Monthly Archives: November 2013

No “Losers” in God’s Kingdom

We live in a society of “winners” and “losers”.    For every winner there is a loser.  Our sports, our economic system , our educational system , our political system, even our religious system all involve competition at the center of their value systems and produces “winners” and “losers”.

In sports, the reknown coach of the Green Bay Packers football team, Vince Lombardi,  said it all with these words: “Winning isn’t a sometime thing, it is the only thing.”

In our economic system competition is at the center and the businesses that survive are the ones who win, the failures go out of business.

In our educational system, our students go through the entire system competing with each other for grades.   A particularly harsh form of that competition is grading on a curve where there are only a certain percent of the class who can make A’s, B’s, C’s , D’s, and F’s.    Entrance to college is based to a great extent on grades, and therefore the  options for our careers, and thus our standard of living, is a result of competition.

Our political system is based on “winning” or “losing”.    Those who “win” the elections get to help make and execute the laws needed to continue winning.   Those laws, as we see each day, are too often for the purpose of maintaing economic and political power for the winners, and not for the common good of all the people who are governed.   Millions of dollars are spent in order to “win” elections and all decisions while in office are made politically with an eye toward continuing to win and hold power.

Even our churches compete with each other.   Too often to be a “winning” church is to have a huge, beautiful building filled with everything to make the attendees comfortable.   That building must also be  full of people.   People flock to megachurches and we hold them as successful and “winners”  because of the richness of their buildings, their entertainment value, and their large membership —not on the basis of their proclamation of the Kingdom of God and their practice of discipleship to Jesus the Christ.  In my career I have attended many national and state conferences of churches.  Not once were the featured speakers from small churches in Western Kansas.   It was assumed that somehow the pastor’s of megachurches had more to share that was worthwhile than a simple pastor of a church of 70 souls pastoring a flock on the prairie.  We think of small churches as “losers” in comparison with the large churches who are winners.

In all of the above, the emphasis is on “winners” and “losers”.    Most people base their self-esteem on their success in being “winners” in the systems named above.  However, if we are a Christian nation, if we are followers of Jesus the Christ, if we are proclaiming the Kingdom of God that was and is the central part of Jesus’  message, we have a problem, because there are no “winners” or “losers” in the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was breaking into the world. There are only winners.  In fact, Jesus turned the entire concept of winning and losing  on its head and proclaimed that those who lose are winners. Listen to what Jesus says:   “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.   For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  TO LOSE IS TO WIN—THEREFORE THERE ARE NO LOSERS BUT WE ARE ALL WINNERS  IF WE ARE MEMBERS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD!!    As Jesus described the Kingdom of God in his parables and in the Beatitudes and the Sermons on the Mount and Plains (seeMatt. 4-7 and Luke 6, 14-16)   he defined, as Marcus Borg puts it “what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The Kingdom of God is about God’s justice in contrast to the systemic injustice of the kingdoms and domination systems of this world. Two of our society’s central values are individualism and competition. They permeate our lives and our culture.” (Borg, The Heart of Christianity)

Individualism stresses that we are individually responsible for our well being.   That often leaves God out of the equation.   It often leads to the feeling that we are “self-made” individuals because we won in the competitions above. It also leads to us “putting down as losers” those who don’t win as well as we do in the competitions listed above.   But we forget that we are  the product of many factors that remain  completely outside our control—-our genetic inheritance that affects our health and intelligence, the family into which we were born,  the geographic place we were born, good and bad breaks in our lives.   As Borg says, “To think we are primarily the product of our own individual effort is to ignore the web of relationships and circumstanes that shape our lives.””(Borg, ibid)

Competition will always be with us, we all realize.  And because of the many  uncontrollable factors some of us will do better in the competition than others are able to do.   However,  if we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, competition should not rule our lives.   It should not define us as individuals.   While everyone will not be equal in education, economic well-being, political power, etc., in God’s eyes everyone is equally a “child of God” and is loved equally. regardless of win, lose or draw in any competition.  We are all “winners” in God’s eyes if we are willing to lose our lives in following in the footsteps of discipleship to Jesus, the Christ.

