Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Moving the Blog

Dear Friends...I just want to let all of my followers know that I am moving the blog. The new format offers some features that are not available here and will make it easier for people to navigate the list of posts and find relevant content. Here is the new blog address. All of the old posts have been imported. You will notice the addition of categories as opposed to only having post tags. Thank you for your loyalty to this blog.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Being a Christian-Living With a Target on your Back

Okay, I'll be up front about this. I don't always like to be the guy who turns everything he sees into a spiritual metaphor. Or the guy to get the one-up on my buddies by "Jesus Juking" them (turning a mundane statement into a surface level religious dig). Maybe the snap, crackle, pop of my Rice Krispies reminds me of the voice of God? Maybe passing out candy in a parade reminds me of how I should treat those who have needs? And yes, I'll even be the guy who loves sports and has run the Christian sports metaphors into the ground. Life has a lot to teach us and sometimes the wide world of sports is great for allowing us to learn from the decisions of others. And that has happened again...and as a Christian and a blogger, I am inclined to share these insights with you!

This basketball season, everyone was caught up in the drama of the super team that would be the Miami Heat when they signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to give Dwayne Wade the supporting cast he'd been needing for a long time. They opened their season against the East's top team, the Boston Celtics. I don't know that any season opener in recent memory had as much anticipation and hype as this one. The Heat lost that game by 8 points and though they won a few games after that, it took them a while to get rolling. They were hardly the automatic super team everyone assumed they would be. Why was that? These were three perennial all-stars. They were an easy lock for the most talented team in the country. So why would they have trouble winning? While there are a number of possibilities (team chemistry, no really dominant center, etc.), I think the main factor was that they set themselves up to be the team to beat. Essentially they began the season with a target on their backs.

When LeBron made his dramatic exit from Cleveland and did his national "reveal" as a primetime show on ESPN, he left a wake of angry Cleveland fans. Not only that, but casual fans who were maybe on the fence about King James now found themselves despising him rather than paying him homage. The Miami front office shamelessly attempted to buy a championship in a way that would make the New York Yankees proud. The consequence of this blatant stab at the integrity of the game (whatever that is at the professional level anyway), was that now they have become the arch-nemesis of every team in the league. Everybody wants to bring their A-game when the Heat comes to town.

Somewhere the other day, though, I was watching something on ESPN...maybe it was on my favorite sports talk show Mike and Mike...and it hit me. The debacle that the Heat created by becoming more of a circus and less of a sports team is not entirely different from the life-change that occurs when one becomes a follower of Christ. You see, in every person, I believe, there is a cynic. And there is a certain deviant joy that comes when we find something to be different from the way it was marketed. Whether it was an expensive dinner entree topped with a Kraft single instead of real cheese, a sports team that was bought instead of built, or a person who told the world he was a follower of Christ only to fall flat on his face; human nature revels in watching things implode. There is an indignation associated with seeing people stumble. And for the believer, the clock is ticking.

What's so cool about all of this, though, is that nothing gets past Jesus. In John 17:13-19 he is praying in his final hours before his arrest. He tells God how the world has hated his disciples because of their relationship to Him. And he asks the Father, not to take them (us) out of the world, but to protect his followers (us) from the Evil One.

So have you ever felt like a marked person? Like a Christian with a target on your back surrounded by skeptics who are standing in line to see you take a dive? Maybe someone's waiting to see you lose your temper. Maybe they want to see you say something bad about someone. Maybe they are waiting for something much more drastic. The fact is, if the people around you know you are a follower of Christ, some of them are in the boat with you, while others are standing on the shore waiting for the boat to capsize. But we can take heart knowing our Savior was aware of this in his final hours on earth. He was preparing to be arrested and crucified and what was he praying about? He was praying that we would have strength to stand against all those who "hate us". I think that's pretty cool. What do you think?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Helping the Needy vs. Helping the Greedy

Last week was our annual Christmas Parade of Lights in downtown Palestine. Each year, our church has a float featuring our church's children. It is a lot of work, but it's also a lot of fun. Several years ago, as a safety concern, the parade officials changed the rules on distribution of candy. Candy can no longer be "thrown" from parade floats. Since the parade is at night, they don't want people being struck by flying jawbreakers and such. Also, due to low visibility, they feared children would run out into the street in pursuit of fallen candy and could be struck by one of the parade vehicles. This was a good move on the part of the parade officials, but it creates an interesting opportunity for us.

Since the new rules were instated, the only way for the candy to be dispersed is for people walking alongside the parade float to pass the candy out by hand. So guess what my role has been during the parade the last two years? Yep. And let me tell you, sometimes the parade moves faster than a brisk walk. There are times when I literally had to quit passing out candy so I could run and catch up with the float (if I didn't stay with the float, I wouldn't have a ride back to the church!). So passing out candy allows me to be one of the few persons who has direct contact with the parade audience.

