Monthly Archives: February 2014

Living the American Dream or Nightmare?

Living the “American Dream” is defined these days as to “be rich in material things.”  And our society is blessed with comforts and material things that are  the envy of the world.    However, the “American Dream” may also become the “American Nightmare”!!  These may be the “best of times” but they are also“the worst of times” for our American Culture.

  • Never has a culture experienced such comfort and riches or such massive poverty and lack of opportunity.
  • Never has technology given us so many household conveniences, or such terrible instruments of destruction.
  • Never have we been so able to communicate in so many different ways, and never felt so disconnected from others and so lonely.
  • Never have we been so free and never have our prisons been so full.
  • Never have we been so sophisticated about relationships, or so likely to suffer broken or miserable relationships.
  • Never have we had so much self-knowledge and the desperation to search  for “who we are.”

It  unfortunately has always been true that the church has mirrored the culture and it is true today,.  As a part of the church in this culture, we who are trying to be disciples of Jesus are struggling  to establish our identity as his disciples and as his church.   We are doing so  and searching for “who we are” as Christians and for what is of ultimate importance for us to build our lives upon and meet our needs.   As we search, all around us we are hearing the cultural  message “look out for  Number 1”,  the message to “buy, buy, buy” to fulfill the needs  of “number 1”.      Yet, if we heed those messages we find less satisfaction, less joy, and less happiness than we were told we would have.     People who have based their lives on “bottom-line living”—where the only thing that counts is the bottom-line tally—are finding themselves “bottoming out”.   Gradually their devotion to a “god of more” just doesn’t seem like enough!

The “Me Generation” that leads our culture  needs to discover that it is “not about me”!    As Max Lucado writes:  “We’ve been demanding our way and stamping our feet since infancy.   Aren’t we all born with a default drive set on selfishness?   I want a spouse who makes  me happy and coworkers who always ask my opinion.  I want weather that suits me and traffic that helps me and a government that serves me (but doesn’t cost me any taxes).  It is all about me.”  (Lucado, It’s Not About Me”)   Italics mine.

There are some basic questions we should be asking ourselves:

  • To what should we be committing our life?
  • What is worthwhile and lasting?
  • For what should we strive?
  • What is worth giving our life for?
  • How can the church change the culture rather than reflect it?
  • What is my role in this change as a Christian?

Culture can be compared to a symphony orchestra.    When all of the players play  their parts to perfection, beautiful music is produced under the watchful eye of the Great Conductor—God.  Each of us contributes our part to making that beautiful music and if you’ve ever been a part of a musical group you know what a pleasure that is.   But if the symphony orchestra decides that “it is all about me” then the result is not beautiful music but a monstrous noise!   Can you imagine an orchestra with an “It’s all about me” outlook held by each separate musician?   Tubas blasting nonstop.  Percussionists pounding on their drums to get attention.    The cellist shoving the flutist off of the center stage chair.   The trumpeter standing on top of the conductor’s platform tooting his horn.   Sheet music disregarded.  Conductor ignored.    Would anyone want to be a part of this group?   Who would enjoy contributing to a monstrous noise that makes people wish to hold their ears?

And yet, we as Christians are tempted to buy into the American Dream that is turning nightmarish.   This dream of material success is based on the “Me Principle”.

Do we want to make beautiful music with our lives or just monstrous noise? Much of the American Nightmare is based on the “Me Principle.”    When we buy into materialism  as individuals and churches we help continue the nightmare.   When we elect politicians that refuse to compromise and work for the common good, we help continue the nightmare.   When we turn away from the problems of our society and turn inward for self-protection we help continue the nightmare.   Is that what you want to do?   Is that what I want to do?   

We as individuals and as churches need to ask ourselves this question:  “What kind of orchestra are we playing in—the one making beautiful music or the one making monstrous noise?

