Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Spiritual Nutrition

Our 4 year-old granddaughter is learning about good nutrition in preschool.  She is now very good at pointing out what is “good” food (chicken, milk, vegetables) and what is “sometimes” food (ice cream, pop, cupcakes).  “Sometimes” food is, as the name suggests, food that you can eat every now and then.  But if you make a habit of eating only these foods, you’re not going to grow big and strong….just big and fat.

What’s true about physical food for our bodies is also true about spiritual food for our souls.  The sorts of spiritual influences you surround yourself with will affect the health and condition of your soul.  So what are you feeding your soul?

Some people enjoy the spiritual equivalent of twinkies.  They look appealing, taste good, and go down easy.  But they provide only empty calories that fail to support and active and healthy body.  Spiritual twinkies are the feel-good messages that surround us.  They tell us that someone else is the problem, and that “somebody” ought to do something about it.  They tell us that we are perfectly fine just the way we are.  Instead of challenging or stretching us with new ideas to ponder, they simply spit back out at us what we already believe, so that we can remain comfortably ignorant.

At the other end of the spectrum we find the spiritual equivalent of tofu.  While tofu may have its fans, most people find it as appealing as library paste…only not as tasty.  There’s no doubt that it’s healthy, but most of us find it so unappealing that we’d rather take our chances with greasy hamburgers and French fries.  Spiritual tofu has no interest in winning over friends: just speaking the hard-to-accept truths of life.  They convey the message that in order to be spiritually healthy, you must live a bland, harsh life devoid of any joy or excitement.  It’s good for you, but it’s not very good.

Fortunately, God loves us too much to allow us only the choice between twinkies and tofu.  He wants us to enjoy the goodness of the life he’s given us, and he wants us to find that enjoyment in what fulfills and strengthens us.  The spiritual nourishment that he offers is more like chicken soup: healthy and satisfying at the same time.  It will challenge and stretch us, but also provide us with joy and peace.  Just because something feels good does not mean it is God’s message of comfort for us.  And, just because something sounds challenging and difficult does not mean that it is God’s message of guidance for us.

Unfortunately, however, spiritual food doesn’t come with nutrition labels.  So how can you tell twinkies and tofu from chicken noodle soup?  Or, to quote 1 John 4:1, how can we “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”?  We can find a hint in John 10, where Jesus tells us that the sheep learn to recognize the voice of their shepherd.  The more time we spend listening to and for our Shepherd speaking to us, the easier it will be for us to recognize his words of guidance in confusion of the many messages we receive.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Finding a Balanced Self-Understanding

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you (Romans 12:3).

Worship at Old Union Church each Sunday includes a Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon, because of the important message they give.  They bring to our awareness the key aspects of our relationship with God, which we can so easily slip away from.  Confession and Pardon provide us with an honest appraisal of who we are in the eyes of God, when our own self-estimation or the messages we get from people and influences around us can easily lead us astray.  It is our way, each week, to heed Paul’s advice to the Romans.

On the one hand, as Paul puts it, at time we “think more highly of ourselves than we ought.”  The human psyche does a wonderful job of glossing over our own faults and shortcomings.  We may be quick to point out how others are at fault, but we can usually find a convenient explanation for our own actions.  Or, we simply forget about the error of our ways or the faults of our character.  We surround ourselves with people who will puff up our ego and make us feel good about ourselves.

Confession gives us a healthy correction.  When we become aware in worship of the majesty of God, our self-pretension becomes exposed for the fraud that it is.  Confession reminds us, each week, that we are not holy and perfect.  We are not as wonderful as we think that we are.  Confession knocks down our pride, especially when it is based on an over-inflated view of ourselves.

On the other hand, Paul encourages us to think of ourselves “in accordance with the faith God has distributed” to each of us.  Just as our human nature may blind us to our faults, it can also magnify them to the point that we are overwhelmed by our inadequacies and faults.  Confession, if it is not balanced by an assurance of pardon, only drives us more deeply into the pit of self-doubt and shame.  Voices around us and from our past far too often accuse us of our sinfulness, and the guilt that we bear.

