Monday, August 27, 2012

Forgiveness | The Best Gift

I can only remember seeing my dad cry just a few times in my life. He usually had his emotions well measured and under control. But there was a day when the circumstances of his life got the best of him and his emotions were worn squarely on his sleeve. I was nineteen at the time and was home from Bible college that weekend. I had heard from my parents that the previous couple of weeks had been very difficult. Dad had been the pastor in a small church for 14 years, double the average time of most country pastors in that day. Over those years, the church had doubled in size and had built a new auditorium. The people of that community seemed to love my parents.

But, some members of the church board were thinking it was time for a younger man to take the helm and they began to put pressure on dad to retire or resign. Dad was approaching his 70th birthday and the board may have had some valid points as they looked at the future of the church. But instead of working on a succession plan with my dad, they worked against him. The pressure became great and on that Sunday that I was home, he announced his resignation to the congregation. That’s when I saw the tears. It was obvious that he was not ready to leave. This was not the way he dreamed his ministry would end at this church. Though dad would never admit it, he was deeply wounded and the source of the pain came from a couple men on that church board.

I have some very fond memories of that country church. I grew up there. I was five when we moved there and I was 19 when dad resigned. My entire childhood was at that church. But because of what I saw happen to my parents, I refused to entertain the thought of becoming a pastor. Of course, God softened my heart and has given me a wonderful ministry to serve. But that difficult day haunted me for years.

Dad passed away a couple years ago at the age of 95. At the luncheon that followed his memorial service a man from that church came and sat with me. I remembered him very well. He was one of my youth leaders for many years and I had fond memories of him and his family. However, I also knew that he played a part in my dad’s dismissal. I didn’t know how much, just that he was one who thought dad should go. The conversation we had that day was very important to me because it affirmed something that I believed to be true of my dad. It affirmed that dad was a man willing to forgive the deepest hurts and wrongs done to him. At that luncheon, this man wanted me to know a few things about that time when dad was forced to resign. He wanted me to know that he was the ring leader in this maneuver and that he had come to realize that he was wrong in how he treated my dad. He stated that he’s never had a better pastor than my dad and he regrets deeply the pain he caused someone so important to him. Then he told me something even more valuable. He said he had visited my dad a few years ago and had told him how wrong and how sorry he was. Then as tears flowed from his eyes and his chin began to quiver, he told me that dad had forgiven him. Twenty-five years after the offense, forgiveness still had a powerful impact on this man. In was an invaluable gift given to this man.

In Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, he gave some tough teaching about enemies. I’m not sure my dad would have seen the men on his board as enemies at the time, but I’ve come to realize that enemies can come from variety of sources. Think of an enemy as someone who stands in the way of your doing what needs to be done. It’s someone who is trying to stop you from what is good and right. Sometimes enemies arise from places close to you: a cranking toddler who threatens your peace of mind, a co-worker who distracts you from working with integrity, a boyfriend who asks you to compromise. These are what I’d call subtle enemies. Sure there’s the bully on the playground and the ruthless corporation trying to take down your small business—those are the obvious ones. But, don’t forget the quieter ones that sneak up on each of us. Jesus’ words apply just as much to them.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.     Matthew 5.43-44

Love the people who hurt you. Pray for those who make your life tougher. Why? Because when we do, we look like our Father in Heaven.  Before I can forgive someone who has caused me pain, I need to see myself as a former enemy of God; someone who has put up resistance to the good that God wants to give the world. My sinful decisions thwart his plan and he’s forced to respond to my enemy resistance called sin. His response—LOVE. Check out this verse. Swap the word enemies for sinners.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Romans 5.8

God died on the cruel cross to pay the price for the sin we were committing as his enemies. Profound thought, isn’t it? Now that’s a good gift. That’s a bit better gift than a pasta dinner or beautiful sunset, isn’t it? That gift is the best gift ever. I guess Jesus has the right to tell us to love, forgive, and pray for those who hurt us. When we do, we give the best gift ever and we look like the best gift-giver.

Friday, August 17, 2012

From Haiti to a Yacht

On a beautiful July afternoon, I found myself on a 42 foot yacht on Lake Michigan. In case you’re wondering, this doesn’t happen to me often. One of the guys in a men’s group I lead invited our group for an afternoon out on the lake. I knew he had a boat but I didn’t know it was a yacht. Turns out, yachts are really cool. We had a great time! We played cards, fished off the back, told stories, and shared about the life issues we’re involved in. At times I thought, “Wow! I’ve got a good gig. I get to do ministry on a yacht, today. People with yachts need to  love Jesus too, don’t they?” My mission that day was that of luxury.

