Monday, November 26, 2007

Living the Good Life: Generosity

Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor. - Proverbs 22:9

Merchants have already quickly forgotten Thanksgiving in the rush for Christmas money. I think most of them, except for the grocers, completely forgot Thanksgiving altogether this year. In fact, I was hearing Christmas songs in the stores before I’d even lost the sugar buzz from eating my kids’ Halloween candy.

Thanksgiving just doesn’t make the stores a whole lot of money. On Thanksgiving, we give God thanks for all He has given us through the year. That sort of celebration doesn’t lend itself to retail exploitation. But on the day after Thanksgiving, the retailers breathe a sigh of relief as Americans rush out to get whatever it is that will be the huge Christmas gift this year – at all-time low prices, if you’re early enough.

For some, Thanksgiving is simply an annoyance, a detour in the endeavor to make more and more money. For others, Thanksgiving kicks off the whole season of accumulation.

In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus told his followers “Don’t store up your treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves cannot break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”

The secret to living the good life is generosity. As we read in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

At a church where I used to serve, they had a tradition of participating in the Appalachia Service Project doing home repair for some of the neediest families in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Now you have to realize that the people in my church were economically diverse from those we served – meaning that we were wealthy while they were poor. Those families were dirt poor, living in shacks, but – this always blew our kids away – they were completely content. What’s more, they were always giving. We would leave our work site feeling like we had received more than we had given, that we had been blessed.
How is it that some are able to be so completely generous, even when they have little to give? It all seems to be a matter of perspective and power.

Perspective in this: everything we have now was given to us by God, and He is the rightful owner of it all.

At this point, Pat B and I did a skit called "The Pearl Dealer" which focused on Jesus' parable about the pearl of great price to help illustrate this).

God has given us so much – we have an absolute abundance. Yet when we think of what we have, we count it our own. If someone asks for it, we immediately get defensive. “That’s MINE!” we shout, sounding like a bunch of two-year olds.

Then we wonder why none of it satisfies.

1 Timothy 6:17-21 says, “Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life.”

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving; it’s great to give thanks – we need to. But to limit it to one day, that is wrong. To move quickly past Thanksgiving into a gift-buying, materialistic frenzy, that’s wrong. Instead, we should look at what God has given to us and share it with those who need it. That is how we live the good life… because that’s the kind of life God rewards.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Thanksgiving Miracle: Thanksgiving 2007

Philippians 4:4-9 (New Living Translation)
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.

I remember the way Thanksgiving used to be. From early in the morning, the family would happily start gathering together. As soon as we got in the door, everyone would quickly go to their places to do their appointed chores. From the oldest to the youngest, everyone had a job to do, and we were all so excited to be together that everyone would joyfully pitch in. When it came time for the meal, we went around the room, each giving thanks for momentous things the Lord had done for us. We were always careful to remember those who might be hungry or alone on the holiday. Then, in orderly fashion, we helped ourselves to reasonable portions of the delicious food and found our places to eat. The conversation around the table was always uplifting and edifying, not only to those present, but also regarding those who weren’t around. After the meal, we would scurry to help clean up. Finally, after a wonderful day with the family, it was time to return home.