The Assurance of Pardon helps us to see ourselves in a different light: in the light of the faith that God has given to us.  The assurance declares that we are valued and honored in God’s eyes.  We are precious and beloved by the Creator of all things.  There is so much to us that fills God with delight and joy when he considers us.  The assurance reminds us of the great lengths to which God went so that we may enjoy the fullness of his love.

The Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon steer us safely between the dangers of pride on one side and of shame on the other.  If you think too highly of yourself, the Confession of Sin will humble you.  And if you believe you are worthless, the Assurance of Pardon will proclaim the goodness that God finds in you.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Keep Christmas Real

Last month our church  youth group took part in “Alive Pittsburgh,” an outreach to homeless people held on the North Side.  Hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of guests spent the day together, meeting each other and enjoying the festivities.  The event included clothing give-aways, competitions and prizes, vision and hearing testing, haircuts, music, and food.  Our group was assigned to the prayer team, which meant that we got to spend time talking with the guests, getting to know them, hearing their stories, and offering to pray with them.

Of the dozens of people that my partner and I got to know, one couple touched me more deeply than the others.  I would guess that they are in their mid to late twenties, and if I had met them anywhere else I wouldn’t have had a clue that they are homeless.  They are living in a tent in a homeless camp in the city.  When I asked if there was something they’d like to pray about, they told me that they are expecting a baby.  We prayed for the baby and mother’s health, a safe delivery, and that they would find a place to live before the baby was born.  I couldn’t tell underneath her heavy winter coat how far along the woman was in her pregnancy, but the odds are that the baby will arrive long before the return of warm sunny weather.

As I reflected later upon my encounter with this couple, soon to become a family, I realized that the Christmas story isn’t so warm and fuzzy after all.  Mary and Joseph were much like the couple I got to know: worried about finding a safe and warm place for their child to come into the world.  The reality of Christ’s birth was much harsher than what is portrayed in the nativity scenes we’ll enjoy this month, complete with stables, friendly animals, adoring angels and worshiping shepherds. 

When we sanitize the Christmas story and convert it into heartwarming tale, we miss the entire point.  Jesus did not come to mingle with the satisfied, with those who will give and receive frivolous and extravagant gifts, with those who will gain ten pounds in December because of all the good cooking.  Jesus came to share life with parents giving birth in the cold, with families driven from their homes out of desperation or violence, with those whom everyone else ignores or reviles.

And when Jesus comes into our hearts, he turns them toward the “least of these,” as he called the suffering and abused people of the world in one of his parables (Matthew 25:31-46).  As we are transformed more and more into the image of our Lord, we are drawn more closely to those whose lives he came to share: those whom the world would rather throw away than acknowledge.

As we seek the coming of Christ during this Advent, may we care more about homeless parents than Christmas carols, more about refugees than tinsel and lights, more about the mistreated than a new pair of fuzzy slippers.

"The Nativity," by Gari Melchers
in my opinion, the most realistic depiction of Christ's birth:
an exhausted mother and a worried father

[PS: If you want to make a difference for the homeless in Pittsburgh, such as the couple I met, I encourage you to connect with LIVING Ministry.]

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Proposal to Reduce Hateful Speech

As I said in my sermon on Sunday, “Hateful words spawn hateful deeds and violence….  The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill on Saturday proved that we cannot afford this kind of talk anymore.  It is too dangerous, it has real-world consequences, and it literally kills people.”

I see a great deal of hateful speech on Facebook and other platforms for communication, much of it motivated by politics.  I suggest the following strategy for us all to confront and challenge hate.

From my time in Ghana, I’ve come to appreciate how Christians and Muslims work and live together with mutual respect and care.  In the days after 9-11, some Islamic extremists tried to incite hatred against Christians in Ghana.  The Christians did not have to respond or react to it all, because the Muslim leaders immediately and strongly condemned the hatred that these extremists displayed.  May we follow their example in our political disputes.

