A Few Bad Apples

A few bad apples ruin the bunch.

Isn’t that the truth?  You find a few and it’s easy to assume the whole bunch is like that.  We tend to define people by the lowest common denominator.  Instead of looking to the best and the brightest as examples of a group of people, we tend to take the worst of them and then lump them all together.  Think of the stereotypes that define you.  Male, female.  Young, old.  White, Asian, Hispanic, African.  Gay, straight.  There are tons of them out there.  I don’t know about you, but I cringe every time I see a bad Asian driver.  There’s a stereotype out there that we’re all horrible on the road, so who needs another guy to mess that up?  The truth is Asians are among the country’s best drivers!  According to a study by the American Council on Science and Health, Asians had the lowest number of fatal car crashes by far compared to other ethnicities.  White people had a rate of about 12 car deaths per 100,000 while Blacks had a rate of about 13 and Native Americans had the worst rate at 17.  Asians on the other hand only had 5 deaths per 100,000.[1]  How do you like them apples?  But the stereotypes get perpetuated by what we choose to notice rather than what is real.  You know who else are really good drivers?  Women.  The fatality rate of men and women in car accidents favors women over two to one.[2]

Death rate per 100,000 by race according to the American Council on Science and Health (2016)

After 9/11 there was hatred in the air toward anyone who even LOOKED Arabic. 

Even though the attacks were brought about by a small, militant, terrorist group of jihadists from across the globe, suddenly anyone of Middle Eastern heritage was suspect.  I can’t even say Muslim, because the prejudice went beyond that.  If you wore a hijab and looked Arabic, people would suddenly become nervous around you.  You were the target of law enforcement all over the country.  People of Arab decent were pulled aside in airport security lines routinely and inspected.  There were even suggestions of “rounding up all of the Arabs” and locking them behind barbed wire fences “for their own safety.”  Nightmare flashbacks to the internment of the Japanese population sprang immediately to mind.  It’s sad to think that in all of these intervening years, in all of the speeches, movies, shows, and educational programs we’ve had about the internment, there are still people who haven’t learned that a person’s gender, faith, or ethnicity does not define who they are. Even today violence and discrimination against people of the Islamic faith continues.  In 2010, the FBI reported the highest number of hate crimes against Muslim people since 9/11.[3]  So that distrust and rage hasn’t gone away over time.  But we allow ourselves to be convinced that every Muslim person is suddenly suspect, even though the Islamic faith has been in existence for centuries, even though there were mosques before 9/11.  It’s as if we suddenly took notice and in an awful way.  We allowed our perception of Muslims be tainted by a few bad apples.

Japanese internment camps – image courtesy of Los Angeles Times

I can understand that fear. 

I can understand why we revert to a protectionist mode when we feel endangered or when our loved ones are in danger.  And it’s easy to let that fear grow into blind hatred, but if it means anything to be Christian, we can’t allow ourselves to do that.  We have to step up and embrace with love even those who might be our enemies – real or imagined.  Because we are called upon by God to do more.  This passage is from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth.  He may have written many more, but this is the second of the letters we have collected in the Bible and in this particular passage, he’s writing to the church about how our focus on Earth has changed since Jesus came and redefined the meaning of life.  That this physical form we have is nothing but a shell and that our real home is in Heaven.  That there is a part of us, now that we partially understand, now that we have seen a glimpse through Jesus of the life to come, that yearns for that life.  But we also believe that there will be a day of judgment where as Paul puts it, God will judge us for what we did in these mortal shells.  And so part of our role as believers in Christ is to convince others of THEIR heavenly role, to help them to see this shell is nothing more than a temporary home and something greater awaits them.  Because when judgment comes, we want as many as possible to stand on the side of Christ.  We want to be able to hear God say those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  This is how Paul describes that role in his letter to the church. 

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

No matter where we go or what we do, we are always ambassadors for Christ.

We are Christ’s ambassadors.

And Paul tells us that we aren’t just trying to convince people for our own sake.  We’re trying to bring them to Christ “as though God were making his appeal through us.”  Paul tries to convince us that just as we see the world differently because of Christ in our lives, we also have to act differently and have a different view of the world.  Not because God is forcing us to, but because if we really accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we can’t help but be transformed by his life-giving message.  We can’t help but be motivated to bring others to him.  And in one line, Paul makes it abundantly clear what Christ expects of us: “he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”  We must do whatever we can to heal the rift between humanity and God.  And that means we need to bridge the gap between us.  We are called to make the first step, to make the first move, to be the ones to show humility and love before anyone asks us to.  That is our role as Christians, to show the abundant love of God for no other reason than our overwhelming need to have others know the love of Christ for themselves.

This is the role we are meant to play, not only with our Muslim friends but all of humanity.

To be certain there are wide differences between us – between Christians and Muslims, but there are many similarities as well.  Both consider Abraham as one of the fathers of our faith.  In fact each religion traces it’s roots back to Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac – Ishmael is considered to be the ancestor of Mohammed and Isaac the ancestor of Jesus.  And contrary to some popular belief, we worship the same God.  Muslims refer to God as Allah, but that difference is in name only.  Just as French use the word Dieu to refer to God or Japanese say kami-sama or people who speak Spanish say Dios people who speak Arabic refer to God as AllahAllah is to Arabic as God is to English.  Both faiths believe that salvation comes by submitting to God.  In our Western culture, we tend to downplay the role of submission in our faith, but we shouldn’t.  It’s that unwillingness to submit that brings pride, arrogance, and self-reliance upon us and makes it difficult for us to fully rely on God.  In Islam, submission is at the heart of their faith.  In fact, it’s even part of their very name.  The root word “slm” means “to submit.”  So the word Islam is roughly translated as “submission to Allah.”  And a Muslim person is defined as “one who submits to the will of God.”  A Muslim person is “one who submits to the will of God.” 

There are differences to be sure.  Differences that cannot be overlooked.

In the Islamic faith, Jesus, while thought to be a great prophet, second only to Mohammed himself, is not considered divine.  He is not the Son of God, but merely a man favored by God.  He did not die on the cross and was not resurrected, and these are essential elements of our faith.  We believe Jesus is the savior precisely because he DID die on the cross and in that act of sacrifice covered the stain of sin on our lives so we could be reconciled to God.  In his resurrection, we know that he truly is God because only God could conquer both death and sin.  In Islam, they confirm the life of Christ and even the virgin birth, but deny that Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross.  They also believe that the Quran is the final revelation of God.  Unlike the Bible which was written by human hands that we believe was inspired by God, the words in the Quran are thought to actually be God’s words.  In fact, they are written as if God is speaking.  Mohammed’s followers would in fact write down the visions God revealed to him using the first-person vocabulary.  As Hamilton wrote in his book, for them the Quran is the equivalent of Jesus because it is thought to be his final word.  As we worship Jesus, God made flesh, they worship the Quran as God himself being revealed through Mohammed.  It is also why to followers of Islam that the Quran is only to be read in Arabic because it is the language through which God revealed himself to Mohammed. 

UCLA vs. Cal in Berkeley 2018

But what does that mean for us as Christians?

It’s true we have our differences, differences which divide us from being able to agree, but how is that any different than being fans of the Dodgers or Giants?  UCLA or Cal?  Chocolate or vanilla?  Does that mean we have to hate one another?  God calls us to be ambassadors for Christ, but who are we being an ambassador for?  Who are we reaching out to?  Christ himself said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that (Matthew 5:46-47)?”  There is no point in reaching out to those who are already Christian.  We must be willing to reach out to those different than us, those who believe differently than us, and the best way for us to do that is to show them the radical and inclusive love of Jesus.  Not by beating them over the head with Bible verses but making those teachings come alive by how we live our lives. Turning the other cheek, forgiving people, helping the poor, the needy, and the downtrodden.  In the beginning of the Christian movement, people didn’t come to Christ because of what we taught, but because of how we acted.  People were astonished by the loving kindness of this group of people who called themselves the followers of the Way.  And they saw a love and peace about them that convinced them to give their lives to Christ.  Application comes before education. Showing others the love of Christ can lead them to seek out Christ.  And it must be so again.  Challenge yourself to exhibit this radical love Christ had for others be they Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or even atheist.  Let the love of Christ shine within you by your actions.  Show kindness and even interest in others’ beliefs.  Be willing to talk to them about their understanding of God and show respect for them even if you disagree.  Make new friends.  Keep reaching out to old ones.  But always remember that you are an ambassador for Christ.  Don’t let the few bad apples convince you otherwise. 

[1] https://www.acsh.org/news/2018/08/10/most-dangerous-drivers-ranked-state-age-race-and-sex-13300

[2] Ibid. Women’s fatality rate is 6.6 per 100,000 while men are an alarming 16.8!

[3] http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2012/spring/fbi-dramatic-spike-in-hate-crimes-targetin

He or Me

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a prince who was sheltered all his life from the outside world.  His father the King sought to protect him from the suffering and pain he might encounter, hoping that would be enough to insure his son would inherit his throne.  Prophets had come to him and predicted that the young prince would either one day become a great king or a great spiritual leader and the king wanted his son to follow him on the throne.  So he gave his son everything any man would want and more.  But the son became more and more curious about what was on the other side of the wall and one day he decided to go and explore.  He took his charioteer, Channa, with him and together they rode through the countryside.  As they were riding, they encountered an old man.  The prince was shocked, having never seen an elderly person before and he asked his charioteer, “Is this the fate of all people?”  “Yes,” Channa replied.  “All people suffer from aging.”  The prince had much to think about.  On their second journey, they encountered a man who was ill and sickly.  The prince asked his charioteer again, “Is this the fate of all people?”  “Yes,” Channa replied.  “All people suffer illness.”  And again, the prince had much to think about.  On their third journey, the prince saw a funeral procession.  It was the first time he had looked upon the body of a person who had died and he asked his charioteer, “Is this the fate of all people?”  And Channa replied, “Yes, all people eventually suffer from death.”  This created a lot of angst in the prince and he began contemplating the meaning of all this suffering.  He went out once more with his charioteer and on the way they encountered an ascetic monk who seemed quite at peace with the world and it gave the young prince hope.  He decided to leave his life of luxury and pursue the answers that would bring him the peace he saw in this monk and eventually became the great spiritual leader the prophets had predicted.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but this is the traditional story of how the Buddha began his quest.

