Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Release your faith

There is an interesting little story from The Presbyterian Church of Fremont NE. newsletter, “The Bell”. On May 24, 2007, this story was found in its pages:
A popular television show from the past featured the husband and wife team of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Gracie was always causing George grief through her confusion over the simplest things. On one of the programs, Gracie became upset because her new electric clock kept losing time. She called a repairman who immediately discovered the problem; the clock wasn’t plugged in. Gracie’s response was, “I know that. I didn’t want to waste electricity, so I only plug it in when I want to know what time it is.”

We need to discover what time it is. At least I suspect we need to learn what time it is and thus we need to learn to not only how to get plugged in, we need to stay there once we do. And we are not alone. We often look at people who are considered to be spiritual giants and think that we could never be like them; that we could never do what they do. We think that we cannot talk like them or be able to live the kind of life that a spiritual Goliath can. And somehow we think that because we cannot do that, that its okay to disconnect ourselves and not try.

The Twelve must have been horrified by what they had heard from Jesus. They must have wondered what they had gotten themselves into. They didn’t believe that they could live the kind of life he was calling them to. Jesus calls on those who follow him to live their lives in such a way that they do not cause others to stumble and sin in their faith and lives. Jesus was calling them to do things like making forgiveness a habit and not just the occasional thing, if one is willing. They perceived that they didn’t have the resources or the strength of will to live that kind of life. And so they asked for greater faith to live out what they were being asked to live out. What came next must have been a shock.

Jesus then tells them that they already have within them that which they need to live up to what they have been called to. Jesus tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed – the size of a grain of sand – they could go and take trees and plant them in the salt water of the ocean and the trees would grow and flourish. Now we know that trees of any kind are not going to grow in salt water… or can they? Maybe we need to stop and consider that faith isn’t so much about what you have, as it is that you have the opportunity to do something with what you’ve got.   And as we move to do things we need to keep in mind that we are called to do our thing not a great thing. We as Christians are not called to do the great thing of faith. Greatness belongs to God and God alone. No, we are called to do our thing, the common thing. We are called to do the common thing with unbounded joy and unending enthusiasm so that others can see our joy and enthusiasm and be drawn at least to what we are doing if not to us. And from there we can share what we have with them – whatever that might be. Food. Joy. Shelter. Compassion. And yes in the right time, we can share what moves us to share with them and share our faith too.

It’s not that we as a church or even as individuals need more faith to do what needs to be done but rather that we need to have what is within us released. Faith only has power when it is backed by someone powerful. A $1,000 bill is printed on a piece of paper that costs a single penny. It has the power of a $1,000 bill because it is backed by the federal government who guarantees that the bill is worth more than the paper it is printed on. Faith works in much the same way. It is worth something because it is within us. And at the same time the power of faith comes from God because God guarantees the gift he has placed within each of us. God backs the faith he has put in us. The power of faith comes from an ongoing connection that allows us to be empowered and to, in effect, know what time it is.

So as we wait for the Master, what should we be doing with this little bit of faith we have discovered inside of us? We need to do at least two things. First we need to wait patiently and be filled with hope. We do not need not to consume ourselves with what we have or don’t have in terms of faith (and other spiritual gifts). We need to live the faith that is within us. In doing so, we can show others the joy that they need in their lives to drive out the fear they know in their own.  We can show them a God in whom they can delight and who takes great delight in them.

Second we need to believe and to trust that God has a vision got the future that includes us. We need to trust that in time God’s plan and vision will find their fulfillment. We need to remember that being faithful means that we choose be joyful even when everything is taken away: when the crops are gone, when the animals have died and the barn is burnt to the ground, when the very ground is washed out from under your own feet you still choose to rejoice. You choose to fan in to flame again that gift that is within you and to release your faith, plug into your relationship with God and live.   

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How rich are you?

I recently found a website called "," where we can enter our salary and find out where we fall on a global list of the richest people in the world. I entered a few numbers and found that any salary over $33,700 puts us in the top 5% of the world's population, and a salary over $47,500 puts us in the top 1% of the richest people in the world. Many of us fall there. How does it feel to suddenly be thrown into a grouping with the Forbes list of the richest people?