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Chasing After the Wind…

Honestly!   What is life’s work  all about anyway?    Why do we work so hard to create, build, achieve, write?   I feel sad when I think of this question as I see an estate sale.   I remember the estate sale  that our family had for my Aunt Ruth.   She had never married, and I and her sister (my mother) were her only close family.   She worked all her life as an auditor for Sears, living in an apartment in Lincoln, Nebraska.   She traveled a lot and had many souvenirs of her travel that she carefully placed in scrapbooks and looked at often.  She had a collection of ceramic birds she acquired over the years and loved to tell where each came from.  At her death, all that she had worked for and all that she loved and cherished as far as material goods was concerned went on the auction block, to be purchased by the curious and the bargain seeker for the lowest price possible, with the exception of a few things my mother and I kept.

Perhaps the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes had been to an estate sale recently when he wrote these words about life—“all is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament.   We know the writer’s name only as “Qoheleth”, often translated “preacher” or “teacher”.    Ecclesiastes is about his experiement he conducted in honesty.   It is probable that Qoheleth was an old man looking back on his life and trying to determine the meaning of it.   He looked over every aspect of life—all human endeavor—and attempted to discern what endures, what lasts, and what it all means.   He summed   up  his conclusions in these words:   “I considered all that my hands had done, and toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun”  (Eccl 2:11)  and he asks “What gain have the workers from their toil?”   (Eccl. 3:9)    

Qoheleth recounts all his efforts in the first few chapters, saying:  “I built”, “I made great”, “I planted”,  “I made”, “I acquired,  “I gathered”, and yet all of this doing he found to be a mirage, an illusion.  It all goes down unto death and “there is nothing new under the sun.”   Is Qoheleth being too pessismistic, or just being a realist?   I think he raises an important question, which is:   What is the purpose, then, of work?”   Why bother?    And I think Qoheleth gives an answer that is often overlooked.

For an achievement-oriented society such as ours, I think that the question of the purpose of work is a one we need to attend to and to seek  for an answer.   Qoheleth speaks persuasively to those with great and ambitious plans for success, who are ripe for disillusionment, whether in the business world, a profession, politics, raising children, ministry, or academia.   He reminds us that in every vocation there is the personal struggle to make progress that can bring one to the brink of burnout and despair.    Qoheleth reminds us that:   It is all too easy to fall into the trap of pinning one’s hopes on our human capacity to fulfill our dreams and goals, no matter how lofty and worthy, only to have those hopes sacrificed upon the altar of meaninglessness and failure and loss.   When we do this we are “chasing the wind!”

Qoheleth is NOT saying that one should not have goals and objectives, but that THE DANGER LIES IN ATTACHING PERSONAL FULFILLMENT TO THE END RESULT OF THESE GOALS AND OBJECTIVES.

He is saying that not much endures, but endurance is not the true test of our work.   If that is the case, what is the test of our work?   Qoheleth says it is for the joy of just using our skills and abilities and living day by day.      He is NOT saying that work is pointless and therefore to be avoided.  He IS saying that work should be enthusiastically and vigorously engaged in.   Listen to him:   “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might.”  (Eccl 9:10)

Qoheleth IS SAYING:  Our achievements through our work ought to be enjoyed for their own sake, for how they fill our days, and how they celebrate our God-given gifts for creativity and productivity.  IF YOUR WORK IS SOMETHING YOU DO IN ORDER TO GET SOMETHING ELSE, THIS WILL LEAD TO FRUSTRATION AND DESPAIR, Quoheleth says, ENJOY IT AS AN END INITSELF, AND THERE IS YOUR REWARD. THE REWARD IS NOT IN THE ENDURANCE OF YOUR ACTIVITY FOREVER, BUT IN THE ACTIVITY ITSELF.

Let’s face it, most of the trouble we have with our work is when we fail to keep our work in its place.   We become obsessive, presuming to secure ourselves and define ourselves through our work.   How much do we define ourselves by what we do?  What happens when we can no longer do it?   If we have defined ourselves personally by our work, then when we cease to be able to work  we become nothing.  We’ve been chasing the wind!!   PEOPLE ARE NOT WHAT THEY DO, THEY ARE WHO THEY ARE—living beings created in the image of God and blessed with his love and grace.

