Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The daily OnLine with Faith e-mailed inspiration from Pastor Glen VanderKloot had this offering today. I think that you'll enjoy it. (If you'd like to subscribe to OnLine with Faith, e-mail Glen at pastor@faithlutheran.com.


A Thought for the Day

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road
ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I
really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your
will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the
desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that
desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart
from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the
right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you
always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will
not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face
my perils alone.

Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude"

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Bible Verse
Matthew 26:42

Again Jesus went to pray and said...I will still do what you want.

Lord, help me to follow wherever you lead me. Amen.
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A Protestant Looks at John Paul II
[The other day, I wrote a "spontaneous blog" about Pope John Paul II and it appears on this site. I edited it a little bit and submitted it as another installment of the column I write for the Community Press newspapers in metropolitan Cincinnati. Below is that edited version.]

In October, celebrations commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Pope John Paul II's elevation to the papacy took place in Rome.

Upon his election by the College of Cardinals in 1978 and for several years thereafter, John Paul was an ecclesiastical wunderkind: poet, playwright, skier, hiker, multiple-linguist, resister of Nazis and Communists, peripatetic world traveler. Even after surviving an assassination attempt in 1981, there seemed little that this pope wouldn't or couldn't do.

And today, aging and suffering from Parkinson's Disease, he drives on with his work!

He also manages to drive many of my Roman Catholic friends crazy, mostly owing to his intransigence on the issues of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.

Belonging to a denomination which allows the ordained to be married and which also ordains women, I have a slightly different perspective on John Paul, I suppose. Not engaged in controversy with him, but observing him from afar, I may be a bit more charitable and detached.

When considering this pope, I think it's worthy to note that John Paul tends to drive both conservatives and liberals--whether of the religious or political varieties--equally crazy. The moment you think you have him pegged as either conservative or liberal, he does or says something to defy your label.

The implacable foe of the communist system that once enslaved his native Poland has also opposed the materialist excesses of market capitalism. This "conservative," it turns out is a socialist who wants everyone to share the wealth.

Pleasing conservatives, he has ardently opposed abortion. (As did Mother Teresa, who was beatified by the pope during the celebrations for the anniversary of his papacy.) But displeasing those same conservatives, John Paul has also opposed the death penalty.

He pleases traditionalists of his own faith when upholding conventional Roman Catholic practices, whether it's the so-called "rhythm method" for birth control or the subordination of women to men in the hierarchy of the Church.

But he raises those same traditionalists' eyebrows when he repents for the Church's past treatment of Jews and reaches out to Protestants and Muslims.

As a Protestant, I believe that authority in the Church is not ultimately expressed in priests, bishops, or popes.

As a Lutheran, I reject the very notion of church authority residing in bishops and believe, as the confessions of my church hold, that the Bible is the authoritative source and norm of the Church's life, faith, and practice. The Bible, I believe, commends no hierarchy in Christ's Church. In fact, a passage of the New Testament written by the very man Roman Catholic tradition says was the first pope, the apostle Peter, pointedly rejects hierachical thinking. In First Peter 2:9-10, Peter writes that all followers of Jesus are part of a priesthood of all believers. Followers of Jesus, I believe, differ only in function, not status.

But for all these differences in theology and misgivings I have about the propriety of the very office of pope, I agree with evangelist Billy Graham, who has described John Paul II as the greatest pope of his lifetime.

Gerard Baker, in a recent edition of the "Financial Times," points out that behind all of John Paul's dizzying activity and stubborn intransigence is a consistently-held and consistently-pursued principle, the principle of life over against our current worldwide culture of death.

In many respects, John Paul II has been a Christian countercultural figure, standing against the warped values of a dying world, proclaiming what the Bible calls "a still more excellent way," the path of following Jesus Christ.

For his constant loyalty to life's sanctity in the midst of bloody, violent times, John Paul II deserves the appreciation and applause of all the world.

Tonight, before this Protestant goes to bed, I'll say a little prayer of thanksgiving to God for the pope from Poland who has driven us all a little crazy and who has given us all important things to think about, to pray about, to act upon.

Monday, October 20, 2003

God, Money, and Sex:
God and Money
Luke 18:18-30

[shared with the people of Friendship Church, October 19, 2003]

Wyvetta Bullock is a second-career pastor in the Lutheran Church. Back when she was in her early twenties, trying to get to her feet financially, starting her first career, and paying off college debts, she was speaking with her father on the telephone. “Wyvetta,” he asked, “are you tithing?” (Tithing, you know, is the Biblical idea of giving the first ten per cent of our income to God, whether through the Church or through charities that are doing God’s work, and then living off of the remaining 90%.) Bullock couldn’t believe that her father would ask her such a question. He knew that she didn’t have two pennies to rub together. How could she possibly give away 10% of practically nothing? And so she told her father, “Dad, you know that I can’t afford to do that.” To which her father said, “Wyvetta, you can’t afford not to.”

