Welcome to Level 7

The famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence
The famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”  That quote by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is perhaps one of the most famous quotes in history.  And it challenges us, both as Americans and as members of the human race to question what is going to be our contribution to the world.  There is an expectation there we do more than simply take up space on this planet.  This concept of citizenship, of having both rights and responsibilities, goes back to the very founding of our nation.  In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used the word “citizens” to describe the people of the newly formed colonies.  Nothing exciting there.  Except that he had written the word over another one he had obliterated – the ONLY word that had been obliterated in the entire draft.  That word was “subjects.”  Using the most advanced spectral imaging equipment, scholars have been able to determine what word got changed when Jefferson wrote his draft of what would become the most defining document of American history.  That word was “subjects.”  No longer would we be under the rule of someone else, we were charged with forging our own destiny.  As one writer put it, “No longer subjects to the crown, the colonists became something different: a people whose allegiance was to one another, not to a faraway monarch.”[1]  We belong to something bigger than ourselves, something in which we are all invited to participate in, something that requires us to be willing participants in the process.

But how many of us actually contribute to that effort?

After the age of 18, we have the right to vote yet only a little more than half of us do.  Since 1920, out of the 24 races for the presidency, only 4 had over 60% turnout, and even that only reached a high of 62.8%.[2]  Midterm elections for senators and congressmen are even worse with no election ever turning out more than 48% of the vote.  And the mayors of major cities are sometimes elected with less than 10%.[3]  For a people who have fought and died for their freedom, we don’t seem to appreciate or value it very much.  The same thing is true about our faith.  Our freedom from sin was bought and paid for by the death of Christ on the cross and yet even among professing Christians, many do not participate in the life of the church.  An astounding 73% of Americans claim to be Christian.[4]  Astounding because the reality is about 52% so 21% of Americans claim to be Christian but don’t belong to any organized faith group.  Consistently about 40% of people report coming to church on any given week, yet in actuality only 17.5% actually do.  Of the 52% of Americans who are on record as BELONGING to a church, 29% of them never enter the door and another 27% come less than once a month.   Of the 52% of Americans who belong to a church, 29% never enter the door and 27% attend less than once a month, sometimes only on holidays.[5]  Is church attendance the only indicator of faith?  Of course not.  But how many people do you know who regularly attend Bible study who don’t also come to church?  How many people do you know who regularly even READ the Bible without coming to church?  That’s because if you know your Bible and you believe it is God inspired you can’t help but read the passages that tell us we need to be in a community of believers to experience and understand faith.  “No man is an island, entire of itself.” – John Donne.

The point is simply many of us have become passive in our faith, but that is not the way it should be.

Jesus talks about this in very plain terms with the disciples in the reading we are going to share this morning.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to the Gospel of John 15:9-17.  This passage follows Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches.  Jesus talks to his followers about how he is the vine, the part of the plant that connects all the others and provides for them, and we are the branches.  For us to thrive, we have to remain a part of the vine; we have to stay connected to God. Jesus is trying to help them understand why this is important and what it means to remain in Christ when he shares these closing words to this passage.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Jesus has just called the disciples into a higher level of responsibility. 

Call it “the inner circle,” call it “the circle of trust,” call it whatever term you want, but Jesus has just included the disciples into this higher level.  And because WE are disciples of Christ, we are included as well.  He tells us, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”  Welcome to level 7. At one time or another, you’ve probably had an experience where you could relate to what the disciples must have felt like in that moment; where your perception of a situation, your ideas about something changed because you were given new information, new insight, or new knowledge.  That’s what’s happened here.  Jesus changes the dynamics of their relationship because he’s preparing them for what’s to come.  He wants the disciples to realize that they have been equipped to continue the work.  They have all they need.  They know why Jesus has come and they know his purpose.  He wants them to be assured that he believes in them.  He even tells them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”  That is a powerful statement because it tells the disciples that Jesus has confidence in their ability to do what needs to be done and what needs to be done is simple: Love each other.  Love each other.  He says it twice in this one passage alone.  And his whole life has been a model for how to live that out – show mercy, take care of the poor and the sick, stand up for the disenfranchised, forgive, and share the Word.  We are supposed to give our lives to this mission not because we are servants but because we are friends.  That’s why Jesus says in verse 13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus LITERALLY gave his life for us, but he challenges us to give our lives in another way – to devote ourselves to his teachings and example.  That is the challenge we have been given.