Qoheleth reminds us that since what we produce by our work is mere “chasing the wind” that comes to nothing, then we should just enjoy the simple pleasures of life, the day-to-day routine, the rhythm of it all, the good feeling of creating our little piece to add to  the whole picture of God’s plan for the world.    The Romans had a word for it—-carpe diem—-“seize the day”!!  Our achievements ought to be enjoyed for their own sake, for how they help fill our days, and for how they celebrate our God-given gifts and skills each day!

For example:   I like to do woodworking.   One of the things I have built is a grandfather clock.   I always wanted to do that when I retired!   I love my clock and I take great pleasure in looking at what I have created and listening to it chime.   I doubt that it will last forever.   It is not the greatest clock ever built, but I enjoyed building it!    Hopefully it will be kept in my family, but I have no guarantee of that.   It may wind up in an estate sale someday in the future.  It won’t last forever.   But I have taken a great deal of joy in its creation and in the using of my skills in woodworking to create it—and that is all that I can hope for, and that is enough!!  To do otherwise would only be “vanity” and “chasing after the wind!”.

To Love is to Risk!

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but the aura of “love” that it emphasizes remains in our hearts and  minds.    Alas, we have only one word in our English language to define love—and “love” can mean and can be many things!  Love is not just an idea; it’s not just a fuzzy warm feeling; love is an action word.   We cannot love without showing our love in our actions toward those we love.

The Apostle Paul tried to describe love  and its importance  to the Corinthian  church in I Corinthians 13 .   He wrote them that  love is:

  • patient
  • kind
  • not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude
  • It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth
  • love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
  • love never ends

This is not just a  “warm fuzzy feeling of the heart” Paul is talking about!    It is an “act of the will” that puts the other person—the one loved—ahead of the one doing the loving.

And what is Love for us today?  

  • It is keeping silent when our words would hurt another person.
  • It is patience when  our neighbor is being hateful.
  • It is empathy and compassion for another’s sorrows and woes.
  • It is promptness when duty calls.
  • It is the courage to reach out to someone when others draw back from them in disgust..
  • It is offering hope to those feeling that all is hopeless.
  • It is forgiveness for  those who have hurt us or wronged us.
  • It is a hug given to someone who is hurting.
  • It is a smile and a “hi” to a stranger.
  • It is putting other people’s needs ahead of our own needs.
  • It is, in summary, to make ourselves vulnerable as we relate to others.

Yes!    To love is difficult!   To love is risky!   To love another person is to make ourselves very vulnerable!   Those of us who have lost loved ones can testify to that fact.   But the alternative of not loving isn’t  a good one, as C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves (1960)  wrote:  To love at all is to be vulnerable.   Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully,  avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.   But in that casket—-safe, dark, motionless, airless—-it will change.  Your heart will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Jesus reminded his followers during his ministry that  people would know that they were his disciples by the love they had for each other.   What Jesus said then is true today.  People today are drawn to God by the love that Jesus’ followers show to each other and to the world.  

Take the risk—love!  Love is an action word—-do it!!

Where’s the Tether???!

Sometimes I think the morality of  our western culture, especially in the United States, resembles zero-gravity—everything not tied down is coming loose.   Some have called this a “zero-morality” culture, with no tethers to hold us back from the abyss of despair and meaninglessness.   We are adrift in this world like an astronaut without a tether in space.  A large share of our culture has lost the tether of the church  and God’s word  that in previous times has  guided us and we  now rely on ourselves to make decisions.     Those decisions, made on the basis of our self-interest,  leave us  in a stormy world without a mooring—a tether.   We seem to be spinning out of control with nothing to guide us.   

As we are left to our own devices, the Seven Deadly Sins appear to guide our decisions and actions.   Remember them?   Gluttony, Greed, Envy, Idleness, Lust, Anger and Pride These seem to be hallmarks of our culture in the U.S.