Siddhartha Gautama was a great spiritual leader born about 500 years before Christ.  He was the son of a wealthy man, most say he was a king or at the very least a tribal leader.  But in the caste system of his day, Siddhartha was born into the warrior class, ranked just below the priests and holy men and in comparison he indeed led a life of luxury.  However, after venturing out among the people, Siddhartha was disturbed by the suffering he saw and felt compelled to find the answers to some of the questions we still seek today.  Why is there suffering in the world?  What purpose does it serve if any?  And so on the night of his son’s birth, he gave his newborn the name Rahula (which means “fettered”) and left his family for his spiritual quest.  He named him Rahula because he felt his son would become an attachment that would prevent him from understanding suffering.  Those journeys in the story that propelled him on his quest are called the Four Sights[1] and they were the beginning of what would eventually become Buddhism.  One common misconception is that the Buddha is worshipped by Buddhists.  He is not.  He is revered for his work and for his insight and he is thought to be a spiritual model for his followers, but he is not worshipped.  Buddhists do not worship anyone or anything.  It’s part of the centrality of their belief system.  Buddhism is the only major religion that is non-theistic meaning they neither confirm or deny the existence of God.  Buddhism is the only major religion that is non-theistic meaning they neither confirm or deny the existence of God.  Whether or not God exists is outside the scope of Buddhism because in the Buddhist scheme of things God doesn’t matter.   There may be a God, there may not be a God, but God has nothing to do with enlightenment.  Enlightenment comes from within one’s self. 

Despite their differences, Buddhism and Christianity share a lot in common.[2]

The Buddhist way of life is very similar to the Christian way of life.  They believe you shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal; you shouldn’t covet what someone else has; and you shouldn’t take a life.  They believe you should be compassionate and kind.  That you should think before you speak to avoid saying something you would regret.  They believe human beings become too attached to the things of this world – money, fame, power, objects – and that by ridding ourselves of these things we can become the persons we were meant to be.  But there are some very big fundamental differences as well as we will see in our passage this morning.  This is the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks him, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”  And Jesus responds by saying he must keep the commandments.  And the man says, “All these I have kept.  What do I still lack?”  And then Jesus responds with what we hear in our passage today. 

Love this image from 2words.co about this parable

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.”

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[e] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

This is the key phrase for us this morning and it’s what differentiates us the most from our Buddhist friends.  Humanity is not able to save itself.  We rely on the grace of God through the actions of Jesus Christ.  Buddhists believe that by meditation, following a series of precepts and paths, you can attain enlightenment by yourself and be free of the eternal cycle of samsara – life, death, and rebirth.  Christianity focuses on “He” and Buddhism focuses on “me.” Christianity focuses on “He” and Buddhism focuses on “me.”  In this passage, there is much that both religions would agree on.  Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions and give it to the poor.  He implies that it is his attachment to these material things that is holding him back and the Buddha would agree.  The Buddha would say that it is the attachment to things – all things – that holds us back.  When Jesus says that everyone who has left houses, family, and fields for the sake of Christ will receive a hundred times as much, the Buddha would agree, again saying that our attachments are what get in the way.  But in the way of what?  For us as Christians, the material things of this world keep us from really understanding God, and we see this as an essential part of our faith lives.  We believe as we grow closer to God, we are better able to live to our potential and be the kind of people God hoped for.  It’s not that God wants us to abandon our family and friends.  On the contrary, God calls us to live in community.  But in this passage, God is warning us that there will be many obstacles in life as we journey in faith and if we are unwilling to leave them behind, we’ll never receive the full reward that God has in store for us.  Not as punishment, but simply because there will always be a part of us that relies on something other than God.  For the Buddhist, the things of this world, ALL things including family and friends, can be impediments to our journey toward enlightenment.  Our fallacy, according to the Buddhist tradition, is that our faith on anything is false because all things are transient.  God.  The world.  Even the concept of “you.”  “You” do not exist.  “You” are simply a consciousness residing in a body that has experienced the world in a certain way based on your previous life experience.  But there is no real “you” out there.  Enlightenment comes from learning these things and accepting them as part of life.  Christians and Buddhists hold something in common.  We are both searching for the truth.  We are both searching for the Truth.  But we see truth very differently. Buddhists believe that the only truth is impermanence.  Impermanence.  That nothing lasts forever.  But isn’t a belief in the permanence of impermanence itself a contradiction?  Christians, however, believe that the truth lies in Jesus Christ who is the “same yesterday, today, and forever.”  We believe that God is eternal.  Many people believe that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, but our concepts of the world are very different. Buddhists believe in self-reliance.  Christians believe in reliance on God.

Cartoon from The Miami Herald

Maybe part of the appeal of Buddhism, especially in America is the idea we can do it ourselves.

There’s an element of control that you are the master of your own destiny, which appeals to people.  We like to feel in control.  We like to feel like we determine what happens to us despite the changes that occur in everyday life.  We have a hard time giving that up, to let go and to accept the fact that a great many things are out of our control.  We struggle with change.  We don’t like to rely on others.  And it’s hard for many of us to admit that we need help or that we cannot do it alone.  Think about all of the idioms we use in our lives.  “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  “Look out for #1.”  “To the victor goes the spoils.”  And the erroneous, “God helps those who help themselves.”  But we in fact believe the opposite.  We believe Christ came to save those who needed it the most.  He came for the lost, the sinners, and the hopeless.  And we thank God everyday for that.  Because we are those people.  We are the ones who need God.  And knowing God is in control and that God has a plan for our lives gives us a peace and joy that can only come from Him.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_sights – this is only one of many websites with the retelling of this ages old story.  A version of it appears in Adam Hamilton’s book Christianity and World Religions

[2] Other than Adam Hamilton’s book Christianity and World Religions some websites that have produced useful background information are www.buddha101.com, www.buddhanet.net, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha

Truly Holy Cows

Could Robin the Boy Wonder have been Hindu?

Holy Eastern Religions, Batman!  Robin used to call EVERYTHING holy.  Holy cow, holy guacamole, holy hole in a doughnut, and my favorite – Holy Haberdashery!  In fact, Burt Ward who played Robin on TV said he used the “Holy” phrase about 378 times which came out to around three times per episode.[1]  The belief that everything is holy or that everything has part of the divine essence of God within it, is consistent with Hindu beliefs.  Hinduism, like Christianity believes there is only one God.  They call God, Brahman. But a Hindu person believes God is manifest in every aspect of creation while Christians believe that God is separate from creation.  On TV and in the popular media, people have joked about the Hindu worship of cows as gods, but that misrepresents the complexity of the Hindu religion.  It would be like saying Christians are cannibals because we feast on the body and blood of Christ.  It reduces something we believe to be holy to be a mockery of those beliefs. Knowing what others believe helps us to become more understanding, more accepting, and more loving toward people of other faiths.  And at the same time, it helps us better understand why our own faith is important to us. 

If you’re a fan of the Adam West / Burt Ward Batman and Robin, you’ll remember this!

Call it the Progressive Insurance Method of Christianity.

You’ve seen those commercials on TV where Progressive Insurance offers you quotes from other insurance companies.  The person in the commercial always looks on in disbelief, as if Progressive Insurance is crazy for showing you what other companies offer.  But they are so confident in what they have to offer, they are not afraid of the others.  In a way, that’s what this is.  We are exploring different faiths to come to a better understanding of our own, and through that understanding build a solid foundation for our own faith to rest upon (Matthew 7:24-29).  Our faith is strengthened when we understand what others believe.  Bad theology begins by an incomplete understanding of OUR faith, not the faith of others.  Hopefully, our exploration of other faiths will help us grow even closer to God.  Today, we’re going to explore the Hindu faith.

Again I need to preface this by saying I am not an expert in Hinduism.

These are some of the very raw basics about the Hindu faith and we need to realize there are many different variations in Hinduism just as there are different variations of Christianity. As the basis for our study together, we’re looking at Adam Hamilton’s Christianity and World Religions. In it Hamilton tells us that there are three fundamental characteristics of understanding the Hindu faith – dharma, karma, and samsara.  Dharma, karma, and samsara.  Dharma is the idea that good works coupled with spiritual knowledge sets us free.  Hinduism teaches that dharma or “duty” is needed to be done to build up good karma.  Karma literally means “deeds.”  At the end of our lives if we have built up more good karma than bad, then we will be better off in the next life.  If not, then we will be worse off and we will suffer more for it. Suffering, however, is not seen necessarily as punishment, but a tool to help us gain spiritual knowledge so we can obtain a state of self that frees us from this cycle of life, death, and rebirth.  This cycle is called samsara.  Samsara.  And we are not free from this cycle until we have emptied ourselves of bad karma. When we do, we reach nirvana.  But nirvana is not a place.  It’s not like the heaven we often imagine in our Christian faith. Rather it is the condition of the divine within us rejoining with Brahman.  We become part of the divine once again. 

Adam Hamilton’s Christianity and World Religions

These concepts are part of what separates us from one another in our faith.

We’re going to take a look at a reading from Scripture that helps us better define our own faith.  This passage captures the essence of our ideas of salvation and how we obtain it.  When you read it, think about how our view of salvation is very different from the view Hinduism shares with us and think even about how our definition of what salvation is is very different from theirs.   

