No Room at the Inn

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.  – Luke 2:1-7

Firefighters rushing into our home. Scary sight for us.

What happens when you’re suddenly homeless?

We all need a place to call home.  A home provides protection from the weather, a place to rest in relative safety, and a retreat from the outside world.  But a home is more than that.  A home is an anchor.  A home gives us a sense of security.  It is a place we make our own.  Think about your own home for a moment.  Imagine your favorite place to sit.  Think about the comfort of your bed.  Picture in your mind the inside of your refrigerator and where you keep your favorite things to eat.  Now imagine all of that suddenly GONE.  That’s what happened to my family about six years ago.  We were living in Dinuba at the time serving two smaller churches in that quaint, rural town.  One Sunday after worship while I was cooking in the kitchen, the oil in the pan burst into flame!  Without realizing it, I had left the burner on high for too long in a shallow pan and it suddenly caught on fire.  I tried turning off the stove or just moving the pan off the burner, but the flames kept attacking me like they were alive.  I couldn’t get close enough without risking getting burned.  I immediately opened the doors under the sink to grab the fire extinguisher, but in just those few seconds the flames had risen high enough to catch the wooden cabinets next to the stove and they caught on fire.  The flames raced toward the ceiling and I knew it was moving too fast for me to stop it.  Instead, I shouted out to Emma to get out of the house.  I opened the back door for the dogs and rushed to Emma’s room to make sure she was safe outside.  I went back inside, got my lockbox with our passports, and a watch Cassie gave me for my birthday a few years ago and threw them on the lawn.  Then I asked Emma what her favorite stuffed animals were and grabbed what I could.  But as I was leaving the house that second time, I knew I couldn’t go back in.  The smoke, if you could call it that since it looked black as tar, had come down to head level and already I was having trouble breathing. I could hear a loud CRACK and something exploding which later I found out was the microwave.  And within the space of five minutes, we went from having a home to not having a home. That’s how quick you can go from having a home to being homeless.  Five minutes.

Damage after the fire. Most of the damage was actually smoke damage since the walls had asbestos and got everywhere.  Emma lost almost everything.  They had to throw out nearly everything since it had asbestos.

It’s scary to think about how many people are homeless in America today.

According to reports from 2016, more than half a MILLION people are looking for a place to sleep every night.[1]  What is more sad is about 138,000 of them are children.  And that is just a very woeful underestimate of the overall problem.  When you include children living in other people’s homes, waiting for foster care placement, living in cars, parks, and bus stations, the number rises to about a MILLION homeless children.[2]  By far the leading cause of homelessness among women is domestic violence.  About 90% of homeless women are escaping from physical and/or sexual abuse.[3]  And it’s a mistake to believe that most homeless people are suffering from mental illness.  While it’s true that the proportion of mental illness among homeless people is about 3 or 4 times that of the general population, still about 75-80% of homeless people are just like me and you – normal, everyday people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.[4]  Our neighborhood suffers from some of the highest concentration of homelessness in America.  In the past two years, the number of homeless in Berkeley shot up 13% which is far better than the 30% increase in San Francisco and the 47% increase in Oakland.[5]  Needless to say, the situation is pretty bad.  California already has nearly a quarter of all homeless people in America, by far the most of any other state.[6]   High rent, mortgage foreclosures, and lack of affordable housing are just some of the causes of this epidemic.  And while we attempt to bandage up the problem, we seem to be doing little to address the root cause.  It’s thanks to the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center and places like it that seek to find solutions to this crisis that we have hope for one day finding a solution.  But we all need to help in some way.

But homelessness is hardly an American problem.

As bad as it is here, I cannot even imagine what it’s like in places like Syria where over 12 million people are refugees either inside or outside of the country.  According to WorldVision, 6.7 million refugees fled Syria while 6.2 million are displaced inside the country, effectively homeless, but more than that they are often without food, medical care, or even drinkable water.[7]  They estimate that nearly 70% live on less than $1.90 a day, 95% lack healthcare, and 70% don’t have access to clean water.  Children are being especially harmed.  Not only are they subject to disease and malnutrition, but instead of going to school they are being forced to work demeaning or dangerous jobs for little pay.  Some are forced into the war.  Nearly 40% of school-age children don’t go to school, either because they are working, forced to serve in the war, or because their schools have been destroyed or hijacked by military groups or refugees.  And yet, our of our fear, out of our lack of faith, countries all over the world are limiting the number of refugees they are willing to help out including our own.  The United States used to be a world leader in refugee resettlement.  We used to help more refugees than all other countries combined and did so for decades.[8]  Since 2017, our refugee resettlement rate has dropped drastically. In that entire time, nearly three years, we’ve admitted fewer refugees than we did in 2016 alone.  For the first time in decades, we no longer lead the world in resettlement and will drop our numbers to an all-time low of 18,000.  This is amidst a crisis that is only growing year-by-year.  We’ve told the world, “There’s no room at the inn.”

Image thanks to WorldVision

Fear has gripped the world.

Fear of the other.  Fear of something different.  Fear of the unknown.  Fear of change.  These are not new fears.  These are fears we fight with every day and not just on an international scale, but on a personal one, too.  Fear is the lynchpin of evil.  It drives many of us to do irrational and harmful things to one another.  It creates an atmosphere of anger and rage.  It causes separation from God and division among communities of people. And it seems to be growing under the banner of nationalism.  So much hatred of “the other.”  It is the exact opposite of what Christ challenges us to do – to love others.  One of the apostles, Luke, records Christ sharing these thoughts, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36).”  We are not meant to only love the people who love us.  We are not meant to only do good to those who first do good to us.  And we are not supposed to expect payment for services rendered, but instead do it out of mercy and love.  With the world in crisis, how can we call ourselves Christians if we don’t do something about it?

We are sometimes so sheltered from suffering we don’t realize how deep the need is.

Trevor Noah became host of The Daily Show after Jon Stewart left with Jon’s blessings, and Trevor tells the story about how they had to force him to move into Jon’s office.  He said he was really happy with the little office he had been given.  It was simple.  There was a little brown desk with a skylight and he was good with it.  But (I assume the producers) wanted him to move into Jon’s office which had exposed brick but he was not a fan of exposed brick.  He said, “Exposed brick is a classic example of privilege in my world, because coming from South Africa (coming from any poor country to be honest) exposed brick displays that you do not have the ability to plaster your walls and paint them.  You don’t have enough money to do that.  So all we had growing up was exposed brick.  And then you move to a place that says, ‘We have so much plaster and so much paint, in order for me to be different I’m going to expose the bricks in my walls.’ And everyone says, ‘That is so fantastic! I will pay more for that.’ (Listen to the full insightful and funny podcast)  We are fortunate NOT to know the hardships of long-term homelessness.  Even for our family, that short bit of time where we lost almost everything we had, we had enough resources to recover, and even still it’s something that haunts us to this day.  It’s hard to imagine having that BE your existence, and what kind of lifelong impact that has on a young child and a family.  For millions of people around the world it is the reality they are living.  How can we expect the world to know the love of God when they struggle with simply existing?  But it is also an opportunity for us to show the love of God to a world that is hurting.  There are so many ways to help.  Not only are we supporting the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center during the Advent season, but there are numerous organizations all across the Bay Area from Ruby’s Place in Castro Valley, to Back on My Feet in the City, to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project right here in town.  We’ve listed some of these here and below, but there are so many more.  No matter how you choose to give to this crisis – whether it is with your time, talent, gifts, service, or witness – find your own way and your own means to help.  Because Mary and Joseph aren’t the only ones without a room during this Advent season.