And, when it is all said and done,  we are all winners only by God’s grace.   There are no losers in the Kingdom of God! 

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Sell the Building, Keep the Church

There are many churches struggling today “to keep their doors open”.    Perhaps they are struggling for the wrong reason.   Perhaps in this post-modern, emergent church environment that we are in today the best thing that could happen  to those churches is to close the doors of their church building so that the Church of Jesus Christ  can survive.

Recently, in Wichita, the Fairview Christian Church (Dsciples of Christ) sold its building.   They are now meeting in a “house church” environment and no longer have the expense  of an old building that needed extensive repairs  that took  their time and money to maintain.   The building is gone, but the Church—-the body of Christ—survives!   They made a painful but Christ-like decision to solve their problem.   Sell the building, keep the Church.  They chose what was important—their relationship to God and to each other over property.

As we read about the “early church” in Acts there is no mention of a “church building“.   Paul doesn’t mention a “church building” either, and  we know that at least one of the churches Paul founded (the church at Philippi)    met in the house of Lydia.   Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament,  described the churches he founded as” the body of Christ”, with Christ as its head and all the rest of the members being the eyes, toes, legs, arms, feet, etc.—not a building, but a living organism!!

The Gospel of  Luke tells the story of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler who came to Jesus  and asked “what can I do to inherit eternal life?”    Jesus replied that he should follow all the commandments.   The young man said he had done that from his youth.  “then Jesus looked at him and said “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all you have and give the money to the poor….and come, follow me.”   (Luke 18:18-25)  Luke tells us that the man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions.   He was unable to do what Jesus asked.

In Wichita I live around the corner from  a huge, beautiful church building.    This megachurch offers  everything from a coffee shop to a book store, to a full sized gymnasium.  The building  features  the most expensive and best sound and projection equipment in order to  entertain those who attend.  It hires professional musicians to provide the music on that sound and projection system.  Expensive electronic signs advertise what is being offered—-all kinds of workshops, support groups, youth clubs, etc.    I wonder what Jesus would think if he saw his name connected to this megachurch? Let me give my answer to that question by re-telling the story of the rich young man in modern terms.

The story might go like this:     The Senior Pastor and the staff of eight from First Megachurch came to Jesus one day and asked him how best they might be His Church.    Jesus looked at them  and said to them: “One thing you lack.  Go, sell your beautiful church building and all its furnishings and give all the money to the poor and come and follow me and help me care for the “least of these, your brothers and sisters –-the homeless, the outcasts, the poor, the sick, the mentally challenged.  Use some of the money to work for fair wages for the poor, and for economic and political and social justice for all.”       And the Senior Pastor and staff went away sorrowfully because they couldn’t give up their beautiful building and its furnishings.  And Jesus shook his head and shed a tear as he watched them leave him!

Sell the building—-Keep the Church!   Is this the way of discipleship?   what do YOU think??

Asking the Right Questions about the Poor…

Blaming the poor for their poverty is an old and cruel American tradition.   It is not Biblical, as both the Prophets and the Gospels see  the problem of being poor rooted in the oppression and “hardness of heart” of the rich and powerful—-those who use their political and economic power to further their own wealth and power built on the backs of the poor.

Jim Wallis in his book, Call to Conversion, says:   “The question to be asked is not ‘What should we give to the poor?’ but ‘When will we stop taking from the poor?'”   He adds:   “The poor are not our problem; we are their problem.”   (Wallis, The Call to Conversion, p. 43)

He adds:   Throughout history, the rich have had a difficult time in seeing that their prosperity is based on other people’s poverty.”   (idem)

The Wichita Eagle recently reported that the Kansas governor turnied down a federal grant of several million dollars meant to insure  that the poor and needy  would receive communication about the resources available to them.   The Kansas Director of Social Services defended the state’s refusal of the grant by saying” we don’t want to encourage peoples’ dependency” or words to that affect!   She said this when she, of all people, should be aware that those depending on aid are to a large extent children, the aged, the mentally challenged, and families where two people working cannot make enough to pay the monthly costs of food, utilities,  housing and utilities.