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh[a] and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

As Christians, we believe we are sinners.

It defines who we are.  It is the building block from which we understand our relationship to God.  A fundamental aspect of who we are is that we are sinners seeking redemption.  From Adam and Eve to the modern day, every aspect of our lives as Christians is to seek this redemption in the eyes of God.  And we believe this is only accomplished by the life, death, and resurrection of one man – Jesus Christ.  Not in the cycle of life, death, and reincarnation of all men, but by the life-giving actions of the Son of God.  We don’t believe Jesus was just another human who was more in touch with his divine self.  We believe that Jesus and only Jesus was fully human and fully divine.  He truly embodies the name Immanuel – God with us.  And only by the grace of a loving God are we offered salvation, “not by works, so that no one can boast.”  We are saved by God’s grace alone.

This is one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Hinduism.

We cannot save ourselves.  There is no amount of “good karma” we can earn that will help us obtain salvation, because we believe humanity is inclined to sin. In Hinduism, we are not seeking redemption but awareness – awareness of the divine within us.  In the Hindu faith, spiritual knowledge and karma help us obtain that awareness.  But it is propelled by the individual.  It is through the individual’s actions they break the cycle of samsara.  As Christians, we need the grace of God – not the divine god within us, but the one who created us.  We believe human beings are a separate creation from God, that each of us is unique.  And while we do believe the Holy Spirit resides within us to guide us and journey with us, we are not the Holy Spirit ourselves.  Our relationship to God is like our children’s relationship to us.  Part of who we are goes into making them and we feel an instant connection to them because a part of us is within them, but they are not us.  They are distinct, unique, wonderful creations separate from us.  And when we die, we believe there is a place we go to be with God.  We don’t believe we actually join with God.  Instead, we get to ENJOY being in the presence of God. 

There are a great many valuable teachings in the Hindu faith.

Most people who follow Hinduism are good, loving, interesting people who are out to make the world a better place.  They have families they love and strive to take care of.  They worship earnestly the revelation of God in their lives.  But for us as Christians, what God has revealed to us through Scripture, the prophets, and ultimately through Jesus Christ himself, is at times at odds with the tents of the Hindu faith.  This does not make us enemies.  This does not mean they don’t earnestly seek God.  It simply means our understanding of God is different.  We believe that we are God’s creation, that we are his children.  We are not part of the divine, but we live in a state of sin.  We need the grace of God for our redemption and that is only possible because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We do not believe we can save ourselves or that any amount of good work can redeem us.  We seek redemption through resurrection, not release through reincarnation.  Those differences are why we view the world from a different perspective. 

Something Hamilton wrote in his book made me think deeply.

He talked about how different it would be to approach a family with these two different faith backgrounds and as a pastor what you would say. In our faith tradition, we have hope for the life that comes after because of Jesus and the promise he shares of a home in Heaven.  We can feel comforted knowing that our Creator waits for us with loving, open arms, and those we have cherished in this life who have gone before us will be there when we arrive.  It wouldn’t be much comfort to me to think we simply come back over and over again, throughout time, hoping to do a little better each pass through this life.  After centuries and millennia of existence, I can see why Hinduism looks at the ultimate goal of life not as a new beginning but as an ending.  I can see the appeal of a release from suffering if you think you had to return to the grind and the pain of being in the world until you got it right.  As Christians, we believe God is our Creator.  That he is knowable.  That he loves each and every one of us.  And that in the end, we are saved because of the grace and mercy of our savior and for that we can truly be grateful.  We are a people who live in hope for a brighter tomorrow.  See you next week.  Same Bat-time.  Same Bat-channel. 

[1] https://www.cinemablend.com/television/1580210/the-crazy-number-of-times-robin-said-holy-something-in-the-original-batman-series

The 12th Day of Christmas

Christmas is not what you think it is.

Everyone, whether they are religious or not, knows December 25th is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Except he likely wasn’t born then.  I’ve heard two different theories about why that date was picked, but neither  involved Jesus ACTUALLY being born on that date.[1]  And although most nativity scenes show Jesus born in some kind of barn or stable, it’s just as likely he was born in a cave where many Israelites kept their animals.[2]  .  Speaking of animals, most of us picture sheep, cows, donkeys, maybe even some camels at the birth of Christ, but if you read it carefully, there is no mention of any animals present at Jesus’ birth.  But perhaps what trips up people the most is the song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”  It sounds like a countdown song to Jesus’ birthday, but ACTUAALY, December 25th is the FIRST day of the 12 days of Christmas.  The twelve days after Christmas are considered Christmastime.  So, on Christmas you would have received the LEAST number of gifts, not the most.  And at the end of it all, was the Christian holiday of the Epiphany.  Believe it or not, Epiphany used to be bigger than Christmas and was one of the most celebrated days of the year.  But now, it’s a little-known Christian observance instead of one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian calendar. 

But what is Epiphany?

Epiphany is the day when the magi arrived to honor the Christ child.  We often think the magi arrived on Christmas Day, but if the star they saw in the sky was indeed the Star of Bethlehem that rose at Jesus’ birth, it would have been much later that they would have arrived.  Some speculate that it could have been as much as two years later.[3]  Adam Hamilton in his book Christianity and World Religions writes these magi were not “kings” but Zoroastrian priests – followers of a completely different faith who believed the stars revealed certain truths about the universe.[4]  Zoroastrianism was originated in what is now modern-day Iraq[5] – about 1,200 miles away from where Jesus was born.  That trip would have taken two to three months if they left the moment they saw the star, but it’s more likely they would’ve prepared for the journey before undertaking it.[6]  They would have had to round up their supplies, the animals, the gifts, and their families or staff.  That only three of them went on this massive journey would have been unlikely.  So where did the number three come from and why did people assume they were kings? Let’s listen to the source itself.  The story of the magi is only in Matthew’s version of the Gospel so we’ll read that passage this morning.  

Where did this version of the Epiphany come from? Why Three Kings? Did they really come when Jesus was born? Who puts their child in an open barn in the dead of winter?

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Herod upon hearing this, became frightened because he believed like most other Jews, that the savior would come and take control of Israel.  That would mean Herod and his family would lose power if this child ever came to claim the throne.  Fearful for his crown, Herod secretly met with the magi and sent them to Bethlehem to search for the Christ child, with every intent of killing this possible threat.  The story continues. 

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

The Epiphany is about the revelation of Christ to the world.

And the reason this is so significant is that it proves God’s intention to include ALL of humanity in his plan for salvation.  It was the first time people outside the Israelites saw Christ and believed He was the Messiah!  It was the moment God’s covenant in Christ was extended to everyone.  Paul understood this as he proclaimed the Word of God to the Romans.  He says in chapter 3, verse 29, “Is God the God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles too?  Yes, of Gentiles too…”  And then in Romans 10:11-13, Paul continues, “As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Most of the Jewish people believed God was the God of the Jews, that God would only be revealed to the people of Israel and those who did not follow the faith according to Torah would never be accepted by the Lord.  Even most of the Gentile converts believed they had to become Jewish according to the law for Christ to accept them.  Men were having adult circumcisions to comply with Jewish tradition and Paul had to write to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and Colossae to tell them to stop!  Not only was it extremely painful, but it could result in infection or even death.  Paul had to overcome that gut reaction to tradition and explain that it wasn’t necessary.  Christ accepted them as they were. In Galatians 5:6 he wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” 

What it meant to be a “chosen people” radically changed with Jesus.

Instead of it being a “Jews only” club, the Israelites found out it was the polar opposite.  They became God’s ambassadors to the world.  It was going to be up to them to bring people into the fold.  I’m sure it was a shock to many of the Jewish people.  To so radically have your understanding of God flipped on its head must have been tough to process.  But God knew these were the right people to share his message.  And God didn’t stop there.  God was reaching out to the rest of the world in ways that the rest of the world would understand – like these Zoroastrian priests.  He didn’t bring this collection of Zoroastrian priests to Christ DESPITE their faith in another religion, but THROUGH their faith.  It might seem like a contradiction if you read other parts of the Bible.  After all, these Zoroastrian priests relied on astrology to figure out Jesus was the Christ child.  And in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord… (Deuteronomy 18)” Yet, God uses the priests’ belief in astrology to bring them to Jesus.  Why were the Israelites forbidden from things like astrology and other sorts of divination when it worked for the magi?  It’s because once you know Christ as Lord, to rely on these other forms of faith is to lose faith in Christ.  But to those who do not know Christ as Lord, God reaches out to them in ways they can understand. 

The galette des rois is a French pastry made only during the month of January to celebrate Epiphany

It’s continued evidence of God’s love for all of creation.

Epiphany is such an important part of our Christian calendar because it opened up our idea of salvation to be for everyone.  And just as God has opened up his love for us, we too can open up our love for others, for not only do we gain hope from this day, but an example of the kind of love God wants us to express to all of those around us.  Because when you understand how God loved us despite all our faults and failings and how God continues to reach out to the world despite so many who reject him, you begin to see how great God’s love is for us.  And you also begin to understand how our own prejudices set us against one another when God wants us to instead reach out in love.  We have to continually challenge ourselves to put aside our own biases and our own misconceptions about others and learn to love each other.  That is the true meaning of the Epiphany.  God’s acceptance of us all.  Dennis Bratcher summarized these thoughts in a simple but beautiful prayer that I’d like you all to join me in as we close our message today.  Please bow your heads.

“Father, we thank you for revealing yourself to us in Jesus the Christ, we who once were not your people but whom you chose to adopt as your people. As ancient Israel confessed long ago, we realize that it was not because of our own righteousness, or our own superior wisdom, or strength, or power, or numbers. It was simply because you loved us, and chose to show us that love in Jesus.

