Are We There Yet?

Waiting for anything is tough.

But CHRISTMAS waiting has got to be the hardest of all. My mom had a hard and fast rule about NOT getting up before 10am on Christmas morning. When you’re a kid and all of Santa’s presents are just sitting there on the coffee table in the front room, 10am seems like an eternity.  My sister, Karen, and I would get up extra early on Christmas morning.  We would sneak into the living room and gaze longingly at our presents.  We weren’t allowed to touch them (a lesson we learned the hard way one year), but we were allowed to look.  So we did. We’d circle around the living room table like vultures stalking their prey, trying to angle our heads to peek into the stockings to see what was in there, too.  Then after THOSE 5 minutes were up…we’d sit there and wait.  And wait.  And wait some more.  5:06am.  4 hours and 54 minutes to go.  The agony of WAITING – that was the worst.

And we’re not very good at it. 

Human beings hate waiting.  In fact, we hate it so much, we’ve invented stuff so we don’t have to wait – or at least not for very long.  Processed food, fast-food restaurants, microwave ovens, and bottled water just to name a few.  But faster isn’t always better.  We often have to sacrifice something to get what we want.  When I was in marketing, my graphic designer told me, “Everyone wants it cheaper, faster, and better.  I can give you two.  I can make it cheaper and faster, but it won’t be better.  I can make it faster and better, but it won’t be cheap.  Or I can make it cheaper and better, but it won’t be fast.  You can have two but not all three.”  And for the most part, we’ve chosen faster.  But like my graphic designer said there are consequences.   For a long time, people thought the obesity epidemic was caused by a lack of access to healthy food. But a study from the National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC showed that the main factor in obesity wasn’t access at all.  It was convenience, or perceived convenience.  Most people who were obese were actually not poor and had access to healthier food. In fact, it was middle-income people who were the most overweight.  Eighty percent of low-income people actually cook at home five times a week.  People were choosing convenience over health.[1]  Same thing with bottled water.  We love our bottled water.  Human beings consume a million bottles of the stuff every minute.[2]  But not only does it take more water to produce a water bottle than what’s inside it, the plastic it’s made out of has been linked to a number of diseases like prostate and breast cancer.[3]  The bottles themselves are bad for the environment.  More than 90% of people don’t recycle their plastic bottles and it ends up in landfills and oceans all over the world.[4]  None of this information is new, but we either bury it (like the plastic bottles we enjoy so much), ignore it, or justify it in some way because that’s how impatient human beings are.  We hate waiting so much we devise ways around it.

But sometimes waiting is precisely what we should be doing.

Sometimes being patient is what’s needed.  And sometimes the results are worth the wait. If you’ve ever read the Bible, you know that God teaches about patience ALL the time.  Today we’re going to read a passage that talks about it in a way you probably haven’t thought of before. If you have your Bibles, would you please turn to 1 Corinthians 13 beginning with verse 4.  1 Corinthians 13:4.  You might think this passage is a little weird to talk about patience since this is the famous “love” passage from the Bible. But even though patience is only one aspect of how love is described, it is at the root of God’s very being. So, if we are called upon by God to live a Christ-like life, we must INCLUDE patience as part of that life.  Look at all the people in the Bible who had to be patient. Noah was on that boat for 150 days. Can you imagine what that must have smelled like. In my head, I keep thinking it was just 40 days, mostly due to that Schoolhouse Rock song. But that’s just how long it rained.  Noah and his family were trapped on that boat with two of every animal for 150 days.  They must have wondered when it would come to an end.  Abraham and Sarah were hoping for a child all of their married lives, but it wasn’t until he was 99 years old that he had a son.  And of course there was the time when the people of Israel were sent out into the desert for 40 years.  40 YEARS!  God brought his people out of Egypt and when their hearts started to become filled with doubt, he made them wander for 40 years to think about it.  

Multiplication Rock on ABC back in the day (today on Disney+)

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Patience is love.  Patience is godly.

Love according to Paul in this letter to the church at Corinth is characterized by only two qualities – patience and kindness.  Patience and kindness.  Verses 5 and 6 tell us what love is NOT and verse 7 shows us what love does, but only two qualities – patience and kindness – describe the character of love.  And since we know God is love from John’s first letter to the church it only makes sense that God is also patient.  In math we call that the transitive property of equality.  But you don’t have to have a degree in mathematics to figure that out, just open up your Bibles to Peter’s second letter.  In chapter 3 he writes, “8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  God understands patience.  He has been patient with us for thousands of years, waiting for us to get this right, to live a life of love.  His patience is an expression of his love for us and that’s why we cherish those who are patient with us.  Because it is an expression of love. 

Waiting in line for Space Mountain – Disney is the king of managing queues

But sometimes we give in to our impatience in hurtful ways.

We lash out at loved ones.  We say or do things we don’t mean.  Our impatience clouds our judgment and makes us do things that are harmful.  Not just polluting the environment or polluting our bodies, but actually hurting one another. An MIT professor, Dr. Richard Larson has been studying the science of waiting in line and found that people can get so mad they actually turn violent.  He calls it “Queue Rage.”  Q-U-E-U-E. Queue rage.[5]  People can become so impatient they turn into the worst versions of themselves.  One woman, Ruth Driscoll-Dunn, tried to run two women over with her jeep because she thought they cut in front of her in line at McDonald’s.[6] Can you imagine that?  Over an Egg McMuffin?  But we can’t avoid waiting.  It’s a part of life.  On average two full days out of every year are spent waiting.[7]  Considering the amount of time in our life we will spend doing nothing but wait, we need to consider the importance of patience. 

Advent is a time of waiting.

The word Advent itself comes from the Latin for adventus which means “coming,” and this season of our Christian year is about waiting for the coming of Christ, both as a remembrance of the past and a promise for the future.  We are a people who are waiting.  And if we truly are the people of God, we live through this time of waiting with patience.  Not with violence, not with anger, not with frustration, but with patience.  We’re often looking for the quick and easy way of doing things, but to really maximize the most out of life, we have to learn to be patient. I’m reminded of something that they would say on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland.  As people were waiting in line to get on the ride one of the skippers would say, “Who would like to see the line move faster?  If you would like to see the line move faster, please raise your hand.”  And or course at least half the crowd would raise their hands.  Then he would continue, “Great! All those of you with your hands raised would you step aside and let everyone else pass?  That way you can see the line move faster.  Thank you.”  We are in such a rush, especially during the holidays, that it can be so easy to lose our patience – with one another, with our neighbors, and with God.  But take a moment every day to simply WAIT!  To be alive in the waiting.  To stop from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, especially during the holidays, and simply enjoy life as it is, right here, right now. As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and take a look around once in a while, you could miss it.”


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bethhoffman/2012/07/17/its-convenience-not-cost-that-makes-us-fat/#419c329403a3

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/trevornace/2017/07/26/million-plastic-bottles-minute-91-not-recycled/#45635376292c

[3] https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/10/06/555900292/which-items-in-our-kitchens-contain-bpa

[4] Op Cit. Forbes, million plastic bottles

[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/04/09/earlyshow/contributors/susankoeppen/main2663189.shtml  Brian Dakss, “Companies Heeding Gripes About Long Lines,” CBS, 2/11/2009

[6] http://onlineathens.com/stories/081606/uganews_20060816074.shtml “Student Arrested in Fast Food Attack,” Athens Banner-Herald (online edition), 8/16/2006.

[7] Ibid.

Meatloaf and Other Things in the Fridge

How many of you like meatloaf?

Meatloaf is one of my favorite foods to eat.  And of course, no one makes it like my mom.  My mom’s version is the gold standard of meatloaf.  When I order it from a restaurant, I can’t help but compare it to hers.  But you know what’s even better than my mom’s meatloaf?  Mom’s meatloaf leftovers.  As a kid, my favorite lunch was bringing a meatloaf sandwich to school.  Put a big chunk of it in-between two slices of bread slathered with mayonnaise and that was heaven.  Yum.  But as much as I like leftover meatloaf, it’s not something I’d serve to someone else no matter how good it was.  Not because I’m hoarding it for myself (which I might very well be doing), but because it’s a leftover.  Leftovers are fine for us, but you wouldn’t serve it to someone you were trying to impress.  There’s a connotation of the word “leftover” that says, “you’re not worthy of my time.” Think about it.  Leftovers go in the “doggy bag.”  The idea for the doggy bag was that these were scraps only worthy of your dog.  Before the invention of the doggy bag, most people wouldn’t even THINK to take leftover food home.[1]  It was considered in poor taste even as late as the 1970’s.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love leftovers.  Most of you probably do too, but (right or wrong) there is something about them people associate with unworthiness.  So, the question needs to be asked, “Are you giving God your leftovers?” 