Those in power—and have you ever met a “poor” legislator or member of the executive branch either in Kansas or Washington?—-are using that power to enrich themselves and gain political advantage and power  by cutting food stamps, withholding health care coverage, and justifying themselves by  blaming the poor for being poor.   Their prosperity and power is at the expense of the poor.

Let’s look at a few examples of hundreds that could be given….

IN BUSINESS and INDUSTRY:      We, as consumers,  demand cheap goods.   We complain about high prices and will  buy at the lowest prices.  To be competitive, make a profit, and satisfy the demands of their stockholders as well as consumers of their goods,  business and industry needs cheap labor.   So they send their production business to countries where labor is very cheap.   That not only keeps persons in that foreign country at subsistence income or lower, but it takes away jobs from those who are needing them in the United States.    Either way, the poor are supporting our demand for cheap goods!

IN HOUSING:   The poor shudder when they hear that cities are going to engage in Urban Renewal.  What it means to the poor  is that they will be evicted from the only housing they can afford, which is owned by absentee landlords and  allowed to deteriorate and never improved on, so that upscale apartments . will be built to “improve” the image of the city.   The poor will have to move from their squalid but affordable apartments and no place will be provided for them.   We build our new and improved urban image on the backs of the poor we evict and displace, hoping they will disperse to some place where we can’t see them!

IN RESPECT:   When is the last time you hugged a homeless person?    When is the last time that you even spoke to a homeless person?   When is the last time you have said to a poor or homeless person—-“Why are your circumstances so dire, and what can be done to improve them?   We point the fingers at the poor and call them lazy, unmotivated, “on the dole”, unwilling to take care of themselves.   But what are we doing to deal with the problems that cause them to be poor and needy in the first place?   Jesus said:  “Blessed are the poor!” in the Gospel of Luke.   When is the last time you have seen them as “blessed by poverty” and not “cursed by poverty?”

FOOD:   Let’s cut the amount of food stamps so we can balance our national  budget.   Let’s not cut the amount of aid to Big Oil, or Big Business.   Let’s cut taxes for the business community—but let’s take away more of the little that the poor have!  After all, they are just lazy and no good anyway!  Have you ever tried to live on Food Stamps?   Do you have any idea what they will buy of the necessities of life that are needed?

HEALTH CARE:   In today’s Wichita Eagle, two county commissioners objected to a federal grant to train social workers to help people in obtaining health care through the  Affordable Health Act.    For political gain they are willing to deny those without health care a chance to obtain it!   We are talking about families with small children of whom a sizable number  live in Wichita.   Read the percentage of the children in our schools who qualify for free lunches.   Last time I saw it the figure was astounding!

Americans are conflicted—schizophrenic?—-about their generosity.   We are so very generous when disasters strike other countries such as the typhoon that recently hit  the Philippines.   We are quick to aid those who are victims of hurricanes or floods or tornados in our own country.   Yet we seem to be oblivious to the  disaster of large scale lack of food, clothing, housing, and adequate medical care for the poor and needy and homeless persons in our own communities!

When will the words and ministry of Jesus penetrate the minds and the hearts of the people of the United States who call themselves Christians?   “Blessed are the poor!”   “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, my children, you have done it to me!” These are Jesus’ words—how do they square with what I have said above?

When are we going to be part of the solution and not part of the problem of the poor?

Disciple “Lone Rangers”?

