Category Archives: Pastoral Concerns

Those relating to pastoring and being a pastor of a church

Itch-Scratching Christianity

 

Text:  Mark 10:46-52                                                                                      

I’m sure you’ve seen the ad on TV where the elderly lady has fallen and is yelling “Help!  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”    It is an advertisement for a Life Line button and support system.    Many people laugh at the ad—-and it is a little over-acted—-but if you have been in that position you would not find it laughable

    The word “help” is one of the hardest words for Americans to voice.   Most people would rather crawl out into the street than call for help.   There are many reasons for this.  

  • We were never taught how to ask for help and have few role models to follow.
  • We love our independence and the “American Way” is to be a “rugged individualist”, taking care of our own problems.
  • We are afraid to ask as we’d rather die than have people think we can’t take care of ourselves.
  • We are afraid that we will “bother” people with our requests. I have been told many times by parishioners that “I didn’t want to bother you with my problem, as I know you are very busy.”   To which I always respond by saying—-if I’m ever too busy to stop and share people’s problems, then I should get out of the ministry!

Blind Bartimeaus had no such qualms about asking for help, and his story teaches us a lesson about asking for help and the meaning of faith and trust.    The greatest lesson he teaches us is that God’s healing should lead to discipleship. 

 Have you ever been completely unable to see?    Although I haven’t experienced it, it must be terrifying. To not be able to see is to be completely vulnerable.   To not be able to see means you have to trust others to help you and to look out for you.    In one of my courses in  Counseling Psychology, one of the exercises we did to experience the need for trust was a trust exercise where a person stood behind us and we closed our eyes and fell backward.   It required trust of the one who would catch you for otherwise you would end up with a very large bump on the back of your head.    Another exercise asked us to blindfold ourselves and let someone lead us through an unknown territory.    We were completely dependent on the person leading us to keep us from stumbling and falling over various obstacles in our path.   It gave me a glimpse of what blindness would be like.

  Blind people have much to teach us about trust and faith—-and the blind beggar Bartimeaeus teaches us about faith and trust through his story that we read in the Gospel of Mark today.

Bartimaeus was a blind beggar.    He had no choice of what to do, as begging was the only way to provide for himself.     He was sitting by the roadside as the crowd  of Jesus and his disciples  approached as they made  their way out of Jericho going up to Jerusalem.    When he heard that Jesus was about to pass by, without hesitation and without any sense of embarassment, Bartimaeus began to shout:   “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”    The crowd around him may have thought that he was making a scene and tried to silence him,, but he continued to shout until Jesus asked that he be brought to him.   Bartimaeus was blind and the only way he could hope for a productive life was to regain his sight.   He knew his need, but notice that he didn’t lead with his need for sight, but rather his need to be seen by Jesus.  

He shouted “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner”  and not “have mercy on me,   a blind man.”  Bartimaeus seemed to understand that his vision was not only clouded but that he needed spiritual healing as well.   He opened himself to the possibility that his healing might be physical or spiritual, with an outside chance that it might be both.  

 One of the first things I learned in counseling psychology was that people have a “presenting problem” and an underlying “real problem.”    Bartimaeus seemed to realize that while his “presenting problem” was blindness; his “real problem” might be more than physical blindness.   He cried “have mercy on me, a sinner!”  He realized that Jesus could do something about the things that bind him, as well as blind him.And Jesus responded by asking him:   “What do you want me to do for you.”?   And Bartimaeus responded by saying:  “My teacher, let me see again.”   (not “heal my blindness”)  and Jesus responded:  “Go, your faith has made you well.”   (The Greek word for “healing” can also be translated “saving”).   God’s healing saves us.  And immediately his sight was restored and he followed Jesus as a disciple on the Way to Jerusalem in grateful response.    He had more than his eyesight restored—-he was saved by the contact with Jesus.    God healed him through Jesus both physically and spiritually.

And this is where we have a problem today.    I fear that too many Christians are “healed” and then just go on their way and not on The Way of Jesus in discipleship. Once we have been healed we go the way that so many people in Jesus day went—on their own way,  not on the way of discipleship.  Think of all the people Jesus healed—-the leper in Galilee, the roof-destroying friends of the paralytic; the man with a withered hand, the Gerasene demoniac,  the 7 lepers (  only one of whom returned to thank Jesus); and so on and on.   They were healed and went their way and never are heard of again in scripture.    Blind Bartimaeus was different—-he followed Jesus as a disciple on the way to Jerusalem and death and resurrection.

