Monthly Archives: December 2013

Doing the “right” thing for the “wrong” reason

Modern day “Pharisees”  in our institutional churches  still do  what their predecessors did in Jesus’ time—they do “the right thing”  for the “wrong reasons”.   Jesus,  in the Sermon on the Mount criticized the Pharisees of his day in these words:   Woe to you scribes and Pharisees,  hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law:  justice and mercy and faith.  ...”  (Matthew: 23:23)

Today we erect buildings  we need to produce  worship services.  Today we collect tithes and offerings in those churches.   Today we seek to increase membership in our churches.   All of these are  “right things” to a point.   The point to question is  what is our reason for doing these things?  Are we doing the “right things” but for the “wrong reasons”?    What is the reason for all of the above?    Too often the reason is to build for the comfort of the congregation.   To provide educational and enrichment programs for  the congregation.   To spend the money from the tithes on the buildings and equipment and programs that are meant for “members only.”    When this happens, I think Jesus  says:   Woe to you, Pharisees!

I don’t deny that it  is good to pray, but do we need a beautiful church to do it in?  Or is it better, as Jesus taught, to “pray in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”I don’t deny that it is good to sing praises to God, but must it be with a $50,000 organ while we sit on cushioned seats in an air conditioned sanctuary and watch the words on an expensive video screen and sound system?     It is good to give gifts to the church, but to do so in expectation of being memorialized with a plaque, etc. is the wrong reason.   Woe to us, scribes and Pharisees!   Hypocrites!   We are doing the “right things” but for the “wrong reasons”.   

Jesus’ reason for doing things is found in the words of the Shema he is quoted as saying in response to a lawyer’s question as to which is the greatest commandment:   “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?  Jesus said to him:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.   This is the greatest and first commandment.   And a second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”  (Matt. 22:36-40)   These words were the guiding light for Jesus’ ministry.   They also should be the same to us if we are followers of him.

My final interim ministry serves as an unfortunate example of doing the “right thing” for the “wrong reason.”   While I was there a woman in the church who had a passion for the poor, needy and homeless started a program  at the church for  a Friday night meal, called Bread and Cup, served every Friday of the year.   It was a great program for the needy and homeless and was attended by over 100 persons at times.   In addition a food pantry was maintained for emergency use during the week and a clothing closet full of donated clothes was maintained.   The church was located in the downtown area where many of those who needed such help were located.   This was the right thing to do!   It was what Jesus led us to do!   But alas, it is no longer at that church.   The church members were afraid these people would do something to their beautiful sanctuary.  They also voiced their concern that if they fed people and helped clothed them they should attend church and add to their membership numbers.   Too many of the membership did the “right thing” for the “wrong reason” and when the opportunity came after my ministry was finished and the guiding person who founded the ministry  also moved away, the church, with no notice, informed the Bread and Cup ministry that their building was no longer to be used by them.  

In my ministry to the poor and needy, I have found many churches with beautiful buildings, lots of members, a large budget,  but with a policy that  informed those approaching them for aid:   “Sorry, you have to be a member before we can help you.”    Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!

The Apostle Paul, in I. Corinthians 13, summed up the problem well for our churches  in these words:   “If I speak in the tongues of mortals, and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.   And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing….” (I. Cor. 13:1-3)

The church today exists to transform people by bringing them into a loving relationship with God.   It exists today to carry out the Great Commandment of loving God and our neighbors and ourselves.   All that the institution of the church is in terms of building, worship, and day to day action should follow that Great Commandment.   Every thing else the church is  and does  is really on the periphery.   Our ministry is to the ones that Jesus sends us—-the poor, the marginalized, the spiritually empty who need to be transformed and  filled by God’s love, the physically hungry who need to be filled in the name of that loving God—–that is the “right reason” for the institutional church’s existence.     Unless that is reason for the church’s existence, they will always do the “right things” for the “wrong reasons.”


The Meaning of “Worship”

What does it mean to “worship God”?    It may mean many things, but especially in Advent it means  an “expectation of a encounter with God.”   By that I mean that any time we enter the sanctuary at our church, we should do so in full expectation that we will encounter and relate to God through His Word, songs and music, prayer, and quiet listening.

God, according to Jesus,  wants most of all a loving relationship with the people that he has created.   He doesn’t want rituals;  He doesn’t want sacrifices; He doesn’t care about all the peripheral “stuff” such as type of music, drums or pipe organ, etc.  that often are parts of what we call a “worship service” and argue about).   What God wants, I am sure,  is a loving relationship with each of us.

So as we enter the sanctuary this Christmas Season may we put aside expectations of being entertained and of seeing friends and catching up on the latest gossip,  or judging how good the minister’s sermon is, etc. and enter the sanctuary with a deep expectation that we will encounter a God who loves us and wants us to love Him in return.  To reveal that to us is the reason for Jesus’ life and ministry that we celebrate the advent of during this season.

We only worship when we and God mutually touch our minds and hearts.   If we don’t expect that to happen, it surely won’t happen.   And both we and God will be disappointed if it doesn’t happen.   

“O come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Marker!   For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”   (Psalm 95:6-7)

National sclerosis of the Heart?

Does our nation  have “sclerosis of the heart?  What in the world does that mean??   It means “hardness of the heart“.  The “heart” is  a metaphor used over a thousand times  in the Bible to describe  the self at its deepest level.  We read about “closed hearts“, and “open hearts“; about “proud hearts” and “humble hearts.”;  In the Greek Septuagint (Old Testament in Greek) the term is sklerosa cardia—“hard heart.”  In the Bible, our hearts may be open to God or closed to God; and if they are open to God they are also open to our neighbor.   If our hearts, on the other hand, are closed to God they will also be closed to our neighbors.   As early as Exodus in the Old Testament, we read about the Pharaoh of Egypt “hardening his heart.”  Throughout the history of the Hebrews in the Old Testament and throughout the New Testament the people are indicted by the judges and the prophets and by Jesus as having “hard hearts” and turning away from God.    And if we turn away from God, it will show in the same hardness of heart toward our neighbors.