As you have accepted us when we did not deserve your love, will you help us to accept those whom we find it hard to love? Forgive us, O Lord, for any attitude that we harbor that on any level sees ourselves as better or more righteous than others.  Will you help us to remove the barriers of prejudice and to tear down the walls of bigotry, religious or social?  O Lord, help us realize that the walls that we erect for others only form our own prisons!

Will you fill us so full of your love that there is no more room for intolerance. As you have forgiven us much, will you enable us with your strength to forgive others even more? Will you enable us through your abiding Presence among us, communally and individually, to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Name we bear?

May we, through your guidance and our faithful obedience, find new avenues in ways that we have not imagined of holding the Light of your love so that it may be a Light of revelation for all people. We thank you for your love, praise you for your Gift, ask for your continued Presence with us, and bring these petitions in the name of your Son, who has truly revealed your heart.  Amen”[7]

[1] The first and most popular theory is that the church wanted to find an alternative to the merry-making around a celebration of Saturnalia and devised Christmas to focus people on something more holy.  The second and less well known theory involves the supposition that Christmas Day was about nine months after Passover and thus links the two dates together.  Jesus’ death and Jesus’ Second Coming – although why they didn’t instead make Christmas nine months before Easter would be a mystery. 

[2] A cave provided better shelter and didn’t require much construction other than a fence.

[3] Stephen M. Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, p.60.

[4] Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions, p.27.

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

[6] OpCit., Miller, p.60.

[7] http://www.crivoice.org/cyepiph.html.

Hello. My Name is Jesus

It was the nametag.

The first time I put on my nametag was when it hit me – I had a job at the Happiest Place on Earth!  Up until then, the reality of it all didn’t quite sink in.  To be sure, I went through the hiring process, went through Disney University, and attended training like every single cast member before me, but it wasn’t until my trainer gave me my first nametag that it was REAL!  Holding those two inches of plastic somehow was a tangible sign of a new reality – I was a cast member of the Walt Disney Company.  Realization comes to us in both subtle and sudden ways and on that day it was like a burst of light.  But there are times when the changes in our life are more of a journey than a moment.  That’s how it was for me becoming Emma’s dad.  Emma may have been born on April 7, 2004, but the journey started much earlier.  About eight months before, Cassie came into our bedroom holding something behind her back with a big smile on her face.  She gave me this cute Eeyore rattle and said, “We’re going to have a baby!”  From that moment on, a new reality began to unfold.  I went to doctor visits.  I read books.  We started picking out names. And I would talk to Emma on a daily basis, even when she was just sitting around in Cassie’s stomach.  She may have been born on April 7th, but I started becoming her dad months before.  I just had to wait around to finally meet our bundle of joy. 

Left: Me and Jen working at Disneyland; Right: Emma and I at a baseball game

It has to become real.

For something to change your life, it has to become real.  It has to go from a surface level understanding to something deeper.  Sometimes that happens in a moment (like getting the nametag) and sometimes it takes a while to really sink in like a good stew.  But unless it goes from your head to your heart, your life will never change.  And a lot of people are okay with that.  They are fine living the existence they’ve carved out for themselves.  They will live and they will die, BUT they will be missing out on the richness of what life has to offer.  “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)  Our faith gives us a chance to go deeper than a surface existence and explore the life God has waiting for us.  When we allow Christ into our hearts, when we realize how much God loves us, it can transform us and transform how we live our lives for the better – for ourselves and the world around us. 

But for that to happen Christ has to become real for us like he did for the shepherds long ago.

The idea of a messiah was one every Jewish kid grew up with.  The prophecies make it plain that a messiah would one day come, but the prophecies were so old.  They believed in them, but it’s not as if they were actively looking for a messiah to arrive any day.  There weren’t any signs or symbols predicting his arrival or how he would show up.  Many assumed a savior for the Hebrew people would be a great military leader who would raise them up in triumph!  So when Jesus arrived as a baby in a manger to a carpenter and his wife from the small town of Nazareth, well it didn’t set off any alarm bells.  You know what else was interesting?  He didn’t send a birth announcement to the high priests or the Pharisees or the rich and powerful.  Instead, this is what happened. 

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Not exactly the cute chubby dudes with bows and arrows

Who would be afraid of a chubby little angel?

We tend to think of angels as these cute little dudes with harps who float around playing sweet music, but that isn’t at all the image the Bible gives us.  The prophet Isaiah tells us seraphim have six wings; two covering their face, two covering their feet, and two they use to fly (Isaiah 6:2). Sounds a bit creepy to me.  The prophet Ezekiel describes for us the cherubim, and they aren’t nice and cuddly either.  They had four heads, four eyes, and four wheels and all of it was covered with eyes (Ezekiel 10:9-14).  They were the guardians of the Tree of Life in Eden and carried flaming swords. So imagine you’re one of the shepherds and suddenly this vision of an angel pops up out of nowhere.  You would probably freak out! But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And then after giving them this pronouncement an entire army of these scary, powerful beings appear right around them.  But as impressive as that was, they still needed to see Jesus for themselves.  It wasn’t until they saw him lying in the manger that they believed. 

We call that the incarnation of Christ.

The incarnation of Christ.  It’s a fancy term meaning that Christ becomes real for us in this life.  For the shepherds, for Mary and Joseph, for the early disciples, Jesus literally became real.  But that isn’t how we experience Christ today.  Instead we encounter Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. God works through each one of us to reach out with his love, hoping we will eventually turn toward him.  When Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29),” he was talking about us.  But Jesus didn’t abandon us.  We aren’t left to hope on the promises of the past.  In a way, we HAVE seen him.  Not directly.  Not in the flesh.  But for each of you who experiences the reality of Christ in your heart, for those of you whom Jesus isn’t just some guy in a book, but a living, breathing being, this stuff is REAL.  Christianity isn’t a religion based on blind faith, but on faith based on our experience with Jesus through the world around us.  The love of a friend, the kind words of a stranger, the tough love of those closest to us; those are the things that make Christ a reality for us today.  We may not have burning bushes or witness the resurrection of a friend, but we can’t say God isn’t active in the world because he is.  Christ is alive in us.

Friends and family – How Christ was revealed to me

For me, Christ came alive through friends and family.

It wasn’t a moment, but a slow burn over many, many years.  I’m sure God had been reaching out to me from birth, but my first recollection of someone who helped make Christ real in my life was my mom back when I was 8 years old.  From there nudges and flashes until college when I met Lisa who got me thinking again about Christ.  Then God put into my life my friends Mark, Stephen, and Andrea who would regularly invite me to church with them.  I think what convinced me to say yes was not only I was ready to grow, but also the evidence I could see for myself how God was working in their lives and I wanted to know more about that for myself.  And of course, Cassie.  Cassie would be the last to take any credit, but God kept working through her to change my life.  And Emma, too.  Through all these people and many more Christ became real for me. 

Many of us don’t yet experience that reality.

We know that the world is only about 1/3rd Christian as it is, which means the vast majority of people don’t live with this view of life.  And of that part of the world that is Christian, not all of them live with that feeling of assuredness either.  I don’t.  There are times when I worry or question where God is in the world.  There is too much cruelty and evil and greed and selfishness in the world not to experience moments of doubt.  But for the most part, the love of God is just too evident in my life to turn away.  That’s not the case for everyone.  There are many people who turn away.  There are many people who never experience God’s love in the first place.  There are many who are overwhelmed by doubt or anger or pain and who cannot reconcile that with a loving God.  Then there are those who feel they don’t need God.  They don’t necessarily believe or not believe, but Christ isn’t a reality for them in a way that makes it evident why they need to do anything about it in their lives.  It’s up to those of us who believe to make Christ real for them, too.  It’s up to us to make the reality of the love of God so evident that they can’t help but believe.  It will take humility.  It will take perseverance.  It will take patience.  And most of all it will take love.  I want to challenge you to think of someone in your life who could really use a good dose of God’s love and spend time thinking how you could make Christ a reality for them.  Think about what they need, who they are, what’s gone on in their life that might have distanced them from Christ and pray about what you could do for them.  And if you ARE that person, if you are the one for whom Christ is not a reality, please simply open up your heart to the possibility of God’s great love.  Ask questions.  Explore your doubts.  Challenge yourself that maybe you need God in your life more than you are willing to admit.  And see where it leads you. 

At the church I have a nametag.

It says “Craig” on it.  And I wear it because I hope that others will feel more comfortable around me by knowing my name and knowing that I like to be called “Craig” instead of “Rev. Yoshihara.”  That’s just way to formal for me.  But when I put my nametag on, I hope and pray that I do something or say something that allows them to see Jesus through me.  Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world had on those blue nametags that simply said, “Hello, My Name Is Jesus?”  What a great world that would be.  In the name of the one whose birth we celebrate today, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Unreliable Bible

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

Those iconic words have become part of Star Wars lore as much as Darth Vader’s breathing.  When you see them come up on the screen, you are instantly transported to another time and place.  And that’s the point.  Those words immediately give you a sense of where and when.  A very VAGUE sense, but a sense nonetheless.  It’s a technique storytellers use in every medium, whether that’s radio or film or good ol’ fashioned books.  It helps people feel a sense of authenticity when you can root a story in history.  That’s especially true if you’re trying to tell a story about something that actually happened.  Think of a film you’ve watched based on true events.  Gandhi; “New Delhi India, 30th January 1948.” Generally, those movies start off with some kind of indication of where and when they happened. All the President’s Men, “June 1, 1972.” Guess they figured you would guess right away it was happening in Washington, D.C.  People want specifics. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  That’s how we know that it happened.  That’s why Luke was so careful in how he described the events in Jesus’ life.  He wanted to root it in history.  He wanted to give it authenticity.  He wanted us to be able to verify it actually took place.

The opening of Star Wars

We don’t have faith because of the Bible.