Places to Give Your Time, Gifts, and Service

 

 

[1] https://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

[2] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ten-facts-about-homelessn_b_5977946

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.berkeleyside.com/2019/07/23/berkeleys-homeless-population-jumped-13-in-past-two-years

[6] https://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

[7] https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/syrian-refugee-crisis-facts#why-flee

[8] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/07/key-facts-about-refugees-to-the-u-s/

Clothes Make the Man

“Clothes make the man.”

You’ve probably heard that saying before.  Clothes are a status symbol in our society.  The shoes on your feet, the clothes on your back, the watch on your wrist all seem to MATTER.  At least to some.  Your clothes say something about the person you are.  Wearing the “right” clothes can place you firmly with the “in” crowd, or definitely “out.”  When I was in high school, the things to wear were Air Jordan shoes, Members Only jackets, and Guess jeans.  But it changes with every generation.  Every new group of kids has their own set of clothes that make them cool.  The same is true for adults.  This isn’t a youth only movement.  What you wear and when you wear it goes across all generations.  But fashion is fickle.  It’s here one day and gone the next.  Sometimes it comes back – whether we want it to or not.  Bell-bottom jeans and neon sweatshirts have both made a reappearance in my lifetime.  For what reason, I don’t know if anyone knows.  Interestingly, what you wear not only affects how other people perceive you but even how you perceive yourself.  Some researchers did an interesting experiment involving a white lab coat where participants were asked to either wear one or not wear one while doing a task.  Now a white lab coat is often a symbol of authority, discipline, and knowledge worn most often by doctors and scientists, but the researchers were curious if it would affect not just the people who interacted with the white lab coat, but the people who wore them as well, and what they found out was that the people who wore the lab coat did significantly better at the task than the people who didn’t.  They not only LOOKED more studious and professional, but putting on the coat actually MADE them more studious and professional.[1]  The kind of clothes we wear seemingly affects not only other people’s perceptions of us, but our own perception of ourselves.

1980’s fashion – what was cool when you were young?

Interestingly, God talks a lot about clothes in the Bible.

He talks about it in both a spiritual way and a material way.  For God, it isn’t important what kind of clothes you wear.  It doesn’t matter how good you look or how much money you spent on a pair of shoes.  Those things don’t measure a person’s worth.  James, the brother of Jesus, wrote about this.  He said, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:1-4)”  James is warning us that this is not how Christians are supposed to behave.  We’re not supposed to place value on someone based on their clothing or jewelry or anything they put on.  We’re supposed to love everyone equally.  Jesus tells his followers they shouldn’t worry about clothes at all.  He tells his disciples in Matthew 6, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”  Jesus isn’t an advocate for nudist colonies.  He’s not saying that people should walk around without clothes.  Jesus wore clothes.  What he’s trying to get his followers to understand is that they shouldn’t focus their life on these things.  That there are far more important things to focus your life on than what shoes someone is wearing or what designer made that dress.  Jesus wanted us to stop worrying about the inconsequential things and focus on what’s really important.

But there is a type of clothing that IS important to God.

Clothing yourself in Christ. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh (Romans 13).”  Paul writes again to the church in Corinth, “53 …the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15).’” And in his letter to the church at Colossae, he writes, “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3).” In each of these instances, Paul is using a metaphor for clothing.  He’s telling us that we need to “put on” the likeness of Christ.  We need to act as Christ does with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  We need to put aside the things that will lead us astray or take us away from our faith, but instead protect ourselves by being covered with Jesus’ teachings.  Because Paul knows that as human beings we are prone to go astray.  And just as clothing protects us from the weather and from the elements, clothing ourselves in Christ protects us from everything that seeks to pull us away from God.

Not that physical clothes are meaningless.

It’s one of our basic needs and over this Advent season, that’s what we will be focusing on – basic needs that everyone has and how we can meet them. We need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink.  We need shelter to keep us safe from the elements and wild creatures that go bump in the night.  Like we said earlier, we need clothes to protect us from the weather and from things we want to keep away from our bodies.  And those are just our physiological needs.  We also have the need to be loved, the need to feel safe from harm.  Albert Maslow hypothesized that before we can become the people God created us to be, we had to fulfill those basic needs first.  He called this the Hierarchy of Needs.[2]  It’s gone through a number of revisions over the years, but the basics of his hypothesis have pretty much stayed the same since he shared it back in 1954.  Did you know Maslow’s hypothesis wasn’t new?  God thought of it first.  If you remember from our earlier reading, each of these basic needs is called out by God.  He challenges us to stand up for others, to feed the hungry, to provide shelter for the poor, to clothe those without clothes, and never to turn our backs on our family.  In essence to fulfill the basic needs of all human beings.  But it’s not just in the Old Testament that we hear about this call, but in the New Testament as well. In this passage we hear the words of Jesus’ cousin John who has been preaching to anyone who will hear it that we need to have our sins cleansed from us and to repent before God.  The earlier prophets predicted that someone would come as a herald for Christ, a guy who would pave the way for Christ’s coming.  Sort of like the stand-up comedian that comes out before the main act, except in this case, John is giving a preview of exactly why Jesus has come to Earth.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

John is a passionate preacher.

He’s not afraid to tell it like it is and he’s warning the people of Israel that they shouldn’t assume God’s favor.  That just because they are the children of Abraham doesn’t mean they do not need to ask for forgiveness the same as anyone else.  I like how John tells the crowd, “And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”  He’s telling them not to be smug in their heritage.  Being a child of Abraham is nothing to a being who can create life from the rocks around them.  He’s warning them that they have become too complacent in their faith and when someone asks him what they should do, his first answer is this: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even before Jesus would come and basically say the same thing, John told the people of Israel that they needed to provide for one another.  They needed to attend to the basic needs of their brothers and sisters.  And the first reference he makes is to clothing.

We tend to take clothing for granted.