I noticed something this year, though. There were basically two schools of thought on receiving candy. Some kids were very thankful and appreciative and would respond with a "thank you" or "Merry Christmas" and were often prompted by their parents who responded in like fashion. Then there were others who seemed like they were almost trained to go after whatever free things were available. They were not content with one candy cane, and had no qualms about asking for more. My little sack of candy had to last the majority of the parade, so I could only give one piece to each kid, but parents were jumping in insisting that I give to them as well. And of course, there was no "thank you" to be heard.

This forced an age-old issue to the surface of my mind. It applies for those of us in church work and in service-oriented ministries. And that is this: should we try to make distinctions between needy people and greedy people? When I was in a former church in a small Central Texas town, churches often shied away from helping people because they just assumed they were working the system. My current church has a ministry that helps with utility bills. And while we only can help each family once a year (so we can help the largest number of people) and can usually only pay $40 or $50 on each bill, there are people who will be upset with us because we can't or won't do more. So is there a way to distinguish between the two groups? If there is a way to distinguish between them, is it our place to do so? I think the latter question is really at the heart of the matter.

In Luke 17, Jesus comes across ten men with leprosy. These were social outcasts who really had no existence because they had been ostracized by society. They were forbidden from being in contact with the general population because they suffered from a very severe and very contagious disease. Upon being near other "clean" people, they would be forced to yell out, "Unclean, unclean!" to warn people of their presence. And this time they met Jesus. They cried out for him to "have pity on (them)". Jesus replies that they should go and show themselves to the priest. This was a necessary procedure for them to be re-admitted into the general population. And as they went, they were cleansed. But wouldn't you know that after being healed, only one person came back to thank Jesus. And to this one, Jesus says "Your faith has made you well." But the others were well for crying out to Jesus, weren’t they? Most scholars believe Jesus is speaking of spiritual healing. His faith had saved him.

So did Jesus not know the hearts of the other nine? He asks some seemingly rhetorical questions to the grateful one saying, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner? (the grateful leper was a Samaritan)" I don't think much gets past Jesus. I'm pretty sure he knew the hearts of the other nine. Yet he healed them anyway. But the faith of the one, as demonstrated in his gratitude, gave him so much more than a normal earthly existence. It gave him eternal life.

So maybe there is something to Jesus' model. For those of us with limited resources in service ministries, we might be able to learn something from this. Maybe God wants us to minister to all who have need. And maybe only one in ten (to use the numbers from this story) will truly have gratitude and or faith that will lead to their salvation. I think where we get it wrong is we expect everyone we help to have that gratitude...that "saving faith", if you will. But Jesus knew better than that. And I think we are kidding ourselves to think that every person we help through our church or service organization is going to receive help with a grateful heart. Should we guard ourselves against those who do not legitimately need help and are just be working the system? God has called us to be good stewards of our resources and we should be wise and discreet in how we go about helping people. But either way, we should try to meet the needs that are there and leave the results to God. We may never know the eternal results of our service on this side of heaven. But that's where faith comes in, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Pushing Christ Out of Christmas May Not Be Such a Bad Thing

It's Christmas Time. We are right smack in the middle of the dog days of retail consumerism at its finest. This is the time of year when "paper or plastic" isn't about the sacks (perhaps you call them bags) used after the purchase, but rather the method of payment during the purchase. In America, the average person spends $750 on Christmas. When you think about all of the children who have no income and all the poor who may be baking or making gifts rather than purchasing, that leaves a much smaller segment of the population that actually does the purchasing. For this group, $750 is well on the low side.

This is also the time of year when we Christians get up in arms about how we are not keeping Christ in Christmas. Some of us send emails pointing out all the stores that are saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" and how we should not shop at those diabolic
al places. We demonize Santa calling him things like "Satan Claus" because he steals the true meaning of Christmas and hogs all of the yuletide cheer (even though his story is based on a real person who was a very selfless, giving individual). We get upset because courthouses don't have nativity scenes any more or that the ACLU has declared another biblical diorama to be an infringement of someone's constitutional rights.

So before I move forward, let me be clear. I am all for keeping Christ in Christmas. However, the fact that our Lord and Savior is being "kicked to the curb" by our culture, may not be such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things. Here's why I think this is true.

Throughout history, the church has blossomed in the face of persecution. It was the persecution of the Jewish religious leaders that caused the church to spread like wildfire from its infancy. And despite the efforts of Nero and several of his successors for the next couple hundred years, it continued to grow in light of an increasing toll of untimely Christian deaths. In modern times, the church in China is really growing despite persecution from opponents both inside and outside the government.

I do not intend to make the leap to say that our subversive lull into saying "Happy Holidays" is in any manner similar to, reminiscent, or comparable to any persecution that has happened to any Christian individual or group throughout history. In the grand scheme of things, modern American Christians have got it pretty good. However, time and time again throughout history, when people intentionally (or even unintentionally) direct themselves away from the worship of God through Jesus Christ, there will be a pocket of believers who will be diligent in their faith and will be adamant about keeping their traditions alive. But in order for that to happen, several things must be true.