What are you giving to God?

Before you answer, think about it.

When you go to make your budget every month, you set aside money for the gas bill, the power bill, the water bill, gas for the car, food for your stomach, the rent or mortgage to pay for the roof over your head, do you also put aside money for God?  Or does God come AFTER paying the bills?  Is God simply getting your leftovers?  Let’s face it, God doesn’t need the money.  He made the whole world.  But giving to God FIRST is a sign of your obedience to God.  It’s an indication of where your heart is.  Because as we mentioned before, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  You might be thinking to yourself, well what is it I’m supposed to give to God? 

As you might expect we can find the answer in Scripture.

Let me give you some background before we get into the Scripture.  In this part of the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the chief priests are all ganging up on Jesus.  The funny thing is these groups (other than the chief priests) are all political rivals like Democrats and Republicans.  Normally, they would never work together!  It would have to take something HUGE for them to put aside their differences.  It would have to be a threat so large it affected them all.  And to them, that threat was Jesus.  They were all afraid of him, including the chief priests.  Not because Jesus was going to beat them up after school on the playground, but because he speaks with such authority and conviction he is convincing people to his way of thinking, and he is gathering more and more followers every day.  So, in public these groups try to trick Jesus into saying something they could use to discredit him, to ruin his reputation, but Jesus is way too smart for that and avoids their traps.  And with every failure, Jesus keeps gathering new followers.  Where we pick up in the Scriptures this morning, the Sadducees have just asked him a question about the resurrection and Jesus answers it and throws their knowledge of Scripture right back in their face and apparently, he does so with such conviction that a teacher of the law comes forth and asks Jesus a serious question. 

The Biblical equivalent of Democrats and Republicans

 28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

   29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. – Mark 12:28-34

When you first hear this passage, it doesn’t seem obvious what it has to do with giving.

Jesus tells us the most important commandment is to love the Lord God with ALL your heart and will ALL your soul and with ALL your mind and with ALL your strength.  ALL – that’s the key word in this passage.  Give it ALL to God.  Because God already gave it all to us.  Life.  Hope.  Salvation through Jesus.  That doesn’t mean God wants you to starve.  God doesn’t want you to give up your home.  God simply wants those intangible things that make up the backbone of any good relationship.  Your heart, your soul, your mind. And this teacher of the law in our passage says it just right, “To love him with all your heart…is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  What’s amazing about what he said is that it comes from a teacher of the law.  This was a man who made a living from burnt offerings and sacrifices.  To the Hebrew people, these sacrifices were meant as an offering of duty, devotion, and love and this teacher says it’s not the things you bring to the table that are important – it’s all about why you do it. 

Fancy doggy bags still carry leftovers – are you giving God your leftovers?

When we give, we are supposed to give FIRST to God. 

Not that God needs your money or your burnt offerings and sacrifices.  But because God wants your heart. Are you putting God first in your life? Or are you giving God your “leftovers?”  Is God a priority in your life? If so, then think about how that’s reflected in what you do. Not just in what you give out of your wallet, but of your time and talent and witness. As John wrote in one of his letters to the church, “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18). It’s so easy to put God off.  He’s such an understanding guy.  And we tend to put off anything that doesn’t demand our attention.  But God doesn’t want you to give out of duty or obligation.  He doesn’t want you to give because you think you’ll earn a spot in Heaven.  He wants you to give from the heart.  Do you have a heart for God? Challenge yourself to give more this year in whatever way you are able – more of your time, more of your talents, more of your gifts, and see if that doesn’t bring you closer to God.


[1] http://victualling.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/the-partial-triumph-of-the-doggie-bag/

How Poor Do I Have To Be?

How poor do I have to be?

Certain passages in the Bible are challenging – not just to Christians but anyone considering becoming one.  This is one of those passages.  What we are about to read seems to imply that you can’t get to Heaven if you’re rich.  If that’s the case, then what constitutes being rich and how poor do we have to be? Do we have to live in squalor or is it okay to have a nice home?  Because most of us have a home of some sort – whether it’s an apartment or a condo or a single-family home.  This guy comes up to Jesus one day and asks him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life, and Jesus tells him to obey the commandments.  The man replies that he has and asks, “What do I still lack?”  We hear Jesus’ answer in our reading this morning. 

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matthew 19:21-26

Sounds like the rich young man just get the short end of the stick.

It’s easy to read this and think maybe Jesus was kind of tough on the guy.  I mean this young man Matthew describes as being rich seems to be an okay dude.  He doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal.  He honors his parents.  As far as we know, he loves his neighbor and NOT in an adulterous sort of way.  But still, he wonders what does he need to do to guarantee eternal life?  There’s something in him that feels empty inside despite what he has.  There’s still a hole in his gut he doesn’t know how to fill.  So, he goes to Jesus and after telling Jesus he has kept the commandments he asks, “What do I still lack?”  And Jesus responds, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  Sounds like Jesus is telling him that to get into heaven he needs to get rid of all of his stuff doesn’t it?  But is that what he said?  If you really look at it, Jesus doesn’t ACTUALLY answer his question.  Jesus’ response isn’t, “You lack the faith that only comes with poverty.”  He says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” which begs the question, can any of us BE perfect?  The answer of course is “no” so why does Jesus answer this way?

Jesus fills the gap between us and God if we let him

Jesus is forcing him to go deeper.

He wants the young man to consider that it’s more than just a set of rules that get you into Heaven.  He wants the young man to consider that his wealth is getting in the way of a closer relationship with God.  It’s why Jesus tells his disciples it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  The disciples are shocked at Jesus’ answer because they don’t catch on right away where Jesus is going with this.  If this guy, who by all accounts is a good guy can’t get in, then who can?  And Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  That gap between where we are and where we need to be is one made possible by relying on God.  All of that stuff gets in the way of going deeper with God, of learning to rely on God for the peace we seek.  It’s hard for us to realize how much we need God when have so much.  And the more a person has, the harder it is to see how deeply we really need God.  We start believing we can do it ourselves.  That’s what was going on with the rich young man.  Think about the question the rich young man asked, “What do I need to do to gain eternal life?”  He didn’t ask, “What can I do to please God?” or “How can I serve God better?”  He was asking what HE could do to earn salvation.  And that’s why Jesus responds the way he does.  “If you want to be perfect…” he starts out, because only the perfect person can earn their way into heaven and at our core we are imperfect people.  No amount of money can change or overcome that basic flaw we carry with us.  The key, the answer, is to put ourselves and our salvation in God’s hands.

John Wesley came up with a three-step approach to wealth management.

He summed it up this way: Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.  For John, there was nothing wrong with earning all the money you can if you did it in a way that honored God.  Then he proposed we save all we can.  That doesn’t mean stuffing our bank accounts.  He meant we shouldn’t squander our earnings.  We shouldn’t spend it frivolously.  We should be good stewards of God’s blessing.  And finally, we should give all we can.  It was this third part that was the key to the other two.  There was nothing wrong with being wealthy, but there was something wrong with being frivolous, or being stingy, or being greedy.  We are supposed to use what we have in the service of others.  No matter how much or how little, we do what we can.  Warren Buffett might have been a fan of John Wesley’s because he and Bill and Melinda Gates began an exclusive club for billionaires called The Giving Pledge.  As reported on 60 Minutes, there are only two requirements to join – you have to have a net worth over $1 billion when you join and you pledge to give away at least half of it through charitable donations over the course of your lifetime.[1]  Bill and Melinda have already pledged to donate 95% of their good fortune away and Warren Buffett has pledged 99% of his.  Asked what he thought about leaving his fortune to his kids, he said, “I don’t really think that, as a society, we want to confer blessings on generation after generation who contribute nothing to society, simply because somebody in the far distant past happened to amass a great sum of wealth.”  Giving away vast sums of money when you have vast sums of money seems to be a no-brainer.  Who couldn’t live off that much wealth?  But Buffett explains that not everyone he talks to is on board.  In the interview he said, “I’ve gotten a lot of yeses when I’ve called people. But I’ve gotten a lot of no’s, too. And I am tempted, because I’ve been calling people with a billion dollars or more, I’ve been tempted to think that if they can’t sign up for 50 percent, maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there’s a lot of people that don’t really know how to do it.”

Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said wealth gets in the way of our relationship with God.

These are BILLIONAIRES who are worried they don’t have enough.  Money causes us to do some irrational things.  We want to hold on to it.  We’re fearful of letting it go.  We worry what might happen if we don’t have it.  And so it dominates our lives.  Jesus even warned us about the effects money could have in our relationship with God.  He said in Matthew 6, “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.” And then in what are perhaps the most famous verses on money, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1Timothy 6:10).”  So, it’s not that God wants us to be poor.  It’s our love of money, our desire to be self-reliant to the point of not needing God, is what can separate us from God.  And it doesn’t have to be money.  It could be anything we have an abundance of – fame, power, Pokemon cards – it doesn’t matter.  When we live in abundance, we can become arrogant, self-righteous, and proud – and that leads us to have less reliance on God. 

To avoid this temptation, we need to follow Uncle Ben’s advice.

Not the guy who makes instant rice, but Uncle Ben from the Spider Man comics. Ben tells a young Peter Parker, Spider Man’s alter ego, “With great power comes great responsibility.[2]”  Ben’s advice is similar to the words of John Wesley who modeled his words after Jesus who said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  The concept is simple.  Those who have an abundance owe it to those who do not to be good stewards of it.  To share it, to give it, to use it responsibly.  That is how we keep from letting our abundance get in the way of God, by remembering that it all belongs to Him and that we are simply caretakers of it. 

Poor and rich are relative terms.

We can be exceptionally wealthy and poor in spirit or vice versa.  Having one doesn’t mean having the other.  Only a fool believes he is poor in the face of an abundance of God’s blessings or rich in the absence of God’s presence in his life.  What we need to remember is that only one lasts forever.  The other is gone the moment we die.  The truth is God wants everyone to be rich, but rich in what matters most – our relationship with Him. 


[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-giving-pledge-a-new-club-for-billionaires/

[2] Uncle Ben wasn’t the first to coin the phrase but it is often credited to him

Greed Is Good?

Is greed good?

The short answer is no.  The long answer is…no.  If you’ve seen the movie Wall Street and maybe even if you haven’t, you know that Gordon Gecko, played by Michael Douglas gives this impassioned speech to a room full of stockholders where he bodly proclaims that “Greed is good.”  But the truth is greed isn’t good.  Greed sucks away at your soul.  Greed turns us against each other.  And greed hurts us, not only as individuals, but as a society.  At the beginning of the pandemic, people were hoarding the weirdest things like toilet paper and Pokemon cards.  But there was one product everyone needed – hand sanitizer.  Everyone was looking for it and nobody had it.  Except the Colvin brothers.  They wanted to get in on the ground floor and cash in on other people’s desperation in the middle of a pandemic. They bought nearly 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer – basically wiping out the entire area where they lived around Tennessee and Kentucky and then reselling them for between $8 and $70 a bottle!  And it worked! They were making a killing!  At least until Amazon cracked down and the Attorney General threatened them for price gouging during a national emergency.  Only then did they decide to do the “right thing.”  When they got caught.[1]  Otherwise they felt fine charging $70 a bottle and putting a normal priced item out of reach for many people.  During a pandemic.  Where people were dying by the millions.  Where is the “good” in that?

The truth is giving, for lack of a better word, is good.

Giving is right.  Giving works.  Giving in all of its forms, giving of our time, our talents, and our gifts, is what has proven to be successful in our society.  Just as science has backed up our claim that prayer is good and church is good, science again helps us explain why giving is good.  It doesn’t just psychologically makes us happier people, but it does so biologically as well.[3]  The very act of giving has been “linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone…that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, and connection to others.”[4] Giving is good for our health in other ways, too.  It’s associated with lower blood pressure, less depression, increased self-esteem, lower stress, and longer life.[5]  Who doesn’t want that?  And better marriages.  Couples who do small acts of generosity for one another on a regular basis are happier than those who don’t.[6]  Not only that but giving is contagious! Studies have found that “altruism can spread by three degrees.”[7]  Meaning you’re not only giving to your friend but their friends and their friends and their friends by your one act of kindness. 

Only some of the proven benefits of giving

But God already knew all of this.

Paul wrote about it in the Bible.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone would you go to 2 Corinthians 9 beginning with verse 6.  2 Corinthians 9:6.  God is awfully concerned about our giving.  And not because he needs money.  Why would God need money? But because giving has such a profound effect on our lives.  It not only has tangible health and social benefits but spiritual as well as Paul writes about to the church at Corinth. In this part of the letter, Paul is asking the church to continue to give to the ministry he is involved in so that they can “complete the work (2 Cor 8:11)” they have already started.  He mentions the church at Corinth was the first to give and the first to openly support him, but that the work is not yet done.  What’s important in this passage is to keep focused on Paul’s argument about WHY you should give.  Paul never asks for a specific amount of money.  He doesn’t talk about tithing or about how much a “good Christian” gives.  His entire argument is about a person’s relationship with God through giving.  About how our relationship grows as we give.  About our attitude of giving.  And about how giving helps others to see the love of God. 

6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written:

   “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
   their righteousness endures forever.”

 10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

 12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! – 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Giving is a matter of the heart not your pocketbook.

It isn’t a duty but a discipline.  Giving trains us to be more like God who gave his only Son for us.  God doesn’t require of us any more than he has already done himself.  But how we give is as important as the act itself.  If we feel forced to help rather than giving help freely, it just isn’t as satisfying.[8]  And that goes back to why God loves a cheerful giver. The attitude you have in the act of giving is as important as the gift itself.  If your gift is given with reluctance or resentment, then is it really a gift?  Can you receive the benefits of giving if you didn’t want to do it in the first place?  As C.S. Lewis wrote in his famous book Mere Christianity, “Right actions done for the wrong reason do not help build the internal quality or character…We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” God doesn’t want our obedience.  God wants us to be of good character.  A cheerful giver is one who does it out of love and out of a desire to help and do good. A reluctant giver thinks his money could be better spent elsewhere. A cheerful giver understands it’s about the act of giving God wants to mold and shape in us. A reluctant giver is weighed down by the results.

The cast of Sports Night on ABC

Sometimes we focus on the wrong thing.

It seems a no-brainer God wants us to do the most good for the most people.  But if we use that as an excuse not to give at all, then we are really missing the point.  There’s a scene in the TV show Sports Night where Dan is wondering who he should give money to.  He spends pretty much the whole episode trying to figure out what to do, pondering which group is most deserving and how should he decide that and who isn’t getting enough.  His friend Casey tells him, “You know, while we’ve been having this conversation a couple of people have probably died from something you could have cured.”[9]  After struggling with it even more, Casey looks at Dan and says, “Can I say something? You’re not going to solve everybody’s problems.  In fact, you’re not going to solve anybody’s problems so you know what you should do?  Anything.  As much of it and as often as you can.”  As human beings, we want to focus on results, but sometimes its as simple as helping the person right in front of you.  We can’t help everyone.  We can’t even help everyone who “deserves” it.  All we can do is all we can do.  If we spend all of our time worrying about whether or not that person or those people or that group or this organization “deserves” it, we’ll never do anything.  Instead, God is looking for people of a certain character.  And that’s a person with a giving attitude. 

As it says in the passage, giving has its own rewards.

Beyond what we give materially, the act itself is a witness to God’s love in us and for us. It’s a way for us to express our love of God and our appreciation for what God has done in our lives.  Paul never once writes about material results.  Instead, he writes about what the ACT of giving does for us and for our community.  He writes in verses 12 and 13, “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.”  When we act with a generous heart, people see God in us and will praise God because of us and at the same time we are performing an act of gratitude for God because of what God has done in us.  Are there benefits to giving?  Sure, but those are perks to the real reason we give – God.  Through our giving we are sharing God’s love with the world and giving thanks for that love in return.

Emma at 2 at our church in Washington, GA

When Emma was two she LOVED M&Ms.

