Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The distance Between "Cannot" and "Will not"

   On Sunday I made reference to an excellent blog by Scott Linscott who argues that the lack of a deep spiritual life in our children has a lot to do with the choices that we made (and are making) as we raised them.  (see the original blog here http://scottlinscott.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/your-kids-an-all-star-wow-someday-hell-be-average-like-the-rest-of-us/  and my sermon here http://www.scribd.com/doc/38170459/Love-Misplaced-2010-09-26)  I left a comment on Linscott’s blog and let him know that I had borrowed from him (and yes, I gave him credit).  Since then I have been following the conversation that he is having with other readers who are leaving their comments.  One focus has been the way in which busy professionals find balance between a demanding and time-consuming career and time spent in their church and with their families.  I completely understand.  I faced that same challenge both in a secular career and now in ministry.  What intrigues me is how often, as human beings, we are able to rationalize the difference between “Cannot” and “Will Not.”  “Cannot” means we have no choice, “Will not” implies that we have chosen. 

   Several busy people argued that their jobs demand 60 hour work weeks and since God has given them these careers then their dedication was a measure of their devotion.  An example given was the medical resident who is working 100 hours a week.  In order to pursue a career as a doctor they have given up time for a social life, dating, family, church and nearly everything else.  Others pointed out friends and church members that were medical professionals.  They noted how these folk made time to spend in church, to volunteer and to go on mission trips.  What I see is a difference between “Cannot” and “Will not.”  Residents and Interns don’t really get a choice.  Their schools, hospitals and others decide what is required in order to, eventually, gain the title of Doctor.  If they don’t do what is required they will not ever attain the goal that they are pursuing but the sacrifice is intended to be temporary.  Regardless of how much a career paid, I doubt that many would choose it if celibacy and 100 hour work weeks were expected for life.  

   At some point, how we spend our time becomes a choice.  It is at that point that we all must choose whether we want to choose long hours at work or to use those hours for recreation or family or church.  This is point at which everyone will eventually arrive.  When we arrive at this moment, whether we are aware of it or not, we must make a choice.  Some choose to spend more time at work and others choose to spend it elsewhere. For each choice there is a cost.  If we work more, we may advance more quickly, get more raises, perks and bonuses.  Working less may mean that we sacrifice these things.  Working less may also mean that we are able to spend more time with friends and family and have more time to volunteer, attend church and other spiritual activities.  Each choice comes at a price.

   As I have watched friends, colleagues and church members make these choices I have often seen the line between “Cannot” and “Will not” get pretty blurry.  I have had farmers tell me that they had to be in the fields on Sunday because of a recent stretch of bad weather.  I have heard other farmers, in the same community, insist that it wasn’t necessary.  There are two differences: priorities and trust.  While some saw a break in the weather as a gift from God, others saw it as a test of faith.  One group went into the fields to work and the others trusted that God was in control and would balance the scales at harvest time if they made God a priority.

However we want to rationalize it, for each of us there is a gap between “Cannot” and “Will not” but, however we choose, God wants us to make him our first priority.  In Matthew 22:37 Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment of the law is to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  We find a very similar verse in Proverbs 3:5 with a very important twist.  

Trust in the LORD with all your heart…  

…and lean not on your own understanding.”  

   I know that doctors and funeral home directors (and many others) need to work when they are called.  My point is that each of us needs to be aware of when our priorities are shifting.  We need to be aware of when we begin to trust money, power or our own ability more than we trust God.  God asks that we put him first and not to ‘lean on our own understanding.’  

   Putting God first can be expensive and it can be painful but God asks that we trust him to span the distance between “Cannot” and “Will not.” 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why the Church should be on the Internet

    I was recently asked to speak at a men’s prayer breakfast and address what I felt was the future of ministry.  In my short meditation (we did want time to eat breakfast after all) I shared a few words about why I felt that the future of ministry was on the Internet.  Since this helps to explain why I invest my time and energy posting sermons online, worrying about office connectivity, podcasts and blogs, I thought that it was worth posting here.  In this way, the folks who read this blog (which admittedly isn’t a lot) can understand a little better who I am and why I do what I do.

    First of all, I admit that I’m a geek.  I was the kid in school who was smallish, bookish, played in the band and tried the chess club for a while.  I did eventually grow a few inches and put on a few pounds during college and ten years in the Army Reserve but with a degree in electrical engineering, my fondness for computers and electronic and science related toys remains obvious.  Regardless, there are a few facts (statistics) that we all need to confront.