After multiple fights on every conceivable subject (including the good old, "You’re not wearing that are you?"), we finally got in the car and headed for a boring day with the relatives. We fought the whole way there. Once we got there, the kids were given tasks. The boys were to set up tables and chairs, and the girls were to help in the kitchen where the women were already hard at work. The men sat on the couch and watched TV, even if it was just the Macy’s Parade (which they grumbled about – there should have been an early football game on so they wouldn’t have had to watch a parade). We boys would get half done with our job and go outside to fight. I mean to play football, which would degenerate into a fight. The girls and women would continue breaking their backs and scorching their arms while preparing the food, all the while getting in each other’s way, arguing about recipes, and gossiping (I mean, telling "concerned information") about relatives who weren’t there. By the time the food was finally ready (and I say finally because the big meal was never at a usual meal time, and nobody was allowed to eat anything until the big meal was served "you’ll spoil your appetite!"), everyone was grumpy and irritable. Someone said a prayer and it was always too long – meanwhile everyone was subtly jockeying for position to get to the food first. Then, with plates loaded with enough food to feed an entire third-world nation for weeks, we headed for the separate tables to chow. The conversation around the tables mostly centered on crude jokes, more gossip, or prank plans (depending on which table you sat at). After the meal, nobody could move because everyone had eaten way too much food. The men and boys retired to concentrate on the football game (though in reality, none of them cared about either team), and the women and girls had to clean up the mess. A few hours (and multiple fights) later, it was time to get back in the car and head home to the endless left-over food (that nobody wanted, and somehow you ended up with it all).

Which of these sounds most familiar?

The funny thing is I was describing the same Thanksgiving event, only from different perspective. It can be easy to remember fondly the things that might not have been so pleasant while you were experiencing them.

But here’s the deal: we have a choice in how we remember those times. Will we choose to remember the good parts, or will we dwell on the bad?

This is true not only for the past, but for the present as well. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, telling them to be full of joy in the Lord, to refrain from worry but pray about everything. To tell God what you need and thank him for what he has done. He told them to fix their thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

What makes Paul’s exhortation remarkable was that he lived this out – and not simply during family gatherings, either. Paul wrote (and lived) this from prison. His ideas weren’t simply based on nostalgic feelings that painted a picture that was better than his experiences. Rather, God transformed him right in the midst of and despite his experiences.

Too often I hear the complaints. Too often the glass is half-empty (and it might as well be cracked, too, so it can’t be filled over half). But what would happen if we all began taking Paul’s command seriously? What would it do for our Thanksgiving gatherings? What would it do for our community if we fixed our thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable? What if our thoughts centered on things that are excellent and worthy of praise? What might that do to our conversations? What would our attitude be about others?

Then, what if we follow that up with Paul’s final command in this passage? The people in Philippi were supposed to act like Christians as well. This would be a Thanksgiving miracle.

Why do I say that? Thanksgiving is a day of eating. It’s my favorite meal of the year. Many of us eat until we can’t move. I know one family who would buy new sweatpants for that meal – complete with very stretchy elastic waistbands! Meanwhile, around the world, children are dying as a result of hunger-related causes at a rate of one every three seconds.

Thanksgiving is a day of conversation. Will you talk about all the blessings God has given you – too numerous to even count, or will your conversation default to unhealthy gossip?
Thanksgiving is a day of togetherness. But what about those who are outsiders? What about those whom you look down upon? What about those who don’t have the right name or pedigree?

Thanksgiving is a day of family gatherings. This area is big on family. But what about those who are alone? What about those who have lost loved ones, who are estranged from loved ones, or who are separated from those loved ones by hundreds or thousands of miles? You might be one of those people who can’t be close to your loved ones – what will your attitude be? Will you sit alone and mope, or will you fix your thoughts on things that are excellent and worthy of praise? Will you allow yourself to be mired in self-pity, or will you think about the Apostle Paul, who rejoiced even while spending his last days imprisoned?

Each of us has a choice. We can actually choose our thought life. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, Paul tells them that "we take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ." This is your assignment for Thanksgiving… and beyond. Examine your thought life. Enter into a "no complain" pact – decide that for you, Thanksgiving will be a complaint-free zone. You aren’t going to complain about anything. Or maybe you’ll extend that for the rest of the month, or through the end of 2007.

Whatever it is, do something. You’ll find God transforming you from the inside out, and that will be our Thanksgiving miracle.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Be Thankful Always

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

When I was young, my parents taught me to write thank you notes. One of the rules of our household was that if we received a gift, that we would promptly write a thank-you note. My mom was always offended by my cousins who never wrote a thank you note. When we got older our families stopped our regular gift exchange, but that Aunt continued to send me birthday money. I’m convinced that it was at least partially because I faithfully demonstrated my thankfulness.