But how many of us live up to that challenge?

Too often we become complacent in our faith as we do in our responsibility as citizens of our country.  Too often we settle for what is comfortable and we don’t challenge ourselves to carry on God’s mission.  But that complacency is dangerous because complacency leads to complicity.  Complacency leads to complicity.  When we are complacent in our faith we are complicit the failure to lead people to Christ.  It’s like Genovese Syndrome.  Genovese Syndrome.[6]  You’ve probably heard about the famous case of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered outside of her apartment building in New York.  Onlookers and witnesses who saw the event did little to intervene and although the initial reports of 38 witnesses was found to be inaccurate, it brought to light this social phenomenon – when multiple people are involved, the diffusion of responsibility is greater.  When multiple people are involved, the diffusion of responsibility is greater.  Meaning that the more people who are part of an event, the less responsibility we each feel individually to make sure something is being done.  In the case of Kitty Genovese, this meant that nobody felt compelled to get involved.  Witnesses either reported feeling inadequate to do something, felt someone else would do something, felt uncertain about helping while others were watching, but none of them went down to see if Kitty was alright.[7]  None went to make sure she was safe.  And unfortunately, this isn’t the only incident where this has happened.  Ten years later, another woman, Sandra Mahler, was killed near the same place Kitty was murdered and again cried for help and again, no one intervened.  In April 2010, long after this case was made known, a homeless man lay dying after being stabbed and although many people saw him suffering, no one stopped to help.[8]  One person even stopped to take a picture.  But are we suffering from this same apathy, this same reluctance to get involved in the mission for Jesus Christ?  We feel that others are better equipped.  We don’t want to get involved.  We are sure someone else is doing the work.  We end up standing by and doing nothing while people are dying every day without knowing the love of God.  President Kennedy once said in a speech, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

President John F Kennedy
President John F Kennedy

What are YOU doing for God’s mission?

Jesus told us exactly what we are supposed to do, but are you contributing to that effort with all that you have or like those witnesses and bystanders are you passively letting the world go by?  Are we like the citizen who shouts at the top of their lungs that we have rights in this country, but then shirks his duty to it at the same time?  We are more than simply servants of Christ.  We are friends.  And as friends we have a deeper responsibility to this mission than someone who has no choice in the matter, because we do have a choice.  God has given us the freedom to choose.  We can follow him or we can turn our backs on him, but if we DO decide to follow him, we have to do so in more than just name only.  Challenge yourselves to get more involved in the mission of God in this world.  Challenge yourselves to get out of your comfort zone and find a way to share your love of God with others.  Dig deep into the creative wells of your mind to come up with ways you can be a witness for Christ, but it is within each of you to do so, because God has “equipped you for every good work” through his Word (2 Timothy 3:17).  You are already ahead of the majority of Christians who claim Christ as Lord because you showed up today.  But it is within all of us to do more.  We are citizens not subjects of Christ.  We are friends and not servants of the Living God.  And we can do more.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Fishing With Dad

My dad having caught one of his own...
My dad having caught one of his own…

When I was little, my dad used to take me fishing all the time.  We used to go lake fishing when I was younger, usually to Anaheim Lake for trout, and then deep-sea fishing as I got older.  I always loved it.  To me, nothing beats a nice, juicy, greasy hamburger while waiting for the fish to strike.  But the best part was just hanging with my dad and reeling in those fish.