The chocolate ones of course.  And it was hilarious to watch her eat them because they are supposed to melt in your mouth and not in your hands, right?  Well, somehow Emma would find a way to get it all over herself.  I mean they would end up on her hands, her shirt, her face, and then she gets this little chocolate stain all over her mouth.  It used to be so funny, but that’s just how much she enjoyed it.  One day, I had given her a small snack bag of M&M’s and she starts plugging them in her mouth like usual, when she looked up at me and looked at her bag of M&M’s and as if she realized that I didn’t have anything to eat, she gave me the rest of her bag and said, “Here, Daddy.”  There’s only one reason she gave me that bag, and that’s out of love.  And if a two-year old little girl can give away her favorite thing to her Daddy just because she loves him, then can’t we give more of ourselves out of love for our Father in Heaven?  Our God wants us to give with the cheerfulness of a little child, not because of what we get out of it, but because we love him and want to show that love to the world.


[1] https://media-cldnry.s-nbcnews.com/image/upload/t_fit-1120w,f_auto,q_auto:best/newscms/2020_11/1548750/200315-matt-colvin-one-time-use-se-656p.JPG

[3] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_ways_giving_is_good_for_you

[4] Ibid

[5] https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2016/11/why-giving-is-good-for-your-health/

[6] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/16/happy-marriages_n_1152080.html

[7] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_ways_giving_is_good_for_you

[8] https://my.happify.com/hd/science-of-giving-infographic/

[9] The Quality of Mercy at 29K,” Sports Night

What Time Is The 3 O’Clock Parade?

100 times.

Imagine getting asked the same question over and over 100 times a day.  As a cast member at Disneyland it happens.  Every. Single. Day.  “Where’s the bathroom?”  “Where’s Mickey?”  “How do I find Space Mountain?”  But my favorite of all time is this.  “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?”  I kid you not.  Not once but many times a day I would get asked that very question.  And it’s hard – I mean REALLY hard – not to get sarcastic.  The answer isn’t just obvious, but they said it themselves.  “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?”  Disney believes how you answer THAT question will determine not only your character, but how successful you are. 

The key to Disney’s success is radical hospitality.

It’s anticipating the needs of others and seeking to fill those needs even before they ask.  And part of that process is to humble yourself.  It’s to assume other people aren’t idiots, but instead trying to tell us something.  So we have to learn to listen.  One of my favorite stories about this happened when Disneyland first opened.  They had installed these flower beds and grassy areas along the walkways of the hub – that central circular area in front of the castle – because they wanted it to look nice, but people were walking through them in a rush to get to Tomorrowland and Frontierland to ride these new rides they had heard about.  In their excitement, the newly sodded areas were getting stomped on and Walt asked his team what they should do about it.  One guy said they needed to build fences around the flower beds so people wouldn’t step on them.  Another said they should put up big signs saying “Don’t walk on the grass.”  And Walt said they should rip out the flower beds and newly sodded grass and instead put in new walkways.  He told his team, “People are showing us what they want and it’s up to us to give it to them.”  Meet the needs of others.

One of the modified grassy areas in the hub

Jesus gave us a similar example.

Think about the story in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats where Jesus is telling his disciples a story about a day when everyone will be judged by what they’ve done in life and he starts separating people into two groups, one on his right and one on his left.  He says to the group on his right, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” We may not realize it, but how we treat others says more about us than about them. 

Peter offers us some advice in this department.

When this letter was written, it was a time of persecution for the Christian community.  By that I don’t mean they were worried about “taking the Christ out of Christmas.”  They were being imprisoned, stoned, and killed for their beliefs.  So this letter was written to not only give Christian followers hope, but to inspire them to courageous action through love and great hospitality as we are about to read. 

The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray. Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. – 1 Peter 4:7-11

Peter challenges us to take hospitality to the next level!

To really go above and beyond what’s expected and to do the extraordinary.  He doesn’t tell the church to put up with one another or to respect one another.  Peter tells them they need to LOVE one another, and not just love one another, but love one another DEEPLY.  How many of you love your neighbor deeply?  How many of you love your spouse DEEPLY?  I’m sure all of you, but do we always show it?  It’s hard to love one another when we’re annoyed or when we feel put out.  But Peter challenges us to do just that, to put negative feelings aside, justified or not, and to find it in your heart to love the other person.  Then he wants you to go one more step, and be more than just hospitable, but to do it without grumbling.  We’ve probably all been told at least once in our life, “Say it like you mean it.”  And that’s what Peter is calling on us to do – not just to say the words but to follow up as if you mean it.  And the one that really emphasizes how radical Peter is calling upon the church to act is he says, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.”  That’s the kind of thoughtfulness we need to have when we speak to one another. Words have power.  The power to hurt, the power to heal, the power to convince, so choose your words wisely as if you are speaking on God’s behalf, because you are.

Did you know a person decides in the first seven minutes if they are coming back?

When visiting a church, a person decides within the first seven minutes if they are coming back.  They haven’t heard a sermon, sang a song, or bowed a head in prayer and already they’ve decided if they’re coming back.  Of course, the rest of the service matters too.  It can make or break if a person decides to stay long-term.  But those first seven minutes are crucial in making a good first impression.  And we all know how important it is to make a good first impression.  It can make or break a relationship.  And visitors notice EVERYTHING!  From how well you keep up your property to how clean the pews are to how nice the bulletin looks, it all matters because it says something about who we are and what we value.  But what makes the biggest difference is how we welcome people – not only one another but people we don’t yet know.  Imagine going to a dinner party at someone’s home you don’t know very well.  For many of us, that kind of situation is pretty intimidating.  You might feel awkward.  You might feel anxiety about meeting new people.  You might worry about sticking out or not fitting in, like wearing sweats to a formal dinner party or a tux to a backyard BBQ.  All of these nervous feelings might be stirring inside of you, but when you feel welcome, when you are made to feel like part of the group, your mind starts to relax and you can really take everything in.  Visitors to our church are often feeling those same things so what we do next in helping them to feel welcome and part of the group is the first and biggest hurdle to overcome. 

Put yourself in the shoes of someone walking into a church for the first time.

Or at least the first time in a long time.  It takes a lot of courage to walk in those doors not knowing what kind of church this is.  Churches have a reputation for being judgmental and unwelcoming, plus someone new has no idea about our traditions, our worship style, or what to expect.  So helping them to feel at ease is incredibly important.  Are they greeted when they walk in?  Are they invited to come and sit with someone?  Are they introduced to others?  These are all hallmarks of the kind of hospitality Jesus calls on the church to make.  I know that makes some of you uncomfortable because it makes ME uncomfortable, but think about what a difference it can make.

Watching the parade – a favorite Disney pastime!

Let’s go back to our first question and why Disney’s key to success is in how we answer it.

“What time is the 3 o’clock parade?”  It might seem like a dumb question, but if that’s how you approach it, then that’s the attitude that will come forth.  And who wants to be part of a group that thinks you’re dumb?  Where is the hospitality in that?  Instead, we need to consider what they need.  What are they really after?  Because most of the time, what seems like a dumb question isn’t dumb at all.  They just don’t know how to ask for the answers they’re seeking.  When people ask, “What time is the 3 o’clock parade?” they’re really asking, “What time will the parade get HERE?”  If you’ve seen a parade at Disneyland, you know the 3 o’clock parade STARTS at 3 o’clock SOMEWHERE, but from one end to the other it can be half an hour or later before it gets to where you are sitting.  Maybe they want to know if they have time to grab a bite to eat.  Or go to the restroom.  Or change their kid’s diaper.  There’s a lot hidden behind an innocent question and the trick is to figure out what the real question is and answer THAT.  It’s not always easy, but it starts by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.  It starts by looking for the needs of others.  The same is true for the church.  We might know what to expect in worship.  We might know communion is always on the 1st Sunday and what we do with the bread and wine.  We might know we stand up to sing at the beginning of worship and at the end.  But a newcomer doesn’t know those things.  They are nervous.  They are anxious.  And it took every ounce of courage they had to step into this place today.  So it’s up to us to treat them as guests in our home.  To help them feel at ease.  And most importantly to welcome them in the name of Jesus Christ.  So I want to challenge you today and all this month, if you see someone you don’t know, go up and say “hi.”  Introduce yourself and invite them to come sit with you.  You can talk to your friends outside of church, but this might be the only opportunity you have to make a good first impression.  Take it.  You never know what kind of a difference it might make. 

Planting Seeds

What is it worth?

