Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Scandal of Christmas

Christmas is a scandal.  

We may have shined it up, but that first Christmas was nothing like we pretend.  

We've made the manger look pretty and we added lots of twinkling lights and shiny decorations.   But in all of our celebrations we should never forget the scandal.

In Matthew we learn that Jesus descended from Rahab a prostitute, enemy, and foreigner who hid Israelite spies in the city of Jericho.  Ruth, who was a widow and a foreigner from Moab.  King David and Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba), who were adulterers.  David was also a philanderer and a murderer.  Manasseh, who was the worst king Israel ever had.  According to the Old Testament, Manasseh committed “detestable sins”, and was “…more evil than the Ammonites.”  And then of course there was Mary and Joseph who were just flat-out poor.

From the story of Mary and Joseph we learn that Jesus was sent to save his people from their sins.  He was to be called Emmanuel, “God with us.” This reminds us that we are not alone.  God has entered this world and lives among us. 

We remember that shepherds were the outsiders and the outcasts.  They smelled bad. They touched dead animals and were often ceremonially unclean.  They were very near the bottom of the social order.  And yet, God chooses to announce the arrival of his son, the son of the King of the Universe, to them rather than to kings or priests.

And then Simeon prophesied that Jesus, the promised Messiah of the Jews, had been sent by God as a light to the Gentiles.  Imagine that.  Israel's Messiah, for whom the Jews had waited for hundreds of years, had been sent to save the the non-Jews, the people who were outsiders.

Finally, John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was the creator of the Universe who became God in human flesh.  Jesus was the light that gives light to everyone.

Jesus came and made his dwelling place among humans, he came to live among us, as one of us.  John’s whole purpose was to reveal Jesus so that all might believe.

This is the great scandal of Christmas.

Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, God was writing a story that invited and welcomed outsiders, outcasts, foreigners, foul-ups, criminals, and sinners.   

Everybody that society looked down on, God invited in.   

Everybody who thought they weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or who just thought that they weren’t enough, Jesus came to open the door and pay the price so that everyone could come into his father’s house.

The savior of the world was not born in the capitol city.  The king of the universe was not welcomed by the powerful and the important.  

The rich, the royalty, and the politically powerful weren't even invited.

The Christmas story is filled with the rejects, outcasts, outsiders, screw-ups, foreigners, and everyone that the rich, powerful, popular (and even regular people) loved to hate.

The story of Christmas is about redemption and transformation.  It is a story of outsiders being invited in, a story of poor people becoming parents to a king, a story of the outcasts hearing the good news long before the rich, the powerful and the popular.

The story of Christmas is an invitation.  

All of us who thought that we weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or too messed up, or too sinful, or whatever.  All of us have been invited in.  Jesus announced to the world that God has set a place at the table for everyone.

As we begin a new year, remember that no one is too far from God to be invited in.  

Look around.

Who are the people that are looked down upon, unpopular, poor, despised, outcast, or ignored?  

The Christmas story invites them too.

That's the scandal.

Every one of us, no matter who we are, and no matter what we have done, has a place at the table.

Even me.

Even you.

Without the scandal, there is no Christmas.

We are called to be like the shepherds, and Simeon, and Anna, and John the Apostle, and John the Baptist, and the angels, and everyone else in this story, Let us go out into the world and share the good news of Jesus, the light of the world, so all might believe. 

Even the outcasts.

Especially, the outcasts.


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Friday, November 28, 2014

What Happens When We Die?

Question: What happens when we die?  Do we go to heaven right away or is it something else?

Short answer: We don’t know exactly.

Longer answer:

    Many people believe that Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, by saying “Absent from the body and present with the Lord” is suggesting that we are, in fact, immediately transported to heaven.  But if you read the entire passage in context the argument is something less than convincing.  This is especially true when we read 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 where Paul says, “51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. “ Which certainly sounds like whatever happens, waits for the second coming and the day of judgment.

    On the third hand, we have Revelation 6:9-10 at the opening of the seals during the Great Tribulation and John says, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

    So here, before the second coming, are the souls of the martyrs are in heaven under the altar of God.  Where is everyone else?  I don’t know.  But scripture never mentions any kind of “in between” existence other than life on earth and life in heaven.  This picture in Revelation describes only the *souls* of the martyrs and not the martyrs themselves so they seem to be existing without bodies.

    On the fourth hand, James 2:26 says that “"the body without the spirit is dead." So if we’re dead, then the spirit has left, so where did it go?  Ecclesiastes 12:7 says that at death “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”  And in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 Paul says, “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”  Which indicates that the souls of the dead live with Christ and  return with him on the day of judgment.

    On the fifth hand, Jesus spoke of Moses, and Elijah and Abraham in the first person as if they were people that he knew, who were alive and able to carry on a discussion, not as people who were in any way “asleep” of somehow “in between.”

    Also of interest is Jude 1:9 that hints that the archangel Michael was guarding Moses body/soul from Satan as he was carried to heaven and there are other references of angels “carrying” the souls of the departed to heaven.