You might have seen bumper stickers with the phrase, “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.”  But the problem with that kind of bumper sticker theology is it’s too simple.  One of my Bibles says that Ted Cabal is the general editor.  Does that mean Ted was around in the 15th century when they printed the first ones?  Because if “the Bible said it,” it must be true.  Unless it’s not.  If you’ve read the Bible, you know there are contradictions.  In fact, there is something contradictory in the very first chapter. The story of creation.  The first chapter tells us that God created the Heavens and the Earth.  Then he created the seas and the land.  Then he created the plants and after that the animals.  And only after everything else was created did he make people.  The Bible is very clear on the created order of things.  But in the very next chapter of Genesis, it says God made man and breathed life into him before any other living thing.  When Adam was created, there were no plants or animals.  Just him.  Only one of these stories can be true.  They are contradictory and inconsistent.  So what does that mean for our faith?  It means there must be something stronger and better supporting it.  Our faith does not rest on the Bible.  Our faith rests on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:13-14, 19).”

Christianity does not exist because of the Bible.  The Bible exists because of Christianity.

Christianity does not exist because of the Bible.  The Bible exists because of Christianty.  We do not believe in Jesus because it’s in a book.  We believe in Jesus because he was born to a virgin, lived amongst us, performed miracles only God could perform, died for our sins, and rose from the dead.  And while the Bible chronicles the life and teachings of Jesus, the Bible is not why we are Christian.  Andy Stanley used this example in a sermon.  He said you don’t exist because of your birth certificate.  If something happened to your birth certificate, you wouldn’t cease to exist.  Your birth certificate documents something that happened.[1]  In the same way, the Bible documents something that happened.  And this is exactly why Christianity spread, because the early disciples believed that Jesus rose from the dead and died for their sins.  We see this in our reading this morning. 

13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. 14 But since they could see the man who had been healed standing there with them, there was nothing they could say. 15 So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin and then conferred together. 16 “What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. 17 But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name.”

18 Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20 As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

21 After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old.

Do you believe because of the Bible or because of Christ?

Peter and John weren’t putting their lives on the line because of the Bible.

The Bible didn’t exist and would not exist until hundreds of years after their death.  In fact, some of the most important letters and teachings of the Bible were written or said to be written by them.  But Peter and John put their lives on the line because they believed Christ was the risen Savior, and they believed because they witnessed him after his death.  They said to the Jewish elders who were putting them on trial, “As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”  It didn’t matter their lives were being threatened, they could not deny their own experience and so eventually the Sanhedrin had to let them go.  They believed because of what they knew.  Not because of something they read or some theory they heard.  They believed because of what they knew and eventually they wrote it down and it became part of what we know to be the Bible today.

But no one in the first century came to believe in Christ because of the Bible.

They didn’t believe because of the Bible in the second century either.  Or the third.  It wasn’t until Easter in the year 367 that Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, first issued the 27 book list that we call the New Testament.[2]  It didn’t become officially canon until the Council of Hippo in 393.[3]  And during that time, Christianity grew BEFORE there was a Bible. Despite persecution, their numbers went from a dozen men to thousands of people to literally millions, until by the year 300 they accounted for 10% of the population of the Roman Empire.[4] In the year 313, Emperor Constantine made Christianity legitimate and by 380, Emperor Theodosius made it the official state religion of the Empire.[5]  So for the first 360 years of its existence, Christianity grew from a small group of followers to a Jewish sect to the official state religion of the biggest empire in the known world, and that whole time they didn’t have a Bible.  How in the world did they come to believe? 

Some of the people in my life who helped me to come to faith.

People believed in Jesus Christ because of the transformative power of faith.

People believed in Jesus because of the transformative power of faith. It wasn’t because of a book. It was because they saw for themselves how faith in Christ changed those around them.  I’m sure the same is true for you.  Although you may have read the Bible as a kid or sung that song we all know and love (“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”), that’s not why you believed in Jesus.  It’s because you trusted whoever it was that took you to Sunday School.  It’s because you thought your pastor knew what he was talking about.  It’s because your grandmother had such overpowering faith that you felt compelled to learn more about God.  No matter how it happened, you came to have faith in Christ because of the people around you who in either overt or subtle ways convinced you this was something worth believing in.  But you didn’t come to faith because of a book.  You came to faith in Christ because it was made real to you through the love of those around you, just as it did for Peter and John and Matthew and Luke and Mark and Paul who were so overwhelmed by the love of Christ they had to write about it and tell it to everyone they knew.  Love became real for them and through that love they had faith. 

The Bible is important.

Please don’t misunderstand that point.  I do believe the writers of the Bible were inspired by God.  I believe that the words within it are useful to teach, rebuke, and correct as Paul wrote to Timothy.  But I also believe that human beings are incredibly fallible and we have often read the words contained inside of it wrong.  I believe that human beings even with the best of intentions interpret the Bible in ways that do NOT reflect God’s will.  And I know the Bible contains contradictions we cannot resolve.  And if the Bible has been used in your life to make you afraid; if the Bible has been used against you as a weapon; if the Bible has been the justification for causing you pain and anguish, I am so sorry.  Because that was not why the Bible was written.  To quote Jesus’ disciple, John, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believethat Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The Bible was meant to tell the story of God’s great love.  A love so great that Jesus gave himself up on the cross for us as a sacrifice for our sins.  A love that moved dozens and then thousands and then millions of people to love one another so radically that it convinced others to do the same, and hopefully it has or will do the same for you.  The next time you read the Bible, keep that in mind. If you have given up your faith in Christ because of the Bible, please come back.  If you have stayed away from believing in Jesus because of the Bible, please give it a chance.  And if you have doubts because of the Bible, please feel free to share and ask about it.  But know that we believe in Jesus not because of a book, but a book was written because we believe so strongly and wanted to share that love with the world. 

[1] Andy Stanley in his sermon, “Who Needs God?: The Bible Told Me So,” August 27, 2016.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Development_of_the_New_Testament_canon#Muratorian_fragment

[3] https://gotquestions.org/canon-Bible.html

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/State_church_of_the_Roman_Empire

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_the_4th_century

Where Do Babies Come From?

Where do babies come from?

Depending on when you asked that question you probably got a different answer.  Parents have been answering that question in different ways since time began.  There’s the stork story, the cabbage patch story, the story of the birds and the bees, you get the picture.  Different kids at different ages can handle different stories.  A lot of it has to do with how ready your child is and how ready YOU are to share.  I remember vividly the day I found out – February 16, 1977, the day they aired the ABC Afternoon School Special, “My Mom’s Having A Baby.”  We plopped down in the family room and watched it with my mom.  The cartoon parts were hilarious and they at nine years old, that was enough for me.  When I got into eighth grade we had “sex ed” with Mr. Reller and Mr. Reller took the more direct approach to learning.  He let us ask any questions we wanted and there were some doozies.  I found out more in that one day of class than in the whole rest of eighth grade!  But if nine year old me was in that room, it would have been too much.  I wasn’t ready for it.  It took time for me to gain the maturity, knowledge, and level of understanding to process the things we were talking about.  I think I’m STILL processing some of what we talked about that day. 

Not the most clear copy, but if you’re interested, it’s less than an hour – My Mom’s Having A Baby

The same is true for our faith.

We need time to mature in our faith as we ask more and more complex questions.  That’s a fundamental truth for anything we want to learn about.  We start with the basics, build a good foundation, and then go on from there.  Nobody starts with the LEGO Expert set.  We don’t talk about God the same way to a 5-year old as we would a teenager or an adult.  They have different levels of understanding.  But what happens when you grow older and your faith doesn’t grow with you?  When we leave our faith in childhood, our God stays there, too. Lots of people leave the church in their teens and don’t come back until something draws them back.  Whether that’s getting married, raising children, or noticing a hole in their life they are hoping to fill, they come back to church with only the tools they left with.  So whatever God we believed in back when we left the church is often the God we still believe in when we come back.  The problem is our adult ideas don’t match up with our Sunday School God.  Sometimes people never come back because they can’t reconcile the God they believe in with the life they know.  But it’s not God that doesn’t make sense, it’s that our ideas about God haven’t changed as we have.  And this isn’t a new problem either. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to Hebrews 5 beginning with verse 11.  Hebrews 5:11. You’ll find that most of the problems and issues we come up with today are the same problems and issues we’ve had all along.  Even the 1st century church had these problems.  You’d think being so close to the time when Jesus actually lived, they might have an advantage, but they struggled with faith just as much as we do today.  Maybe even more so because everything was so new. 

It takes time and learning to master the Expert level LEGO sets

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. – Hebrews 5:11-14

Is your faith still in its infancy?

Just because you’re going to church doesn’t mean your faith is growing.  It needs to be nurtured and tended to and fed like any other living thing.  For a garden to bloom, you can’t just plant seeds in the ground.  You have to water it, position it to get the right amount of sun, give it good soil to take root in, and tend to it.  If you don’t, you might get lucky but usually, you just have a bunch of seeds buried in the ground.  In the same way, faith needs to be nurtured.  Without care, it just withers away and that’s what has Paul frustrated.  He’s writing to this group of believers who he feels have grown lax in their spiritual growth.  He’s so frustrated he insults them, “You need milk, not solid food!” He tells them they should be teaching this stuff, but they still haven’t mastered the basics.  And he says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by CONSTANT USE have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”  Constant use.  If we don’t practice our faith it becomes stagnant.  We grow up, our ideas of the world become more complex, but our vision of God remains rooted in our childhood.

How do babies arrive? What beliefs did you grow up with?

As you get older, you don’t believe the stork brought you to your family.