When I served in Columbus, we would often have panhandlers come by the church asking for a handout. We didn’t keep money on the premises, but there was a food donation box that I’d let people look through. One particular guy came in and was overjoyed to be given that food. Others were mad that I wouldn’t give them cash. One guy wouldn’t even let me pray with him… even though he had come to a church for help, and even though I’d offered him food and a coat.
Quite honestly, I’d rather give to someone who is thankful, wouldn’t you?

Do you have an attitude of gratitude?

I know people who are grateful for what seems to be the littlest things. They’re grateful that they have a roof over their heads and food on their tables. I know other people who are constantly griping about what they don’t have (or what other people have that they wish they had).

It’s all a matter of attitude, and you can choose your attitude.

Unfortunately, if you come at life with a "glass half empty" attitude, it’s hard to rise above it. What is the one thing that bugs you the most? I remember once sitting in the living room with my sister, complaining about how bored we were. We sat there talking about nothing and even suggested some things we could do, but in the end, we just sat there, bored. The funny thing was that this went on for nearly three hours! If we’d actually done anything, we could have conquered that boredom, but we choose not to.

This is the choice we have, no matter what our life circumstance is. We can choose to live a grateful life of thanksgiving, or we can choose to live a spiteful life of "gimme."

Why is it, in this country of prosperity, that nobody is satisfied? In our monthly meeting, our assistant DS asked clergy what we were doing to combat materialism. Why does that question even have to be asked? Quite honestly, it goes back to something Jesus said. He said that nobody could serve two masters; we can either serve God or money.

Money is a useful tool, but it makes a cruel master. There’s never enough; you always want more. Many of us have accepted Jesus’ lordship over our lives but we’ve withheld our finances.

What reasons do we have to be thankful? Well, as I said, it can be easy to find things to be thankful for when things are going well, but sometimes it can be hard. You can probably come up with many times when thanksgiving was hard. Perhaps it is right now.

Maybe think of it this way: you’re at a basketball game, and the other team keeps making baskets, scoring point after point. It could seem frustrating, watching them make one lay-up after another. But how different might you feel if your team was up 100-0 and this was the fourth quarter?

Wouldn’t that change your attitude?

When the Apostle Paul tells his reader to always be thankful, it’s not simply a "mind over matter" kind of thing. He’s not telling them to turn a blind eye to suffering or pain. He’s not telling them to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that everything is all right when it really isn’t.

No, Paul’s command is within this context: Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. It’s God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus! This is not only who he is talking to, but the reason for our thankfulness.

We are on the team that’s up 100-0 – and even more! Jesus already won the game, and no matter how many point it seems that the enemy has scored, the outcome is never in doubt. For that, we can be thankful. With this mindset, we can look at our difficulties and understand that they pale in comparison to the great wonder, which is in store for us.

We read about it in Revelation 21:1-6.

You might be thinking, "I’m thankful – especially on Thanksgiving. So what?" If that’s where you are and you’re OK with that, then it could be partially my fault for preaching a scripture out of its context. You see, part of Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians included living out their sanctified life. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul urged the Christians to live and to please God (as they were already doing), but to do so more and more. He said that they already loved each other, but they should do so more and more, and (get this) to make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands, just as we instructed you before. Then people who are not Christians will respect the way you live, and you will not need to depend on others.