I remember one time in particular when he took me to Puddingstone Lake in San Dimas for some trout fishing.  I must have been all of 10 years old at the time.  The fish were biting extremely well that whole day and my dad let me reel in all of them.  He would patiently prepare the poles, stake out the spots, put all of our gear out on the lake shore, bait the hook, and help me cast the line out there.  When the fish would bite, whether it was on my pole or his, my dad would let me reel it in.  In total, we caught 10 fish that day!  I was so proud that as soon as we got home, I yelled to my mom, “Guess what?  I caught 10 fish today and dad didn’t catch any!”

The truth was my dad had more to do with catching those fish than I did, but I got all the credit – and was happy to take it.  But looking back, I realize that I couldn’t have done it without my dad, who never took any of the credit for himself.  He just let me relish in the triumph of those fish.  Our heavenly Father is like that.  He does so much for us and asks for so little in return.  In the end, he simply hopes that we love him, we believe in him, and we share the love and grace he gives to us so freely with others.

This month we celebrate Father’s Day – one of my favorite days of the year.  I am so grateful to be a father myself and I pray often for God’s guidance in my own struggles with parenthood.  I hope that I will leave a lasting impression upon my children as my own father has done for me.  Do me a favor and if you are at all thankful for what your fathers – your earthly and your heavenly one – have done for you, let them know it.   And don’t just wait for Father’s Day to do it either.

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet

The famous jingle - baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet
The famous jingle – baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet

I am proud to be an American.  I’m a sansei or third generation Japanese-American kid and although I don’t love most Chevrolets, I do love baseball, a good hot dog, and apple pie ala mode (remember that commercial?).  More importantly, I love the fact that we live in a country where we can worship freely, we can vote freely, and we can grow up to be President.  So you can only imagine the kind of hurt I felt the first time I heard that awful racist kids’ poem, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!”  I cried.  I was only six years old at the time and in the first grade and I don’t cry very often in public.  I just don’t.  But I cried that day.  And every once in a while, although less often than before, I still meet ignorant people who insult me because of my ethnicity – an ethnicity I am very proud of.  And it hurts.

I remember one time in particular that I was standing on the street corner on the way to high school and this guy leans out of his car window and yells as he’s driving past me, “Go back to China you chink!”  And it made me so mad.  Partly because he was gone before I could respond, but mostly because if you’re going to insult me at least get my ethnicity right.  And even not that long ago while I was a pastor at a small church in Washington, GA, I encountered the same kind of racism.  That cowardly, drive-by-and-insult-you kind of racism that lets me know there is still racial hatred in the world.  I stopped at the local Radio Shack, which also doubled as the local newspaper publisher to get the paper.  The girls were in the car with Cassie as I walked around to the newspaper machine and as I was about to put in my 50 cents, this big shiny charcoal gray pick-up truck came by, and this guy who must have been in his early twenties start shouting out, “Ching, chong, ching, chong,” to me at the top of his lungs out of a rolled down window.  His friends were just laughing behind him.  But unlike that little six-year old that I used to be, I didn’t cry.  I was upset.  Upset that in the 21st century, I would still find the racism I was hoping to leave behind.  Upset that even almost 150 years after the civil war that people still carried around these old prejudices.  Upset that 2000 years after Christ, people still haven’t got the message we should treat our neighbor with love.

But what made me the most upset is that my little baby girl, Emma, is likely to face that kind of racism as she grows up.  I don’t have to worry about Eve, she’s as All-American as they come with her blond hair and blue eyes, but Emma has enough of her daddy in her that she might be the victim of some cruel kid’s joke.  I just wish I could spare her that kind of hatred and fear. Many people are fond of calling America a Christian nation, and if that’s the case we should live up to those ideals.  Bigotry, prejudice, and hatred of any sort just have no place in the heart of a Christian and by extension in the heart of America.  Instead we should replace those feelings and attitudes with ones that more closely resemble Christ who called on us to love our neighbor as we would ourselves.  Prayerfully consider how it is that you can add to the great chorus of those who have gone before to make our country not only what our founding fathers had in mind, but what our Father in Heaven had in mind, too.  God bless us all.