We don’t worry about HAVING clothing, but about what KIND of clothing we have.  But we are so privileged.  The New York Times estimated that between 40% and 80% of people in the world live on subsistence income, barely making 50 to 60 cents per day.[3]  40-80%!  And even though there are tons of programs to help with other needs, clothing tends to get overlooked. Anshu Gupta, a freelance reporter in India, looked around and saw how in need of clothing so many people in his country were.  He said to a reporter for the Times, “In earthquakes, the shake kills people; in a tsunami, the water kills people; but in winter, the cold does not kill people. It’s the lack of proper clothing,” says Gupta. “Why don’t we consider lack of clothing a disaster?”[4]  Even in America, many people lack enough clothing just to protect themselves.  As part of our ordination process in North Georgia, we took a tour of different Methodist facilities all over the area, but the one that stuck out to me the most was our trip to the United Methodist Children’s Home.  Two of my friends have now served as director of this great place that does so much to children in need.  They house kids from broken homes or kids in need of protection or kids who have no place to go from all over, but the story I’ll never forget is the one we were told when we visited.  The director at the time told us that most of the kids who arrive on their doorstep come with nothing more than a virtually empty backpack that the home often provides.  Not only do they lack toys and games and other things we normally associate with kids, but sometimes they don’t even have a change of clothes.  Sometimes they don’t have a jacket or a sweater or anything to protect them.  Sometimes they don’t have clean underwear.  They literally come with the clothes on their backs with no home, no family, no friends.  It’s hard to imagine that in a country like ours, we have kids in need like that.  That we have ANYONE in need like that.  If we are truly Christian, we can’t stand by and do nothing.  We must heed God’s call and do more.  We must put on the clothing of Christ and reach out to clothe the world.  When we help one another take care of our basic needs, we can all grow closer to Christ together.  In the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-babble/201208/clothes-make-the-man-literally

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs#Esteem

[3] http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/clothing-the-poorest-for-survival/?_r=0

[4] Ibid

Amazing Grace

I’ll never forget the time I got to see Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in person.

He was with the White Oak Dance Project, which was a modern dance company he founded.  The year was about 1995 and they were doing a series of four dances, only one of which Baryshnikov himself was in.  He was already 47 or 48 years old at the time, and I wondered what I would see.  Most of the dancers on the stage were much younger than him, about 20 to 25.  Would he still be able to keep up with the other dancers, or would he be a sort of pale version of his former self?  I guess I was about to find out. The first three acts were admittedly kind of dull.  Maybe if you were a modern dance enthusiast you would have appreciated the performance, but I thought it was pretty boring.  Had it not been for the fact that I had a crush on the girl who I took to the performance, I probably would have fallen asleep.  But then I would have missed Baryshnikov.  When he took the stage, he completely captured the attention of everyone in the room.  He danced circles around the kids who were nearly half his age.  It was as if they were props in a dance routine made just for him.  I’d never seen anyone move like that before or since.  If there was anyone who epitomized grace, it would have been him.

“Grace” is used to describe so many things – but what does it really mean?

Funny thing about that word “grace” though.

It’s used in so many different ways.  When I share with you the grace that Baryshnikov showed that night, you all know exactly what I mean.  But if we were talking about Mark McGwire’s fall from grace over his steroid use, you’d know what that meant too even though they are completely different definitions.  We say grace over a meal.  The credit card company offers us a grace period to pay our bills. A person shows grace by admitting to their faults.  So what does this word really mean?  And what does it mean to talk about the grace of God?  For anyone who’s been in church for any length of time, you know we talk constantly about God’s grace, but this is another one of those church words that gets thrown out there without any real explanation of what it means. We don’t do a good job of letting people know what grace IS.  Many of us assume that everyone knows what we’re talking about, but with so many different interpretations of grace, what do we really mean?  Our passage from John will help us shed a little light on the subject.  If you would please rise for the reading of the Gospel according to John 1:9-18.  Hear now the Word of God.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. – John 1:9-18

The first part of the passage, sets up the last.

By that I mean that when John is describing to us the person of Jesus in those first few verses (9-13), he is setting us up to more fully understand what grace is.  Let’s look at the beginning of that passage again. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. Here John is describing Jesus as the bringer of hope and life – the “true light that gives light to everyone.”  You’d think that was pretty good, but John then writes, “the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own (the Jewish people), but his own did not receive him.”  Despite the fact that Jesus was the one long prophesied about, few people recognized him when he came among them.  He was the Word made flesh, meaning Jesus was truly God incarnate, God on Earth, and yet we failed to see him.  But even though we failed to see him, John tells us, “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.”  We have all received grace in place of grace already given.  God had already given humanity the gift of life.  God had given humanity relief in the desert when Moses led his people to freedom.  God had blessed the people again and again and even though we had done nothing to deserve it, God then gave us his son Jesus Christ.  And that is the meaning of grace.  Grace is the unmerited favor of God for a group of people who didn’t deserve it.  Grace is the unmerited favor of God for a group of people who didn’t deserve it.  Despite the fact that we wander away constantly; that we turn to worshipping other idols like power, money, beauty, and fame; despite the fact that we fail to give thanks to God for the life we have, God still sent Jesus to redeem us.  God forgives us our sin.  God still offers us salvation.  That is the meaning of grace.

Grace cannot be earned so you cannot “deserve” grace. It is a gift.

But let’s not mistake grace for mercy.

Grace and mercy are two totally different things.  We often pair the two words together, mostly because they go hand-in-hand, but they have very different meanings.  As one writer put it, “Mercy withholds a punishment we deserve; grace gives a blessing we don’t deserve.”[1]  Mercy withholds a punishment we deserve; grace gives a blessing we don’t deserve. That’s what makes the grace of God so amazing.  It’s more than simply God not punishing us for what we’ve done, but then God takes it to a whole other level!  God offers us salvation!  By that we mean that God offers us an opportunity to not only wipe our slate clean of our sins, but to ask us to join him in Heaven when we pass from this Earth.  He asks us to reenter into paradise even though we don’t deserve it.  THAT is the God we follow.  Everything else pales in comparison.  I like what Andy Stanley said here about grace.  Andy Stanley is the lead pastor of North Point Community Church out in Georgia and he’s a very prolific author, and in his book on grace he says, “To say that someone deserves grace is a contradiction in terms.  You can no more deserve grace than you can plan you own surprise party…the minute you think you deserve it, the it you think you deserve is no longer grace.  It is something you have earned.  But grace can’t be earned.”[2]  That’s the whole point.  That grace can’t be earned.

The reason so many people are opposed to the church is that we often don’t extend that grace ourselves.

We do a great job receiving grace, but not as good of a job extending it.  We do a great job of receiving grace, but not as good of a job extending it. We tend toward becoming a “graceless religion.”  To use Andy’s words, “Instead of defining itself in terms of what it stands for, the church often takes the less imaginative and easier path of defining itself in terms of what it is against.”[3] We like to tell people what we are against.  Throughout the church’s history we have made bold statements about what we are against, only to later realize how much we were wrong.  We’ve stood against interracial marriage.  For that matter we stood against racial equality.  We’ve stood against women in leadership positions in the church.  Again, we’ve stood against gender equality.  But instead of focusing on the things we are against, why don’t we focus instead on the things we believe in.  Instead of condemning people for being different than we are, why don’t we embrace them for the things we hold in common, like being human beings.  Christianity didn’t become the world’s largest religion because of what we stood against, but because of what we stood for.  Christianity didn’t become the world’s largest religion because of what we stood against, but because of what we stood for.  We stood for caring for the sick, so we built hospitals.  We stood for helping people get ahead in life, so we built schools and universities.  We stood for people deserving affordable houses so we started Habitat for Humanity.  We stood for helping the poor and the needy so we built shelters and places like Open Gate.  We helped others, not because they paid us to.  Not because they did something for us.  But because there was a need and we filled it.  THAT is what it means for us to extend the grace of God – helping others not because they deserve it, but because we want to show them the grace that God has given to us by offering grace ourselves.  We can talk about grace in so many ways – in the arts like with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in finance where it’s really mercy more than grace – but this is the greatest grace there is.