This Christmas Season is a good time to examine the opening question—does our nation have “sclerosis of the heart”?   Are we as a people infected with this spiritual disease of “hardness of heart”?

Jesus told the lawyer testing him that all of the law and the prophets are bound up in the Shema as Matthew quotes it:  “You shall love the Lord Your God with with all your heart,   soul, mind and strength.  That is the greatest and first commandment; and the second is like it;  you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)    Jesus emphasizes that if, in the “hardness of your heart”, you have turned away from God, you will show  the same “hardness of heart” toward your neighbor.   In other words  you can’t love God and not love your neighbor.

I am concerned about the “hardness of heart” toward God and neighbor that I see in our country today!   I see it in some of the following instances, to name just a few.  I’m sure my readers can supply many more:

  • I see it in cutting food stamps to balance the budget.   Taking food from the mouths of children and elderly who receive the bulk of the food stamps.
  • I see it in the denial, in Kansas of the extension of Medicaid to over 150,000 needy people in Kansas and thus denying them health insurance.
  • I see it in the repeated attempts by politicians to repeal “Obamacare” as they call it, that is meant to provide health insurance to all, including those now denied it because of “pre-existing conditions” and who cannot afford it.
  • I see it in the Wichita Eagle when I see that over 11,000 people in Wichita alone have applied and met criteria for aid this Christmas season and giving to charities is down by 2/3 to 1/2 so far this season.
  • I see it in the celebrating of Black Friday more than the celebration of Thanksgiving—a turning toward ourselves rather than a turning toward God in thankfulness.
  • I see it in the character assassination that is a regular part of political campaigns.
  • I see it in the disregard of the common good for political advantage.
  • I see it in lack of concern for the homeless and the poor.

This is a serious illness that is infecting our nation.  We must truly ask ourselves as a society:   Do we have a nationwide epidemic of “hardness of heart”?   Have we turned from God and also our neighbor?    Think about it!!

God’s Compassion and Justice

Early Christians were called followers of “The Way”.   “The Way” refers to the way  Jesus walked in his relationship with God which gave them a living  picture of God’s love for his children  and of God’s passion for justice for all.  .  In Jesus’ daily practices  God’s love and God’s passion for justice for all are a constant interwoven theme.    Jesus reached out to the poor and needy, to the blind, to the shunned lepers, to the rich tax collector, to the sick and dying, to the mentally challenged—to all of God’s children. And Jesus also poured warnings and “woes” upon the heads of those who profited at the expense of others—especially the Pharisees.  From them he demanded “justice“.

these were  not new themes.  A loving relationship with God coupled with compassion and justice was the part of the message of many of the prophets.   That message is perhaps summed up best by the prophet Micah in these words:  With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?   Shall I come before him with burnt offeringws; with calves a year old?   will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?   Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?   He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:6-8)  

For those of us who wish to walk “The Way” of Jesus with our God in this world today, the message has not changed.   We must “walk humbly with our God“.   We must “love kindness”(compassion).   We must “do justice“.    What does this meanHow do we do this?

Over a hundred years ago, a Christian author named Vida Scudder listed three ways that Christians can respond this question of walking “the way of Jesus”:   (1) direct philanthropy;  (2) social reform; and (3) social transformation.    (See Borg, The Heart of Christianity)

The first two of this list are forms of compassionate charity.   Direct philanthropy means giving aid directly to those who are suffering.   Social reform means creating the organizations needed for the care of the poor and suffering, such as shelters for the homeless, food banks, mental and physical health facilities etc.   The third on the list, social transformation is a matter of  justice; i.e. changing the structure of  society so that the causes of poverty and suffering are lessened or eliminated.

Christians today do fairly well on the first two listed if they are made aware of the situation of the homeless and poor.   The third item of social transformation, which is a matter of justice,  causes us problems and we hesitate to get involved in it.   No one criticizes us for doing the first two (philanthropy and social reform) and we are applauded for doing it.  The problem that comes whenever we engage in working for social transformation is seen in a quote from Roman Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil:   “When I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint; when I asked why there were so many poor, they called me a communist.”

Compassion means helping the victims of poverty and suffering.   Justice means changing the causes of their victimization; i.e. the way the social, economic and political systems are structured that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor.    

This final way of dealing with the poor justly (social transformation) forces us into the uncomfortable area of politics and business.   And it brings us up against those who are profiting politically and economically  by arranging things for their own benefit with the costs resting  on the backs of the poor.  It threatens the net profit of the owners of such huge companies as McDonalds who pay only minimum wage without benefits.    It gets us into discussions of the problems of  lack of education, of inadequate and unaffordable housing,of slum landlords, of mental and physical health care and prescription drugs for the poor.   It threatens us with higher taxes to take care of the above problems.  It might cause us to pay more for that Big Mac at McDonalds!  The resistance we meet is therefore extremely fierce, because we must go beyond these discussions and makes demands that changes be made to the status quo.

But Jesus and the prophets remind us that the only biblical  answer to the problems of the poor is the justice of Social Transformation if  we are to do what God requires of us.   Note that “Doing justice” is #1 on the list as Micah speaks for God.

“To do justice”,

“To love kindness”,

“To walk humbly with our God”

Jesus did all of  these things and showed us how to walk in “the way”.   But remember the ones that he challenged—the legal, social, economic, religious  and political leaders all joined together to crucify him!!