The Most Segregated Hour in America

I’d like to say I am a man free of bias, but that wouldn’t be completely honest.

For instance, I love UCLA. And if you love UCLA, there is one school you definitely do NOT love – USC also known as the University of Second Choice, the University of Spoiled Children, and one of the newer ones – University of Suspected Cheaters.  They have names for us too.  University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians.  Of course, that acronym would actually be UCLAA but what would you expect from a USC student?  All kidding aside, really what would you expect?  There is no doubt as to which school is the better school.  For the cost of a public education UCLA is ranked as the 13th best school in the world and the 2nd best public school in the world.[1]  And athletically, it is also the school with the most NCAA championships in the country[2] and is also the most applied to school in the country.[3]  But USC is good in football.  At least they used to be until we beat them this year.  Needless to say, the rivalry between UCLA and that other school is fierce indeed.  In fact, one of our former football coaches, Red Sanders, was once quoted as saying playing USC is not a matter of life and death, “it’s more important than that.”[4]

It’s not really more important than that.

And that’s a line we shouldn’t have to draw, but some people can’t seem to differentiate between a friendly rivalry and fanaticism.  Take for instance the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama.  Back in 2011, a rabid Alabama fan named Harvey Updyke whose love of the team possessed him to name his daughter Crimson Tyde after the school’s mascot, poisoned two iconic trees on the Auburn campus because Alabama lost to them in a football game.  He was 63 years old.  Certainly old enough to know better.[5]  But the violence isn’t just at college games.  Bryan Stow was beaten outside of Dodgers Stadium because he was a Giants fan.  Fans of the Vancouver Canucks rioted in the city because their team lost in the Stanley Cup.  And two men were shot outside the Raiders – 49ers exhibition game for being fans of the wrong team.[6]  How in the world does it come down to this?  It’s hard to believe there are people living in 21st Century America who don’t have enough sense NOT to do this to a fellow human being.  But it happens.  Prejudice is born of fear, and no one said that fear had to be rational or sensible.  Prejudice is born of fear, and no one said that fear had to be rational or sensible.

Dr. King giving the "I Have A Dream" speech
Dr. King giving the “I Have A Dream” speech

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

And I’m reminded of that today because we just celebrated his life this past Monday.  And even though we’ve come a long way in achieving racial equality there is no doubt that we are still a nation filled with fear and hatred over the same nonsensical things we feared back then.  That same prejudice that reared its ugly head back in the days of Dr. King still rears its head today.  It may have changed shape or has a different target, but nonetheless, we still deal with that same looming specter of fear in our lives.  But that is completely against what the Bible tells us.  In every way, shape, and form, the Bible tells us that prejudice and intolerance are against everything that Jesus taught.  In every way, shape, and form, the Bible tells us that prejudice and intolerance are against everything that Jesus taught.  And we’re going to hear that in our Bible verse this morning.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Acts 10, beginning with verse 23.  Acts 10:23.  Now just before this passage, a centurion named Cornelius receives a vision from an angel that tells him to send for Peter.  Cornelius is a God-fearing, Jesus-following kind of guy despite being a Gentile, a non-Jew.  He and his family are loyal followers of the Way (what they called those who followed the teachings of Jesus) and when Cornelius gets this vision he immediately sends someone to ask Peter to come to his house.  At the same time this is happening, Peter receives a vision from God, as well.  At first, Peter thinks it’s kind of weird and he doesn’t really understand.  He sees this sheet falling from Heaven.  A sheet.  And it starts talking to him.  It tells him to kill the animals around him for food, and Peter says, “No way!  I’ve never killed anything unclean.”  And this sheet…this sheet hanging in the air tells him, “How dare you.  How dare you call anything unclean that I have made clean!”  Peter realizes this is the voice of God.  This happened three times before the sheet disappeared.  And so that’s where we begin our reading.  In it Peter has just been visited by Cornelius’ messenger and been asked to come to his house.  Here now is the Word of the Lord.

The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the brothers from Joppa went along. The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”

Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius answered: “Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right…”

I have to give Peter a lot of credit here.