And from a spiritual point of view, what should we do with the wealth that we have and have accumulated? What should we use it for? Who should it benefit?  And in asking these kinds of questions we need to keep in mind that the story of Lazarus and the rich man is spoken to those who consider themselves in positions of power and blessing because they are good people – and this includes the disciples and the Twelve. We are not told that the rich man was dishonest in the building up of his wealth nor are we told that Lazarus is particularly pious as he lays there at the gate, unable to fend off the dogs who are licking him.  Is it possible that maybe the rich man was good and Lazarus was once the rich man’s servant and that is what puts him at the gate – outside of the fellowship he once enjoyed? We are not told who these men where or how they got to be where they are now. But we are warned about the kinds of choices that we make and what we do with what we have been entrusted with in terms of material possessions. And why are we warned? Because possessions or thinking that we have possessions can be a dangerous thing. Having possessions affects our “I” sight. We will suddenly become very myopic when we believe that our possessions (and therefore our identity and our security) are threatened. We lose sight of everything else and focus in on what we believe is ours. And in being so focused on our selves we find ourselves insulted and isolated from the needs of other people.

So what gets you to pay attention to the neighbour? Is it the noise of a party last night in the backyard? Is it when he drives his truck across your lawn? Is it when she is in the driveway struggling to carry in groceries?  Is it when she is aged and left all alone with no one to “look out” to her? This story is not about having the right theology and the rules so that you don’t have to endure hell. This story is about being careful to not be unaware of the people around you, not allowing anything to come between you and your neighbour so that you become unresponsive to them and therefore to God.  Let us remember that there is a gate between the rich man and the outside world beyond those gates that includes many Lazaruses and Miriams. The guard dogs could see the languishing state of Lazarus and they did what they could: they licked him. And believe it or not the salvia from a dog’s mouth has curative properties. This story is about what happens to people who choose to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to other people’s needs and struggles. We cannot claim that we did not know either. There is lots of instruction in the Scriptures about how to handle such things. Moses and the prophets include numerous provisions for decent treatment of the poor and vulnerable:  
·         Jews are not to mistreat aliens, widows, or orphans (Ex. 22:21-22; 23:9; Lev. 19:33; Deut. 24:17-18).  
·         They are to leave gleanings to the poor (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22).
·          They are to bring tithes to support Levites, aliens, the fatherless, and widows (Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12-15).
·         They are to cancel all debts every seventh year and to be openhanded to the needy (Deut. 15:1-11).  
·         They are to include aliens, the fatherless and widows in their celebrations (Deut. 16:9-15).  
·         They are to observe justice (Isaiah 5:7-10; Micah 3:1-3).
·          They are not to exploit workers (Isaiah 58:3).
·          They are to plead the case of the fatherless and to defend the rights of the poor (Jer. 5:25 -29).
·         They are warned about using dishonest scales (Hosea 12:7-9) and taking advantage of the vulnerable (Amos 2:6-8; Malachi 3:5).

So what do we do then? How do we begin to work this all out? We as the Church need to be a sign of hope – buying a plot of land when there is no earthly reason to expect there to be a return. As a community of faith and as individuals we must be aware that God is faithful in the present and God is going to be faithful in the future too. God is going to be there on the other side of judgment and so we are called to Trust in God in the moment. Moreover we need to be familiar with the reality that being a sign of hope is costly. It is costly and the patience to wait for what is to come is demanding. And in coming closer to the new life and the kingdom that God offers is hard because we have to go through judgment so that we can be tried and found justified in Christ. Faith and trust are not the same as surety and security. We have to take risks and to be willing to live and to die when necessary that we might rise again in Christ. We need to live not only the life, we need to live his death and resurrection too.

The first step is to open the gates to our lives and to let people in who really need us. And then we need to go through those same gates  and invite them to table with us that they too can enjoy all the blessings of this life and God’s inestimable love.  How rich will we all be then? 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What else do you got?

If we stick to the understanding that we need to consider what the parables say about God, what does the parable of the shrewd manager tell us about God? William Barclay tells us that there are at least four lessons in this parable that we as Christian people need to learn to function in this world and prepared for the next. What are these lessons?

First we need to recognize that the children of this world are better at living in this world and this society than are the children of the light. They know how to live in it and to maximize the benefits of being here in the moment. It is what they live for. The children of the light are not as adept at looking after themselves as are the children of this age. But then the goals of the children of light are different from those of this age. Which begs a question – how are you planning? Are you planning for the next 20 years or for the next 20 light years? There is a difference in what you will be ready for depending on your plan.

Second, are you prepared to use what you have as possessions to build relationships with others, including God? There some who don’t like the clergy to talk about money and possessions from the pulpit but not to do so is to ignore a large portion of the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus. It is possible to use materials to build relationships. Just the other night my son and some friends were playing a youth group game. The group was split into two teams and each team was given a tooth pick to trade for something else that could be given and did not needed back. As a result one team traded up from a tooth pick to a large comforter from the tooth pick while the other team managed to trade up to an old love seat. It is amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.  And that is the whole point. We need to be wise in the ways in which we act so that we can actively and intelligently extend the ministry of the Church and the reach of the kingdom.