But as nice as that yacht was, I struggled internally on that afternoon. Just a couple Fridays prior, I was in Haiti building a goat pen for a church that can’t sustain itself financially. The people in this community were dependant on others for clean water, clothing, and much of their food. As we cruised through the Grand Haven channel on the way to the big lake, I felt a deep tension between the sites of that day and my memories of Haiti. There was nothing in eyesight that even hinted toward poverty on that channel. The homes were spectacular and the sheer number of boats in the water was amazing.  I asked myself, “How many millions of dollars are represented by all these houses and boats?” I thought about all the great things that could be done to improve a small town in Haiti with the funds that were being spent on the Grand Haven water that day. Images of poverty filled my memory banks as I cracked open a cold beverage and grabbed handful of pretzels. “What are we doing?” I chipped inside my head. “There are people dying of starvation and Cholera and we’re sitting in a boat three times the size of a Haitian house. This seems unjust to me, God.”
Years ago, my struggle would have been different. Instead of wrestling with social justice, I would have been lured into envy. My questions would have been, “Why does my buddy get a cool boat and I don’t?” But on that day, I was clamoring for answers to age-old questions about why some people have abundance and others have almost nothing. For a few moments, I even considered espousing Communism as a reasonable solution to evening the global economic playing field. But as Adlai Stevenson once said, “Communism is the corruption of a dream for justice.” On that beautiful boat on a perfect day on Lake Michigan my soul fought to understand global economic justice. I was happy for my friend who could afford his boat, and was making a very hospitable effort to bless us that day. But I had just spent time at a church whose people needed water, but couldn’t drill a well as it was too deep and too expensive. How do I reconcile both of these worlds? Do I, should I, can I… reconcile these polarities?
I think Paul’s words fit well into this discussion. They don’t answer all my social injustice questions, but they do give me a guide on how I’m to view wealth.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
1 Timothy 6.17-19

Paul gives some principles to guide our thoughts in this regard. Take some time to think on these this week. Be careful to apply them only to your situation and not to evaluate other people’s economic place in this world.

1.       Wealth is not the problem, hope in wealth is. When we place our hope in material things rather than in God, we miss the mark. and can become filled with pride. 

2.       Wealth needs to be handled humbly and temporally. It may come and go.

3.       Wealth is a gift from God that he gives us permission to enjoy.

4.       The gift of wealth is given to be shared and good things are to be done for others with our our abundance.

5.       This question of social injustice is answered in eternity. There are greater blessings in heaven for those who invest their earthly wealth in spiritual endeavors.
Remember, if you own or rent a home and have a car to drive, you are in top 95% of wealthy people in the world.  How will you handle your wealth? 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

An Issue with Christmas

I guess I’m in a bit of a cynical season right now. In last week’s blog post I chipped at the concept of always praying before you eat. You’ll have to read it to get my point. This week, I thought it would be a good time to rip on Christmas for a while…it is August and all. I was thinking that my jaded perspective of the holiday should come out before Walmart and Kohl’s fill their shelves with Christmas d├ęcor.

You need to know that I do love the idea of celebrating the fact that God sent his Son in human skin to live on our planet. I think it’s an amazing thing that God put himself in the vulnerable position of being a human baby who would grow into a man; and that man, who lived perfectly, would die because of my sins. Pretty cool!

It’s the commercial Christmas stuff I hate. Here’s a short list of stuff I really don’t like in December (October, November, and January even more):  Santa Claus, Christmas commercials (especially the Target lady), stupid music, the colors green and red together, sleigh bells. Yeah… I don’t even like bells. But there’s another part of the Christmas season that frustrates me—it’s the gift exchanges. I just don’t get it. Follow me through this scene.

Sometime in November, there’s a family e-mail that goes out saying, “Send us your Christmas list!” Christmas list? Really? I have to make a list of stuff for you to consider buying so you can surprise me? But, as a cooperative family member I send my list and then I go shopping. I start with my brother-in-law, while he starts his shopping for me. He ends up buying me a screwdriver set and I’ll get him a flashlight. We then spend time wrapping our stuff from our shopping spree with goofy looking paper and Scotch tape, put them under a plastic tree to wait for a few weeks, then give these gifts to each other after gorging ourselves at dinner. Individually, we open these presents with fake anticipation and polite gratitude. The flashlight that I so carefully chose for my brother-in-law finds its way into a junk draw before New Year’s Day.