Wyvetta Bullock’s father understood a truth that Jesus tried to convey to a wealthy man who approached him one day. The story of their conversation is part of our Bible lesson for this morning. The man, described by the Bible as a “ruler” comes to Jesus with an apparently sincere question. He wants to know about Jesus’ opinion of what constitutes a righteous life, a life that will allow him entry into heaven. Jesus points him to the ten commandments. When the young man heard this, he probably smiled. He told Jesus–maybe with false confidence–“I’ve done all of these things since I was a little boy!”

But Jesus, as able to peer into this ruler’s heart as surely as He can peer into yours and mine, sees that for all of the man’s industrious keeping of God’s laws, something is wrong. There is a wall between him and God. Jesus tells the man:

“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and follow Me.”

The man can’t believe it! He thought that he had a deal with God. He thought that if he conformed to God’s commandments, he would be in like Flynn in heaven. Now, here's Jesus telling him that eternity could only be his if he parted with his wealth and followed Him.

The Bible tells us that when the man heard this, he became sad because he was wealthy. He walked away from following Jesus because money was more important to him than God.

You see, if we really want to be with God forever, it doesn’t come down to what we do, it comes down to whether we follow Jesus or not. And one of the great powers in our world that can prevent us from following Jesus and so, prevent us from living forever in heaven with God, is money.

Now, let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy. There is nothing wrong with having money. The problem happens when money becomes the center of our lives. When money becomes our highest priority–and it happens both to people who have great wealth and to those who don’t–we make money our god and we erect a wall between God and His mercy on the one side and ourselves on the other.

That’s why Wyvetta Bullock’s father told her that she needed to tithe. He saw it as the best way to drive a stake into the heart of the god of money, a god Jesus even called by a name, Mammon. Bullock's dad knew that Wyvetta needed to commit to giving in order to let Mammon know that money wouldn’t control her. Instead, with God’s help, she would control her money.

In our Bible lesson, Jesus told the ruler that he needed to get rid of all of his wealth because Jesus could see that the ruler was addicted to being rich. Jesus’ prescription for the man’s money problem was so severe because the man's dependence on money was so complete. As with any addiction, the best course of action for getting free is to depend on God completely and to stay away from the addiction that has a person in its clutches.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of money. When harnessed for good and put under Christ’s Lordship, money can do amazingly wonderful things. I think of all the money that people give to charities, schools and colleges, churches, and ministry organizations and I think what a tremendous legacy for good those who give are creating. I think of how many of God's children they're helping!

Once, in my former parish, I was visiting with a woman suddenly widowed by the tragic death of her young husband. There was a knock at the door. A neighbor had come with food. Dozens of people had spent their money and time to prepare dishes the grieving family could put on the stove or pop into the microwave or the oven and have good meals. Between her tears, the widow, thinking of the expense and the effort people had expended on these dishes, smiled and said to me, "There's an awful lot of love in that refrigerator." We can do good things with money.

But when we see money as being just for us, bad things always happen. On my dad’s eighteenth birthday, he walked home from school and found all his clothes on the front porch. His dad was throwing him out of the house. Frank Marion Daniels was no longer financially obligated to do anything for my dad and he had decided that he wasn’t going to spend one more penny.

No matter how poor or rich we are, when we’re hesitant to give to God, to our families, or to others, there is something wrong. We may in fact be worshiping at the altar of money rather than the altar of God. And God has not rescinded the first commandment: if we put anything before God Himself, if we fail to trustingly follow Jesus and instead put our trust in powers like money, we lose the everlasting life that God wants to give to us.

So, what’s the take-away for you and me from today's Bible lesson? What does Jesus want us to know about money?

First: We need to know that money is a power in our world. The first murder in Biblical history occurred when Cain, one son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother, Abel. Abel was a shepherd. Cain was a farmer. When the very first baby lambs were born to the ewe lambs in Abel's flock, he wanted to demonstrate his gratitude to God for his blessings. So, he took those very first lambs and gave them as an offering to God. This was an act of risky faith on Abel's part. Like you and me, he had no way of predicting the future. He had no idea if he would get any more lambs. But he trusted God enough to offer the first ones he got to God.

Cain, on the other hand, harvested his crops and as an afterthought, gave God his leftovers.

God was pleased with Abel's offering, because it was given with faith and absolute trust in God. God was displeased with Cain's offering because Cain gave God his leftovers. Cain didn't trust God enough to give God the first of his "income" for fear that there wouldn't be anything left for him.