One of my favorite stories of grace comes from Francis Chan.

He’s another pastor and writer and I was at a conference where he gave this tremendous story about grace.  It was about his daughter.  His daughter had done poorly on a test.  She had gotten a “C” and I love the way he described it.  He said, “It’s like getting an Asian ‘F.’ Asian kids aren’t supposed to get “C’s.”  So his daughter’s friends were asking her, “So what’s he going to do to you?”  “What’s he going to do to you?” as if he was going to take her out behind the woodshed or something.  So when he picked her up from school that afternoon, she got in the car and told him about the grade.  And instead of getting mad, or getting upset, or giving her a punishment, he said, “Okay.  Let’s go get some ice cream.”  Instead of punishing her or lecturing her as she felt she deserved, he not only forgave her, but then added on top of that the ice cream!  The next day at school when she told her friends about what had happened, the other kids all said, “I wish I had your dad.” This week, I want to challenge you to show the grace of God to someone in your life.  Someone who maybe deserves your wrath, your anger, or your justice, like the guy who cuts you off on the highway or the knucklehead who gets your coffee order wrong or maybe one of your kids or your spouse who makes a mistake that maybe they should have known better.  Instead of giving them “justice,” not only show them mercy but extend to them God’s grace.  Go above and beyond what’s needed or expected to do something out of kindness and love and thereby passing the grace of God forward.  Sometimes we are like Francis Chan and we are put in situations where we can show justice, mercy, or grace, and it’s up to us to choose.  Any of those things would be technically right, but only one is going to make people say, “I wish I had your dad.”  Some times we need to share about the grace of God with others so that they CAN say that and realize that the Dad we have in Heaven is a pretty awesome dad indeed.

 

[1] http://www.gotquestions.org/grace-of-God.html

[2] Andy Stanley, The Grace of God, p. xiii-xiv.

[3] Ibid, p.xiv.

Two Masters

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[c] your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy,[d] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. – Matthew 6:19-24

When is enough, enough?

Did you know that 66% of Americans support stricter gun control laws, from both sides of the aisle?[1]  I was surprised to find out 67% support an assault weapons ban, 83% support a mandatory waiting period, and a whopping 97% of Americans support universal background checks.  I guess that last 3% are officers of the National Rifle Association.  What’s more surprising is that despite the overwhelming numbers the Senate won’t even bring up the subject.[2]  At all.  In the face of both overwhelming factual evidence on the efficacy of gun control laws, the number of studies that prove gun control to be effective, AND the overwhelming support of the American people, enough Senators in the United States Congress are able to stem the tide against even talking about the subject.  This in the wake of yet another high school shooting. Just this year alone we have had 370 mass shootings, 441 deaths, and 1,466 injuries.[3]  That’s just this year.  So when is enough, enough?

What does it take for people to simply do the right thing?

When will our lust for money, power, and fame be overcome by doing the decent, right, and honorable thing?  In a world of “alternative facts” it isn’t enough to have the Truth to convince people to do the right thing.  Scientists have warned about the effects of global warming since 1988 when record temperatures, drought, and wildfires spread across the United States.[4]  Yet we have not taken the threat of climate change serious enough to prevent global catastrophe.[5]  Tobacco companies knew for decades that cigarettes were causing people to die, but they continued to peddle them to little kids with cute mascots and idealized pictures of people living “the good life.”  And now we have companies like San Francisco based JUUL trying to get kids addicted in a new way!  They have aggressively marketed to children who have never smoked before and appealed to them through slick and misleading advertising.[6]  Children as young as 13 are suffering from lung injury related to vaping.  Of the over 2,000 reported cases of injury, 14% of patients are under 18 and 79% are under 35.  Most of the 42 deaths have been older people ranging in age from 17 to 75.  Ironically, a friend of mine who is a pastor knows one of the Vice Presidents at JUUL and both have children who are in the same class.  My pastor friend’s daughter did a report on the health effects of vaping and the Vice President came up to my friend and said he was very concerned and would like to know what JUUL could do to help.  I don’t know.  Maybe stop selling these products to kids?  Maybe stop selling these products with fruity flavors?  Maybe stop selling things that are harmful and addictive?  Seriously, what does it take to do the right thing?

What does it take for us to take a stand for those things that are important?

But these are massive problems. 

They seem overwhelming to each of us. What can we do as the people of God?  We can stand up for what’s right.  We can help one another.  We can lift one another up.  We can be there for each other and make the tough choices to make the world a better place.  Mario Teyacheya was the Draco Malfoy of my elementary school days.  He was the local bully and he liked to pick on other kids in our class.  He always hung out with these two thugs, kind of like Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter books.  Mario was a punk kid with a skinny frame and long wavy hair, and he liked to punch people.  He’s the kid in class who knew the principle on a first name basis.  He’d challenge other boys to meet him after school and if you didn’t show up, he’d tell people you were a chicken or a wimp.  As you can imagine, his prowess at beating people up grew, even though I don’t know of anyone he actually fought.  Well, I avoided Mario as much as possible, but finally, Mario cornered me and challenged me to a fight.  I was pretty worried, but I didn’t want to be labeled a chicken, so I showed up wondering how bad it was going to be.  Sure enough, Mario shows up with his two goons, picking at his teeth as he approached.  Word had got around about our fight and a couple of kids showed up to watch.  No one offered to help, they just wanted to watch the carnage.  So there I stood as Mario walked up, getting ready to punch me when suddenly, my friend Greg Pillioglas came out from the door next to me and yelled at Mario, “Back off or you’ll have to fight me, too!”  The three of them just looked up at Greg, turned around, and ran off.  See, Greg was about a foot taller than me, and in 3rd grade, a foot is a big deal.  He was stronger than anyone in the class, and everyone knew it, and he was my friend.  Greg and I didn’t hang out or anything, but I always helped him do his math. Math was always one of my strong subjects so I would help him out.  He was always grateful and once told me, “If you ever need anything, you just let me know and I’ll help you out.”  I thought that was a nice thing to say, but on that day, I knew Greg meant it.  He asked me if I was alright, and I told him “Yeah, just mad was all.”  And he said to me, “If anyone gives you trouble again, you tell me and I’ll come beat them up for you.”  No one ever bothered me again.  Greg was a hero, and not because he was tough, because really he wasn’t.  Greg was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. But he was a hero because he stood up for me when I needed it.  He could easily have done what every other kid including my friends did and stayed away, but he didn’t.  He got involved.  He did what he thought was right even though that meant putting himself at risk.  And that’s what Christ calls on us to do every day – to make the tough choices and do what’s right.  We tend to think of standing up for what’s right on these grand scales of global consequences, but the most effective changes, the ones that change the world, are often the ones that start in the hearts and minds of people like you and me simply doing the right thing instead of what’s easy or convenient.

Daniel was like that.