    In the end, there are two schools of thought. First that upon death we fall into some sort of “soul sleep” or “slumber” during which time we have no perception of the passage of time until that moment when Christ returns, we hear the trumpet, and meet him in the sky.  To me, the evidence of scripture would seem to be strongly against this.  The second is that we return to God immediately upon our death, but whatever body we have is not the body that will be given to us on Resurrection day.  On that day, we are told, that we will be like Jesus with a body that is clearly different (and yet similar) from our earthly bodies.  Bodies that will be without pain and suffering and which will be immortal and imperishable.

    Scripture does not, in any one place, provide a clear picture of what happens.  I can find no evidence at all of “soul sleep” or any sort of delay until Judgment Day.   For me, all of the evidence points to us going to heaven immediately.   How exactly that happens might be a little fuzzy, but I trust Jesus enough to trust him with the details. 

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


Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Will You Help to Rescue a Generation?

I want to ask for your help.

    I have been thinking about an idea for ten years but, particularly with the death of my father, I just can’t put it off any more.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression.

    As I grew up, I heard a lot of stories from them, and from my grandparents, about how they survived.  Both Patti and I learned how to save for a rainy day, and how to get by when you don’t have much. Those lessons helped us to get through two years of unemployment and the first few years in ministry when our budget was stretched beyond the breaking point.

    Because many of you have learned those same lessons, during the Great Depression, during your own lives, or by surviving your own struggles, I would like to assemble your tips, advice, and stories into something that, together, we can share with our children, our grandchildren, our friends from Perry Helping Perry, and anybody else that could use some help and wisdom to get them through the lean times.

    To provide you with some ideas and provide a little organization, here are some basic categories of that you might think about: 

·         Saving for a rainy day
·         Kitchen tips (cheap meals, money saving tips, or whatever)
·         Cars (buying, selling, repairs, etc.)
·         In the Laundry Room
·         Clothes (children and adults)
·         Sewing and mending
·         Gardening/canning/freezing
·         Personal care (shampoo, shaving, haircuts, or whatever you think of)
·         In the Garage: Tools, Repairs, etc.
·         Vacation
·         Date nights or dinner out (how to save a buck)
·         Gift giving, Christmas, Birthdays, etc.
·         Needs/Wants/Necessities
·         Personal Stories

    I know that I am certainly missing a few things, but this is just to get you thinking.  I hope that you will write down some of the lessons that you learned from your parents, lessons that you learned from the “school of hard knocks,” and any tips, or pieces of wisdom, that you would like to pass along to your children or anyone else who is struggling to get by.

    Patti and I were able to get through that difficult period of our lives because of the lessons that our parents taught and modeled for us.  But many young people today did not have the advantage of having such good teachers.  

That wisdom lives in people like you.

    I hope that you will share your tips, tricks, tidbits of wisdom, and even your stories about how you survived those lean times and the times when there was more month than money. 

Your wisdom could make a huge difference in someone’s life.

Won’t you please help?


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Friday, November 21, 2014

Six Degrees of Social Media Separation

    In the last few decades, there has been much talk about “Six Degrees of Separation,” which is the idea that any person in the world can be introduced to any other person in the world, by being introduced through our networks of friends.  Statisticians have demonstrated that anyone in the US can be introduced to almost anyone else in the US by going through only two or three friends.  But as often as we hear such things, it is still amazing when it happens “in real life.”

    This week I received a private message on Facebook from a woman I never met.  And that was the beginning (or possibly the end) of an unusual series of connections through my life and through social media.  To understand the connections that led to this message, let me go back in time to high school.

    After my eighth grade year, my parents moved to the south side of Akron, Ohio.  At our new church I met Keith and Jamie Weaver, who would, within the next few years, depart for Kenya, East Africa as missionaries through Africa Inland Mission where they would serve for twenty five years.  After I graduated from college and began working in Cleveland, I was back at that same church and reconnected with Keith and Jamie during their occasional visits home. 

    When the time came for them to consider a return to the states, our church realized that no one (other than their children) had ever had the opportunity to visit them in Kenya.  Two women, Sandi, and my wife, Patti, volunteered and along with our missions committee, we decided that we would raise the funds to send them. 

    While Patti and Sandi were in Kenya visiting Keith and Jamie, they met Steve and Nancy Peifer.  Nancy was the librarian at Rift Valley Academy; Steve was the guidance counselor and also ran a feeding program at local Kenyan schools (Kenya Kids Can).

    With that as background, we return to the funeral preparations for my father.  As soon as it was available, I posted his obituary on my Facebook page and many friends, including Steve Peifer, posted their condolences. 

    The next day I had a private message.  The woman who sent that message acknowledged that we had never met. She had seen my name pop up when Steve had written on the link to my father’s obituary and it had seemed familiar.  She followed the link, read the obituary, realized who my father was, printed it, and showed it to her parents.

    What we discovered was that our fathers had sung together in college, he had been the best man in my parent’s wedding and my father had been the best man in theirs.  Our parents had exchanged letters and cards, but over the years had lost touch with one another.  She sent me a current photo of her parents to give to my mother, and I sent a current address so that they could send their condolences and reconnect.  My Mom was a little stunned when I handed her the photo and explained who it was.

    I know that we live in a connected world, but it was still exciting to see old friends reconnect because of two children on the Internet, two missionaries to Africa, an obituary, and social media.


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