Third, anyone that that does small things and tasks well, can be trusted to do big things well. And let’s understand that the goal here is not to find people with skills alone. The goal is to find people who can act and walk humbly and with integrity. Skills and be learned and they can be gifted from God. Yet there is a reality that the most gifted people in the world, without integrity and a bit of humility and other things that engender trust, are some of the haughtiest people the world has known. People can see and know the nature of other people. We must be careful to consider the nature of the person when dealing with them – wise to know where they are coming from and where they could be headed. And we can bring material wealth and goods to bear on situations that would help promote relationships, not only with each other but also and more importantly with God.

Fourth, we need to know where our focus is and get our heads “in the game”. We need to decide who it is that we are serving and then focus on our master to the exclusion of others. This kind of focus changes what we do from duty and transforms it into worship. What we do and what we say becomes worship because it is offered to and on behalf of who or what our focus is and what we have assigned worth to. How you give and share your time, your talents and gifts, your treasure and material possessions, your little piece of creation and your tears and compassion matter. They are all gifts from God and we need to be wise in how we use them.      

How does this relate to God and what we might learn about living a godly life? Greg Rickel tells a story about a man who collects pearls. One day he was walking on a town street and spotted in a store window the most beautiful, the grandest and largest pearl his eyes had ever seen. He knew that he had to have it. So he enters in though the store and an old man comes out from behind a curtain and the back room. The collector addresses the store keeper, “That pearl. I want it. How much is it?” the storekeeper answers, “What do you have? How much do you got? ” the collector said excitedly, “well I have three hundred dollars in my wallet!”  

“Great,” said the storekeeper, “I’ll take that. What else have you got?”

“I have my sports car outside – 1966 Corvette. A real classic.”

“Good, I’ll take that too.” said the ancient.  “What else have you got?”

“I have 30,000 dollars in investments and GICs” said the collector.

“Good, I’ll have that too. What else do you have?” by the time the deal was struck the collector had given everything away to the store owner. They man took the pearl and was about to walk out the door when the shop owner called out and said to the man, “ look I don’t need a family and a big house in St. John’s. I don’t need a fast car or investments. In fact come here I and I will give you back your three hundred dollars. I give them back to you but remember they are mine. Take them and care for my family and use my wealth and possessions wisely. Care for them for me won’t you?”

The man left the store with everything he had before he entered the store and now he had a pearl of great price. But there was a difference. None of it was his now to own. He went in with everything and come out with nothing. Everything he had was now a gift. That is how we ought to live. That is Christian stewardship.      

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's God's nature to save

Fr. Henri Nouwen told a parable about an old man who used to meditate each day beside the Ganges River in India. One morning this old man saw a snake floating on the water. The snake became caught in an eddy nearby. The ancient rose and went to the river’s edge to rescue the creature. When the snake drifted near the old man he reached out his hand to retrieve it but was bitten by the snake. A bit later he tried again and was bitten again; the wound swelled his hand giving him much pain. Another man passing by saw what was happening and yelled at the mediator, "Hey, old man, what's wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don't you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful snake?" The old man calmly replied, "My friend, just because it is in the snake's nature to bite, does not change my nature to save."

Ultimately this is what Luke 15 and indeed the message of the Gospels is all about. It is God’s nature to save. We see it in three different parables in the chapter. First there is the shepherd looking for and finding the lost lamb. Then there is the woman who discovers her money gone and sweep the house clean by the light of lamp because the coin is part of her present and her future. And last but not least is the tale of two brothers – one prodigal and the other just hard headed.  And while the parable of the Prodigal Son is probably one of the best know parables from the Bible, the two others with which it is connected have a lot to say as well.

First, there is the misdirected shepherd. The shepherd acts foolishly in the eyes of those around him because he risks the life of the flock and of himself for the life of one wayward lamb. The conventional wisdom is that it is the lamb’s fault that it wandered away, following his stomach from blade of grass to blade of grass. He has dined his way to his destruction and we should just let him go to it. It is an acceptable economic loss to stay and protect the 99 who have done as they were supposed to. Only that is not the nature of the Good Shepherd. He is willing to risk leaving the flock and go and find the lost lamb. Not because the lamb is lost but because it is his nature to go and find the lost and bring them home. And notice that the shepherd does not return the lamb to the fold. He brings him home to his family so that there can be joy and feasting noting that there is a relationship between this found lamb and the Good Shepherd.