As we heard in his story (above), Daniel could easily have given in to the king’s demands.  After all, they weren’t unreasonable and Daniel was hand-picked as being among the best of Israel’s people.  He was on the fast track to a career as a civil servant.  He was even being fed food from the King’s table!  But Daniel didn’t want to violate the commitment he had made to God.  His faith was that important to him so he refused to eat what the others were eating and his friends followed suit.  The official in charge of taking care of them told Daniel, “Hey, I get it, but I don’t want to die just because you won’t eat the King’s food.  Can’t you give me a break?”  So Daniel made a deal with him.  “Give me ten days to show you what living a life like my God has asked me to live can do and if we aren’t at least as healthy as everyone else, you can turn us in.”  It would have been so easy to follow along with what everyone else was doing.  It would have been so easy to just eat the King’s food and drink the King’s wine.  But instead, Daniel stood up for what he believed in.  Not with disrespect but with bravery and boldness, willing to accept the consequences.  And God was there for him.

The famous poem by pastor Martin Niemoller is an inspiration for doing what’s right

Standing up for what’s right isn’t easy.

It’s often very difficult.  It’s always tempting to take the easy way out.  Or the expedient way.  Or the way that profits us in the short term.  But doing the right thing can change the world.  Not doing the right thing can also change the world, sometimes in tragic ways.  I’m reminded of Martin Niemoller’s famous poem.  Martin was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II.  At first he supported the Nazis as did many Germans, until the Third Reich decided to take control of the churches.  He spoke out frequently against the Nazi regime, often landing him in prison and eventually in a concentration camp.  He was liberated in 1945, and is most well known for a poem he wrote in response to a student who asked “How could it happen?”[7]  Indeed, you would think that it would be impossible for an entire country to stand by and watch this horror occur, but we all know it did.  “How could it happen?”  Niemoller responded by writing his famous poem:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”[8]

When we see the problems in the world today, the problems that we could and should be able to solve, it’s hard to imagine why we haven’t done more.  It’s hard to imagine why people would ignore climate change.  It’s hard to imagine why people don’t do something about the proliferation of guns in America.  It’s hard to imagine why people would willingly let people die just to make a profit.  But it happens.  And we can do something. Your voice might only be one voice, but together we can be a mighty force that cannot be ignored.  Don’t be afraid to speak up.  Don’t be afraid to step out on that ledge, because when you commit to doing what is right, God is with you in a powerful way.  God loves you.  And God will use you in mighty ways if you but follow where he leads.  So when the time comes, stand up for what’s right and put your faith and trust in God.

 

[1] https://www.newsweek.com/massacremitch-trends-after-santa-clarita-school-shooting-hes-had-background-check-bill-his-1471859

[2] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/08/04/mass-shootings-what-congress-doing-gun-control/1916451001/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mass_shootings_in_the_United_States_in_2019

[4] https://www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/history-of-climate-change

[5] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/more-americans-believe-global-warming-they-won-t-pay-much-n962001

[6] https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/10/health/vaping-outbreak-2019-explainer/index.html

[7] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Niemoller_quote.html.

[8] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/niemoeller.html.

Planting Seeds

What is it worth?

I’ve loved comics since I was about six or seven years old.  My dad used to bring home issues of the Incredible Hulk from time-to-time.  He would come home after work, lean around the doorframe of my room and just say, “Here, buddy,” and hand me a new one.  I loved those old books.  Part of it was because of the bond between me and my dad, but part of it was because the stories were fascinating. I didn’t have many, just whatever my dad brought home, but it was the beginning of a life-long love of comics.  I didn’t take particularly good care of them.  To me, they were books to be loved and read over and over.  But I went from being an occasional reader to a true comic book fan with one particular issue – Uncanny X-Men #147, “Rogue Storm”.  I was fascinated by the X-Men and wanted to read more, so slowly I began collecting older issues which led me to more issues and more interesting stories, and pretty soon, I was visiting my local comic book store with my dad every week.  That’s where I learned there were actually two types of comic book people – those like me who actually read the books and those who plopped them in plastic bags for the sole purpose of collecting them for future profit.  To this second group of people, comic books were an investment in the future.  These guys would come into the store and just walk down the new comic book aisle, picking up one of every issue, two if it was a first issue, and immediately place them into plastic bags and put them into a storage box. And there they would sit.  In a bag, in a box, on a shelf.  Neatly labeled, but for no real purpose.  Never read or opened, but sitting there useless.  I know these collectors thought one day they might be worth a lot of money, but when the bottom dropped out of the comic book market, they were left with boxes upon boxes of useless comics.  And they never even got to enjoy them.  In that way, our faith is like a comic book.  We can either enjoy it as it was intended, or we can put it on a shelf, condemned to never live out it’s true purpose.  The love of God is meant to be cherished.  Our faith is meant to be explored.  Our hope in Christ is meant to be shared.  It isn’t supposed to be hidden away.

Uncanny X-Men #147 – the comic that started it all for me

We often feel unprepared, unworthy, and ill equipped to do the work God has called us to do.

But that’s because of our own lack of faith instead of an actual inability to do what God wants us to do.  You have all the tools you need to share your faith and the love of God, because the work of God is more about attitude instead of aptitude.  The work of God is more about attitude than aptitude.  Jesus talks about that in the parable we are about to share.  This story we are about to hear from Jesus is known as the Parable of the Sower and it’s one you’ve likely heard before if you’ve been in church for any length of time.  You could read it from two different perspectives – as the seed or as the sower.  As the seed, Jesus is calling on us to be responsive to his Word; to be the ones planted in good soil that produce a crop, but as the sower we have a different perspective.  As we read the passage, I want you to picture yourself in the story as the sower that Jesus talks about, and picture in your mind that this is a task God empowers us to do.

Hard to believe how plants and seeds can be shaped and formed into different shapes. How we share our faith can also be shaped and formed.

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”  Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” – Mark 4:1-9

You are the sower.

YOU are the sower.  The seeds that God is referring to are the bits of knowledge and wisdom that we have gained from listening, reading, and studying God’s Word.  They are part of the fruit that he produces in us.  Now it’s our turn to use those seeds to grow new fruit, which will produce even more of a harvest for God.  But without us spreading his seeds, for certain no new fruit can be grown and the harvest ends with us.  Without us spreading his seeds, no new fruit can be grown and the harvest ends with us.  We are important to God’s plan.  But you might be timid about it.  You might worry about wasting your time, energy, and effort if you can’t produce results.  You don’t want people to think you’re foolish. You might be embarrassed to share your faith.  All of these things play into our minds as we think about becoming the kind of farmers God wants us to be.  But in this parable, Jesus is encouraging us to plant everywhere.  We cannot become better harvesters if we don’t ever attempt to do what needs to be done.  We can’t tell what will work and what won’t unless we try.  We learn best by DOING.  The point Jesus is making here is about our faithfulness to the planting process.  When we do what we are supposed to, not every seed we plant in someone’s heart will take root.  Not every effort we make will bear fruit.  But when it does, it is worth it.

How we use seeds and flowers can be quite creative and innovative. The sharing of our faith also has unlimited potential in how we choose to do it.

But the process IS important.