  1. GLUTTONY.  Gluttony means a lot more than just sneaking off too often to sample the 11 secret herbs and spices at KFC.   Gluttony, at base, is doing anything to excess.    It is an approach to life that knows no boundaries and honors no limits.   Gluttony turns our appetites into our rulers—that appetiite might be food—it might be power—it might be sex—it might be money—it even might be golf.    We see this in a culture of wanting more and more and more—-more clothes, more “totys”, more cars, larger houses, etc. etc.   More than we will ever need!
  2. GREED.    Closely related to gluttony, greed is what we used to call “avarice.”   It is not so much the love of possessions as it is the love of possessing.   As we exist in a money-driven culture where the bottom line is what is most important  and profits are more important than people—-Greed is at the bottom of much that is wrong with our culture.   We live in a culture that values money over people.   Money over right and wrong.   Always wanting more and more because we place value in our culture on what we own, not who we are.   Money is power-–money and power are “tighter than ticks together.”   In business, we see money as causing immorality, cheating, and lying to get ahead in business and in our lives.
  3. ENVY.  Envy is what happens when we constantly compare ourselves with others.    It is the basis of backbiting (tearing down someone else to build ourselves up), gossiping, bigotry, and vanity.   When envy rules our lives we are always feeling insecure and our insecurity is compensated for by making those we envy seem less and less so that we feel superior to them.
  4. IDLENESS.  Idleness is sluggishness of spirit that “believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and remains alive because there is nothing for which to die” as Dorothy Sayers once wrote.   The idle person expects everyone else to take care of  him or her and will not move a muscle to take care of themselves.   The old version is SLOTH.
  5. LUST.  Lust is the perversion of what is good into something that is evil, based on our selfishness.   At the base of Lust and driving it is selfishness and the ego.   Someone has said that an acronymn for EGO is “Edging God Out”.   Lust is extreme selfishness in action.
  6. ANGER.   W.C. Fields once said, “I am free of all prejudice, I hate everyone equally.”   Anger is the harboring of grievances that demand revenge and develop into hatred.   It is a seething rage that circulates through our bodies into our post-modern culture in ever increasing amounts.   It comes out in murder and rape but is also present in attacks on minority groups, the poor, the homeless.   Our culture is filled with anger and that is behind all the violence that occurs in it.   Read the newspapers and decide just how much anger there is in our world.   Pent-up anger comes out in deadly ways all the time—every day.
  7. PRIDE.    The last, but definitely not the least!   Someone has defined pride as “people getting drugged on the fumes of their own ego.”  I recently read an example of this in a person saying to another person “but enough about me!  let’s talk about you.  what do you think of me?”   Pride is when our own ego is in control of all that we say and do—-IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.”     There are all kinds of ways that pride emerges:   it may be a “need to-control” pride.   It may be a “self-centeredness that comes through low self-esteem.  Religious pride is the worst kind of pride.  I read somewhere the saying “Have you ever seen a prodigal come home to a Pharisee?”   Religious pride turns away the very people that God calls to.

WHAT IS THE ANSWER?    WHERE CAN WE TURN?   WHERE IS A TETHER THAT WE CAN GRAB ONTO AND HELP OUR CULTURE AND OUR OWN LIVES AVOID SPINNING OUT OF CONTROL?   I suggest the TETHER is  found in these words of Jesus:   “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.   This is the tether that we need to firmly grasp and that  needs to be thrown to a culture that is spinning out of control.   Love of God and of neighbor  is what we need to base our decisions on.   Try it!   Proclaim it!    

They’re watching you!

“You probably don’t remember me—I was one of the “roadies”—the “stoned canyon road” bunch —-referring  to a group who hung out on a road south of the high school to smoke cigarettes, and I suspect other things. 

Shortly before I retired from teaching I received an unexpected letter from a  woman who had been a student  in my southern California high school U.S. History class over 20 years earlier.      She wrote that she wanted me to know that she had married, raised a family, and then had gone back to college and was completing her degree to become a teacher.   And she wrote to  tell me that I was the teacher who had influenced her to go into teaching as a profession because she had never forgotten what I did and how I helped her and she wanted to do the same for others!   