       And this is the problem that we have in our present times.     The church as the body of Christ on earth has been turned into an “itch-scratcher”.     There is a church I read about with a large sign in front of it that illustrates my point.

      One week the advertisement was “Lonely?” then come to our church.  The next week the sign said:   “Depressed?”   Come to our church.   “Anxious?”    Come to our church.   Every week a different malady.   Every week the promise that Jesus could fix it. 

      This is what I call a “Where-does-it-itch” style of Christian ministry.   You tell us, the church, where you itch, what needs you have, the  church exists to scratch where you itch.   An example of this is given by preacher William Willimon, recalling a conference he was at where the speaker, a well known television evangelist said:   “God wants to meet every one of your needs in life.   Whatever your heart desires, bring it to the Lord in prayer”.   He then illustrated this conviction of divine beneficence by telling of a woman of his acquaintance who, when she had been unable to find a part of her favorite red shoes, prayed to God and….there were her shoes, right under her bed!

     Our church here wants to grow—-and it is tempting to do as one church grown consultant wrote:   “Go out into your neighborhood and find out what people need.   Child care?   Elder care?   After school programs?   Then begin those programs.   Churches who meet needs grow.”    

     And many of our churches do this and wonder why the people whose needs they provided for don’t become a part of their church.   Jesus could have asked the same question—-all of the people who Jesus helped—-where were they?    They went on their way—many times without saying thank you to Jesus.  

What churches need to do is not just “scratch the itch” but to make disciples of those whose needs they are trying to meet.   What people in the world today need is not “fixing” but transformation as they relate to God and follow the way that Jesus walked                                                                                                      

Persons who have been touched by Jesus healing and have a personal relationship with God through Jesus,  cannot just be “takers” but also need to be “givers”.    If you have truly been touched by the salvation and healing of God and have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, you will do the same thing that Bartimaeus did—–you will follow on the Way.   Bartimaeus alone among the other hurting, oppressed, victimized, suffering, hungry ones, became a disciple.   He had the ability to see, even when he couldn’t see, what Jesus was really about. 

The story of the healing and the response of Bartimaeus invites us to ask:   What do I want from Jesus?   We look at Jesus, and too many of us see him as a solution to all our problem, freedom from our aches and cares, a magic want waved over our lives to fix everything.  Too many of our churches begin with the selfish invitation to let Jesus fix our needs and never follow through with the selfless invitation to love and serve God and our neighbor as ourselves.   Jesus makes a claim on our lives.   This is the same Jesus that said:   “He who would be first must be the servant of all.”    This is the Jesus who said:   “He who would save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”    This is the Jesus who said:   “If anyone would be my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”   The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross.    It is the way of discipleship.

     The real questions here are:  Is Jesus our Lord, or our errand boy?   Are we his faithful followers or only his pestering clients?      A better question to ask is:   What does Jesus want from us.    And the answer Bartimaeus gives us—-follow Jesus on The Way.  

     What is “The Way”?    

It is the way of discipleship.    It is calling us to a life of service.    It is the way that Jesus walked when he was on earth.   It is the way of LOVE of God and neighbor and not just yourself.

     There is a great gap between meeting people’s needs and calling them to discipleship.   The churches that truly grow are the ones that invite people to discipleship—-to a transforming relationship with God through Christ.   Amen

                                                                               

 

 

                                                                                                       

 

Merit Badge Religion

Most of us think that in some way we must do something to earn God’s love and forgiveness in order to become a Christian and qualify for heaven after we die.  I like to refer to that as “Merit Badge” religion and  it has little to do with what Jesus taught and lived.  When I was a Boy Scout leader, the boys who won the coveted rank of Eagle Scout were those who won a large number of  merit badges and completed a useful project for the community. It was what they knew and what they were able to do that won the award.  “Merit badge religion” is the result of the church being taken over by the American culture.   In this culture we attain superiority  by competing well: by being the most knowledgeable and highest educated; by improved morality and improved behavior.  We worship success in our culture  and believe that we get what  we deserve  by what we work hard for and therefore are worthy of.