I know… I’m jaded and my cynicism is harsh, so what’s my point? Gifts are important. They need to be communications of love. They need to be something that tells the receiver, “I know you. I love you. I think about you a lot.” One of the best gifts I’ve ever received was from my wife just a couple of Christmases ago. Out of the blue, she bought me a new wedding ring. After 20-plus years of marriage, my old band (purchased in 1987 at Witmark for $40) was looking pretty rough. She gave me a new band that I love. What made the gift really special was the note she wrote that was delivered with the gift. The details of the note are intimate and private to me but in essence, she affirmed yet again, “I love you. I know you and I think about you a lot.” Receiving good gifts draws you closer to the giver. It feels great to be known, to be loved, and to be thought of so much.

God’s gifts are perfect! They cry out to us from Heaven God’s message of, “I love you. I know you and I think of you constantly.”

When the Apostle Paul wanted to introduce the One, True God to some people who lived culturally and philosophically different than he, he started with the beautiful gift of Creation. God knows his creations and he wants his creations to know him.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. Acts 17.24-27

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Pray Before You Eat

Before and after every meal, our family always prayed. Honestly, I hated that part of our meal. Dad would typically ask one of us to pray. We all knew that he wanted us to give thanks for the food we were to eat. So, I learned early on to pray the same thing every time just to get through it. I would say in with a very monotone way, “Dear God, thank you for this good day and thank you for this good food. Amen.” That would usually suffice so we could get on with what we wanted… food.

I’ve learned over the years, that’s a Christian thing to do. We pray before we eat. I had an older gentleman tell me once that I’d get a stomach ache or choke on my food if I didn’t pray before a meal. At any social gathering with church people, if someone were to sneak a potato chip before the prayer, they’d be scolded. “Hey!! Stop that! We haven’t prayed yet. Are you not a grateful person?” Guilt-ridden, the kid who just wanted a chip would slink away feeling horrible about himself.  
When I went off to Bible college, this pray-before-you-eat phenomenon continued. Students would come into the lunch room, get their tray of cafeteria food (that they’d eventually complain about) and find a seat. Because we were at a Bible college, people seemed obligated to bow their heads and pray silently before grabbing onto their sandwich. You certainly didn’t want someone to notice that you ate your food without a prayer. My buddies and I would mess with people who prayed for their meal for an extended time. We’d quietly come up next to them and take their tray of food from under the noses. We thought it was funny to see someone, who had just thanked God for their food, open their eyes and see no food in front of them. On our meanest days, we’d never let them know we took their food. They’d have to go back and get a whole new tray. Yeah, that’s terrible, I know. Please forgive me.

By now I bet you can tell that I’m a bit jaded with this religious tradition of praying before you eat. I guess I’ve come to a cynical conclusion that much of this stuff was more for show or was done out of meaningless habit or tradition. I concluded that praying just before a meal didn’t make someone more grateful, it just made them feel and appear more spiritual or religious. So… I boycotted the whole idea for while and I think I was right to do so. I didn’t want to pray out of thoughtless routine or because of worry of what others thought. But I think my jadedness has cost me over the years as well. My boycott didn’t help me in the area of gratitude. It just caused me to be self-righteous about other people’s self-righteous behavior. It’s ironic how that works.

So, what does God really want in this regard? I think he wants us to see the simple, common things of life as a measure of his provision for our lives. I think God wants us to consistently acknowledge ...he made that ...he gave it ... I get to enjoy it, so, thanks! It could be salad, a sandwich, a hug, a taste of coffee, a sunset, an air conditioner, a pay check, a restful night, a smile from a friend. God made it. He gave it. I get to enjoy it. Thank you! 
My small group was talking about these principles last week. Some folks in our group were coming out of some tough seasons in life that deeply affected their relationships with God. One person mentioned how close she had gotten with God during her very difficult journey with cancer. She acknowledged that the pain and uncertainty of her situation drove her toward intimacy with God. Her prayers were frequent, honest, and heartfelt.  Her times of Bible reading were rich and powerful. But, now that she is done with treatments and her health is returning, the intimacy seems to be fading and that concerned her. I love where our group landed on this matter. We concluded that in times of difficulty, God uses our pain to show his love and compassion to us. Pain can bring closeness. But in times of peace, health, and prosperity, contentedness and gratitude should drive our intimacy with God. We need to recognize and acknowledge God’s loving provision.
Hey… maybe it would be a good idea to pray a prayer of thanksgiving before a meal!  Just an idea.

…He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.  Acts 14.17b