So be thankful, even more and more. And if you run out of things to be thankful for, ask God to show you.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sanctification - United Methodist Distinctives

John 17:13-21 NLT
Now I am coming to you. I told them many things while I was with them in this world so they would be filled with my joy. I have given them your word. And the world hates them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth. I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

John 17-19 NRSV
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

I was a college freshman, and I was being treated like royalty. Everywhere I went, there was great food and all sorts of fun, and what’s more, everyone wanted to get to know me. Guys wanted to know about my hometown, my background, my interests. They made sure I knew I belonged. It wasn’t long until I had been invited to belong, and I was introduced as a new "associate member" of the fraternity. That’s what they called pledges in our house. I went through a pledge period where I learned about the fraternity, even taking weekly quizzes. Then, one night, we went through the ritual that I’m not allowed to tell you about, and I became a full-fledged fraternity member. I was now allowed to wear the fraternity letters and identify myself with the house. It was a big deal, because I finally belonged.

In a church, I believe there’s something to be said about the process of integrating an unconnected freshman into a connected fraternity member. The freshman started as an outsider. Then we invited him in to check out the house. If we approved of him, we issued a bid, giving him the opportunity to accept or reject the offer. If he accepted, we rang him in as a pledge. After learning about the house, getting to know the members, and doing some chores and so forth, he was initiated as a full member, after which time he was expected to be a good Chi Phi. But he wasn’t left to figure it all out on his own. In fact, there was an interesting ceremony in which the pledges were "adopted" by pledge fathers whose duty it was to help them along the journey.

Our Christian journey can be compared to joining the fraternity. First, we were in sin, like the unconnected college freshman, but in Prevenient Grace, the Holy Spirit invited us in. Then, just like a pledge is initiated, through God’s Justifying Grace, we are integrated into the Christian life in the Church. But as we continue on the journey, we’re not left to do it on our own, either.

The Holy Spirit continually walks the journey with us – in us – and daily transforms us more and more into Christ’s likeness.

Of all the theological words I know, it seems that sanctification is maybe the least understood. In fact, the New Living Translation, the Bible I prefer to do my devotional reading from, has eliminated the word "sanctify" from this passage, preferring to translate it "make them holy." That’s OK, because the Greek word άγιαξω means “to make holy, purify, consecrate, hallow, be holy, sanctify.”

But that doesn’t really clear anything up, does it?

Think about it this way: when God justifies you, he also changes you from what you were to something new. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! By grace, God set us apart from ordinary use to a sacred purpose – that’s the definition of sanctification.

The very fact that we’ve been set apart is significant. But what have we been set apart for? We’ve been set apart for perfection. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus himself tells the crowds to "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."

Unfortunately, we often look at mediocrity, "getting by," or being "better than so-and-so" as our goal. Instead of perfection, we want OK. Instead of being God’s people sent into a lost and broken world, we are satisfied with church attendance – and not even weekly attendance, either. Instead of giving our first-fruits to God – 10% as a tithe, then additional as gifts and offerings, we are satisfied with dropping a few bucks into the plate (as long as people see me put my envelope in, I’m fine). Instead of loving our enemies, we’re satisfied with liking our friends. Instead of continuing the sin-free life that God has cleansed, we’re content to come again for forgiveness, again and again and again. Instead of forgiving others, we’re content to hold a grudge. Instead of living 24/7 for Christ, we’re satisfied with an hour or two on Sunday morning.

This is not living out your sanctification!

We have been sanctified and have been given power over outward and voluntary sin. One of the historical questions they’ve been asking Methodist Pastors as long as there’s been Methodism, is, "Are you going on to perfection?" This, however, isn’t just for pastors. It is for every Christian. Don’t sell yourself short by saying, "I’m just a sinner." If you believe that, that’s what you will be. Instead, continue to walk in the path set before you by God’s grace.

The truth is, sanctification is both instantaneous and gradual. Some have been delivered from all sorts of sin and vices immediately. For others of us, it is a journey. God’s grace continually setting us aside for His purpose gradually transforms us into Christ’s likeness.

What is left for us to do if God’s the one who sanctifies us?

We’ve already ceased from doing evil as we were justified, but we continue to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal unknown or involuntary sins that we’re guilty of and to help us overcome them. We are still required to obey God. We can’t simply ignore what God commanded and expect to become more like Jesus. This means becoming more cognizant of what God commands us – so that means we should be reading the Bible and discussing it with others to help us discern God’s will so we can be obedient to it.