I’ve been into comics since I was about six or seven years old.  My dad would bring me issues of the Incredible Hulk and I loved them.  I didn’t have a lot – just whatever my dad would give me – but I treasured them and read them over and over.  To this day, I collect the Hulk.  It still reminds me of my dad.  I started to really get into the stories.  I would borrow the collected editions from the library.  I’d read them when we went to get an eye exam because our optometrist had a huge selection.  And then somewhere around junior high, I went from being an occasional reader to a comic book collector.  I can even pinpoint what book kicked it off for me – Uncanny X-Men #147, “Rogue Storm”.  I was fascinated by the X-Men so slowly I began collecting older issues, trading with friends, and then becoming a regular at my local comic book store where my dad or mom would take me every week. I was definitely in it for the stories, but I noticed there was another type of collector who frequented my local store.  The SPECULATOR! (Duh-duh-duh).  These people thought of comics solely as an investment.  They would come into the store and 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.  They wouldn’t even read them because that would make them less pristine.  Instead, they sat in a bag, in a box, on a shelf.  Never fulfilling their intended use.  In that way, our faith is like comic book collecting.  We can either enjoy it as it was intended, or we can put it on a shelf, condemned to never live out its 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.   

Hulk and X-Men: two early loves of comic books for me

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

But that’s usually a lack of confidence in ourselves instead of an actual inability to do God’s will.  You have the tools you need to share your faith and the love of God, because the work of God is more about attitude than aptitude.  Like so many things, the work of God is more about attitude than aptitude.  Jesus talks about this in the parable we are going to share this morning.  This story we are about to hear from Jesus is known as the Parable of the Sower.  Now, you could read it from two different perspectives – either as the seed or the sower.  As the seed, Jesus is calling on us to be responsive to his Word; to be planted in good soil and 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.   

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

We never know where the seeds will land, but we can be faithful to the process

You are the sower.

YOU are the sower.  The seeds God is referring to are the bits of knowledge and wisdom we have gained from our own experience with Jesus.  They are part of the fruit he produces in us.  And 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, it’s so much harder for new fruit to grow.  We are important to God’s plan.  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 thoughts play into our decision 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. 

The PROCESS is important.

The act of planting seeds in people’s hearts is vital to growing our collective faith.  And that’s because people who aren’t Christian aren’t walking around saying to themselves, “Oh, I wish I were a 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 they need Jesus in their life and certainly aren’t 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 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 butter chicken and there are times I CRAVE, absolutely CRAVE masala dosa.  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 everything more meaningful and more worth living, but unless you know you need it, you can just go on without it. 

Masala dosa (with sambar) – SO GOOD!

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 grow deeper in your faith with it, but if you’re waiting to know “enough” about the Bible to answer every question or counter every argument, you’ll be waiting your whole life.  Our quest to learn about God never ends.  You won’t graduate in this life.  But you have enough to share your faith, whether you believe it or not.  You are enough.  The seeds God has put in your pouch are enough.  Now who are you going to share them with?  

I know fear is a big part of why we don’t share our 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 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 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?  Don’t let fear hold you back.  Instead use it as a motivation to share the love of God with those around you.

Bearing fruit sometimes takes a long time! Take these Biblical examples

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, 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

Coloring Outside the Lines

No one ever taught you to color outside the lines.

When you were a kid, you just did it.  No one ever came up and told you to make someone’s head purple or their arms red and their feet blue.  No one.  But if you’ve had kids or worked with kids and have seen them color, you know that’s what you get, especially when they are little.  I’m pretty sure I kept some of Emma’s early artwork in coloring and basically it was a free form expression of the world – and by that I mean she took one color out of the Crayola crayon box and furiously scribbled back and forth across the sheet until it was covered in swirls and strokes of that one color.  She would rip it out of the book and give it to me as a present.  She was so proud of it, and why shouldn’t she be?  It came from her.  But as we would color together, she would watch to see what I was doing and sometimes would get frustrated because she thought her pictures didn’t look as pretty as mine.  I thought hers were great!  But mine looked more like what you saw on the cover of the book.  Mine looked more like what you would see in cartoons on television.  And I’m sure that is what she was comparing it to.  I remember getting praised when I was little for coloring within the lines and people giving me oohs and aahs the more “realistic” I got.  Looking back, I wonder if I was the one who was less creative.  Maybe my picture was the one that wasn’t really as pretty.  Maybe the problem is us. 

I still like to color! Relieves stress, but while photo realistic, are they as creative as they could be?

We teach conformity.

In school, at home, on TV.  We teach conformity.  We teach people how to see the world the way we see it.  Maybe in small, subtle ways, but it becomes a part of our lives and we end up having a much more narrow view of the world because of it.  We teach people how to color within the lines.  And when people violate those rules, we become uncomfortable with it.  We try to steer them back toward what is in our comfort zone.  But maybe we shouldn’t.  Maybe we should be encouraging people to do things outside the lines, have more “outside-the-box” thinking.  In doing so, we might unleash a firestorm of incredible ideas that could change the world for the better.  In the course of history, there have been many incredible people who have colored outside the lines and thank God they did so.  They didn’t follow conventional thinking.  They didn’t do things the way they were supposed to be done and they ended up breaking down barriers we didn’t even know existed.  Things we take for granted today at one time were thought heresy or useless or a waste of time.  Copernicus advanced the theory that the Earth was not the center of the universe and he was scoffed at for such thinking.  Even Martin Luther, the famous theologian who himself had some pretty radical ideas at the time, said of Copernicus “This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but the sacred scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.”[1] When Walt Disney was making Snow White and the Seven Dwarves many were calling it “Disney’s Folly” sure it was going to bankrupt him and his company.  But when it came out, it broke records at the box office and was the biggest hit for over 10 years until another little movie came out – Gone With the Wind.  Snow White became the foundation of Disney animation into the next century.[2] There are literally dozens of stories out there like these, stories of people who were thought foolish or silly or dumb because they had ideas that were out of the box but who were groundbreakers and revolutionized how we thought about the world.  We need these creative sparks, these new ideas.  We need these to grow and learn and evolve into the kind of people who can explore our untapped potential.  If we want to be all God created us to be, we need to explore our creativity. 

And we can be sure that God is a God of boundless creativity!

Just look at what he has done!  The book of Genesis, the very first book in the Bible is a testimony to God’s creative act.  At a conference I went to, Erwin McManus was speaking.  Erwin is the lead pastor at Mosaic. He calls Mosaic a community of faith instead of a church because he has learned the very idea of church comes loaded with all sorts of fixed images and expectations and he wanted to create a space where God could be expressed in many different ways. He’s also the author of many books and is passionate about creativity.  And one of the things he talked about stuck in my mind.  He said, “We’ve turned the Bible into a manual of conformity.  It’s time to redeem it as a manifesto of creativity.”  He was telling us about how difficult it is to get a book published about faith.  His publisher told him that if he wanted more of his books to sell, he would need to stop writing about things that challenge our perception of faith and instead write books that confirm what people already believe.  They told him that people have fixed ideas in their heads about the nature of God and faith and they don’t like to buy books that challenge those perceptions.  They may be right, but what does that say about us?  Is it true we only seek out those things that confirm what we already believe?  You only need to look at Facebook and Instagram to see that model works out.  Can we train ourselves to overcome that limited perspective and learn something new?  I believe we can.  It’s in our nature. 

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.  Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.  Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. – Genesis 2:4-9,19-22

Adam naming the animals (not an actual photo of the event)

I like this account of creation.

When we talk about creation we often read from Genesis 1 because it really expresses the POWERFUL nature of God and gives scope to the immensity of what God can do, but this account in Genesis 2 really puts God in the center of his creation.  He literally breathes life into us.  And I love this image of God creating the world with humanity in mind.  Adam gets the opportunity to name all the animals.  I think he could have done a better job with “aardvark” but that’s just being picky.  Still this passage is a great example of God’s creative genius.  God formed man with his own hands.  Then he formed all the animals again with his own hands.  He created the water and the trees and everything around us.  Our God is a God of boundless creativity!  And if we are truly created in God’s image, don’t you think God created us to be creative as well?  We need to challenge ourselves to color outside the lines once in a while, to challenge old ways of doing things in favor of new ways of expressing ourselves.  The world around us is constantly changing and to meet the needs of a changing world, we need to change with it.  We need to explore new ideas and new ways of understanding God in the world today instead of trying to shove God inside of a book.

People use the Bible as a weapon of conformity.

