Thursday, January 29, 2009

Love Trumps Knowledge, Freedom Isn't License

Al, an acquaintance of mine, went out one evening with a group of people from the church he pastored.

Later, a close friend, Bill, who was part of the group asked him, "Al, I know that you like to have an occasional beer. Why didn't You have one at dinner tonight?"

"I think you may know why," Al said. His friend thought for a second and then asked, "Is it because of Ben's situation?"

Ben had recently told both Al and Bill that he had just come to terms with the fact that he was an alcoholic. Ben had met with Al and Bill, asking them to pray for him and to be among those who kept him accountable in his efforts to stay away from alcohol completely, something all alcoholics must do.

But Bill was still a bit clueless as to Al's motives. "Do you mean to say that you're not going to drink alcohol around Bill? You know that Jesus drank wine, don't you? Saint Paul recommended it for soothing the digestive tract. So long as you don't abuse your body with alcohol, it's perfectly OK to drink alcohol in moderation."

"I've read my Bible a few times," Al said with a smile. "Everything you're saying is true, Bill. But for Ben's sake, I won't drink alcohol around him. There are some things that aren't sins in themselves, but when done at the wrong times are sins."

"Sure," Bill said. "Sex is a good thing that God made. But when used selfishly or outside the marriage covenant, it's a sin. Food is a good thing from God. But if you use it to abuse your body, like with anorexia, bulimia, or overeating, it's sinful. But you're not saying that for you to drink alcohol in moderation in front of Ben is a sin, are you?"

"That's exactly what I'm saying," Al replied. "As a Christian, I'm free to use God's gifts properly. But if a fellow Christian or a non-believer is an alcoholic, my drinking it in his presence is a discouragement, like offering a loaded pistol to a suicidal person. Or, like putting God's stamp of approval on his alcoholism. I dare not use my freedom as license. I can't use my knowledge to hurt someone paying attention to my example. Sharing Christ's love is more important to me than my knowledge of what's right or wrong for me."

"Al," Bill said, "I couldn't disagree with you more. Why should I give up my freedom because of someone else's weakness?"

Bill would have done well to read one of the lessons for this coming Sunday, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. You can read it below, in the words of the Contemporary English Version (CEV) translation of the Bible.

A little background: The Christian community in the first century Greek city of Corinth were a dysfunctional bunch. They were prone to use their Christian freedom in ways that were destructive to themselves and to others.

In the lesson for this coming Sunday, Paul responds to questions about food offered to idols. Often, food used in the worship of false deities would show up on the tables of the Christians as they got together for dinner and worship.

Paul said that of course, there was nothing inherently sinful in eating this food. Mature Christians knew that false idols were just that--false idols--and that the food that was offered to them was just that--food.

But, Paul said, if a mature Christian eats food offered to idols in the presence of newer Christians or people who were weak in their faith, the newbies were at risk of drawing the wrong conclusions. They might have thought that it was acceptable to spread their loyalties around among different gods.

But the Christian knows that the God revealed in Jesus Christ accepts no rivals, that God can only work in the lives of those who give him exclusive fealty as their Lord and King.

And so, Paul said, those with a more mature understanding of God and a more advanced relationship with Christ will, for the sake of those who don't know Christ as well, voluntarily forgo exercising their freedom.

Love does things like that.

In my own life, I have, too often, acted selfishly with my Christian freedom, setting a bad example or creating misimpressions of the Christian life in the eyes of nonbelievers or new believers. I ask God to help me to remember Paul's words...and Al's example.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
1In your letter you asked me about food offered to idols. All of us know something about this subject. But knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others. 2In fact, people who think they know so much don't know anything at all. 3But God has no doubts about who loves him.

4Even though food is offered to idols, we know that none of the idols in this world are alive. After all, there is only one God. 5Many things in heaven and on earth are called gods and lords, but none of them really are gods or lords. 6We have only one God, and he is the Father. He created everything, and we live for him. Jesus Christ is our only Lord. Everything was made by him, and by him life was given to us.

7Not everyone knows these things. In fact, many people have grown up with the belief that idols have life in them. So when they eat meat offered to idols, they are bothered by a weak conscience. 8But food doesn't bring us any closer to God. We are no worse off if we don't eat, and we are no better off if we do.