1. Christians must be motivated by love of others rather than hatred of government, non-religious propaganda, and all things that don't specifically mention Jesus. A picket line may be a great way to get higher wages, but it's probably not going to lead anyone to putting their faith in Christ.
2. Christians need to embrace all of the good in the Christmas season. Despite the "credit cards gone wild", this is a very benevolent time of year. We must remember that God is often glorified even when things don't have his name on them.
3. Christians must not throw the baby out with the bath water. In our quest to be counter-cultural, let's do so in a way that holds on to the good traditions we have at this time of year.

So what does the future hold? If I'm still alive in 50 years at the Christmas of 2060 (at the ripe old age of 84), what will Christmas in America be like? Will I be riding up to a family gathering in a traditional car only to park next to someone else's flying car (remember when we all thought we'd have those by now)? Will there still be Christmas decorations on the houses? Will people still put nativity scenes in their yards? I don't know, but I hope so. But as long as our culture continues to move away from the worship of Christ at Christmas, we have an opportunity to do something different. I hope we make the most of it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Holy Communion: Prayer, Posture, and Provision

Yesterday was Holy Communion at my church. Being the closest thing our church has to an associate pastor, I assist our pastor during the service by passing out bread. And while I can say that this is a time of prayer and reverence, my mind does wander off sometimes to things like the difficulty of getting car and tractor grease off your hands the day before the Communion service. But I digress.

I don't know how you do Communion (aka. the Lord's Supper, Euchyrist). In the United Methodist Church (ours anyway), parishioners make their way to the aisles and come down front to kneel. As each person kneels, they hold their hands out, empty and waiting to be filled with God's grace. The pastor or assistant hands them a small piece of a very sweet Hawaiian bread. The juice is Welch's and is served in small glasses that are sitting in holders at the kneeling rail. The sweet bread, I assume (I could not find any reason for it's use), is to remind us of the sweetness of God's grace. After each person has received their bread, they spend a few moments in prayer, then partake of the elements. We also take up a special Communion offering for a different cause each month. Instead of being gathered in a collection plate, that money is brought to the Communion rail.

In the churches where I grew up, we did it differently. We sat in pews and the elements were passed. We used unleavened bread to remind us of the humility we were to have before God. Also, the bread used in the Passover Seder (the disciples were observing this when Jesus led them in what we know as the Last Supper) was unleavened. So unleavened bread is probably more biblical. A small tray with relatively bitter, tasteless, unleavened wafers would come by and you'd have to grab one and wait until everyone in the auditorium had one. Then the pastor would say a prayer, and everyone would eat it. So you had this chalky, pasty, tasteless cracker floating around in your mouth. You would swallow...and swallow again...then try to work up some more spit to get the last of it down. After all, it was probably going to be at least 5 minutes before the tray of juice would come by. Then the pastor would read about Jesus passing the cup and the juice would come by on another small tray that's reminiscent of a Chinese Checker-board with little juice cups in the holes. You would nervously grab your little sip of juice (you wouldn't want to be the person who spilled the whole tray, would you?), and then have to sit there and hold it until everyone had their juice. When all the juice had been passed out, the pastor would say a prayer and everyone would drink, in unison.

There are pros and cons to both ways. And while I think the way I grew up doing it is a little more quirky, I don't think the current way is all the way there, either. After all, my daughter often wants to buy "Communion bread" and grape juice at the grocery store. Isn't Communion supposed to remind us of Christ's suffering? But I do want to say some things I do like about the way we do communion.

1. Prayer-In our services, once the pastor reads the Communion liturgy, the rest of the time is spent in silence. The only thing you will hear is the pastor or assistant saying essentially "This is the body of Christ broken for you and this is the blood of Christ shed for you." The time is not interrupted by your neighbor passing a tray or separate prayers from the pastor for the bread and the cup.

2. Posture-There is something very humbling about getting up from your seat, walking down front, and kneeling at an altar with your empty hands held out. It reminds us that without God we are nothing. We come to the altar waiting to be "filled up" with God's grace. John Wesley called Holy Communion a "means of grace" meaning that we receive God's grace through partaking of the symbolic elements of the "meal". I have often interpreted that to mean it's an almost "magical" experience, with which I disagreed. But if one's heart is in the right place, it is a means of experiencing God's grace. Without the proper heart, though, it's just a sweet snack at the end of the service. We can just as easily "go through the motions" by coming down front as we can sitting in our pew waiting for the bread and juice. But there is something about getting out of your seat and coming down front that demands a response.

3. Provision-We didn't do The Lord's Supper very often in my churches growing up. Sometimes we even did it in the evening service rather than in the morning. I'm not really sure why. But I remember it was always done to remind us of Christ's suffering and death. Now in the United Methodist Church, we do it once a month. It is done as a "means of grace". In other words, this isn't an afterthought reminder of something, but this is an integral part of our worship of God through Jesus Christ. It does remind us of Christ's death, but it also reminds us that God's grace is continually reaching out to us. I like that part. I also like that we begin with an actual loaf of bread that is broken. Not only does this represent Christ's suffering, but it also reminds us that we are one body, the church. I mentioned earlier, that I think the sweet bread may not be a proper reminder of Christ's suffering, but it is a great reminder of God's grace.

So how does your church practice Holy Communion, Euchyrist, or the Lord's Supper? What do you like about it? What do you wish was different?