They read into it what they want it to say.  Like in accounting, you can pretty much manipulate God’s Word to get it to say anything you want.  For centuries the Bible was used (and is still used today) to suppress women from serving as teachers of the Word.  Even though any actual reading of the Bible shows women who were leaders and teachers for God.  For centuries the Bible was used to take away the rights of those with dark skin, calling them cursed of God even though the Bible doesn’t say that anywhere.  It takes a really twisted reading of the stories of God to come up with that interpretation.  Today, we use the Bible to condemn and oppress people for all sorts of other ways of living and ignore God’s command to love one another.  Christ tells us specifically in John 13 that by loving one another, people will know we are his followers, but we still fail to do that.  We have very fixed ideas about worship, about prayer, about communion, about a whole host of other things that we claim come from the Bible when they actually do not.  And when life happens different from our fixed ideas we can become critical and mean.  At almost every church I’ve been at, I would preach from in front of the pulpit.  It felt it gave me a better chance to connect with everyone and most people seemed to appreciate it.  Except for one person who hated it.  She even told me she thought I was being disrespectful to Christ by preaching in front of the cross as if I thought I was more important than Jesus.  Her concept of what worship should and should not be was being challenged and she responded fiercely. 

If we really are the people of God, we need to listen HARD to what God is saying to us.

We need to expand our ways of thinking and be open to how God might be communicating to us today.  We should open up our minds to new and original ways of conceiving God’s grace and mercy in the world and see if how we are behaving and how we are reacting to the world around us is in line with what we know about God.  We need to remember that God has used some of the most unlikely people to be his representatives in the world.  Abraham and Sarah were literally the parents of Israel even though they were advanced in age and Sarah had been infertile.  Moses would become the spokesperson for all the Israeli people in captivity despite his speech impediment.  And Cyrus, King of Persia, was blessed by God to be the one to bring the Israeli people back from exile – even though he wasn’t even a believer!  What would our faith look like without these champions of God?  What if they weren’t open to God’s creative work in their lives?  Spend some time this week being creative.  Do something different.  Whether it’s cooking a new food, eating a new type of cuisine, picking up a coloring book and drawing outside the lines, whatever it is try something new.  Be open to God’s creative work in the world, dare to be different, and keep an open mind about what might happen to you! 


[1] https://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/neverwrk.htm

[2] http://www.history.com/news/celebrating-the-75th-anniversary-of-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs

Until That Day…

There are times it takes someone from the outside to point out what’s wrong.

If you haven’t heard of E. Stanley Jones, he was a very influential Methodist preacher and missionary, best known for his work in India.  Of his many friends was a man you might know by the name of Mahatma Gandhi.  Yes, that Gandhi.  Together they had many conversations about Christianity, and in one of those conversations, Jones turned to his friend and said, “Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”  To which Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject Christ.  I love Christ.  It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”[1]  It’s hard to refute Gandhi of all people.  Plus, it’s true.  There are so many ways we fall short of the Christ-like way we should treat one another.  It’s particularly noticeable in how often we disagree.  Instead of working things out, we break off and start a new group who thinks just like us.  That’s exactly what’s happening in the United Methodist Church right now.  If everything goes according to plan, we will split over the issue of sexual identity inclusion.  Some churches have already fled, not even bothering to wait and instead choosing to sue the denomination in court.  How Christ-like does that seem?  And how do you think it looks to those on the outside?  Did you know that there are approximately 41,000 different Christian denominations?[2]  41,000!  I didn’t know we could disagree so fundamentally on 41,000 different things.

And of course, we’re right and they’re wrong…whoever “we” and “they” are.

Neither side is willing to compromise and both believe so firmly that their way is the only way.  That reality hit me square in the face one day at a Greek food festival of all places.  When I was attending seminary, there was a Greek Orthodox church I would drive by every morning to get to school.  And once a year, they had a festival where you could get the best baklava, spanakopita, and gyros in the South.  Like any church festival, they had lots of crafts, trinkets to buy, and exhibits about the church and in one of those exhibits was a big poster board showing a timeline of all the major different Christian denominations.  It was fascinating!  There was a line for Roman Catholics, Baptists, even Methodists.  But running throughout all of these was a huge, big, fat one labeled “Greek Orthodox Church – the One True Church.”  Maybe they thought it was a selling point, but instead it came across as arrogant as if all other Christian beliefs had no validity.  But that’s part of the problem.  Our pride gets in the way of our efforts to unite.  We focus far too much on the things that divide us instead of the things that unite us.  If we would only focus on what we hold in common we could accomplish so much together.  That was and always has been the hope of Christ, that the Children of God would be united as one.  We can hear that hope in Jesus’ prayer to the Father after the Last Supper.  The other Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), skip this prayer entirely and instead go right to the Garden of Gethsemane, but this one is specifically a prayer for the Body of Christ, then AND now.  Jesus is thinking of us, of you and me, when he says this prayer. 

The image in the Greek church I was at was much more colorful and the words “The ONE TRUE CHURCH” were MUCH bigger.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.– John 17:20-23

If we could unify as one church, we would be so much stronger.

But our divisiveness keeps us from being as strong as we could be.  Imagine what it might be like if we were able to put aside our differences; all the different projects we could do if we were together instead of apart.  Doing a quick Google search for churches in the area, there 11 or 12 in about a one-mile radius of our church.  In the East and South San Jose area, there are at least 16 United Methodist churches nearby.  If we worked together instead of apart, can you imagine the resources we could pool together?  The number of volunteers we would have available?  The power and energy and talent of our combined worship?  Imagine the energy, vitality, and excitement we could generate by being united.  What a powerful statement we would be making on behalf of Christ.  “…that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  Isn’t that what it is all about, sharing the love of Christ with the world? 

There are about 11 or 12 churches in a one mile radius of our own

Most people aren’t even aware of other churches in their area.

It’s not that we don’t care or we don’t like them, we’re just blissfully ignorant of the church landscape.  Once we find a place where we fit in, we stick with it.  But it can also blind us to the possibilities.  When I was serving in Dinuba, I was caring for two churches, both were filled with God-loving, wonderful people, but both were struggling financially.  They were literally about half a mile from each other.  It didn’t make a lot of sense why these two Methodist churches weren’t together.  When each one was created, it made a lot of sense.  One was an historically Japanese church whose original mission field were Japanese immigrants to the area.  And there were a lot of them.  They had services in different languages and had different cultural needs.  The other was a primarily Caucasian church with a smattering of different people who over time decided to join. But over the years, while there were some differences in culture, they were no longer separated by language and it had been that way for decades.  Visitors would often ask me, “Why haven’t these two churches merged?”  And there wasn’t really a good answer.  Both were struggling.  Both could use the energy and vitality that comes from having more people in worship.  Both could use the cost savings from insurance and utilities to operate and maintain only one facility.  Yet, neither had even considered that option before.  Today, they are one church and doing well.  They were able to fix up their church building, doing some much-needed repairs and making the place look even more appealing to visitors.  They found a way to incorporate both of their traditions and honor their past while looking to the future.  And they are still wonderful people doing God’s work.  Now there are more of them to do the work together. 

The wonderful people of Palm UMC in Dinuba – united and stronger

There’s nothing wrong with small churches.

In fact, most churches are small community churches that serve the needs of their local area.  And it allows for more intimacy, more nuance, and we hope deeper relationships.  But we should also do more to work in cooperation with one another.  To utilize the strength of being united even while maintaining our individuality.  One of the reasons I love the Methodist church is because of our connectional system.  It allows us to do more together than any one church could do apart.  We give a certain amount of what we receive to the greater United Methodist Church and with that, they are able to fund churches all over the globe, give scholarships to seminary students, provide relief work when natural disasters occur, fight against racial injustice, and encourage people to come and know Christ.  For literally pennies on the dollar, we are able to do all of this and more together. 

Today is World Communion Sunday. 

It is a time for us to reflect on who we are as Christians and what that really means to us.  It is a time for us to reflect on all that we have in common with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe and to pray for them and with them for the furtherance of God’s kingdom.  It is a time to lay aside our differences and remember who we are as God’s children.  John Wesley once said, “…to all opinions that do not strike at the heart of Christianity, we think and let think.”  It is time for us to do that today.  We must remember at all times that we are to love one another.  As Christ told us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  We have a long way to go my brothers and sisters.  We have a long way to go. 

There is so much work to be done in the world.

But if we work on it together, who knows what we can accomplish? 
Until every child has a home, a meal, and a loving family, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until every woman gets paid for her work and not by her gender, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we stop polluting our airways, our waterways, and our byways, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until racism, ageism, and every other “ism” is eradicated, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we first take the plank out of our own eyes, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, our work as Christians is not yet done.
Until we are all one in Christ Jesus, united as one people, our work as Christians is not yet done..