It’s natural for us to condemn hateful speech coming from the other side of the political divide.  Doing so, however, only fans the flames of anger and division.  Instead, let’s police the extremist language coming from our own political tribe.  Conservatives, call out the hateful rhetoric of the alt-right and other right-wing extremists.  Progressives and liberals, oppose dangerous words coming from the far left.

It’s much easier to notice and point out the excesses of people with whom you disagree.  It’s much more productive, and advances the cause of peace and justice, to correct those who share your overall perspective.

This is one way in which we can honor those who died on Saturday, by doing our part to improve how we debate and disagree with each other.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Christian or Church-ian?

Peanut butter and jelly.  Salt and pepper.  Bread and butter.  Milk and cookies.  Macaroni and cheese.  Pancakes and maple syrup.  Spaghetti and meatballs.  My goal is not to make you hungry, but to think about things that naturally go together.  Some less delicious combinations include lock and key, socks and shoes, needle and thread, nuts and bolts.  I’m sure you can come up with many more examples!

However, we’ve lost the connection between two other things that go together as naturally as pencil and paper: church and faith.  From the very beginning of Christianity, it was impossible to imagine one without the other.  Those who put faith in Christ were part of the church.  And those who were in the church put their faith in Christ.

On the one hand, the experts tell us that increasing numbers of people claim to be able to live out their Christian calling individually.  They want no part of the complicated, demanding, and sometimes frustrating issues that come working together with other people.  These believers are quick to point out the many obvious flaws with “organized religion” and claim that they don’t need other people to follow Jesus.  While we do have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, that relationship constantly draws us into relationships with others who call him Lord.  By my count, Scripture offers about thirty “one another” commands: what we are to do together, and how we are to treat each other.  Without any exception in the Bible that I can find, when God calls someone he calls them to share life with others.

On the other hand, however, are the people whom I’ll call “Church-ians.”  They care deeply about their congregation and their fellow members.  These are the faithful who attend church regularly, give sacrificially, and show up at all the special functions.  They want the building to be good repair, the pews and Sunday School classes to be full, and the church accounts to run in the black.  As commendable as such values may be, they are merely empty husks if they are not motivated and empowered by a love for the Lord. 

Just as the Bible encourages to live out our faith in community, it also condemns empty deeds of religiosity.  Isaiah railed against those who come near to the Lord with their lips, while their hearts are far from him (29:13).  Jeremiah mocked those who celebrated in the temple of the Lord while their lives were utterly divorced from his teaching (7:1-11).  Jesus himself offered a tongue-lashing against those who maintained and promoted religious institutions and practices but utterly missed the mark when it came to love and devotion (Matthew 23:13-39 and Luke 11:37-52).

If you count yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” I challenge you to investigate how the Bible teaches us to live out our faith together.  And if you are devoted to the health and well-being of the church, I challenge you to consider what motivates that devotion.  Either way, you will discover a joy of living that’s better than hugs and kisses, healthier than soap and water, and more inspiring than the sun and moon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Biblical Authority?