9Don't cause problems for someone with a weak conscience, just because you have the right to eat anything. 10You know all this, and so it doesn't bother you to eat in the temple of an idol. But suppose a person with a weak conscience sees you and decides to eat food that has been offered to idols. 11Then what you know has destroyed someone Christ died for. 12When you sin by hurting a follower with a weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13So if I hurt one of the Lord's followers by what I eat, I will never eat meat as long as I live.

[UPDATE: Thanks to Pugnacious Irishman and Rediscovering the Church for linking to this post. At the Pugnacious site, Rich Bordner also offers some of his own thoughts on this subject.]

New Hope for Ohio's Schools

In yesterday's State of the State message, Governor Ted Strickland unveiled his program to reform public schools in Ohio. Included was Strickland's proposal for reforming public school funding in the state. As regular readers of this blog know, this is one of my obsessions.

Four times, the state Supreme Court has ruled Ohio's shell-game funding "plan," unconstitutional. Republican and Democratic governors and General Assemblies have tinkered without doing away with what's referred to as "phantom revenue," through which the state makes money local voters thought they dedicated to their schools through levies, disappear.

Kudos to Strickland for biting a bullet.

My previous post on this subject contains links in which I've discussed phantom revenue in greater detail.

I'm coming to you from an undisclosed ice chest (AKA: The State of Ohio)

There's a power outage affecting 98% of the households of the county in which I live, including ours. Hocking County, Ohio isn't alone, apparently. Also enduring major outages are a number of other counties here in Appalachian Ohio, as well as the Tristate area around Cincinnati and some parts of central Ohio.

Much of the country, it seems, is enduring the same ordeal.

And it really is an ordeal, for some more than others. Many in our county have been without power since yesterday morning. Our power went out at 5:50pm last night. We were able to sleep comfortably under layers of blankets and comforters.

Functioning outside of the sheets was a more difficult proposition. So too was digging our vehicles out of the striated layers of ice, snow, ice, and snow.

The temperature right now is 25-degrees with a chill factor much lower than that.

We're told that power may not be restored until Sunday night. We shall see.

I hope that you're staying warm and dry wherever you are.

(Our daughter, who lives in Florida, informed me today that the temp was in the eighties!)

[UPDATE, 9:00pm: The power is back on!]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Most Powerful Word of All

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

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Pastor and writer John Maxwell tells about a junior high basketball coach who was smart. If he had a kid who was lackadaisical on defense, this coach would call that kid Mr. Hustle. If he had a kid who was slow of foot, he named him Speedy. He hung these nicknames on the kids not as putdowns calling attention to their deficiencies, but with a straight face and seeming seriousness. “Did you see how ferocious Mr. Hustle was on defense?” he’d ask the team during practice. “I want all of you to work at being like him!”

Guess what happened?

When combined with the proper instruction and correction, kids whom the coach called Mr. Hustle really did become hustling defenders and those he named Speedy became the fastest ones on the team, able to lead the fast break.

Somewhere this coach had learned the power of words. He understood the truth behind a confession Mark Twain made: “I can live on a good compliment for a week.”

Negative words are powerful, too. A pastor came home from worship one day in a sour mood. Her husband asked what was wrong. “I must have heard ten people tell you what a great sermon you had,” he commented. “Yeah,” she acknowledged, “but Gladys Milkenrucker hated it.”

The old saying is wrong: Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can and do sometimes hurt us. That’s because words—good words and bad words--really do have power.

But nobody’s word is more powerful than God’s Word.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Eugene Peterson translates this same passage in The Message: “[God’s] powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.”

I like this last line because, in fact, we do try to run away from God’s Word. We do it because God doesn’t always say what we want to hear.

And we don’t run away from God’s Word only when it warns us against the sins we like to commit—be they gluttony or tax evasion, sexual promiscuity or personal arrogance, lazy indifference to God’s call on our lives or gossiping about our neighbors. We also seem to run away from God’s Word when it forgives and affirms us because we convince ourselves that God couldn’t possibly forgive us.

We also run away from God’s Word when it seems to tell us to do something we don’t want to do. Forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Lend a hand to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Fight for justice and equality for those whose life styles may be sinful. Say a good word for the person nobody likes. Tell someone else about the hope we’ve found in Jesus Christ.

And on that last point, I know that more often than I care to remember, I have been hesitant about sharing Christ with others. I've been a lot like Jonah in our Old Testament lesson.

There have been many times when God’s Word has come to me as it did to Jonah, clear as a bell, whether while I’ve been reading the Bible at home or hearing it in worship. But do I heed it and do what God tells me to do? No, I’m like Paul, writing in the New Testament book of Romans: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good [that is, when I make a resolution to do what God’s Word tells me to do or to trust the grace that God’s Word conveys for me], evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self…but the evil that I do not want is what I do.”