We leave this morning as we opened, with the words of a non-Christian, Mahatma Gandhi, speaking to us about us.  “To live the gospel is the most effective way – most effective in the beginning, in the middle and in the end.  Not just preach, but live the life according to the light… If, therefore, you go on serving people and ask them also to serve, they would understand.  But you quote instead John 3:16 and ask them to believe it; that has no appeal to me, and I am sure people will not understand it…the gospel will be more powerful when practiced and preached.”[3] God uses messengers of all types to communicate to us, if we only listen.   


[1] From an article in Christian Today 2006 – http://in.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=2837

[2] Accessed 9/28/2020 – https://www.learnreligions.com/christianity-statistics-700533#:~:text=Number%20of%20Christian%20Denominations.%20According%20to%20the%20Center,Christian%20denominations%20and%20organizations%20in%20the%20world%20today.

[3] http://in.christiantoday.com/articledir/print.htm?id=2837

Are You There God? It’s Me, Craig.

Eyes open or eyes closed?

When you pray, do you do it with your eyes open or closed? I think most people’s gut reaction is to say with our eyes closed.  But there are times you might pray with your eyes open.  Like when you’re driving.  I think if I’m praying while driving, it honors God a lot more to do it with my eyes open than closed.  Someone once asked this same question of me and it really got me thinking about prayer.  Was there a right way to pray?  I guess I had taken it for granted that there were certain “rules” about prayer, but were those assumptions right?  The person who asked me was a clergy friend of mine from another church.  I don’t know what inspired him to ask, but he shared that he always prayed with his eyes open and wondered what the rest of us did.  I had never heard of that before.  Like I said, there were occasions when I WOULD pray with my eyes open, like while driving a car, but overall I just assumed most people prayed with their eyes closed.  I wish I asked him why he did it the other way.  Maybe it’s because when we’re talking to someone it would be impolite not to look at them.  It makes others feel as if we don’t care.  There was a study done of patient complaints at a large hospital and they found this exact result: “9 out of 10 letters included mention of poor doctor-patient eye contact; a failure which was generally interpreted as ‘lack of caring.’”[1] Plus, eye contact “produces a powerful, subconscious sense of connection” and those who seek eye contact are “judged to be more believable, confident, and competent.”[2]  After all, prayer is simply a conversation with God. 

How do you feel most comfortable praying?

But it IS God.

I mean, as much as we want to believe Jesus is our friend, we’re still talking about the CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE!  Averting our eyes is both about respect for God AND a kind of reverence / awe / fear over a being who can literally create us from nothing.  Remember when Moses wanted to look upon God?  He asked God to show him his glory and God said, “Okay, but I’m going to shield you with my hand until I pass by and then you can look at me from behind because no one can look upon me face-to-face and live.”  God wasn’t threatening Moses, he was looking out for him.  God is just so far beyond our comprehension that to stare at God directly would drive the average person insane.  When I try to think of an apt analogy, I think about the book of Revelation, probably the scariest, weirdest and at the same time most hopeful book in the Bible.  It’s got all of these bizarre images of the sun being blacked out and Jesus with a sword coming out of his mouth and tons of other unbelievable pictures John writes about.  But John was doing his best to interpret what he was seeing in the only way he could.  The reality of God is so far beyond human comprehension this is the best we could do.  So whether you pray with your eyes open or your eyes shut is really a matter of perspective and choice. 

The same with your posture.

The way you position your body doesn’t really matter.  In fact, the Bible doesn’t advocate for one way or another.  Daniel, the guy who literally got thrown to the lions, used to get down on his knees three times a day to pray and give thanks to God (Daniel 6:10) whereas according to Mark (Mark 11), Jesus refers to people standing up to pray.  And Jesus himself lays flat down on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39).  None are said to be more effective or more “right” than the others.  Jesus also doesn’t tell us what position our hands should be in when we pray.  Do you interlock fingers or do you pray with your palms facing one another and your fingers touching?  Maybe you pray with your hands raised to God or you lie them flat on the ground.  When I was a kid, I used to think that just maybe you were supposed to aim your head at your hands and then your hands would direct your prayers to Heaven.  Sort of like an antenna for God. 

When I was a child, this was my justification for prayer posture.

So is there a right way to pray?

There is.  But it’s probably not what you think about when you first hear this question.  This passage that follows is what we most often refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer” but I’ve also heard it called the “Our Father” which is always baffling to me.  Not the “Our Father Prayer” but the “Our Father” as if everyone should know already what that is (side note: danger of church-y words used to show how “in” we are).  So even before we start praying we have differences.  But when you read this prayer, you’ll notice some slight differences from what we typically say in church. 

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

Notice something?

This prayer and the one we read earlier in Luke are different.  The one in Luke is shorter.  It doesn’t say “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” as it does here in verse 10.  And in verse 12 we ask God to forgive our debts and we forgive our debtors, but in Luke we ask God to forgive our sins. Luke’s version doesn’t mention at all deliverance from evil.  So did Luke leave a bunch of stuff out?  And what about the line, “Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen?”  How come neither of them say it?  It turns out that last line of The Lord’s Prayer is called a doxology, like we sing after an offering.[3]  A doxology is simply a short verse of praise to God to sort of wrap up the prayer.  It’s a good way to remind ourselves who is truly the focus of our prayer – God.  And it was common for prayers to end with a doxology.  It happens in the Bible quite often.[4]  But if Jesus didn’t say it, then does that mean we shouldn’t?

The problem with The Lord’s Prayer is Jesus didn’t mean for it to be a script.

He didn’t literally mean there was only one way we should use to pray to God.  Can you imagine how boring that would be for God?  Sure we say it every week, but when we read examples of Jesus’ prayers to God, they don’t sound like this at all. Jesus prayed when he raised Lazarus.  Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus prayed on the cross. [5]  And each one of these prayers was vastly different from the others and all of them were different than what he taught us to say in this passage.  That’s because Jesus was giving us a rubric for how to say a prayer, not what the prayer should actually be.  The Lord’s Prayer is a rubric for prayer, and not the exact words that a prayer should be.  Stephen Miller, in his book The Jesus of the Bible writes something quite prolific.  He wrote, “What’s troubling to some Christians today is that Jesus’ example of what prayer should be – a conversation with God – has become an example of what prayer should not be: mindless repetition.”[6] Jesus’ example of what prayer should be – a conversation with God – has become an example of what prayer should not be: mindless repetition.  How many times have you said The Lord’s Prayer without giving it a second thought?  How many of you were pressured or forced to remember it to pass a test or to feel like you fit in? Don’t get me wrong.  The Lord’s Prayer is extremely important, but more for what it can teach us than for exactly what it says.

The Lord’s Prayer helps us to focus on God.

It’s too easy to just come to God with a laundry list of things.  God isn’t someone who responds to “honey-do” lists.  Instead Jesus is trying to get us to focus on God and fulfilling God’s will.  To help us understand how much we rely on God and not to take God for granted.  The first part of the prayer is all about lifting praise and glory to God.  “Hallowed be thy name / Thy kingdom come, they will be done.” And then we move into the asking part.  But I think if you read it carefully, you’ll see that it’s not so much asking, as reminding us whom we need to rely on.  “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Forgive us our trespasses,” sounds like we’re demanding God do something for us.  “Hey, God! Give me some bread!”  But really these are subtle reminders that God is in charge.  Only God can forgive sins.  Only God created the animals and plants we rely on for food.  Then we are reminded how much we need to forgive others as God has forgiven us.  And finally we ask God to, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil,” because without God’s help, we will delve right into our own selfish and sinful ways.  All of it, the entirety of the prayer is to remind us that it is by the grace and love of God that we are who we are. 

I have a vague recollection of reading the version on the far right

Prayer is more about attitude than aptitude.

It isn’t about the exact words you use.  It’s about communicating with God from the heart.  It isn’t about the way your body is positioned.  It’s about approaching God with gratitude and trust. Too often in our conversations with God, we do all the talking.  Maybe we should listen more.  I have to give my parents credit.  They indulged my love of reading and let me read a lot!  They bought me tons of books, brought me regularly to the library, and trusted me to know what was appropriate and what wasn’t.  They even let me read Judy Blume books.  I read the “boy” books of course like Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge.  But they also let me read stuff like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.  I didn’t know that was revolutionary except whenever I mention it, people are surprised and sometimes shocked.  But it was the first time I read a book about a kid who prayed.  It meant a lot to me.  We could talk all day long about the theology of the book, but it was my first introduction to a God who listened and cared about what I had to say.  A God who was patient as we tried to figure out what role God played in our lives.  And a God who just wants us to come back and talk with him.  Is there a right way to pray?  Yes, but it’s not about form or function.  The right way to pray is to do it often and from the heart.  The rest will come in time. 