For his many faults, Peter got this one right.  I love Peter because he is so much like us at times.  He makes mistakes.  He has faults and foibles.  And yet he truly does have a heart for God as we see in this passage.  It wouldn’t have been easy for Peter to overcome his prejudice against the Gentiles.  Jewish children are brought up with the knowledge that associating with a Gentile makes you unclean.[7]  And being unclean is a big deal in Jewish society.  It isn’t like in elementary school when you got the cooties from a girl and your friend sprayed you with anti-cootie serum.  You had to go through a cleansing process and a waiting period of up to eighty days to be considered clean again.[8]  During that time, you couldn’t go to temple, you couldn’t associate with people, you were essentially an outcast.  Being unclean might have even carried a connotation of loathing in Jewish society.[9]  So for Peter to even come to Cornelius’ house would have been a huge deal and Cornelius knows this.  And he acknowledges this to Cornelius but says, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”  And after hearing Cornelius’ story he says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right…” We’ve known this for 2,000 years and yet there are so many who still have difficulty overcoming their prejudices.  Even in the church of Jesus Christ who preached, taught, and modeled love and acceptance for all peoples – even in the church prejudice and irrational fear can still permeate our beliefs and practices.

Dr. King once made a famous quote about this.

He said, “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”  And even today that is still remarkably true.  Sunday at 11 is still the most segregated hour in the nation.  More than 50 years after Dr. King made that statement, only 15% of the nation’s churches are considered diverse.  Fifteen percent!  And only 7% in churches of less than 100 people.[10]  And the meaning of “diverse” is not as difficult as you might think. Those who keep track of such things have defined a diverse church as one that has 80% or less of one ethnic group.  Eighty percent!  It’s when the statistical probability of meeting someone of a different ethnicity is almost a certainty.  So if you’re church is 80% white for example and 20% something else, you’re considered diverse.  And yet only 15% of churches in the United States meet this criteria.  We have black churches, white churches, Japanese churches, Korean churches, Tongan churches, Hmong churches, Hispanic churches, and that’s just in the valley!  But is that the way God wanted us to worship?  Is that the vision God had for his church?  And yet it is still true that  “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. King proclaimed his dream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

And nearly 50 years later we are still not quite there.  We have come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.  And if being Christian means anything, we must fight hatred and prejudice of every stripe.  We must not cave in to social pressure and we must stand against the tide.  We shouldn’t put up with people using racial slurs whether they are saying them to us or someone else.  We shouldn’t put up with it when anyone lumps together people of any of race, color, creed, religion, age, or sexual orientation and belittles them or mocks them for being part of that group.  We shouldn’t put up with it.  And we should always behave in love and grace for that is the tremendous gift that God gave to us.  Regardless of how foolish we think it is to root for USC when UCLA is clearly the better team. I want to challenge you this week to pray about those things in your life that you may have a prejudice against.  They may not be racial prejudices, but can be anything from how you look at the opposite sex to something as simple as disliking people who wear baggy shorts.  But it is important that we root out of ourselves those biases that make it hard for us to love others.  Because if it means anything to be Christian, it means being a people of love and grace. And in Dr. King’s immortal words,

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!3

[4] Lonnie White from his introduction to the 75th Anniversary of the USC-UCLA football game. http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/trojan_family/autumn04/F2_USCvsUCLA.html

Service With a Smile – The Disney Way

Walt thought these streetcars with real horses was so important he paid for them out of his own pocket – he was right.