Most Christian groups claim the Bible as our ultimate authority for understanding God and his will for our lives.  But we don’t always act that way.  I’m not speaking about the fact that studying the Bible is more like a good idea than actual practice for many of us.  That’s true, unfortunately, and for decades pundits have bemoaned the decline of Biblical literacy in our churches.  There is another, subtler issue at work in the way we study the Bible, when we actually take the time to crack it open and read it.
Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer compared the way we read the Bible, or any other book, to how we play a game.  You have to play a game by its rules, or you just won’t get the point of the game.  For example, you can’t tackle someone during a basketball game, and roll a six in Monopoly and move five spaces.  In the same way, when you read the Bible you need to enter its world, so to speak, to get at its meaning.
That’s harder to do than it sounds.  We often come to the Bible with our own ideas, values, and priorities, to find out how it answers our questions.  But if the Bible truly is an authority for us, we ought to go one step further and allow the Bible to teach us what really matters.  The questions and issues that we think are so important may not really matter for the way that the Bible describes life and faith.
For example, many people wonder if we will recognize our loved ones in heaven.  We miss them terribly and hope to be reunited with them.  The Bible, however, is frustratingly vague about this issue.  Apparently that’s not a big deal in heaven, no matter how important it seems to us here on earth.
Many churches consider homosexuality to be a foundational issue upon which Christians must take a stand.  Congregations have left denominations over this issue, and many churches include it on the “What We Believe” page of their website.  However, this topic is barely footnote in Scripture, only mentioned a handful of times.  If the Bible truly is our guide, why would we get bent out of shape over something that it treats so trivially?  And why do we blithely ignore other concerns that the Bible discusses often and in great detail, such as economic justice for the poor and observing the Sabbath?
Such fascination with arcane trivia in the Bible jumps into overdrive when it comes to questions about Christ’s return.  “End-times” topics such as the mark of the beast, the rapture, and millennialism arise from brief, and my opinion often misunderstood, allusions in Scripture.  They are certainly not the central themes in the Bible’s description of our future hope.
I’ve even heard people say that the key to understanding all of Scripture can be found in an obscure verse in Genesis that describes how the “sons of God” had children with the “daughters of humans” and gave birth to the Nephilim.  God did not give us Scripture as a puzzle or mystery to solve.  His desire is for us to submit ourselves to the Bible’s own priorities and values, and reflect on how we can live them out in our lives and in our world.

Monday, August 20, 2018

How Was Your Day?

“How was your day?” That’s the question my wife and I often ask each other in the evening as our days wind to a close.  I’ve noticed that my answer to that question each day focuses on how many tasks I accomplished, or on the quality of the work that I’ve done.  On a good day I may tell her about a meaningful hospital visit, and on a day that didn’t go quite as well I may describe how I’ve fallen behind on the things I want to get done that week.  In other words, I evaluate the quality of my days according to how much and how well I worked.  And because my life is composed of the days that I live, this means that I consider how good of a life I am living based on how productive I am.

The grace of Jesus Christ sets us free from “works righteousness:” the belief that in order to be set right with God we must obey his law perfectly.  As we read in Ephesians, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (2:8-9).  The redeeming work of Christ, through his death on the cross and his resurrection from the tomb, has opened the way for us to enjoy the fullness of a loving and blessed relationship with God.  We do not need to prove ourselves to God, and we do not need to earn our salvation.  We need simply to put our trust in Jesus, and God sees us as righteous and holy.

This is the core of our Christian faith.  And yet, I find myself slipping into a sort of works-righteousness that is based not upon how well I follow the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law, but upon how well I am able to make progress on my to-do list.  A “good day” means that I’ve scratched some things off the list, and a “bad day” means that I’ve fallen behind and wasted opportunities to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself.  On the theoretical, spiritual level I wholeheartedly believe that my worth comes from the loving favor of Jesus Christ.  But on the day-to-day practical level, I live as though my value as a person depends upon what I’ve done.

Certainly, God wants us to be productive and hard-working, just as he wants us to follow his commands and obey his will.  But he considers us to be “precious and honored” in his sight (Isaiah 43:4), and to be his beloved children (1 John 3:1) because of what Christ has done on our behalf, and not upon anything we have done or ever could do for ourselves.  His love for us does not depend upon what we do, or upon how much we do.

If you’re like me, it’s time for us to redefine what makes for a “good day.”  Instead of evaluating our lives by what we have accomplished, we can consider instead how much of God’s love we have experienced.  On a “bad day,” our struggles and preoccupations may cloud his glory from our sight.  But on a “good day,” we recognize his goodness in every whisper, in every shadow, and every stirring of our hearts. On a good day, we realize how deeply our Father loves us, and we know the presence of the Spirit within us.