Thursday, August 21, 2014

Youth Questions: What is Confirmation?

Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general.  This is a part of that series.

Question:  When would you talk about confirmation?

    To make sure that we get started on the same page, let’s begin by talking about what Confirmation is, and then we can talk more about when it happens.  If your parents were a part of the church when you were born, the chances are good that you were baptized when you were a baby.  But just because you were baptized, doesn’t mean that you became a full member of the church, and obviously, you didn’t know anything about what it means to be a Christian.  Confirmation is a time when we can talk about the church, what it means to believe in Jesus, what it means to be a Christian, and also spend some time talking about the beliefs, structure and organization of the United Methodist Church.  Afterward, comes a time when you can choose for yourself whether or not you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, be baptized and join the church.

    Typically, confirmation classes are held whenever we have young people (or their parents) who are interested in having them.  This can happen whenever they are old enough to understand and mature enough to decide for themselves whether or not they want to become a Christian, be baptized, and join the church.  If you weren’t baptized as an infant, that’s okay, you can still take the classes.  Honestly, not everyone takes the time to do it when they are in junior high so sometimes high school kids take confirmation classes too.  But sometimes older youth are too embarrassed to take a class with a bunch of little kids, or maybe their church didn’t have a class because there weren’t enough kids to do it.  In either case, most churches occasionally offer “new member” classes that cover a lot of the same stuff.  We had a class like that last year at Trinity and we had people from high school age as well as people in their eighties and everything in between.

    I always want to make sure that everyone understands that taking a class, whether that is a confirmation class or a new member class, doesn’t mean that you have to join the church, or be baptized, or anything else.  Taking the class is simply a chance to learn what being a Christian is all about, learn how our church works, and ask whatever questions you have, along with other people who are asking some of the same questions.  After the class is over, you can be baptized (if you haven’t been already), you can join the church, or you can do neither one.  It’s always up to you to decide.  You should never join the church or be baptized just because your parents or somebody else said that you should.  Naturally, we hope that you will, but it’s always up to you.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Youth Questions: Why are There So Many Rules?

Note: I asked our youth to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general and I would answer them during later group meetings.  This is a part of that series.

Question:  Why do Christians have to follow so many rules?

    In our last meeting we discussed how our relationship with God could be like our relationship with our closest friends.  As we know one another better, we are able to finish one another’s sentences and order ice cream for them because we know how they think.  But in regard to this question, you can also think about your relationship with your grandparents as well as your friends. 

    When I was in college, my brother, Dean, and I got in the car early one morning and drove three hours to East McKeesport, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) to visit our grandparents.  They were both in their eighties at the time and were no longer able to do all the things around the house that needed done.  Our Mom had reported that the garage needed painting and so Dean and I picked a day to get it done.  Although Grandma insisted on paying us, neither of us wanted to be paid.  Sure we drove three hours one way, spent the day sweating and painting in the hot summer sun, and then drove home again, but money wasn’t why we did it.  We went because we loved our grandparents and we wanted to make them happy.

Our obedience to God is like that. 

    In some religions, people work really hard to do all the things they think their God wants so that they can have a chance to go to heaven, but our God is different.  Jesus came to Earth, died and rose again to do all that was needed for us to be a part of God’s eternal story.  In Romans 10, Paul says that his fellow Israelites were passionate for God but didn’t understand God’s righteousness, so they made up their own rules.  Their faith was all about following the rules and people who didn’t follow them couldn’t be a part of their group.

But Christian faith is different. 

    In Romans 6 Paul says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

    When people discovered that Christianity was all about grace and forgiveness instead of following the rules, some people had what they thought was a great idea.  They thought, if forgiveness, grace and mercy are wonderful, then the more I sin, the more forgiveness there is and that would make everything even more wonderful.  Wouldn’t it?  But Paul says no.  When we accepted Jesus, it is as if our sins died with him.  Through baptism, we were “buried” with Jesus and raised again so that we could have a new life free from sin.

    We follow rules not because we have to follow them in order to get into heaven, but because we want to stop doing the things that offend God.  Our faith is not about following rules, but in doing things that make God happy.  Just like we do things for our grandparents (and follow the rules at their house) because we love them, we follow God’s rules because we want to do things that make him happy.  We do it because we love him, not because God has twisted our arms behind our backs.

    Does that mean that Christians don’t have any rules?  Heck no.  Unfortunately, a lot of Christians and a lot of churches, have a lot of rules.  There are rules about drinking, swearing, smoking, tattoos, earrings, guns, and a lot of other things and honestly, a lot of them really bug me.  When Jesus walked the earth he was in the habit of making friends with outcasts, people who the rule-followers didn’t like very much.  Jesus welcomed prostitutes, tax collectors (who people accused of collaborating with the enemy), revolutionaries, Gentiles (non-Jews), foreigners, and even Roman soldiers and the church should still welcome the outcasts in today.  We shouldn’t be the kind of people who tell others that they have to stop smoking before they can join, or they have to dress nicer, or change jobs, or… follow a bunch of rules.

    That doesn’t mean that some of the things people do aren’t wrong and it doesn’t mean that we should stop teaching the difference between right and wrong.  There is a story about a woman who was caught in the act of adultery and was about to be stoned to death, but Jesus saved her life.  After he did, and all of her accusers had left, Jesus told her to “Go, and sin no more.”  Doing what’s right is still important but it’s a matter of the heart.

    We shouldn’t follow all the rules because we are afraid that some people at church are going to criticize us (or throw stones at us).  We should follow the rules because we have learned what makes God happy. We do things to please God because we are grateful for what he has done for us, and because we love him.

Our obedience should come from the heart…
…not from a rulebook.


