Monthly Archives: November 2020

Forego Thanksgiving, Try Again Next Year?

2020 has been called the annus horribilis (“the horrible year”) and described as hellacious, apocalyptic, awful, and exhausting. The pandemic rages on, with some areas seeing higher infection rates than ever before. Many people are out of work and out of money and, as the coronavirus spikes, some are out of time.

Those who manage to avoid the virus can’t sidestep the measures taken to prevent its spread. In my state, restaurants are closed, mask requirements are in place, high schools and colleges have moved online, and theaters are shut down. Sports stadiums are empty. Churches, like ours, are seeing half their members attending worship gatherings.

Experts warn that the pandemic is causing anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. A review published in The Lancet linked an increase in mental health problems to the boredom, loss of freedom, and uncertainty caused by quarantine. Children and teens are most at risk.

We have heard the welcome news that an effective vaccine is around the corner, but many Americans are wary of taking it. Even those who are eager for the vaccine may be looking at the summer of 2021 before they are able to get it.

As if the pandemic was not bad enough, there was also the election. Usually after a general election, the nation recovers and, to some degree, reconciles. This year’s election did little to decrease divisiveness but rather increased it. Many people have lost faith in the election process, while others have doubts about the transition process.
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Thankfulness Is a Predictor of Spiritual Vitality

t can be hard to understand what’s going on in a story if you don’t know the backstory. This is not only true in the movies; it’s true in everyday life. The dynamics of the workplace will confound you unless you know that the woman in HR who is married to the boss used to be married to your department supervisor. Knowing the backstory is also important when it comes to understanding the Bible.

One of the fascinating backstories in the Scripture has to do with the relationship between Jews and Samaritans – as in the “Good Samaritan.” The northern Jewish kingdom of Samaria was conquered in the Assyrian War, its inhabitants deported, and the land resettled by people from other conquered nations. The new residents, known as Samaritans, and their southern Jewish kingdom neighbors did not get along.

When the Samaritans offered their help in rebuilding the devastated Jewish temple, the Jews refused and told them they were unworthy. Later, according to the biblical scholar William Barclay, a “renegade” Jew married the daughter of a well-known Samaritan leader and preceded to build a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. A famous Jewish general led a raid into Samaria and destroyed the temple. The Samaritans responded by vandalizing and contaminating the Jewish Temple.

This is the backstory to the Bible’s chronicle of Jewish-Samaritan relations. It helps the reader understand why Jesus’s disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village. It also explains why Jesus’s disciples were shocked to find him speaking to a Samaritan woman – something no other Jewish rabbi would have even thought of doing. Continue reading

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Deuteronomy and the Root of Bitterness

When I have preached on Hebrews 12 in the past, I have taken the “root of bitterness” that “grows up and defiles many” to refer to personal bitterness harbored toward another for real or imagined ills that have been done. I have warned people against harboring bitterness and urged them to forgive those who have wronged them.

If a person misses the grace of God (I have said), “there will be a price to pay – or, to be more precise,there will be hell to pay: a bitter root will grow up, a root that springs from the very soil of hell; and it will ’cause trouble and defile many.’”

Many years of pastoral experience have led me to this conclusion, and I believe it is an accurate one. I have seen people’s lives, marriages, relations to children and parents, and mental health destroyed because they harbored bitterness and refused to forgive.

I believe this warning remains true. I further believe it has biblical support. I have begun to doubt, however, that this is the point Hebrews 12:15 is making. Continue reading

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How to Go Through Post-Election Withdrawal

Politics may be our most wide-spread addiction. With a dealer on every corner, it is always available. Media reporting and commentary provide an endless supply of partisan views.

As soon as someone starts coming down from the last high, a tempting report from CNN, or a Fox News update, or a tweet from the president can draw them right back in. During a general election year, it is possible to remain politically intoxicated for months.

Like other addictions, dosing on politics brings users pleasurable feelings which they then want to repeat. These feelings include the sense of belonging, the gratification of being right, and the heady shot of being in power.

There are deleterious side effects as well. Huffing politics can and often does lead to anger. It leaves one vulnerable to hatred of “the other”. Should one’s side win, it can result in arrogance; lose, and it can result in soul-wounding pride.

During the presidential campaign, I heard stories of how political addictions were destroying families. A pastor friend of mine related the bitter story of a married couple whose adult son warned them that he would disown them if they voted for the wrong candidate. He wasn’t joking.
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Can We Forgive When We Are Still Angry?

One of the great examples of forgiveness in our time comes from Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian woman who, during the Second World War, was arrested by the Nazis for harboring Jews. She was imprisoned, along with her sister, Betsie, in a concentration camp and subjected to brutal and degrading treatment. Betsie, and four other ten Boom family members, died as a result of the treatment they suffered in prison. Only Corrie survived the concentration camps.

Years later, at the conclusion of a speaking engagement, Corrie came face to face with the cruelest and most heartless of all her prison guards. The very thought of him had been too painful to bear. He had humiliated and degraded Corrie and her sister again and again. He had jeered and sexually harassed them as they stood in the delousing shower. He had treated them like animals. In her mind, this man was evil incarnate, the embodiment of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp. To her surprise, he now approached her with outstretched hand and said, “Will you forgive me?”

Corrie later wrote, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I knew that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, ‘Jesus, help me!’ Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother,’ I cried with my whole heart. For a long time we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did that moment!”
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A Freedom That Does Not Ring Hollow

It’s been a long time coming. Back around 1969 or 1970, I read in a Popular Science Magazine that everyone would own a flying car by the year 2,000. When the millennium turned and everyone was looking out for Y2K, I was still on the lookout for flying cars. Popular Science did me wrong by getting my hopes up like that.