We often never know who are actions and words have influenced for good or for evil.   In her case I am grateful for her letting me know but at a loss as to what I said or did that influenced her.

Human beings are imitators.   Despite all of our insistence on our uniqueness and individualism at the present time—-we are imitators.   That’s how we learn to talk–-we imitate our parents and others who take care of us and learn from them—-if they speak Spanish our language becomes Spanish, if Russian  then our language is Russian.   for most of us our language is English—that’s what our parents spoke and we imitated them!   That is how we learned to talk!   That is how we learned to walk––if for some strange reason our parents had walked around on both their hands and feet that’s the way we would walk!

We pattern our lives after those around us.   We reflect them, their values, their ideas, their personal characteristics, etc.   We are a reflection—an imitation—-of the significant people in our lives, unless we take intentional steps to be otherwise.  

As we pattern our lives after those around us, it is rather scary to realize that those around us pattern their lives after us.   Dad-–your children are watching and listening to you to find out what it means to be a Dad.   What are your actions and words teaching your children.   Mom–-your children are watching and listening to you to find out what it means to be a Mom.   They will pattern their lives after you.   What you say and do will be an indelible part of their life pattern.   What are you teaching them?

  • When we explode in anger at a motorist and give them the middle finger as you dangerous cut in front of them—-they are watching.  They are learning how to drive.
  • When we take time to take a homeless man and get him a meal at the local McDonalds—-they are watching.  They are learning how to care.
  • When we use “gutter language” your children are listening.  They will pattern their language after us.
  • When we tell our wife how much we love and care for her,  our children are listening.  They are learning about love and the language of love.
  • When we share your feelings of hurt and cry over an injustice to someone,  they are learning it is o.k. to cry if we or someone else is hurting.

There is a story that may or may not have happened, but it illustrates my point perfectly and I’m sure it could have happened:   A police officer made a traffic stop of lady in a nice new car.   He demanded to see her driver’s license and registration.    When he returned to her car and handed them back, the lady said indignantly:   “Why did you stop me?   I wasn’t speeding.   I didn’t go through any red lights!   The officer replied:   “No you didn’t do any of those things, but I saw you yelling obscenities at the man in the car in front of you at the traffic light because he didn’t move quickly enough when the light turned green.   I also saw you pass someone and honk your horn and give them the middle finger because they were going to slow for you and then rudely cut in on them..    Then I saw your bumper sticker that says:   ‘JESUS LOVES YOU’,  and I figured that the person driving this car  must be driving a  stolen car!”

Not only our children, but others are watching us all the time.   They may be looking for someone to pattern their life after.    What patterns are we showing them?

After whom are we patterning our lives?   Who are we imitating?  Are we trying to be imitators of Jesus the Christ?    What would happen if we really imitated Jesus?   Remember that the historical Jesus was a radical!    If we were to follow Jesus we would find ourselves in difficult places.

We would be:

  • Championing the underdogs of the world and what are considered lost causes.
  • Identifying with some of the “worst” people in society whose behavior raises the eyebrows of pious churchgoers and the communities we live in.
  • Following Jesus into prisons and halfway houses, into night clubs and dance halls, into AA meetings and AIDS hospices.
  • Trying to reclaim lives for God’s love and acceptance that have been rejected by the “nicer sort” of the populace.
  • Constantly praying and listening to the Spirit of God to know what is right and just in this world—even when it flies in the face of the usual standards and practices
  • Loving the unlovely and the unloving because they are God’s children.

A. Alves, the South American theologian, once said that “we could draw a map of any city that would show where Jesus would be if he were living in our time in that city.   There would be two areas of the city where we might find him.  ONE would be the parks and wooded areas where he would go to pray.  THE OTHER would be the sections of the city with the greatest pain and humiliation––the hospitals and bars and prisons and tenements and crack houses, and maybe some of the high schools .   Jesus would be in one of these two areas making the world more whole and more compassionate.    

Let us be imitators of Jesus!