Second, we do good deeds for others and works of mercy as a means of grace. God works through us to show His grace to others, and He also works, transforming us, as we do good works in His name. Jesus told his followers that they would be known for their works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving a drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and caring for orphans and widows. When we do so, we act as God’s hands and feet in a world that needs to know Him. And as we do so, we become more Christlike as well. This is sanctification, and it’s not just for a select few, but it’s expected of all Christians.

The benediction comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Justification - United Methodist Distinctives

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2:1-10

Last week I left you with the visual of this glass, filled with colored water representing the sin that stains our lives. Like the glass, we’re helpless to do anything about the color of the water that’s already there.

I also left you with the picture from Revelation 3:20 of Jesus standing at the door, knocking.

The first picture isn’t very comforting – it presents a rather bleak image. In fact, when I was in Russia, I had a conversation around a glass of Pepsi. My friend likened himself to the glass, saying, "I’d like to come to Jesus, but my life is like this glass – full of junk, and dirty and stained. I need to clean it up before I could come to Jesus." He was onto something, but, as I stated before, there’s nothing the glass can do. All the good deeds we can do are just like adding more water to what’s already stained.

God’s Prevenient Grace goes before us, calls us, shows us that by ourselves we cannot do anything, but that we need someone to intercede on our behalf.

This is where the picture of Jesus, standing at the door, knocking, comes in. He has already paid the price for your sin and guilt, and he’s asking if you want the forgiveness and victory that goes along with the price He paid.

When He comes in, he cleans house. Today’s scripture reminds us that this is Christ’s work, not our own. He takes our tainted lives, cleans them out – in fact, taking our sins upon Himself – and fills us with new, Living Water.

This is justification. An easy way to remember what "justification" means is that through Jesus Christ, we are made "just as if we’d never sinned."

Martin Luther called the doctrine of justification the "article by which the church stands or falls."

If it’s as easy as that, just opening the door to Jesus Christ, why doesn’t everyone just do it? Well, on one hand it is that simple, but on another hand it’s not. We get the chance to look out the door before we open it. He doesn’t trick us or sneak in, but instead waits until we ask him in.
Our invitation to Him includes our admission that we can’t do it on our own – that we’re guilty of sin and that, apart from God’s mercy, we’re stuck. Romans 6:23 explains it well: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

That gift leads to a real change – from sinner to clean. The passage from Romans has often been interpreted simply as dealing with the future – that justification means we’re delivered from God’s wrath in the final judgment. While this is true, it is only one aspect of justification. The other side of justification is that it is a present reality.

This has implications for us. You see, if we are presently justified, then we necessarily will behave ourselves as those who are justified. This doesn’t mean that we’re automatically free from the earthly consequences of sins we committed before we were saved. We often see someone "get faith" while they are incarcerated, but the "faith" they "got" was only for the sake of the parole board and they really just want out of the consequences of their actions. No, and some of the elements involved in opening the door to Jesus Christ are confession of our sins, requesting God’s mercy, ceasing from sin, forgiving others, and doing good works.

When we are justified, certain actions are required of us. John Wesley put it this way: we are required to act with outward expressions of our inward contrition and grace, including ceasing from evil, doing good, using the ordinances of God, and obeying God.

I find it interesting to read how John Wesley defined "Ceasing from evil" – he included the following: taking God’s name in vain, profaning the Sabbath, drunkenness, fighting, uncharitable conversation, and laying up treasures on earth. "Doing good" included works of mercy such as clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. "Using the ordinances of God" includes prayer, reading the Bible, and receiving the Lord’s Supper. He also expected that Christians would participate in the body of the church, because this is what helps us grow in grace.

Those actions do not cause us to be justified, but they flow from justification. Because we have been made clean, we behave ourselves as cleansed people would. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesis, For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.