However, I may get a flying car yet. This month, Klein Vision released footage of a test drive/flight of its version of the flying car. Other design firms are busy with their own prototypes in Europe, Japan, and the United States. All I can say is it’s about time.

Why was I so enamored with flying cars? For the same reason, I think, that I dreamed – this went on once or twice a month for years – that I could jump into the air and sail at a leisurely pace wherever I chose. Flight, whether in a futuristic car or in a dream, represented freedom, the absence of restraint, the power of unimpeded motion.

Freedom is one of humanity’s big ideas. It goes back at least to the political freedoms of ancient Athens, though Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle each criticized the forms such freedoms sometimes took. The great Athenian orator and statesman Pericles once said, “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life … in Athens, we live exactly as we please…”

No people since the Greeks have been more committed to freedom than Americans. James Madison called the spirit of the American people “a spirit which nourishes freedom and is in return nourished by it.” Samuel Adams called the right to freedom “the gift of God Almighty.” Thomas Jefferson cautioned that freedom can only be retained at the price of “eternal vigilance.” Ben Franklin reminded Americans that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Abraham Lincoln referred to freedom as “the last, best hope of the earth.” Dwight Eisenhower said that “America is best described by one word: freedom.” But what is freedom? Are people “born free” or are they, as the old spiritual intoned, on their “way to the freedom land”? What is freedom?
As a political ideal, freedom is embodied in specific rights. Continue reading

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Clearing Away the Confusion Surrounding Forgiveness

In what is arguably the most oft-recited Scripture text in history, Jesus teaches his apprentices how to pray. We call this, “The Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father Prayer,” but it might be more accurate to call it, “The Disciple’s Prayer.” It was given as part of Jesus’ brilliant Sermon on the Mount and was meant to serve as a pattern for the disciple’s own prayers.

Jesus apparently felt one part of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” required clarification. Immediately following the prayer, he explained: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” With these shocking words Jesus puts us on notice: Our forgiveness is related to our choice to forgive.

Experience has taught me that many people struggle with this issue. They know, all too well, that they need forgiveness, and genuinely want to forgive those who have hurt them, but they don’t know how. When the pain of the past still washes over them like ocean waves, leaving a residue of bitterness and profound sorrow, what can they do?

The fact that God’s forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive can be unsettling, but one can learn to use that dynamic to one’s own advantage. A person who relishes God’s grace in forgiving his sins will find the grace necessary to forgive others’ sins, which is why Paul says, “Forgive, as in Christ God forgave you.” One ought to give thanks for God’s forgiveness, even bask in it. Only those who have experienced forgiveness can fully extend it.

“Forgive . . . as he forgave you.” If God’s forgiveness is the standard, then we must attempt to understand how he forgives. When God forgives us, for example, does he say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Forget it. It was nothing”? Not at all. In fact, he takes sin so seriously that he sent his Son to die for it. Offering forgiveness never minimizes the seriousness of the offense. Continue reading

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Identifying a Cause for Society’s Perforations

President Donald Trump is frequently blamed for the divisions in our society and it is hard to deny that he has been a contributing factor. But the president is like a person tearing a sheet of perforated paper. The perforations were already there.

Those perforations were created by sociological and psychological forces that are constantly at play in our culture. Many of these are well-attested and frequently cited: race and sexual discrimination, wealth disparity, and educational inequality, to mention a few. One dynamic that is often overlooked is the human need for belonging.

Among the life qualities that social scientists and psychologists say contribute to personal satisfaction, none is more important than a sense of belonging. Wealth, goal setting, sexual fulfillment, and even the practice of religion cannot substitute for it. A sense of belonging is a primary human need.

Our church sends students and adults to Tijuana, Mexico to help and encourage disadvantaged children and elderly adults living in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Each year when they return home, they always tell the same story: the people there have nothing compared to us, but they are happy. They belong.

This reality exposes the hollowness of the lone ranger, I-don’t-need-anyone narrative that is so often told in America. People experience the need to belong, whether they admit it or not. That need is not only present in us, it has an impact on our attitudes and actions, even when we are not aware of it.

This has been apparent throughout the pandemic and the run-up to the election. Continue reading

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Forgiveness (part 1): Breaking the Chain

A relationship with God is like a Baroque music composition: there is a point (what God must do) and a counterpoint (what we do in response). The point/counterpoint structure provides the soundtrack to a life of faith. Point: “He first loved us.” Counterpoint: “We love him.” Point: “He gave himself for us.” Counterpoint: “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Point: “The mercies of God.” Counterpoint: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices.” Point: “He has forgiven you in Christ Jesus.” Counterpoint: “Forgive one another.”

When point is present without counterpoint, the soundtrack of our lives loses its power and our talk about God rings hollow. If that continues – God’s work without our response – our children and friends will naturally tune out anything we have to say about God.

There are plenty of examples of the point/counterpoint composition when it comes to forgiveness. Consider these from the lips of Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Listen to the same point/counterpoint structure in the words of Paul. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We may be tempted to explain away these challenging words, but we must not do so. This is serious business.

The novelist and teacher Frederich Beuchner writes, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. Continue reading

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Christ Died for Our Sins

(This is the fifth sermon in the series, “Finally … Some Good News.”) (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that … Continue reading

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