Second we are taken even deeper by the parable of the intensely devoted housewife. Having been married for such long time, having cared for those coins for the length of her marriage knowing that is represents her relationship to her aged husband, she is more than just determined to find that one coin lost on the dirt floor of their home. She lights the lamp and she goes to work sweeping out every nook and cranny of the house until she finds her coin. And then in celebration with family, friends and neighbours spends twice what the found coin is worth celebrating the fact that the coin has been found. Moreover, it should not be lost on us that this is a woman who makes this search and not a man. A man would stand in the middle of the house and exclaim, “Honey, do you know where my tenth coin is?” Come on now guys, we have to admit there is truth to that. It is also true that the woman represents the church and there is a reminder to us as Church that we need to be diligent in our work concerning the mission to bring others home to God. We need to fell the desire to bring people home not to get people to feel the need to belong.       

The power of any parable is not to tell us about us but rather to highlight the nature of just who God is and who God is in relationship to us. So what do these two parables teach us? God desires to save whether we are interested in being saved or not. God is lovingly relentless in his pursuit of that which has been lost relationship with his creation and us in particular. God exerts all the power he can, extends all the mercy he can offers all the peace he can so that we might have the life he calls us to live with him and to live it forever. And the bringing to bear of all of this mercy, grace and peace is a costly venture. God surrendered his only Son to death that we might live. God created a community where his grace love and mercy can be celebrated and where the found ones are welcomed home with exuberance and extravagance because of what God has done in the life of these people. Let us take the time to be like Mary and exclaim, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, because he has visited and redeemed his people.”   

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Leaving it all behind

The Rev. Will Willimon, chaplain at Duke University, once told how he and never received a phone call saying "Help! My son is on drugs" or "I'm concerned about my daughter's grades" However, Willimon said that hardly a year goes by that he didn't hear complaints like this: “Chaplain, can you help? My daughter has become a religious fanatic and wants to go off to Haiti to work for some literacy program. This isn't something we taught her!" Is such a student "hating father and mother"? No, it's a matter of choosing a loyalty higher than family and self. And we need to be aware that we might be selling both our young people and ourselves short by teaching them a weak form of Christianity.

I can remember going to a youth conference in my teenage years where we were challenged by the speaker to be more faithful to living out our faith. “Who wants to go to China and tell people about Jesus?” There was great roar of yes from the gathered. “Who wants to go to South East Asia to preach the Gospel?” was met with great enthusiasm. Then the speaker asked another question, “Who wants to go home and clean up there room and do as their parents tell them too?” The question was met with virtual silence. It was rather telling. Everyone at that conference would go somewhere else and do what was asked of them, making great sacrifices and look the hero but they would not go home and do the same. We need to recognize in the life of the Church that Christ is asking the same of us – to go home and be the person he has called us to be at home. It is easy to make the grand gesture because only so many will actually go and do it.

At home we become the community of the little bits. We commit with a little bit of prayer. We pledge a little bit of trust and dedication. We might offer little bits of love. But that is not the way of the cross, the way of the Master. We often try to sell our “churchianity” as a low risk, low cost venture. And for some reason we think that we have to compete with everything else that is out there and then fail to even do that because we cannot offer what the rest of the world can. Are we not advertising and involving ourselves in a weaker type of the Christian faith? We are challenged by Jesus to make sure that we have counted the costs of becoming one of his followers. If we will not let go; if we put our hands to the plow but keep looking back; if we won’t pick up our crosses and follow in the same way where does that leave us? Do you have a plan will you see it through to the end? Here is where the rubber meets the road. Either you will trust Christ to lead you or not.

As Bonheoffer might point out cheap grace makes puny Christians and puny Christians produce scrawny churches which frame a fragile, feeble kingdom. And there is nothing cheap, puny nor fragile about the grace and kingdom of God! Does this mean that we should be willing to die for our faith? Maybe we should be ready to live for it first before we consider being ready to die for it. Martyrdom is a gift you can use only once and it is usually right at the end of one’s life. We need to live and be the people and the community for which Christ surrender himself before we worry about what we have to give up. And in the process we will learn to be living sacrifices instead of dead ones.

Giving up what we perceive as our security in favour of following Jesus is a large and scary choice. We need to be aware of what it is going to cost us so that we can be prepared to follow and live We sing of the cross and decisions we've made but when do we allow our faith to actually move us? Have you got a plan that is going to make you secure and see you through to the end that does not involve putting your trust in God? Do you love God enough that you are going to leave it all behind?