And so, I run from God and from God’s Word. In effect, I do what our daughter Sarah sometimes playfully does when she hears an off-color joke or when someone gives her TMI—too much information: I stick my fingers in my ears and say, “La la la la,” to block God’s access to my mind, heart, and will.

This was exactly what Jonah did.

The Old Testament book of Jonah, a fun book with a serious point, describes life in Israel, the land of God’s people, the Jews, in the middle of the 8th century BC. A nation that neighbored Israel, Assyria, was less than neighborly. It was, in fact, Israel’s greatest enemy, murderous and warlike. Assyria’s capital city was a place called Nineveh. Ancient Nineveh set on the same ground as a modern city you may have heard about in the news lately: Mosul, Iraq.

At the beginning of the book of Jonah, we’re told: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’”

In fairness to Jonah, whose reaction to this call, his hatred for the Ninevites, and his surliness toward God throughout the four-chapter book that bears his name have given him a bad press through the centuries, if God told you to go to Mosul, a city where today the murder and intimidation of Christians is so horrible and pervasive that many have fled the place to find safety, would you go?

Or would you, as Jonah did the first time God’s Word came to him, run in the opposite direction and book yourself on a Mediterranean cruise?

I think that I’d take the cruise.

But, as those of you who have read your Bibles know, God’s Word is powerful. God was emphatic that Jonah needed to do what God’s Word had told him to do.

Once the ship on which Jonah boarded was at sea, the God Who can control the wind and waves, sent a storm. Jonah convinced his shipmates that he was the cause of this life-threatening storm and that they needed to toss him into the drink so that God would bring calm seas.

The second they did that, there was a dead calm. The storm had stopped and you might think that that was the end of Jonah, now experiencing the death penalty for his rebellion against God.

But you who’ve read the book also know that God initiated a unique bailout plan for Jonah. There’s a lesson in that for you and me: God gives second chances and new starts even to people who don’t seek them. No matter how far you feel you’ve wandered from God, God wants to speak His Word of reconciliation, peace, and purpose to you. God wants you to have second chances.

That’s exactly what happened to Jonah at the beginning of our Old Testament lesson for today: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you.’”

Jonah still didn’t want to do what God’s Word told him to do. But he was grateful for a second chance and he’d learned a lesson out on the stormy Mediterranean about the power of God’s Word.

So Jonah goes to Nineveh. There, he does the minimum that God tells him to do. He only walks a third of the way into the city and delivers what is in the original Hebrew a five-word sermon. Here it is: "Forty days more Nineveh destroyed." That’s it.

Now, if you had been a Ninevite and heard that sermon, how would you have reacted? Would you have laughed it off? Would you have gotten angry? Would you have ignored this strange foreigner covered with the stomach juices of the great fish that had swallowed and spit him out? I can imagine reacting in any of those ways.

But Nineveh heard it and the whole city repented. They turned from sin and turned to the God none of them had ever worshiped before. It’s not in our lesson, but the king of Nineveh even issued a decree that said, in part, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change His mind; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

Nineveh was spared. Its people--at least the people living there in the eighth century BC--turned from sin and turned to God. God forgave them and they lived, reconciled to God.

What about that paltry sermon of Jonah’s changed the lives of all those Ninevites? It’s fairly simple and truly amazing, really: Jonah’s words weren’t just Jonah’s words; they were also the Word of God.

The Word of God is powerful.

God spoke His Word and the world and everything in it came into being.

God’s Word—the second person of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—was made flesh and came into our world—came to you—in Jesus Christ.

God’s Word comes to us today in the Bible, in the water of Holy Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, in the fellowship of believers, in our confession of faith, and even in sermons, paltry and otherwise.

And God’s Word comes to you again today: to tell you “Whether to confront you for your sin, to confirm you in my forgiveness, or to send you to your own Ninevehs right here in Logan at work or home or school, believe God’s Word, trust it, and do what it tells you to do because God’s Word is still powerful, even today, even for you.” Amen

[THANKS TO: Mark at Stones Cry Out for linking to this post.]

This cracked me up...and amazed me!

A member of the congregation I serve as pastor sent the link to this amazing video to me. It showcases some NFL players showing off, trying to convince fantasy football leaguers to pick them for their teams. I'm not a fantasy player...but I'm convinced!