It has become popular today in increasingly large numbers for people to say “I want a personal relationship with God through Jesus,  but I’m not a member of any church.   Can you be a disciple of Jesus, a Christian, and not be a church member?   On the other hand, can you be a church member and not be a disciple of Jesus, a Christian?  Good questions begging for answers in our current times!   Can you be a “Lone Ranger” Disciple of Jesus?

I begin to seek answers in pointing out that, according to the Gospels, Jesus never founded a church called “The First Church of Jesus the Christ”.   The Gospels do seem to assume the existence of the church and we know the church existed from the earliest writings in the New Testament, those of the Apostle Paul, who wrote many years before the Gospels were written and his letters were to “the church” at different locations.    But what Jesus  did was to call people to discipleship many different times and in many different ways in order to carry out the ministry that he felt called by God to do.     It has become popular today in increasingly large numbers for people to say “I want a personal relationship with God through Jesus,  but I’m not a member of any church.   A personal relationships with God through Jesus is good—but is that what Jesus calls his disciples to do—just be God’s individual friend through Jesus?   Perhaps we need to examine what that “discipleship” is that Jesus calls us to.   Jesus view of what he was called by God to do in his ministry is found in his first sermon after his temptations in the wilderness,  given at the synagogue in Nazareth.     Luke records it this wayHe stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring goood news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”   And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  (Luke4:16b-21)    This scripture is Jesus’ statement of his ministry and  mission.  If we are his disciples it is our ministry and  mission also.

To carry out this mission and ministry Jesus called a special group of 12 disciples to follow him and help him.   He realized, even with his relationship with God, that he could not accomplish his ministry and mission alone.  Neither can we as  inidividuals alone do so today!

Throughout the New Testament—there is an underlying assumption that if you are a follower of Jesus you are a member of a group, whether it is called a “church” or not.   The earliest writings of the New Testament, the Pauline Epistles (written long before the Gospels were written) are to the church.  And Paul describes that church unequivocably  as the “Body of Christ” with  all believers and followers of Christ being members of that body, working together to bring about the Kingdom of God and carry out the mission Jesus was given as captured by Luke in the synagogue at Nazareth.   Paul writes:  For just as the body is one and has many members and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—-and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  Indeed the body does not consist of one member but of many.  ….If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 

There is not a great deal of support in the Bible for the popular saying now—I want a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but I’m not a church member.

Perhaps the problem is how we define “church“.    The Greek word eklesia has the  literal meaning of “those called out”.   Note that there is no mention in the New Testament  of denominations that we ordinarily refer to as “church” today.    There are no Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptist, Disciples of Christ (Christian Churrch), Presybyterian, etc.  named.   The church, in the writings of Paul, is “The Body of Christ” —one body with many members   When we confess Jesus as Lord we become a member of that body according to Paul—-certainly not just a member of a denomination or megachurch—-we become part of, (a member of)  the earthly body of Christ.   We individually answer the call to follow Jesus as Lord, but that following what we are called by Jesus to do  is carried out as a member of the body of Christ.    In doing so we inidivdually answer to call to follow Jesus as his disciple, but we carry out that call as one of many members of the body of Christ.   As Paul writes to the churches in Ephesus:  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s grow in building itself up in love.  (Ephesians 4:15-16).

It appears to me that the followers of Jesus have failed to grasp the full meaning of this concept of the church.  When they do so, they will follow Jesus’ calling to his disciples more fully and will seek not just a personal relationship but a call to do ministry and carry out his mission as the Body of Christ.   It’s the mission he outlined in the synagogue in Nazareth many years ago—to “bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”   In  Matthew 24:34-40 Jesus puts his mission in these words and says to his disciples who carry it out these words:  “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?   And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?   And the king will answer them,  “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

It appears to me that when the followers of Jesus finally grasp the full meaning of this concept then  “the church” will follow its calling as Jesus disciples more fully.   Right now we have much to do that we are doing in carrying out his mission and ministry.

I don’t think there are any “Lone Rangers” in the ranks of Jesus’ effective disciples. 

What do you think?