But a lot of us hold on to childhood beliefs about God unless our faith grows with our understanding of the world.  In one of his sermons, Andy Stanley mentions some of these versions of God from our childhood.[1] One of them he calls Bodyguard God.  Bodyguard God is the God that always protects us from harm. This is the God who never lets bad things happen to good people. We tell children if they listen and obey then God will keep them safe, but to a child this means nothing bad will ever happen to me as long as I believe.  But that is just not true and it leads people to abandon their belief in God the moment things go bad because they have based their understanding of God on something that isn’t true.  God never promises us a life free from harm.  He even says it out loud.  Jesus told them flat out, “In this world you will have trouble.”  I don’t know how much more plain he could be.  “In this world you will have trouble (John 16:33).”  Then he goes on, “BUT (my emphasis) take heart! I have overcome the world.”  Jesus doesn’t promise us a life free from trouble.  In fact, he guarantees it!  It’s just we don’t have to lose hope when trouble comes our way because we know God is with us.  But Bodyguard God?  That God doesn’t exist. 

Then there’s Blanket God.[2]

Blanket God is the God of comfort, the God who is always present.  He reminds me of Linus from the Peanuts gang because his blanket is always with him.  But there are times in our lives where we are distant from God.  There are times in our lives where we not only don’t feel his presence but instead feel his absence. And this poses a big problem for Blanket God believers because they feel abandoned and sometimes it leads them to abandon their faith.  What they don’t understand is God is still there.  Even in those moments where we can’t feel his presence, God is constantly reaching out to us.  There’s just something that is blocking our vision of him.  Sometimes that means we have to weather the storm until the fog clears from our eyes.  This is when we need a deeper faith to hold on even when we can’t see God for ourselves.  A friend of mine from Georgia gave me the best advice one time when I was going through my own period of doubt and it’s stuck with me ever since.  He told me when he looks back on his life he can see all the ways where God helped him through the valleys.  He couldn’t see it at the time because he was stuck in his own grief or anger or depression or whatever he was feeling at the time.  But afterward, he would look back and see how God was present for him and when he was going through another valley, that’s how he could keep his faith in God, knowing that even if he seems absent God is still at work in his life. 

There’s also Gap God.

Gap God is the God who fills in the gaps of our faith.  This God is the God who explains the unexplainable.  Whenever something happens when we don’t understand or can’t explain, we say, “It’s a God thing.”  And while that might seem to be giving God his props, it’s really undermining our faith.  Because God becomes a crutch for the unexplainable when we start to use God in that way.  Remember when the AIDS epidemic first began and there were people like Pat Robertson who said it was caused by God to rid the world of homosexuality?  Then they had to backtrack when heterosexual people started getting it too.  Or when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and those same God pundits declared it was God’s wrath upon a sexually promiscuous society?  As if that one area of the world was the only den of ill repute.  Using God to fill in the gaps of our knowledge is not only small-minded but denies the real power of God.  We don’t believe in God because of the mystery of God.  We believe in God because of his revelation in Jesus Christ. We don’t believe in God because of the things we can’t explain, but because of the things we have experienced ourselves. 

If you have lost faith because of one of these versions of God, I implore you to come back.

These are simplistic views of God that were meant for a time when we didn’t have the life experiences we have now.  I want to challenge you to open your heart up to the possibility that it isn’t God that’s the problem, but instead our outdated views of him.  Get to know God again.  And if you are solid in your faith, I challenge you to keep studying, praying, and looking for God in your life because God doesn’t disappear overnight, but in the slow erosion of our faith.  God vanishes because we allow life to chip away at our vision of God until there isn’t enough for God to rest upon and it all collapses beneath us.  Question God.  Question your faith.  Don’t be afraid to put God to the test but be open and willing to listen to the response he returns.  Don’t outgrow your faith, but instead nurture it, feed it, protect it and let it grow with you. 

[1] From Andy’s sermon to North Point Community Church, “Who Needs God? Gods of the No-Testament.”

[2] Andy called him Boyfriend or Girlfriend God, but I think this description fits God better. 

The Truth Is Out There

Chocolate is good for you.

Before we found out that chocolate was good for you, it was just a sin we lived with because we liked it so much. So when studies came out saying it provided real health benefits, it gave us every excuse to indulge in this tasty treat. But consider this.  How many of you read the fine print?  Most chocolate you buy in the store ISN’T good for you.  It’s highly processed, contains way more milk and sugar that you don’t need, and doesn’t contain the nutrients that make it good for you in the first place.[1]  If you’re going to have chocolate at all it should be at least 70% cocoa, taken in moderate amounts, and still contain flavonoids which often get stripped away in the process of making your favorite chocolates.  It’s the flavonoid epicatechin that is the active ingredient doing all the hard work to help your body.[2]  Without it, it’s just a sugar pump your body doesn’t need.  Remember when wine was good for you?  First it was bad, then it was good, and now it’s bad again.  You know why?  Because they found out that in all of these studies that said drinking in moderation was good for you, they never studied the people behind the study.  Turns out there was a reason moderate drinkers showed positive health results – reasons that had nothing to do with having a glass of wine each day.  Scientists unwittingly fell victim to selection bias which tainted the results.  The new results are in and it says that the safest amount of alcohol is zero drinks per day.[3]  Most of you probably hadn’t heard about this new study until today.  It doesn’t grab your attention like the one that says having a glass of wine a day is good for you.  Now that’s a headline!  The truth is often buried behind a stack of half-truths and untruths.  We don’t take the time often to dig out the truth.  Because what we are really after is validity rather than verity.  We are looking for validity instead of verity. The truth may be out there, but we aren’t all that interested in finding it. 

What kind of chocolate is your favorite? Obviously, chocolate covered strawberries are good for you.

The same is true with our faith.

We are interested in finding out whatever it is that supports our view of faith, but aren’t all that interested in finding out information that may challenge it.  If you believe in predestination, you aren’t all that concerned about passages where God tells us we have the freedom to choose (Joshua 24:15).  If you believe women don’t belong in the pulpit, you aren’t interested to hear about Paul supporting women who taught Scripture to men (Acts 18:26).  If you believe that every word in the Bible is the literal word of God, you don’t want to hear about two different creation stories or two accounts of the flood even though they are right there in the first book of the Bible.[4]  Because these things challenge your system of beliefs.  That’s even true for people who don’t believe in God.  If you’ve made up your mind God doesn’t exist, no amount of evidence is going to convince you otherwise.  You might say you have a bunch of reasons why you don’t believe, but I have to challenge you to ask yourself, “Is my objection to God really about God’s existence or my resistance?”[5]  Is my objection to God about His existence or my resistance?

Although it was obvious the inauguration crowd in 2016 was much smaller than in 2008, the president still lives in denial about the truth.

How open are you to the truth?

Are you more interested in being right or finding out what’s real?  Because if you only care about being right, all you’ll see in front of you are the things that confirm your own beliefs, but you’ll forever live in a world of your own making and we’ve seen what that can do.  Denying the reality of the coronavirus, claiming an election was fixed without any evidence, even something as simple as believing you had the biggest crowd on Inauguration Day despite how obvious it was you didn’t.  When we give up on the search for truth, we give up on one another.  We make assumptions based on lies and so our conclusions miss their mark.  The truth is important if for no other reason than it pushes our boundaries of knowledge and expands our world.  It’s one of the reasons travel makes us better people.[6]  It expands our worldview and challenges our preconceptions.  If not for the search for truth, doctors would still be doing lobotomies to free us from evil spirits and bloodletting to balance out our humours.[7]  I’m still amazed people believe the Earth is flat.  NBA player Kyrie Irving went on a podcast and told the world he believed the Earth was flat.  He said, “They lie to us.”[8]  There’s always a “they” but no one knows who “they” are or why “they” would benefit from spreading these falsehoods, but that’s the kind of world we create when we stop searching for the truth and instead feed our own view of the world. What’s more shocking and disturbing are the number of people who deny the Holocaust ever happened.  After a survey of 53,000 people in 100 countries, the Anti-Defamation League found that over half of the world’s population had never even heard of the Holocaust.[9]  And of those who had, nearly a third (or about 1 BILLION people) believe it never happened.[10]  One billion people living in denial of reality.  That’s how history ends up repeating itself. 

What is it in us that leads us to deny the truth?

How is it that we remain willfully ignorant of the facts no matter how obvious they are? And this is a question for all of us. It would be hypocritical to look around and think, “Well, I hope all of them are reading,” because I am sure there is something in your life that you are denying right now. Whether it’s the way you are living, the way you are caring for your body, the way you are practicing your faith, there is probably something you are living in denial about, and if you say, “That’s not true” there’s perfect evidence right there. Now, whether you believe in the Bible or God or any of it, you’ll find that this problem of truth denial can be found all throughout history.  Even Jesus had to deal with this particular problem.

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”

Pride. That’s what gets in the way of the truth.

Pride.  It is the poison that gets in the way of healing, of good relationships, of reconciliation, and the truth.  Pride. Did you hear how the other Jews answered Jesus?  He said, “If you hold to my teaching, you really are my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  But instead of absorbing those words, instead of thinking about what Jesus had to say, they responded. “We’ve never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be set free?”  Pride made them blind to the fact they were slaves to their own sin.  You’ve probably heard kids say, “You’re not the boss of me!” Well, this is the adult version of that very same sentiment.  “We’ve never been slaves of anyone!  You’re not the boss of me!  You can’t tell me that I need to be set free.”  Andy Stanley brought this up in one of his podcasts.  How many times have you been in the middle of an argument and it dawns on you the other person is right.  And even though you know they are right, you keep on fighting anyway.  Because it’s no longer about two people or two sides trying to get to the truth, now it’s all about winning. It’s all about being able to say that you’re right.  That’s pride. We think pride makes us strong.  We think pride is an admirable trait.  But we would be wrong. Strength lies in humility. 

There’s a reason people use the expression “puffed up with pride.”