Walt Disney once said that the kind of people who should be employed by his company would be “people who give, who like to bring delight to other people, and therefore gain pleasure and satisfaction for themselves.”  Disney knew that the key to good service was to have a heart for others and that those who delighted in bringing happiness to others would be key people in developing the kind of place he wanted.  As a result, Disneyland developed a “Code of Guest Service” that they train every cast member to embody.  SERVICE is an acronym for:

Smile – every interaction begins with a positive attitude

Eye Contact / Body Language – our body language and our willingness to maintain eye contact tell a lot about our willingness to serve

Respect and Welcome – treating others the way we would like to be treated and showing them hospitality is vital

Value the Magic – people come to Disneyland because they believe in the magic, don’t take that away from them

Initiate Guest Contact – be the one to initiate contact, don’t wait for others to come to you

Create Service Solutions – the word “no” isn’t in our vocabulary

End with a Thank You – always remember who we are here to serve

I was at a training seminar given by the Disney Institute where they talked about the complete dedication that the entire company had toward guest service and why this was vital to their success.  When you create an atmosphere where service is the first thing on your mind, others feel loved, appreciated, and special.  In other words, they feel the “magic.”  And that’s really the key.  In everything from how they clean the restrooms (VERY often by the way) to how they staff the park, everything is centered on the EXPERIENCE.  One time when my family was there, my wife Cassie mentioned how impressed she was by the number of people they had to service the guests because they didn’t staff the minimum needed as many businesses do.  They went above and beyond.  But none of those people were idle.  They were cleaning or serving others or stocking shelves and in every way making sure your needs (and wants) were met.

Service isn’t just important at Disneyland but in every aspect of our lives.  Service is a way of living for Christians and one we need to embody.  If we treated everyone in this way, we would be able to help bring the Kingdom of God into reality here and now!  Imagine what a world that would be.

Giving God Meatloaf

Meatloaf, yummy but maybe not the most visually appealing food.

How many of you like meatloaf?

Go ahead.  Raise your hands (I know I’m not there to see it, but I am in spirit).  I love it.  Meatloaf is one of my favorite things to eat.  I have lots of good memories about it.  And of course, no one makes meatloaf like my mother.  Isn’t that true?  Aren’t there just some dishes your mom or dad makes that no one else makes just like them?  Meatloaf is one of those dishes for me.  When I go to a new restaurant if they have it on the menu, I usually order it so I can compare it to the one I used to get at home.  It’s sort of my barometer for restaurant quality.  If the meatloaf is good, the restaurant must be good.  If it’s not…well, I probably won’t be coming back.  But meatloaf is one of those dishes where there are always leftovers.  It’s a leftover dish.  And I like it that way.  As a kid, I used to love making it into sandwiches for lunch.  It was one of the fringe benefits of having meatloaf.  Put a big chunk of it in-between two slices of bread with some mayonnaise on it.  Yum.  The funny thing is even though it’s good enough for me, I would never serve leftover meatloaf to a girl I was dating.  Or anyone for that matter.  And it’s not because of what it is or how it tastes because obviously I love it.  It’s because it’s a leftover.

Now, leftovers might be okay for us, we might even like it, but would you ever serve leftovers to someone who was a guest in your home?  Someone you were hoping to date?  Would you serve leftovers to your boss?  There’s something about leftovers that people associate with being “not worthy of my time.”  Leftovers are for “other people” once we’re done eating what we want.  Leftovers go in the “doggy bag.”  Think about it.  The “doggy bag.”  Because it’s leftover scraps of food that goes to the dog.  Before the invention of the doggy bag, most people wouldn’t even THINK to take the 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, too.  But there is something about leftovers that people associate with unworthiness.  So the question needs to be asked, “Are you giving God your leftovers?” 

When we give to God, we’re supposed to give from our “first fruits” meaning the first portion of our crops.  This idea comes from the very beginning of the Bible in the story of Cain and Abel.  In that story, God was very pleased with Abel’s offering because Abel gave of the firstborn of his flock.  God was not as happy with Cain because Cain withheld his best from the Lord.  Cain only gave “some of the fruits” to God compared to Abel’s “fat portions of the some of the firstborn of his flock.”  Apparently, Abel gave to God first and only then took some for himself while Cain seemingly did the opposite.  It didn’t matter to God that Cain brought fruit and Abel brought meat.  Each brought as he was able.  What mattered was their attitude and trust in God – Abel had it and Cain didn’t.  Abel recognized that without God he would have nothing and so he first gave back to God the very best.  He trusted that even if he gave it away, that God would provide for him.  Cain, however, did what many of us do.  He held back.  Either Cain didn’t recognize God as the one to whom he owed everything or just wanted to keep the best for himself figuring that God didn’t need it and he did.  Cain didn’t trust that God would give him enough.  And so he took portions for himself first.  The stress on willful giving is found throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.  The story of the widow’s mite comes to mind or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  Having the proper attitude is more important than the amount you give.  Too many of us give God the leftovers.