The act of planting seeds in people’s hearts is vital to growing our collective faith.  People who aren’t Christian aren’t walking around saying to themselves, “Oh, I wish I were Christian.”  “If I were Christian, my whole life would be better!  If only someone would show me how to BE a Christian!”  No.  Most people are not simply one step away from accepting Christ.  Most people don’t know that they need Jesus and are just looking for someone to show them the way.  For the most part, they’re walking around thinking life is pretty good – or not. Some are happy, some are sad, but they don’t KNOW that there’s another kind of life waiting for them.  They don’t know that there is a whole different kind of existence when you have Christ in your life.  They don’t know how GOOD it can be!  It’s like Indian food.  There’s nothing like a good bowl of dal or a good pot of chicken tikka masala and there are times I CRAVE, absolutely CRAVE masala dosa. I’ve searched all over the Central Valley and haven’t found one restaurant that has it.  Cassie and I will make a point of going to Little India when we visit my parents just to eat it.  But before I TRIED Indian food, I never knew what I was missing.  I could take it or leave it, and honestly I preferred to leave it.  I never had it, never saw it, never smelled it, and frankly never wanted it.  I was happy enough in my life without it and I wasn’t all that interested in trying something new, but when Cassie asked me to I loved it!  I wish I hadn’t waited so long to try it, and I always encourage people to eat it.  If you like Chinese food or just kind of spicy food, you’ll love the flavors of Indian food.  But had Cassie not come along and invited me to try it, I would have lived life perfectly happy, not knowing what I was missing.  Christianity is like that.  It’s this awesome, incredible, wonderful part of life that makes life more meaningful and more worth living, but unless you know you need it, you can just go on without it.

When a seed blooms it’s beauty can be something to behold. The same is true when we see someone grow in faith.

That’s why it’s so important for us to share our faith instead if hiding it away on a shelf.

Because we have the power to change lives.  Through God’s grace and God’s love, we have the power to change lives.  And it doesn’t take any more knowledge or power than what God has already given you.  Think about the ways in which God has changed your life.  Think about the difference God has made in the way you live.  Think about how you approach life differently because God is a part of it.  Those are the seeds you have to share.  Biblical knowledge is great and you should be encouraged to involve yourself in growing deeper in your faith, but if you’re waiting to have “enough” Biblical knowledge to answer every question or counter every argument, you’ll never get there.  Learning about God is a lifelong project.  You won’t graduate in this life.  But you have enough to share your faith, whether you believe it or not.  You have enough.  The seeds God has put in your pouch are enough.  Now who are you going to share them with?

I know that fear is a big part of not sharing your faith.

Fear of failure, fear of being inadequate, fear of your own lack of knowledge – but fear should never stop you from planting seeds.  In fact, it should do just the opposite.  It should inspire you and encourage you and motivate you to go out there anyway.  Fear of the number of lives you fail to change because you chose NOT to share your faith.  Fear of what God will say when you die and he asks you what you did with your faith.  Fear of knowing you had the power to change people’s lives and didn’t do it.   I was visiting with a woman at one of the churches I served, and I’ll never forget the story she told me.  She said that although she went to church every week and it was important to her, she didn’t want to force her faith on her children.  She wanted them to choose for themselves what path they would follow.  So after they reached a certain age, she didn’t encourage them to come to church.  She let them choose.  Naturally, they chose to stay home.  They chose to go out with friends.  They chose a life away from God.  And they often floundered in life, struggling with fear, worry, anxiety, and insecurity.  Later in life, her daughter started to come to church again.  In it, she found many of the answers that had eluded her for so long.  One day, she asked her mother why it was she never shared about her faith.  When her mother told her she wanted her to find out for herself, the daughter said, “I wish you had told me all of this years ago.  You should have told me why you believed.  If it was that important to you and to me, you should have told me why you believed.  It would have saved me from years of pain and frustration.”  Her story really touched my heart.  While I do believe ultimately we have to choose whether or not to follow God, how can we choose when we don’t even know what the choices are?  Is our lack of faith that profound that we can’t even share it with those closest to us?  Fear shouldn’t hold you back.  Fear should make you stronger and bolder in your faith.

Be bold in your faith.

You may not have all the answers, but no one does.  Not me, not you, not any one except God.  So if you’re waiting to be “ready” you’ll never get there.  Like riding a bike, like learning to walk, like planting seeds, like anything in life we gain knowledge in the doing.  Some of our seeds may land on infertile ground, but we learn from it.  Some of our seeds may start to bloom and then wither under the weeds, but we learn from it.  Some of our seeds might get taken away, but we learn from it and in each instance we learn how to be better at sharing our faith.  We learn what works for us and what doesn’t.  If fear is holding you back, it’s because you don’t fear the consequences enough to do something about it.  And if you feel like you’ve tried and failed, just remember, the one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them.  The one who plants the seeds isn’t always the one who harvests them.  Don’t be frustrated in your attempts.  Don’t worry that you don’t see fruit right away.  There are plants that take years to harvest.  The fig trees that Jesus always seems to be talking about take anywhere from three to five years to produce any figs.[1] A traditional apple tree can take anywhere from six to seven years to give any fruit.[2]  And olive trees can give fruit as early as three and sometimes as late as 12 years.[3]  You might be the one to plant the seed, but it might take a team of people to finally harvest it.  So do not be discouraged by a lack of results, but instead be faithful to the planting process.  It’s the planting of the seeds that honors God.  If we don’t share our faith, it’s like putting a comic book into a bag without ever reading it.  An unread comic is a wasted comic.  An unsowed seed is a wasted seed.  And a life without Christ is a mere shadow of what it could be.

 

 

[1] http://www.ehow.com/facts_7472639_long-fig-tree-produce-fruit.html

[2] http://www.gardenguides.com/86431-many-years-apple-tree-produce-fruit.html

[3] http://olivetreegrowers.com/faq.php

We Create Happiness

What is the key to success?

People all over the world since time began have tried to figure tbat out, but most never do.  Did you know that eighty percent of businesses fail in the first 18 months?[1]  And while churches do better, after only four years 32% of them close their doors.  And those numbers don’t reflect churches that are stagnant in their growth or never get off the ground.  Still, nearly a third close in the time it takes between one Olympics and the next.  But Disney… well they seem to have found the magic formula.  Despite downturns in the economy when other similar business are struggling, Disney continues to be stronger than ever.  Not only do they seem to keep adding new parks, but the ones they do have continue to bring in visitors by the millions – 157 million to be exact.[2]  At the end of the 2018 fiscal year, the theme park division alone made over 20 BILLION dollars thanks to those visitors.[3]  When I started as a cast member, the cost to get in the park was just under $18.00.  Thirty years later that cost has risen over 600%, and yet there are more people coming to the park each day than when I worked there all those years ago. So how do they do it?  When most businesses and even most churches seem to be struggling, how does Disney keep attracting more and more people every year?  The funny thing is they don’t even keep it a secret.

What IS the Disney Key to Success?