    Ninety-Eight percent of all homes in the United States have a television but the television people are seeing a noticeable decline in television ratings as more and more of their audience members are leaving to spend time on the Internet or watch movies delivered in the mail or over the internet.  Today, 35 percent of all adults in the US have a profile on Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn.  This is already a lot of people but also understand that this number has quadrupled in only three years.  Nearly 90 percent of students access the Internet every single day and spend an average of 28 hours per week doing it.  Of these, 65 percent (students aged 12-17) will log on to social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.  While the younger age groups use social networking more and older Americans tend to use it less, these numbers are growing across the board.  (See more of these statistics here: http://en.kioskea.net/news/11805-social-network-use-by-adult-americans-on-the-rise-survey)

    Obviously, scripture doesn’t say anything specifically about television or the Internet but it does have something to say about where and how we do ministry.  Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and her entire village came to faith.  Jesus met her where she lived because a Samaritan would have never been welcome in the Jewish Temple, the church of its day.  In Acts 2, we read about the day of Pentecost when the Spirit of God came down from heaven and entered into the followers of Jesus Christ.  What they did next is instructive.  Instead of remaining where they were and celebrating the great gift that had been given to them, every one of them, both men and women, left the place where they had gathered and went out into the streets to tell others about  Jesus.  Because this happened on Jewish feast day, the streets were full of people from across the known world.  

    Throughout the span of the New Testament, Jesus and his followers preach the good news in synagogues, in marketplaces, in the temple courts, in the street and in the countryside.  In Acts 17, Paul meets the men of Athens where they have gathered to discuss philosophy.  In each case, Jesus and his followers demonstrate by their example that the good news should be taken to where the people are and not wait for unbelievers to come to them.  Two hundred years ago, John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) broke from the tradition of the Church of England and dared to preach outside the four walls of the church.  Wesley felt that the church had abandoned many who no longer felt comfortable or welcome in the church and so he went out and preached in the open air in parks, near coal mines, and anyplace where he could find people who were interested in hearing the words of God.  The preaching of Wesley and his followers resulted in many thousands coming to Christ and was instrumental in launching the Great Awakening.   

    The common thread remains that the Gospel message was taken out of the church and out to where the people were.  Today, the public gathering place is electronic.  For our society, the place where people gather is no longer the synagogues, the markets and the temple courts but on the Internet.  

    If we are to be true to the example of Jesus and his followers, we need to be there too.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Would Jesus be burning the Koran?

So what do you think of Rev. Terry Jones?  

     Jones is the pastor of the Dove Outreach Center (a church of around 50 members) near Gainesville, Florida.  This is the guy that wants to hold a book burning party and as mundane an idea as that may seem, he doesn’t want to burn pornography or even evil Rock-n-Roll lyrics.  Instead, his church has been in the news for organizing what they call “International Burn-a-Koran Day.”  This has caused a furor in the U.S. and around the world.  General Petraeus, the commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has asked that this not proceed because of the risk that it will add to those who are fighting in parts of the world where Islam is the predominant religion.  President Obama has asked that this not proceed and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made a personal call to ask that this event be cancelled.  So far, Rev. Jones has only conceded to “postpone” the event.

Admittedly, there are a host of political and practical reasons for stopping this.  Under our constitution such activity is undoubtedly legal, but this media furor has left me asking a different question, “What’s the point?”  I understand that, theologically, the Dove Outreach Center subscribes to a Pentecostal view which sees the world in a spiritual war between good and evil.  What I don’t understand is what they hoped to accomplish by burning a pile of Islamic holy books.  If their intent was to anger Muslims around the world then it worked.  If their intent was to gain notoriety for their small church, then I suppose their plan worked but I wonder if this is the kind of attention that they intended.  In particular though, I wonder how staging “International Burn-a-Koran Day” was supposed to gain ground in this spiritual war between good and evil.

    Paul said that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12) it seems obvious that “you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar” but beyond that, insulting pagan believers is not what has been modeled for us as followers of Jesus Christ.  Paul didn’t tell the idol worshipping Athenians that they were stupid nor did he try to destroy any of their statuary.  Instead, he complimented them on their religiosity and then told them about the one true God.  Jesus didn’t curse sinners and disparage their false religions, instead he loved them, invited them in and shared meals with tax collectors, prostitutes and others considered by their society (and their church) to be outcasts and untouchable.   Jesus had compassion on these people even though doing so came at a significant cost to himself.  In fact, Jesus condemned the church of his day because of their lack of compassion for others.

    As far as I can see, the battle plan for spiritual warfare that Jesus left for his followers was both counter-cultural and counter intuitive.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5: 44)  Jesus built relationships with lost people by showing them mercy and my being kind, loving and compassionate.  Paul won a hearing for the good news of Jesus Christ by being civil and by demonstrating respect for those with whom he disagreed.  The way I see it, our battle is with evil, not with Muslims or anyone else.  We are at war with Satan, but not with people.  The path to victory laid out by Jesus is not the path of hatred but a path of love, mercy, kindness, compassion and respect.

    There are a host of political and practical reasons why Rev. Jones and his church should reconsider “International Burn-a-Koran Day” but far beyond any of those reasons lays this one:

I just don’t see Jesus in it anywhere.

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