Whether you give to your local church or to the Red Cross or to the homeless guy on the street, give of your firstfruits.  Designate a portion of what you make each month to God and give it away quickly to where you feel God is leading you.  Don’t hold on to it “just in case.”  Put your faith in God and God will look after you.  Giving after all is a sign of thankfulness and in this season of giving thanks we should remember to give thanks first to the one who made our lives possible.

But Suppose God Is Black?

What do you think Jesus looks like?  When you hear the name “Jesus” what image immediately springs to mind?  Whatever image pops up probably came from a picture or painting or description of Jesus from somewhere other than the Bible because nowhere except for a few vague references in Isaiah (who wasn’t even around when Jesus was alive) does it say what Jesus looked like.  We’ve all seen the pictures of Jesus with blue eyes and long, flowing, almond colored hair – almost blond in some pictures – probably wearing a white robe (who wears white in the desert?), a sash of some sort whether rope or cloth, and sandals (at least THAT was probably correct).  But scholars pretty much agree that isn’t likely to be an accurate representation of Jesus.  COULD Jesus have looked like that?  I guess the person who created the universe can look like whatever he wants, but is it likely?  No.

Now THAT’S a chocolate chip cookie! – From our trip to Boston a few years back

I was thinking about this because in my research for one of my sermons (How to Make A Chocolate Chip Cookie) I came across a quote from Senator Robert Kennedy who had gone on a tour in South Africa after his brother President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.  It was 1966 and Sen. Kennedy was championing the anti-apartheid movement twenty years before that effort became popular and after the tour, he spoke to LOOK magazine in an interview and said, “At the University of Natal in Durban, I was told the church to which most of the white population belongs teaches apartheid as a moral necessity. A questioner declared that few churches allow black Africans to pray with the white because the Bible says that is the way it should be, because God created Negroes to serve. ‘But suppose God is black’, I replied. ‘What if we go to Heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the Negro as an inferior, and God is there, and we look up and He is not white? What then is our response?’ There was no answer. Only silence.” (from Wikipedia and other sources)

Senator Robert Kennedy with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But suppose God is black?  That is one of the most powerful statements I’ve read because its implication is so profound.  Too many people in the world today make sweeping assumptions about what the God of the universe wants when in fact, if they only actually READ and LISTENED to what God wants, they would find that it is far distant than their moral presumption.  For centuries, slavery was sanctioned because “that’s the way God wanted it.”  It’s not, but people would use Scripture to justify it and twist around the meaning of the Bible to suit their own needs.  Women were treated as inferior because “God created women that way” when in fact, Jesus held women in high esteem and even Paul had women disciples who taught about Jesus with men and to men.  Children were treated no better than slaves and sometimes like property or tools because they were supposed to “honor their father and mother.”  I guess those same people never read the parts of the Bible where Jesus warns against harming the children or causing them to sin or to get in the way between him and the children.  I guess they never read the parts of the Bible that tells fathers to raise their children well and admonishes parents to raise their children up in the way of the Lord (mind you, that’s not just TEACH them about God, but raise them up in his ways by MODELING a Christ-like / God-like pattern of living).  Racism, sexism, ageism, and pretty much every kind of morally negative “ism” out there has been justified in the Bible.  Take a look – a real look – at the Bible and you will find that the Bible is both more complex and more simple than that.