Believe it or not, it’s happiness.  I know it sounds hokey.  I know it sounds unbelievable.  But it’s true. Disney’s key to success is happiness.  The foundation for their existence centers on this one idea.  When Walt first made movies, he wanted to tell stories that would reach the hearts of everyone.  When he created Disneyland, he wanted a place where families could build memories together. When he was planning Epcot, it was in the hope that he would build a city of tomorrow that would bring happiness and harmony to all of its citizens.  He believed so much in this vision, it fueled everything he did and he was successful because it tapped into a deep seated need of all people – to find happiness.  But after Walt died, the company focused not on innovation, but on keeping Walt’s legacy alive. Without realizing it, they changed the dynamics of the entire company and plunged it into mediocrity.  They were so concerned about keeping things the way Walt left them, they didn’t realize Walt himself would never have left it that way.  Overnight, they went from being a dynamic company of innovators to a company of mediocrity and it nearly killed them.  If it weren’t for Michael Eisner, an innovator and visionary like Walt, and Walt’s nephew Roy, who understood Walt’s passion, the company would have been bought out.  Instead they turned things around by reinvigorating the company behind Walt’s singular principle – We Create Happiness.

Our Faith and Family Trip photo from earlier this year

“We Create Happiness” is the goal and the vision for the Walt Disney Company.

Their full statement of purpose is “We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.”[4]  It’s a pretty bold statement, but it is the fuel that drives the entire machine.  Disney is in the business of meeting people’s needs.  That’s the simple version of it.  It’s far more complex in its execution, but it’s often a simple philosophy that drives most successful ventures.  And when you lose sight of what is at the heart of any movement or group or company, you lose momentum.  You lose direction.  And you lose that driving force that compels people to want to be a part of what you are doing.  And you have to be constantly vigilant about keeping your focus on the vision because success can be such a fragile thing.  John Hench who worked for the company and created some of the most iconic attractions in the park once said, “…for all its success, the Disney theme show is quite a fragile thing.  It just takes one contradiction, one out-of-place stimulus to negate a particular moment’s experience…Tack up a felt tip brown paper sign that says, ‘Keep Out’… take a host’s costume away and put him in blue jeans and a tank top…place a touch of artificial turf here…add a surly employee there…it really doesn’t take much to upset it all.”[5] So they focus on it.  They make it the central core of what they do.  And they do it well.

We make disciples for Jesus Christ by loving people in their need and for who they are, not who we want them to be

The same is true for the church.

The reason we’re talking about this is because this fundamental key to success is as true for us as it is for Disney.  If we want to be successful, if we want to make an impact on our neighborhood, on our community, and on our society, we have to know who we are, what our community needs, and keep that at the heart of everything we do.  And by community, I don’t mean the people who are already part of our church, but the larger community outside of our walls that we serve.  We have to answer the question, “What do people need that they can’t get somewhere else?”  What is it that people can only get from the church?  The answer is the love of Jesus Christ.  The fullest expression of Christ’s love lives within the body of Christ and we are that body.  We are the hands of feet of Jesus to the world.  That’s why our vision is, “Transforming lives through Christ’s love.”  As a church we believe that life is better with Christ.  We know that the love of Christ can sustain us through hard times and can make us into better people.  We know that living a life modeled after Jesus not only makes the world a better place to live in, but gives us a sense of peace and joy that honestly can’t be found elsewhere.  And that’s why our focus has to be “Transforming lives through Christ’s love.”

13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus went where he was needed.

It was a central aspect of his teaching and it’s what he did in day-to-day life.  He sat down with his disciples and taught about it like in the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. And he lived it like in this passage where he had dinner with the tax collectors and the sinners.  But the Pharisees didn’t get it.  They looked down on people they thought weren’t worthy or who weren’t like them and thought Jesus shouldn’t be bothering with “those people.”  But Jesus told them, it is for those very people he was here.  People who were right with God, who knew God, who felt God’s love didn’t need him.  It was for the people who were distant from God who needed him the most.  He didn’t wait for them to come to him.  He went to them.  He came to them where they were, ate with them, got to know them, spent time with them so that they would know the love he had for them.  He didn’t force them to adapt his ways.  Instead, he met them where they were in life.  There are tons of stories about this in the Bible.  Like the story of Peter seeing the image of Christ who told him not to judge the Gentiles because they didn’t live by Jewish standards.  Or the story of Paul who said he became like those around him so that he might win some to the heart of Christ.  It was a strategy that worked then and still one that works now.

Walt’s philosophy was simple – find out what the people want.

He once said, “You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.”  And the way he did that was by paying attention to others, learning what they wanted, and really listening to their needs.  One time when Disneyland was first open, some of his team noticed that people were walking through the flower bed.  They were creating their own path and the people around him were saying, “I guess we need to build a fence here to make sure people don’t walk through the flower bed.”  Walt said, “No, what we need to do is tear out the flower bed and create a better walkway.  People are telling us what they need with their actions.  We need to listen to them.”  And he did.  How well are we listening to our community?  How well are we responding to the needs of those around us?  I often think of something another Craig said (Craig Groeschel of LifeChurch.tv), “To reach people no one else is reaching, we have to do what no one else is doing.”[6]  We have to be innovative and break barriers to reach people with the love of Christ.  We have to have extravagant generosity and abundant kindness and patience.  We have to meet people where they are at and find ways to show the love of Christ.

We provide something unique.

Something you can’t find anywhere else – the transformative power of Jesus Christ through his love.  With a gift so extraordinary, you have to wonder why the whole world isn’t Christian.  It’s because we have not always done a good job of meeting people where they are.  Because we have at times been judgmental and condescending.  Because our own comfort and our own desires have often outweighed our one true goal – to help others know the love of Christ.  We have to stay focused on who we are and what we have to offer.  We have to believe whole-heartedly in our purpose as a church, because it’s good and true and worthwhile.  And the rest will come.  When I went to a Disney Institute class on leadership, they told us the key to their success was this focus on purpose – We Create Happiness.  As long as they hold on to that, everything else that the world measures as a success – money, influence, etc. – will all follow.  Other companies, other organizations, start worrying about the bottom-line, about how much their stock is worth, about how they stack up to the other theme parks and movie studios.  But Disney focuses constantly on making people happy.  They know that if they do a good job with that, the rest will follow.  The same is true for the church.  When we start worrying about how much money is in the bank or how many people are in the seats over how many people know the love of Christ, we will certainly lose our focus.  But if we keep in the forefront of our minds how best to show the love of Christ, how we can be relevant to this generation and the next, we won’t ever have to worry because our impact will shine.

 

 

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericwagner/2013/09/12/five-reasons-8-out-of-10-businesses-fail/#755787b95e3c

[2] https://www.wdwinfo.com/news-stories/global-theme-park-attendance-grew-5-in-2018-with-disney-still-on-top/

[3] All park income figures from the WDC report from https://www.themeparkinsider.com/flume/201811/6396/

[4] Disney’s Approach to Customer Service, Disney Institute, p.21.

[5] Ibid, p.29.

[6] From Catalyst West many years ago

Glass Houses

Lefties are people, too.

But you may not know it from how the world has treated us. Centuries of prejudice and discrimination have dogged those of us who use our left hand.  Art, literature, cultural traditions – these have all been geared toward right-handed people.  Try playing a guitar or almost any musical instrument and you’ll find that it’s always harder for us lefties.  Scissors, desks, notebooks – almost all geared toward the right-handed people of the world.  For most of history, being left-handed meant there was something wrong with you.  It’s even reflected in our language and in our culture.  Did you know that the word for “right” in Latin is “dexter?”  As in “dexterity” or “ambidextrous.”  Usually it means someone who is versatile, limber, or skilled.  All good things.  You know what the Latin word for “left” is?  “Sinister.”  I don’t think I even have to explain that one.  Do you know why people wear wedding rings on their left hands?  To fend off evil.[1]  You know why we throw salt over our left shoulder?  To fend off evil.  It took until the 20th century in America let alone the rest of the world, to understand that being left-handed did not mean that you were wrong, evil, or sinister.