When Cain noticed God's differing reactions to the offerings made by Abel and himself, he got surly. God asked him what was wrong. Then God gave Cain a warning, "You've got to be careful, Cain. Sin is always lurking at the doorway of your heart. You can't let it take control of you. You must master it!" [This is my paraphrase of Genesis 4:1-7]

In modern terms, Cain had money worries. He was worried that if he gave to God first, he wouldn't have enough for himself. So, he became selfish...so selfish, that eventually, he killed his brother.

Satan wants you and me to think that if we keep all our money to ourselves, we’ll be in control of our lives. But God wants us to know that greed and selfishness are always lurking in the shadows of our hearts. When they take over, we won't be controlling our money or our actions or our wills. We need to remember that we will either master our money–no matter how much or little we have–or it will master us.

Second: We need to put our ultimate trust in God, not in money. If we put our ultimate trust in anything or anyone besides the God we know through Jesus Christ, we lose our life with God forever. It turns out that God pays better dividends than money!

Fran and Chuck, a couple who lived in Columbus, Indiana, had done well in their lives. Throughout their working years, they had given to God, their family, and their friends. But in their retirement years, they decided that they needed less money. So, they instituted a “reverse tithe,” giving away the first 90% of their monthly income and living off of the remaining 10%. Leonard Sweet, one-time president of United Seminary in Dayton, used to visit Fran and Chuck twice a year and at the end of those afternoon visits, walk away with checks of five, fifteen, and twenty-thousand dollars for the seminary. And United was one of their smaller beneficiaries. Fran and Chuck told Leonard Sweet many times that in their eighties, they were having the times of their lives giving to universities, charities, and ministries that helped people all over the world.

None of us may ever be in the position to be as giving as Fran and Chuck. But we can be what the Bible calls “generous” people who have put their trust in God and not their wallets.

Finally: The best way to handle money is both responsibly and loosely. Whatever God gives to us, He expects us to handle responsibly. That's called good stewardship.

But we also need to be loose in our handling of money. That means we need to be ready to give to God and to others. And we need to do that for a simple reason: It’s not our money; it’s God’s money!

I started working when I was about seven or eight years old. Back when I was a little guy, I saw the prizes and money you could earn by going door-to-door, selling Christmas cards. So, I did that. When Christmas season was over, I was sort of bored and started going door-to-door again, this time selling return address labels. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid and observing that I liked selling things, my mom made up some sample potholders and sent me out door-to-door again in order to take orders for them. I sold a bunch of potholders and got a commission from my mom. Then, I became a newspaper carrier. After that, I mowed lawns. From high school, through college and seminary, I did all sorts of part-time and full-time jobs: I cooked at a fast food restaurant, fixed guardrail for the highway department, worked on two different factory assembly lines, did inventories in little stores all over southern Ohio, worked in retail at three different department stores and a paint store, took care of the copiers and office supply needs of a corporate headquarters, schlepped stock on a loading dock, worked as a janitor, hand-processed property tax payments at the county treasurer’s office in Columbus. And of course, I’ve worked as a campaign manager, a charity fund raiser, a supervisor for the Ohio House of Representatives, and for the past nineteen years, I’ve been a pastor. But let me tell you something: In all of that work, I don’t believe that I ever deserved a penny I earned. It has all been God’s gift to me.

That’s because my body, my mind, my health, the capacity to create, and the support and encouragement of family and friends that have made it possible for me to work, to get an education, and to live a life I love, have all come from God.

The same is true for all of you. Everything we have comes from God. So too, does the hope that we have for an eternity with God, a gift that God secured for us when Jesus died and rose again.

It’s not our money. God has put this power into our hands not just so that we can take care of ourselves and our families, but also to let the whole world know about Jesus, to share His love, and to give others the hope that only Jesus gives.

However much money God has placed at your disposal, His call on you and me remains the same: We need to understand money’s power for good and evil; we need to put our ultimate trust in Christ, not cash; and we need to handle all that God gives us both responsibly and loosely.

The mark of the person truly freed from sin and death is their willingness to share their blessings from God with others. I pray each day that I will be a person who shares my blessings. And I pray that same thing for all of you.

[The personal reminiscence of Wyvetta Bullock appeared, I believe. in the video teaching series on the basics of Christian faith once done by the former presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutherab Church in America, Hebert Chilstrom. The story of Fran and Chuck appears in Leonard Sweet's wonderful book, SoulSalsa. Some of the ideas in this message were inspired by and culled from another wonderful book, Money, Sex, and Power by Richard Foster.]