Pride inflates our ego to the point where we devalue others. Pride swallows up the room and pushes out space for new ideas and new learning. Pride forces us to continue down a path even when it’s clear it’s the wrong path. Humility on the other hand keeps us grounded.  Humility opens us up to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  And it takes a great deal more strength of character to be humble than to be filled with pride. Pride is for the weak, not the other way around. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that pride was the great sin, the one from which all others stem. He describes pride as “spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.”[11]  There was a study done on the quality of humility as a competitive advantage in the workplace and the researchers came to the conclusion, “Humility is frequently associated with shyness, lack of ambition, passivity, or lack of confidence. We argue quite the opposite—that humility offers strategic value for firms by furnishing organizational members with a realistic perspective of themselves, the firm, and the environment. In fact, we propose that humility is a critical strength for leaders and organizations possessing it, and a dangerous weakness for those lacking it.”[12] Another study showed that humble people make the best leaders.[13]  And even the FBI believes that humility is essential for success.  In an article on leadership they wrote, “Humility often can be overlooked or, even, viewed as weakness. It is not. It is vital. Allowing yourself to be humble and to express your humility openly allows for others to grow. There is nothing more powerful than that.”[14]

Commit yourselves to the pursuit of truth instead of your own righteousness.

For it was Jesus himself who told us the truth would set us free.  This week, challenge yourself to keep an open mind.  Try a new food.  Try a different detergent when washing your clothes or a different shampoo for your hair.  We often get into routines without ever challenging if there might be better ways of doing things.  Don’t blindly pick something, but actually think about it, ask for opinions, look something up.  Open up your horizons to a world of possibilities (please keep in mind I am NOT telling you to do something dangerous or illegal – certainly you don’t have to go that far to do something different).  If you’re on the fence about faith, I want to dare you to open your mind to the possibility there is a God.  That he actually loves you.  That he really did send his Son to Earth to die for you.  And that he wants a relationship with you even if you don’t want one with him.  If you have honest objections to faith, that’s totally reasonable and also healthy for any strong journey towards the truth.  But be open to a world where God exists and has been searching for you for your entire life.  Open that door a crack and watch the love that will pour in.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/10/health/chocolate-health-benefits/

[2] https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20040601/dark-chocolate-day-keeps-doctor-away#1  The study done by Engler through the UCSF School of Nursing used 1.6 oz. per day of Dove Dark Chocolate.

[3] https://www.popsci.com/moderate-drinking-benefits-risks/

[4] http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/cflood.htm

[5] From Andy Stanley’s sermon “Who Needs God? I do” https://whoneedsgod.com/message-gallery/2016/10/4/who-needs-god-part-6

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/bishopjordan/2017/09/05/science-says-travel-makes-you-smarter/?sh=57c8f852719a

[7] https://theconversation.com/five-bloodcurdling-medical-procedures-that-are-no-longer-performed-thankfully-75818

[8] https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/24863899/kyrie-irving-boston-celtics-apologizes-saying-earth-flat

[9] http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/05/the-world-is-full-of-holocaust-deniers/370870/

[10] http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2014/05/23/did-the-holocaust-exist-scary-number-of-people-say-no-or-not-even-aware

[11] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 125.

[12] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=PdfExcerptURL&_imagekey=1-s2.0-S0090261604000506-main.pdf&_piikey=S0090261604000506&_cdi=272151&_orig=article&_zone=centerpane&_fmt=abst&_eid=1-s2.0-S0090261604000506&_user=12975512&md5=65d0f6fc48d7e81535608d991b99f331&ie=/excerpt.pdf

[13] https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/238328

[14] https://leb.fbi.gov/2014/march/leadership-spotlight-humility-a-leadership-trait-that-gets-results

Atheists Are People, Too

What difference has Christ made in your life?

How do you see God at work in the world?  It seems more than ever we are living in an age of disbelief and distrust.  With over 250,000 deaths in the United States alone there are still people out there who think the coronavirus is nothing more than the common flu.  Worse, there are those who believe that masks and vaccines are a conspiracy by the media and the liberals to circumvent our liberties.  To what logical end makes no difference.  Their distrust is so complete that if a liberal said the sky is blue, they would think it was a socialist plot to take over the world.  I actually have a friend who believes this and it is so hard to be friends when you can’t even agree on what’s real.  More than ever, we are living in a world desperately in need of Jesus.  But perhaps more than ever, it is harder and harder to believe in that which we cannot see.  People need a reason to believe.

When I first moved to Atlanta, I was desperate to find Rosarita refried beans. 

No, you didn’t jump into the Twilight Zone.  Just bear with me and it will all connect to Jesus.  Rosarita refried beans are by far the best canned refried beans ever, but they were nowhere to be found.  Believe me, I looked.  It wasn’t until I called Cub Foods, 45 minutes away that I found ONE store that carried them.  Cassie and I had just started dating and I wanted to cook a Mexican dinner for her so I decided to make the journey for these refried beans.  Cassie volunteered to go with me, not realizing how far away it was.  After about 30 minutes and having passed about a dozen grocery stores, she asked me what the big deal was.  Canned refried beans are all the same.  I assured her they were not, but it wasn’t until she tasted them that she believed me.  “These are the best refried beans I’ve ever had,” she said and I knew she was hooked.  I had successfully opened up her mind to a world where refried beans were not all the same. 

Cassie introduced me to the amazing world of Indian food

Of course, living in California, Cassie knows there are way better refried beans than Rosarita.

But at the time she was limited by what she knew.  Even though there existed a whole other world of flavor out there, she didn’t know it existed so it was hard for her to imagine there would be much of a difference.  That’s the same with me and Indian food.  I never had it before and in my mind I had these preconceptions about what it might taste like, but when I actually had it, it was mind blowing!  I’ve loved it ever since.  Daal, palak paneer, masala dosa, chiken tikka masala…I love the rich spices and flavors of Indian food that are similar yet so different from what I knew before.  Until you experience it for yourself, it’s hard to understand what people are talking about.  You do the best you can, but we are all limited by our experience.  Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s why so many people in the world don’t believe in Christ.

Even if they do, it’s not always easy to convince people to dive deeper into their faith.  Why bother coming to church or joining a faith community?  They’re all a bunch of hypocrites anyway.  I felt like that at one time so I understand it when people tell me that’s why they don’t feel compelled to come to church.  It’s not that most people object to the idea of God or Jesus, but they just don’t have a reason to believe.  They don’t have a reason to think coming to church will deepen their faith.  They’re not anti-religion.  To be sure, there are definitely some who are, but for the majority of folks out there, they just don’t know what they don’t know.  For them the reality of Christ doesn’t exist or if it does they don’t feel a need to go deeper.  It’s up to us to make a difference, to show them why Christ matters.

The good news is anyone can do it.

You don’t need a seminary degree or any special training to help people understand why our faith is important.  You don’t need a sandwich board or a megaphone or a stack of Bibles to hand out either.  In fact, all you need…is YOU!  For the most part, this section of Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae is about living a Christian life.  But it’s the last bit of advice he gives that is going to be our focus today.  The formula for success at showing people the love of Christ resides in you and Paul shares with us exactly what we need.  Please listen to these words from Colossians 4:2-6.  Hear now the Word of God. 

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

How to be “ful” for God

Prayerful, watchful, thankful.

That’s what we need to be “full” of to make a difference in someone’s faith journey.  Prayerful, watchful, and thankful.  It’s these three components that can open us up to opportunities that might otherwise pass us by.  Being prayerful, watchful, and thankful puts us in the right frame of mind to be open to the Holy Spirit and notice when an opportunity opens up for us to share our faith in just the right way.  There’s a beautiful passage of Scripture in Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples, “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Being prayerful centers us in God’s will.  When we learn to pray, we learn to trust and rely on God.  Being thankful does the same.  It creates in us a heart for God.  When we approach life with a thankful heart, we are driven to show our appreciation by sharing our love with others.  And both of these help us to be watchful.  We develop what Jesus calls eyes that see and ears to hear.  It’s like those Magic Eye images that used to be super popular, the ones where there is a hidden 3D image within the picture?  Once you find the image, it’s so much easier to see it again and again, but until you do it can be pretty tough.  At least if you’re me.  Finding opportunities to share your faith is like that.  Once you train your mind to look for those opportunities, it becomes easier and easier for us to do. 

Paul cautions us to “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.”

And by outsiders he meant those who were not Christian.  Paul knew even then our actions are a reflection of our faith.  What people see in us is how they perceive the reliability of our beliefs.  When Christ told us to love our neighbor, it was at least partially for this reason, to be a reflection of what it means to be Christian.  That’s what Paul means when he says to “make the most of every opportunity.”  Each encounter we have with people outside of our faith is a chance to show what it means to be Christian.  Authenticity is what we need the most.  We live in a very skeptical world, one that struggles with accepting facts let alone something as intangible as God.  And the church hasn’t done much to help its own cause.  We are in the news far more for what’s not good about us than for what we are doing well.  Stories about scandal, abuse, and hypocrisy are in the public eye much more than stories about disaster relief, helping the homeless, or funding college education.  It’s no wonder people have doubts about what the church promises.  To them it could be just another scam to get their money.  I’ve had friends who have said as much.  They feel like worship is just a means to separate people from their money.  So if we have any hope of reaching into the hearts and minds of people who don’t believe in Christ, it has to be with truth and integrity. We have to be our most authentic self and trust in Christ that being “you” is enough.  We don’t need to know all the answers.  We don’t need to be perfect, and the world honestly isn’t expecting us to be.  We just need to point to the one who is.  We don’t need to be perfect, we just need to point to the one who is. 

The world around us is growing increasingly non-Christian.