I think Jesus sums it up best when he tells us in John 13:34-35 to “Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another.”  The Lord of the universe said it three times in two verses.  Love one another.  Must be pretty important.  Here’s the thing.  If you feel God is calling you to do something that goes against this simple moral directive, question it.  QUESTION IT!  Is it coming from God or from man?  Is it coming from our Heavenly Father or is it the result of fear, hate, or prejudice?  Because the great story of God in the Bible is seen through the lens of love and to see it any other way is to twist the narrative around.  Love one another.  That’s ultimately God’s message for us.

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On Having and Being

LEGOs – one of the greatest inventions ever!

I like STUFF.

Not for the sake of having it, but there are certain material things I enjoy.  I collect comic books, certain LEGO sets, and Disney pins.  They add to my life in different ways.  Comic books remind me of my dad and the stories, when well written and drawn, are a great diversion from the stresses of life.  I love LEGOs and especially the ones with comic characters, Star Wars, and now The Lord of the Rings.  It’s fun to build something concrete since most of my life deals with things in the abstract or the untouchable.  And I love Disney pin trading!  Certain pins remind me of times I’ve had with my family, others remind me of when I used to work at the Park (Disneyland that is), and I like the camaraderie of the folks who collect.  They are for the most part a great group of people.  But in each of these hobbies, there are some people who turn it into an obsession.  To them, having it all and having it first makes their life meaningful and I think that any time we define our lives by the material things we possess or have we are in grave danger of losing our souls.  We become fixated as much as if we were taking a drug and end up with that same distorted view of life – that it all amounts to STUFF.  We know it doesn’t.  Watch this clip below.  I think you’ll hear some interesting ideas.

The clip above is from the show CSI and when I saw it, it really made me think.

It was from an episode about a woman who suffered from disposophobia or compulsive hoarding.  If you’ve even seen someone like this, or you’ve watched one of those reality shows about it, you know how bad it can be.  Just STUFF everywhere!  Just this constant accumulation of STUFF!  Piles and piles of it in every nook and cranny possible.  And it becomes obsessive to the point where the hoarder doesn’t even realize what’s going on.  They just keep getting more STUFF that most of us would consider junk or trash, but for them there is meaning to it all.  It becomes ridiculous how the hoarder begins to justify every scrap of paper and every piece of food.  It just makes me wonder what in the world drives people to this point.  And then I watch TV.  Or read a paper.  And I can see how we are constantly bombarded by the message that we need more STUFF.  We really do have a society focused on material things.  Our identity is shaped by our possessions.  Our social status, our sense of identity, our acceptance into social circles – all often has to do with “things.”

As the clip said, the philosopher Erich Fromm had a theory that we have two basic human orientations: having and being.

Having and being.  It does seem that our culture is dominated by the “having” orientation, doesn’t it?  But as Ray said in the clip, it doesn’t have to be that way.  WE don’t have to be that way.  To change it, we have to learn to get into the habit of giving, on focusing not on how much we get but on how much we give to others – and not necessarily giving material things either but giving our time and our talents and our resources away for free.  Because by giving, we get rid of the barrier of STUFF between us and God.  We let go of the material world and instead embrace God’s world.  And that’s where God wants us to be.  He wants us to live in HIS world instead of the material world.  He wants us to focus on our relationship with Him and with those around us and that’s hard to do when we are surrounded by a barrier of stuff.  That’s why God talks about all the time.  That’s why Jesus says it’s so hard for the rich to get into Heaven.  Not because they have money, but because they keep getting blocked by all the STUFF in their way.  I’m convinced that the story of the rich young man in the Bible (Mark 10:17-25) is told to us for exactly this reason – to help us understand that the material world gets in between us and God.  That’s why Christ tells us to get rid of it!  So we can learn to rely on God instead of our STUFF.  If the world were filled with people primarily focused on “being” instead of “having” wouldn’t this be a better place?

There’s nothing wrong with STUFF in and of itself.  Like there’s nothing wrong with money in and of itself.  But when we let it take over our lives, we risk the things that are truly important – our family, our friends, our very relationship with God.  All for a bunch of stuff we can’t take with us in the end.