[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2014/08/21/facinating-facts-about-eye-contact/#1dbc512b518b

[2] Ibid

[3] Interesting article on the doxology from this website which corroborated other accounts I found about it: https://www.ewtn.com/library/ANSWERS/DOXOLOG.HTM

[4] https://www.gotquestions.org/doxology.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prayers_of_Jesus

[6] Stephen Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, (Barbour Publishing, OH), 2009, p. 176.

Genie in a Bottle

What would your three wishes be?

If tomorrow you found a genie in a bottle and they granted you three wishes, what would your three wishes be?  Now, as anyone knows who has seen Disney’s Aladdin, you can’t wish for more wishes.  So barring that, take a moment and imagine what you’d wish for.  I’ve vacillated between asking for things that help humanity like “world peace” and things of a more personal nature like a trillion dollars.  I don’t know how long world peace would last, but it would be pretty nice.  And with a trillion dollars I could end world hunger AND have enough left over for a nice house and a car.  At least that was my thinking back when I was 10.

When it comes to prayer, we sometimes have a 10-year old theology.

We treat God like a genie in a bottle.  We pray when we need something and then wait for it to happen and we think there’s something wrong when things don’t go our way.  In fact, we get pretty upset about it because we treat God as if we only had three wishes.  Often, we ignore God unless we need something huge as if we’re saving him for the really important stuff.  Miraculous healing.  Getting that job we’ve been hoping for.  Fixing our relationships.  The big stuff we feel we can’t do on our own.  We don’t come to God with silly things like being a better spouse or being a good parent.  We can take care of that ourselves.  Just go to Barnes and Noble and buy a book on it.  We don’t need God for THOSE things.  So when we come to God with our big requests, we kind of expect him to answer.  After all, isn’t that what he’s there for? 

SF 90 Stradale – Ferrari’s first hybrid V8 car (goes 0-62 mph in 2.5s)

Some people take this to an extreme.

I had a friend who believed God would give you ANYTHING you wanted if you just had enough faith.  Seriously.  Anything.  I questioned her about this and asked, “So if I wanted a Ferrari, God would just give it to me?  Like POOF, here’s a Ferrari?”  And in all seriousness she said yes.  That if I had enough faith and just prayed over and over and over again for a Ferrari then God would give me a Ferrari.  I must not have prayed hard enough.  Or had enough faith because I still don’t have a Ferrari.  Not that I want one.  The insurance alone wouldn’t be worth it.  But I must have done something wrong since that prayer never came to pass.  In her mind, God’s ability to grant wishes wasn’t limited by number or size.  It was all based on your faith.  If you didn’t have it, you didn’t get it. 

These are just a couple of the bad examples of prayer theology out there in the world today.

And the Bible doesn’t do a lot to clear those things up.  Not unless you spend time actually studying it.  Sometimes I cringe when I read certain passages like the one from Luke (Luke 11:5-8).  It seems as if Jesus himself is saying that if you pester God long enough, he’ll eventually give you anything you want.  Forget about love, God responds best to “shameless audacity!”  Right?  Isn’t that what it’s saying?  But that isn’t what it’s saying.  Jesus is trying to tell us to put our trust in God.  We should be bold in our prayers instead of timid.[1] We should pray with persistence not because God will give in, but because our persistence is evidence of our trust in God.  I know it seems like a cop out, but God doesn’t always answer our prayers in our time or in our way.  But God is not bothered by our persistence.  The other message Luke offers us is when we pray in our need, especially in our need to help others or to act in ways that honor God, God will respond.  Again, it may not be in the way we want or expect, but God is honored by the focus and meaning of our prayer.  You notice in Jesus’ example it wasn’t about a guy praying to get a Ferrari.  It was about a neighbor wanting to offer hospitality to a friend who has just returned on a journey.  Now you can question why that friend came to your door in the middle of the night in the first place, but probably because that friend is in need.  And that changes the dynamic of the story.  If you are knocking on God’s door to do God’s will, God will respond.  If you’re bugging God for your own selfish ends, you’ll probably get a different response.  Take a look at this passage from our reading today. 

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8

Prayer is about the heart.

Prayer is not about “what,” it is about “why.”  Look what Jesus tells his disciples, “…for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  He doesn’t require you to pray to transmit your needs.  He already knows them!  Prayer is about something different.  Prayer is about your earnestness to be in relation with God.  Prayer is about trusting in God.  It doesn’t matter what words you use or how many words you can cram into one sentence.  Do you remember the story about the tax collector and the Pharisee who both go to the temple and pray?  The Pharisee goes on and on about what a good follower he is and he demeans the tax collector right in front of him.  And the tax collector has a very simple, short prayer.  “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  That was it.  And that was the prayer God was hoping for.  Humble, sincere, trusting.  That’s what matters to God. 

The most effective prayers I’ve ever offered were like this.

They came not from my desire for something, but from my humility, sincerity, and willingness to trust in God.  And I actually did this once as Jesus described. I actually went into my room, closed the door, and just laid there on the floor in prayer.  We were living in Georgia and my District Superintendent called me to let me know that he had found a place for me to serve.  The church I was at, Roswell UMC, was downsizing staff and as the newest member I was first on the list to go.  So my DS was looking for a place for me and found a church in Covington, GA.  Covington was about 2 hours away from our home (more with traffic and in Atlanta there is always traffic).  Plus, they had a parsonage so we’d have to live in town and Cassie would have had to commute to work, meaning she would have to leave the house at about 5am each morning and return about 8pm each night every day.  And at the time our girls were very young.  Covington is also racially divided and I have to be honest I was a little worried about that.  It just seemed to be the wrong fit for our family and for the gifts and talents God had given me. So I prayed about it.  I literally went into my closet (my closet at the time was actually big enough for me to lay down inside of it), closed the door, and just prayed.  I didn’t offer God a wish list.  Instead I just said, “God, I can’t believe this is the place you want me to serve.  It just doesn’t seem to be where my gifts would best be used, but if this is your will, I’ll make it work.  But if it’s not, then please open a door and I will step through it.”  After praying like that for a while, I got up and went into my office where I was working on some paperwork and in less than an hour I got an email from Rev. Mariellen Yoshino asking how I was doing.  We had met at one of the Japanese Clergy Caucus meetings and she had recently been appointed to be one of the DSs out here in our Cal-Nevada Conference.  So I told her about my situation and that I was praying about it and almost immediately I got a response asking me to hold on.  About an hour later, I got another phone call from my DS saying an amazing opportunity opened up in California and the Bishop has given permission for me to talk to the DS out there about it.  He even said, “You know Craig, you don’t have to accept the position since it is out of conference, but we can’t offer you anything like this.”  After I got off the phone with him, I talked to Rev. Mariellen who said she’d like me to come out to California and meet with a church she had in mind.  So I did.  Up until that point where I had laid down in prayer and just turned it over to God, everything had been going wrong.  There was even more to the story than just that, but nothing seemed to be going our way.  Then in one swift movement, suddenly new opportunities blossomed right in front of us.  To me it was an answered prayer in the most profound and stunning way. 

Serving God at Roswell UMC in Roswell, GA

There have been other moments like that, too.

Times when I was humble enough to know I knew nothing.  Times when I was actually able to lay down my fears and anxieties at God’s feet and trust in his judgment.  Only in those moments was I really open to his movement.  Only then did I hear God speak into my life in such a profound way.  And I can tell you for sure that in each instance I did not know what to expect.  God’s answer was completely different than what I would have picked for myself.  And yet each answer was amazing.  I don’t know how God will answer your prayers.  I don’t know that you’ll even know when he does.  I am sure there are many instances where God has impacted my life and at least for the moment I haven’t realized it.  But I do know God is not a genie in a bottle waiting to answer your every need.  I know God doesn’t base his answer to prayer on how hard you pray or how often you pray or how persistent you pray.  I know God doesn’t promise to give you everything you want, but instead will be there for you in your need.  So I encourage you to pray strongly and boldly and with your full trust in God.  And know that God is listening. 


[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/9-persistent-friend-luke-115-13