Spirituality seems to be as strong as ever, but there is a growing trend away from faith in Christ.  The number of people who don’t belong to a church or any religion keeps growing.  In a study done in the US from 2007 to 2014, the number of those people went from 16% of the population to 23%.  At the same time, the number of people who identified as Christian went down the same percentage – from 78% to 71%.[1]  And while the vast majority of people still identify as Christian, it would be wise to assume many of them do not actively practice their faith.  More likely they identify as Christian in name only.  But more and more it is increasingly important to BE Christian in the world today.  The world needs the radical love of Jesus Christ.  The world needs the peace that a life in Christ can bring.  And the world desperate needs the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that Christ offers – not only to us, but the love, grace, mercy and forgiveness we can offer one another.  So this week as we continue our time of waiting, pray for those who don’t know Christ, who have drifted away, or who don’t see the importance of focusing on their faith.  Think of at least one person who needs that prayer and focus on them.  Be watchful for an opportunity to share your faith or invite them into our community.  And be thankful that Christ is in your life.  When we have an attitude of gratitude we become more inviting to those around us.  So be prayerful, be watchful, be thankful.  Do you believe Jesus has made a difference in your life?  Then make sure you let it show. 

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/

Humble Pie

A Thanksgiving unlike any other…

How many times have we said that this year… about EVERYTHING?!  Easter, July 4th, Halloween, and now Thanksgiving.  It will seem strange to be without family around the table, but it’s for the best.  With so many cases of the coronavirus coming from family gatherings and get-togethers with friends, it’s the smartest and safest option this year.  At least we will still get to have the next best thing about the holiday – Thanksgiving food!  Turkey, dressing, potatoes, warm rolls, soft butter, sweet potato casserole, and cranberry sauce…mmmm!  Makes me salivate just thinking about it.  But Thanksgiving to me is not complete without pie.  It is the pie holiday.  I can’t think of another holiday that more easily lends itself to pie.  Pecan, cherry, lemon, apple – anything but pumpkin.  I know it seems like sacrilege for a guy who loves pie, but I just don’t go that way.  Still it’s one of my favorite parts of the holiday.  Thanksgiving just doesn’t seem to be complete without a good helping of pie.  But while reflecting on the holiday, I was thinking there’s one slice of pie we should all have once in a while.  Humble pie.  We could all use a good slice of humble pie. 

It’s so easy to forget all the people God put in our life to make us who we are.

There was an episode of Sports Night where it becomes clear one of the main characters, Casey, has no idea about the people who make Sports Night happen.  So when he goes on a talk show and gets complimented for his wardrobe, he doesn’t give credit to the wardrobe designer for the show and instead he makes a joke and everyone laughs. But later on, one of the wardrobe assistants, Monica, comes to his office, carrying his clothes for that night’s show and says to him, “I think you hurt the feelings of the woman I work for.  Maureen?  She’s been working here since the day you started?”  Monica holds up a tie and asks him, “Do you know what color this is?”  And Casey responds, “It’s gray.”  And Monica says, “It’s called gunmetal.  Gray has more ivory, gunmetal has more blue.  Do you know what shirt you should wear with it?… Mr. McCall, you get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do and all of it’s deserved.  When you go on a talk show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say, ‘That’s not me.  That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day.  It’s Maureen who dresses me every night.  And without Maureen I wouldn’t know gunmetal from a hole in the ground.  Do you have any idea what that would have meant to her?  Do you have any idea how many times she would have played that tape for her husband and her kids?”  Casey just got served a big helping of humble pie and it creates in him a humble heart.  It makes him reflect on the people in his life and at the end of the episode he publicly gives thanks to the people behind the scenes who make Sports Night a reality. 

When we give thanks, do we do it from a humble heart?

Do we reflect on all the ways in which we are blessed?  Do we think of the people in our lives who make it possible and feel gratitude?  Or when we say thanks, is it simply reflexive; a societal norm instead of coming from the heart?  Most of us don’t think about all the work behind our blessings.  How hard would it have been for you to grow the cotton, spin it and weave it together to make your clothes?  Would you have wanted to take the time to grow the vegetables or raise the animals for each and every meal you eat?  Or dig the pipelines and put in a sewage plant to clean the water coming into your house?  Perhaps.  But then you could not pursue anything else.  As independent and self-sustaining as we like to believe we are, it really does take a community of people to provide for the life we have.  None of us can really do it on our own.  None of us is truly a self-made person.  But it takes a humble heart to realize that. Someone once wrote, “If you want to live in a state of perpetual thanksgiving, you must abide in humility. Humility is the state of mind wherein pride, ego and haughty self-sufficiency have been crucified with Christ.[1]  The culture we live in encourages a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, but that mentality denies the state of the world we live in.  We owe our success and our blessings to those around us, to our community, and ultimately to God.  That’s the lesson King David tried to teach the people of Israel in our passage.  Prior to this, David had addressed all of Israel about his desire to build a temple to the Lord.  He told them of how the Lord had chosen Solomon to succeed him as King and that it would be Solomon who would build the temple, but David wanted to make it as easy as possible for Solomon to accomplish this task so before he died, David wanted to amass everything that would be needed for building it.  He not only acquired all the necessary material, but he donated his personal fortune into building the temple and David asked all the leaders of the nation of Israel to do the same.  By the time they were done, the people of Israel had donated more than 8 billion dollars worth of gold and more than 243 million dollars in silver not to mention precious stones, bronze and iron that was also given.  And that’s on top of what David gave.  And so after all the wealth had been collected, David lifted up this prayer of thanksgiving to God. 

10 David praised the Lord in the presence of the whole assembly, saying,

“Praise be to you, Lord, the God of our father Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. 11 Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.  Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. 12 Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things.  In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. 13 Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.

14 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 Lord, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you. 19 And give my son Solomon the wholehearted devotion to keep your commands, statutes and decrees and to do everything to build the palatial structure for which I have provided.”

20 Then David said to the whole assembly, “Praise the Lord your God.” So they all praised the Lord, the God of their fathers; they bowed down, prostrating themselves before the Lord and the king.

David’s model of thanksgiving is one that comes from humility.

He praises God as Creator and Father of all.  He attributes all good things to God.  And then he adds this line, “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this?  EVERYTHING comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”  Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.  David wants to make sure everyone understands all the wealth and power and blessings they have been given are only because of God’s grace.  It would have been easy for them to take pride in what they accomplished.  Think about how much they were able to give!  When you include David’s personal contribution it was over $12-13 BILLION DOLLARS worth of gold alone.  It would have been easy for them to say, “See what we’ve done?  Look at we were able to accomplish!  All for God of course, but look at what WE did!”  And David reminds them in his prayer that this is nothing.  This is nothing because they were only returning to God what he allowed them to use.  As huge of a sacrifice as this seemed to be, it was really no sacrifice at all because it didn’t belong to them in the first place. 

This was an important lesson to Israel and to us.

To remember all we have accomplished comes on the backs of the many people around us.  That as talented as we are, it is only because we are utilizing the gifts God has given and the people God has created.  And that our worth cannot ever be measured in dollars and cents but in the love we show to others.  Because the richer we are, the more we seem to forget these lessons.  We don’t even have to go back to ancient Israel to see that it’s true.  Patricia Greenfield from UCLA studied the linguistic frequency of key words in our writings over a period from 1800 to 2000 and as the country became more wealthy “the frequency of the word ‘get’ went up, and the frequency of the word ‘give’ went down.”[2]  Americans also became more individualistic and less community-oriented.  Words like “individual,” “self,” and “unique” were more common while words like “give,” “obliged,” and “belong” were seen less.  This might seem to be a small thing, but when you couple that with giving statistics that show that poorer people give about 50% more of their income to charity than the wealthy, it’s not that big of a leap to say that as we become more affluent, we tend to forget our humility and instead become more sure of our own ability to succeed.  The wealthier we are the more we cut ourselves off from our communities and from those around us.  We cut them off and assume people are only in it to take from us what is “rightfully ours” forgetting again that it doesn’t really belong to us in the first place and won’t go with us when we die.  We forget these wise words from Ecclesiastes which says in chapter 9, verse 11, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”  We forget that our good fortune is as unlikely to happen to us as it is to anyone else, but when we stay grounded in humility, we become rooted in reality and realize how truly grateful we need to be.  Because thankfulness without humility is like pie without the filling.  Thankfulness without humility is like pie without the filling – it’s empty.  It has no real meaning. 

Rev. Akiko and I leading worship with Dan Eberly at UJCC

When Rev. Akiko and I worked together at UJCC, she used to say these great prayers for blessing the food.

She would always give thanks for the land, for the animals, for the people who cultivated the land…I mean she would do more than ask for a blessing.  She would give thanks for the chain of life that made it possible to have this food on our table and it made me think how much more interconnected we are than we often think about.  Too often we take things for granted that we shouldn’t.  Things like water and the sun and the plants, let alone the people and the resources that it takes to make the world go round.  This week as we celebrate thanksgiving let us remember that no matter how great our accomplishments we never do it in a vacuum.  Let us find within ourselves the humility to admit that we need others more than we think we do.  In that vein, let us challenge ourselves this week to give thanks to at least one person every day for what they do in our lives.  Give thanks to them for helping you in ways big and small that maybe you’ve never noticed before or given voice to.  And give thanks for the invisible ways in which your life is made better because of the efforts of those who labor around you.  Pray daily to God for no other reason than to give thanks.  Not just for the food we eat or the clothes we wear, but for being the one who gives life.  For being the one who loves us enough to send his son into the world for us.  And for being the very model of humility to us that we should strive to emulate.  Let’s face it.  We can all stand to eat some humble pie once in a while.  Make it your thanksgiving treat this year. 

[1] http://www.christianblog.com/blog/blessings2you/humility-is-the-foundation-for-thanksgiving/

[2] http://www.npr.org/2013/09/03/218627288/why-being-wealthy-doesnt-lead-to-more-giving