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Friday, August 8, 2014

Living in Cyborgia: One Month Anniversary

Not MY head.  I only have ONE implant.
    Just before I left on vacation with my sons, I visited my surgeon’s office for my one-month, post-activation, check-up.  Aside from the fact that I was already wearing my cochlear implant, it was almost exactly the same as my activation visit one month earlier.  I saw the audiologist, we checked out all the electrodes in my head, tested for the loudest input I could tolerate, and then reprogrammed my devices with those new levels.
As it turned out, not much had changed from the month before.  The audiologist said that the changes were measurable, but “subtle.”  Regardless, it made a noticeable difference but because the changes were small, I will not return for another visit for three more months.  But while the computer may not be measuring much change, I can “hear” my brain changing.

    When my implant was first activated, everyone sounded like Mickey Mouse or the munchkins from the Wizard of Oz.  As time has passed, I find that people still sound weird but not quite as weird as before.  Voices are, slowly, getting easier to understand and I have occasionally even turned on talk radio.  There I can, depending on the voice of the host, understand some of what is being said where a few months ago I could understand very little, if anything.  When the car is moving and there is lots of road noise, understanding is a lot harder and, for the most part, not worth doing.  Still, it’s an improvement. 

    Sunday, I tried to listen while my friend Ken preached at church.  While what I heard and understood was noticeably different than what I heard a few months ago (which was absolutely nothing, because it sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher – wah wah wah), and while I could understand bits and pieces of his sermon, it took a lot of concentration and I didn’t get a lot out of it (Sorry Ken).  Even so, I am encouraged by the improvement because I can tell that something is going on.  Even if my progress is slow, and even if I get frustrated that it isn’t going faster, I can tell that my brain is changing.

    A few folks have asked, and I know more are wondering, so yes, I am doing my “physical therapy” but probably not as often as I should.   I’m supposed to listen to myself talk and say the alphabet and lots of other things.  I don’t do that as often as I think I should, but I do listen to my family (and other people) talk and it is noticeably easier to understand them.  As we drove to Colorado and back, I could carry on actual conversations with my sons which would have been completely impossible just a few months ago.

    Clearly, there the road ahead remains long, and progress remains slow, but overall, the news from Cyborgia is good. 

There is progress.

Slowly but surely, I am re-learning how to hear.

And that’s good news.


Join the Adventure!  

Earlier posts about my hearing adventure can be found here: My Hearing Journey.
Read them all or just catch up on what you've missed!


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Entitlement and the Impossible (American) Dream

    A few weeks ago, USA Today printed an article about the impossibility of reaching the American dream.  According to the article, to achieve the “American Dream” you would need to earn in excess of $130,000 per year. Since my family has been happily living the American dream for several generations (and none of us have earned anywhere near that much) I wondered just how the author chose to define the American Dream.  As I read, I realized two things, 1) the author’s definition was wildly different than my own and 2) it is clear that many Americans have fallen into a (very unbiblical) trap of entitlement.

    The first item on the list projects the median mortgage cost of a new home (Price: $275,000).  While this might seem reasonable in some parts of the country, it reveals two assumptions.  First, in order to achieve the American dream we have to be better than average, and second any home we buy has to be new. 
Both assumptions are false. 

    Historically, the American dream was simply “an opportunity for Americans to achieve prosperity through hard work. According to The Dream, this includes the opportunity for one's children to grow up and receive a good education and career without artificial barriers.”  (Wikipedia) In modern times, politicians have implied that the dream included home ownership, but for most people, the American dream is still about freedom of opportunity more than anything else.

    But the American dream has nothing to do with the expectation that I should be better than average or that the only acceptable home is a new one.  Where I live, homes in a decent blue collar neighborhood can be had for $50,000 and if you are handy, a fixer-upper can be considerably cheaper.  Homes in suburban neighborhoods and in more affluent school districts obviously cost more, but who says that hard-working, blue collar, city dwellers can’t live the American dream?

    With the exception of utilities, I take exception to nearly every item on the author’s list.  I understand that it much harder to make a life where the cost of living is high, but we need to remind ourselves that living the American dream has never been, and should never be, about the accumulation of “stuff.”  Too many of us believe that the American dream means we should have more possessions than our parents rather than the freedom to do what we want to do.

    It is said that blacksmiths and cleaning ladies worked extra jobs so that their children could go to college and become engineers and accountants, so that their children could become poets and artists.  That mirrors the history of our family.  Our grandparents got off the boat with little more than a suitcase.  And while none of us has ever been wealthy, because we live in a nation with extraordinary freedoms, we have had the ability to be and to do whatever we chose, within the limits of our God-given abilities.

    To claim that it is impossible to achieve the American dream unless you own a new, 3000 square-foot home, with all new furniture, two new cars and a lot of other “stuff” is an insult to everything our parents and grandparents sacrificed for.  They worked their fannies off so that we would have freedom and opportunity, not sports cars, Gucci handbags and iPhones. 
As followers of Jesus Christ, there is a far more significant problem.
When we fill our lives with the desire for material possessions, rather than things like integrity, justice, and the things of God, we open ourselves to all sorts of evil.  The Apostle Paul warned his young protégé Timothy saying…

7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:7-9)

    Paul wasn’t saying that it was bad to have wealth.  Paul was born to a family with wealth and influence.  What Paul is saying is that we cross a line when we desire money and material possessions too much.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:10-12)

    We don’t need new cars and new houses to be content, and we certainly shouldn’t feel like we are entitled to have more than our parents had.  Ten years ago we sold our house and I walked away from a satisfying career in engineering.  Today, I make almost $100,000 per year less than USA Today thinks I need. 

Regardless, I am happy, I am content, and…

…I am living the American Dream.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:4-6)


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