us.

Jesus knew all about this choice of God versus the world and how hard it can be for us. On the night before His death on a cross, He prayed in a place called the garden of Gethsemane and He told God the Father: Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me [in other words, if You will it, make My suffering, cross, and death go away]; [and then Jesus said] yet not My will but Yours be done! [Luke 22:42]

Jesus was willing to die to Himself in order to fulfill His purpose in life: dying for our sins on the cross.

Dying to self is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel lesson this morning. Let me read some of his words as translated in The Message by Eugene Peterson: “Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal...”

Jesus, the Savior Who left behind the perfect pleasures of paradise in order to be the perfect sacrifice for our sin on the cross, is calling us to die to selfishness and self-will so that we can take the offer of free, full, and everlasting life that He gives to all with faith in Him! As one preacher, Michael Foss says, "Living right means dying right."

Now, if the discipline of dying to ourselves and letting God call the shots in our lives seems grim and uninviting, consider some information that comes from a think tank called the Alban Institute:

"Weekly church attendance is associated with a reduction in the incidence of hypertension, increased longevity (on the average up to three years longer) and increased...resistance to infection. [In one study] a consistent pattern of lower systolic and diastolic blood pressures was identified among frequent church-attenders, independent of effects of age, obesity, smoking or social class...The National Institutes of Health have now developed five protective factors against coronary artery disease, the leading one being weekly church attendance...A Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Survey of the Values of the American People…reflected that the single most important variable in health-promoting life-styles was religious affiliation."

When we die to ourselves, we live better here and we live forever with God! What’s not to like about that deal?

A young man approached a friend of his who had been telling him all about Jesus Christ. “If I follow Jesus,” he wondered, “will I have to give up the things I love?” “No,” the friend replied, “but if you follow Jesus Christ, God will change the things you love.” Are you engaged in the daily discipline of letting God change the things you love so that you can daily move toward becoming who God made you to be?

Dying to self in order to follow Jesus will change our priorities. We love the things God loves. We love the people God loves. Our new servanthood team has met twice and I’m excited by what the people of the team are willing to do and what they’re certain you’re willing to do to bring help and relief to people battered by the current economic recession. They’re sure, for example, that a large number of you will be willing to give up chunks of your Saturdays, time you could be spending on your own priorities, in order to give priority to Jesus and His call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Every bag of donated food we collect will be an offering to the Savior Who was lifted up on a cross to give us life. It makes me so happy to see the food offerings you make to help the CHAP emergency food bank every month. I’m proud to be the pastor of people who love God and love their neighbors that much.

C.S. Lewis once said, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right then, have it your way.’”

You and I have been given an awesome freedom by God. We can live for ourselves in this moment and die forever. God gives us that freedom. Or we can die to this world’s claims on us, live for Jesus Christ alone, and so, live with God forever.

You know the choice that our gracious, loving God wants us to make. I hope and pray it’s the choice we always make, as a congregation and as individuals each and every day!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 33

There are at least as many ways to be a servant of God as there are Christians.

Your SHAPE is the prism through which the light of Christ is filtered and turned into a life of servanthood. Today, we explore the last two attributes in the SHAPE acronym invented by Pastor Rick Warren.

Personality: Parents of more than one child will often observe: “Our kids were raised in the same home. But the two of them couldn’t be more different!” Everyone, even identical twins, is utterly unique.

Your personality will have a lot to do with how you serve others in Jesus’ Name. You’ll serve best in ways that flip your personal switches.

Experiences: The best teacher in life is experience. We are shaped even more by our difficult experiences than our pleasant ones.

Several years ago, I preached a message in which I mentioned that, back in my early twenties before I began my seminary career, I was fired from a job. I revealed that while it had been painful, getting fired had freed me to work at the State House of Representatives in Columbus, something I’d long wanted to do. But, to my surprise, I became indifferent to my new job. I described that feeling of being first, rejected, and then, feeling empty in my new work as a wilderness experience in which God met me and ultimately led me to become a pastor. In the congregation on the day I shared this experience was a visitor to worship who told me, “I just got fired from my job and what you said inspired me.”

My painful experience allowed me to connect in a helpful way with that woman. Your painful experiences may have been far more severe. You may be a recovering alcoholic or addict. You may have lost a child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or suffered the death of a loved one killed by a drunk driver. You may be someone in remission from cancer, a person who was downsized out of your career, or a woman whose husband abandoned you and your children. You may have a learning disability that you've overcome.

But whatever painful experiences you've weathered, they may lead you to a ministry. The experiences God has led you through can become the basis on which you provide helpful, relevant Christian service to others.

There are at least as many ways to be a servant of God as there are Christians. I urge you to use your SHAPE into your ministry of service to the Church and through it, to the world.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be” (Romans 12:5-6, The Message)