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Me with my obachan (grandmother), my cousin Kim and I think my cousin Mark.

It was even common to try and “convert” left-handed people.

As if you could train the left-handedness out of them.  Why you would want to is beyond my understanding, but it happened to me.  When I was little, we’d go and visit my grandparents, and anytime I picked up a fork, a pencil, or a pen; anytime I picked up anything with my left hand, my grandmother would take it from my left and put it in to my right.  She grew up believing being left-handed was a bad thing.  Now, I don’t know if she thought it was bad simply because it made life harder and she was trying to save me from the suffering, or if she thought it was bad because evil spirits would inhabit my body and take control of me, but she would try to train the left-handedness out of me.  My mom had to keep telling her that it was alright, that it was natural for me to be left-handed, but sometimes I wonder if I’m ambidextrous because of my grandmother always trying to get me to use my right hand.  Now, of course, we know those of us who are left-handed are more creative and intelligent than you poor right-handed people.  We are, after all, the only ones in our “right minds.”  But seriously, centuries went by and most of society believed left-handed people were evil or under the influence of evil spirits just because we were different.

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One of the most famous lefties of all time – Sir Paul McCartney

As a society, we are quick to pass judgment on those who are “different.”

Those who look different, think different, or act differently than we do often get treated as pariahs. And whether we realize it or not, we treat them much like we used to treat lefties – as if there was something wrong with them instead of simply people who were different. If you look at the long stretch of history, society has done this to pretty much every group of people on some level.  We have a horrible track record with people of color, with women, with gender and sexual identity; we’ve been nasty to children, the elderly, and to those who don’t ascribe to “our” religion.  If there’s a group of people out there that we can name as the “other,” you can bet history hasn’t been kind to them.  And that’s what we are about to see in our reading today.

1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

   But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

 9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

 11“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” – John 8:1-11

We have all been this woman.

Maybe we haven’t committed adultery, but we’ve all done something wrong and been called on the carpet for it, and we pray that someone will have mercy on us for our mistakes.  And here, Jesus shows that mercy.  He shows his love and compassion for her and forgives her.  We are all in need of forgiveness. But here’s what’s really interesting.  When you read the story, you’re tempted to think it’s the woman caught in adultery that is on trial, but actually it’s not.  It’s Jesus.  HE’S the one they are trying to condemn.  If you read verse six it says, “They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.”  They were hoping Jesus would say something so over the top that they could justify arresting him and accusing him of heresy, and if you notice, in the Bible, they do this over and over again.  In fact, they were so overzealous, they didn’t even follow their own laws, the laws they were mad at Jesus for breaking.  Deuteronomy 19:15 says you need at least two or three witnesses to convict a person, but they didn’t bring forth any witnesses against this woman.  Deuteronomy 22:22 says that any man caught in adultery must die alongside the adulteress, but again, they never brought him forth either.  They were so blinded by their own prejudices against Jesus they violated the very thing that made them mad at Jesus to begin with and they broke the law.

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Being casual in worship is intentional to help people know God doesn’t care how you come dressed to worship, but that you come!

And that’s the danger. 

You can become so blinded by your fear, by your anxiety, by your unwillingness to accept things that are different, that you miss out on opportunities in life.  You miss out on the important things like love, forgiveness, and peace, and instead get wrapped up in the petty small things that in the scope of it all are really unimportant.  The Pharisees and the church leaders missed out on the coming of the Messiah.  They were so consumed by their fear of Jesus and their anxiety about what he did, they couldn’t see that the Christ they had been praying for was standing in their midst.  The church of today still does this.  And unfortunately, more often than not.  One of my pastor friends told me about this woman who was coming to visit the church.  She was dressed in clothes that were a bit ragged and worn but you could tell she was dressing in the best clothes she had, and her children were wearing regular kid clothes.  Nothing fancy, just shirts and pants. As she walked up to the church doors, the usher turned to the woman and said, “At THIS church, we dress up for God.”  Red-faced, she turned away and left and as far as I know, she never came back.  That was a person looking for the love of God and realizing it wasn’t in THAT church.  I hope she found it in another, but would you be surprised if she never came back?  Sometimes we stand in judgment of others without recognizing the circumstances.  If that usher had simply taken the time to notice that this woman might not have any other “nicer” clothes or had thought about the fact that God doesn’t care what you wear to church, maybe he wouldn’t have been so harsh.  Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I don’t wear a suit to church every week.  I want people who are visiting with us to know it doesn’t matter how you dress for worship, but what does matter is that they are here.  Because more than anything, God wants our presence.  God wants us to be a part of a loving, worshiping community of people so we can grow in our faith together.  And too often we get hung up on how we dress and what we say and how we act when what matters to God are people who are actively seeking him and want to know him.  We need to actively remove barriers that stand in the  way of people who are trying to come to him.  he doesn’t care how you dress.  But I am always cognizant of how visitors and people who haven’t been to church in a while think about “church.”  I don’t want their clothes or anything else to be a barrier between them and God.  I don’t want them to feel “unworthy” to be in church just because they aren’t dressed to the nines.  So I dress nicely – polo shirt and khakis, nice shoes – but I hope that my love of God and my love for all of you comes through more in my words and my actions.

Captain America Winter Soldier - Black Widow
Scarlett Johansson – one of many famous left-handed people

There’s an old saying, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

That comes from this passage we read today.  And it’s a reminder that we are just as vulnerable and just as flawed as the people we want to criticize and we need to look at ourselves first before condemning others. That is not to say you may not have a legitimate complaint or gripe against someone else.  That is not to say someone didn’t hurt you or harm you in some way.  And that is certainly not a justification for blaming the victim.  It’s simply a reminder that we need to be careful not to treat others as objects.  We need to remember they are people, too.  When we see others as people, as children of God who deserve God’s love despite whatever it is they’ve done, it is easier to let go of the anger, the spite, the fear, and the anxiety that comes with labeling someone as the “other.”  We make the world a better, healthier place for others and for ourselves.  Just think about all the missed opportunities in life, all the hardship, all the pain, all because we couldn’t treat others as people.  There are people who could have been the greatest friends, the best business partners, and potential soul mates that we’ve passed up because we never gave them a chance.  Think of all of the great left-handed people in the world – Paul McCartney, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Scarlett Johansson, Clayton Kershaw, and President Obama just to name a few.  Think about a world without them because people still thought being left-handed meant you were evil or possessed.  How many people in the past did we miss out on because people couldn’t see past that one thing?  Give people a chance.  Whether they are your friend, your arch rival, your teacher or even your pastor and see them for the human being they are.  Give them a chance to show you that God is working in them, too.  And hug a lefty today.  They are the only ones in their right minds.

 

 

 

[1] http://www.anythingleft-handed.co.uk/lefty_myths.html#3