We have transferred these same principles to our churches.  So to have the right informed knowledge about God; to  know the Bible through deep study  and to  behave morally and ethically according to its perceived teachings;   and to practice the  correct rites  of worship,  communion,  baptism,  plus giving our money in acts of  stewardship we will competitively qualify for heaven . We earn it.  It  is by what we know and what we do  that qualifies us.    And therein is the problem .Note I refer to it as “religion”  not “Christianity”

 

Our Christian spiritual lives and our churches are too often  based on this same sort of religious meritocracy. For example:

  • Being able to recite Bible memory verses
  • Going to church every Sunday
  • Attending Sunday school
  • Having the “correct beliefs” by understanding and defending the church’s creed
  • Being a “good” person
  •  Praying
  • Being baptized in the “correct” way
  • Taking communion
  • t These are admirable, I will concede, but none will earn us a seat at the Lord’s table in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus makes it very clear that ONLY GOD’S GRACE can do that and it has already been given to us.  All we need to do is be aware of God’s saving love and forgiveness.   It is freely given and there is no way God’s Grace can be earned.

The problem with “Merit Badge” Christianity is that it bases our entry into God’s Kingdom on what we do  and as the New Testament says and Jesus proclaimed it is all up to God’s grace.   “Merit Badge” Christianity says we must work, labor, sweat and learn, and do more to gain a place in God’s Kingdom. The opposite is true! God gives us his Kingdom. Nothing we do on our own can gain us entrance.

Jesus did not say “Blessed are the brightest and the best”

He said:   “Blessed are the poor for to them is the Kingdom of God”.

To Live is to Learn — The World Is My Classroom

For me, “to live is to learn” in the great classroom we call “the world.”  When I reach the point where this is no longer true for me it will be time for me to permanently check out of this life.

This great classroom is full of things to be learned. The physical world around me with all of its beauty and splendor;  the world of ideas in history; in philosophy; in  biography; in theology and spirituality and religion and in science. I am also constantly learning from the people I’m surrounded by and interact with.  All are also part of the great classroom I inhabit day after day.

I always have been an avid reader and my interests are varied and widespread. For example, currently I’m reading a book by Walter Brueggemann Out of Babylon that compares the Jewish exiles living under the domination system of Babylon to Christians in the U.S. living under  the domination system of American empire. Both try to answer the basic question How do we retain  our identity as Jews or Christians under the domination systems we are currently living under?   I’m  currently reading Breathing Under Water by Richard Rohr, which is about the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous applied to Christian spirituality. I just finished a biography of President George Herbert Walker Bush, The Power and the Destiny (a book on tape that was read to me, which was 625 pages in length), and another biography of John Newton, famous for his life as a slave trading sea captain and begin transformed by his conversion to Christ. He wrote the wonderful hymn Amazing Grace to describe that transformation. I’m now listening to a book on tape, The Indigenous Peoples of North America.

Besides books, I learn each day from people who visit me–my ministers, my family, my friends, my hospice team–They are all part of my classroom.

I learn from the media as they report and editorialize on the news of the day. Programs such as: PBS Newshour, Washington Week, CBS’s 60 Minutes and the morning and evening news programs.

I long ago crossed the threshold of learning because I had to do so (as at school) to learning because I loved to do so.  That is the true test of success for our educators  today.  It is “to enable children to emerge from schools with the life-long desire and love of learning, while having the tools to do so.

As students go back to classrooms this Autumn, I pray that teachers, administrators, board members and legislators keep this lofty goal always in their minds. We need to produce students who strive to and love to learn–not because it is necessary to pass some test, but because it is necessary to satisfy the craving to learn that is a trait of all people if it is not smothered out by those who are preparing them.

What the World Needs Now is Love

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love;  it’s the only thing there is just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  No, not just for some, but for everyone….”      Diana Ross sang this top selling record in 1965  as the nation was deep in the quagmire of Vietnam and  the nation was being ripped apart by internal disagreements over the war and the Civil Rights Movement.   This was the decade that saw the assassinations of  John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was a turbulent decade.   It was a violent decade.   It was much like the decade of which we are now a part.

I think about death a lot these days.   It seems it is always lurking around the corner and ready to pounce on me when I least expect it.  But I do not fear it because I believe in a loving God who will receive me as a father receives his child—with open arms and unconditional love.  In the Parable of the Prodigal  Son Jesus  told of this kind of love and in the Sermon on the Mount he tells how we need to love others unconditionally in the same way the Father (God) loved the Prodigal Son.  In the Sermon he says:

“You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and  hate your enemy’, but I say to you ‘ Love your enemies  and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your father in Heaven.'”   (Matthew 5:43-44)

In a world torn by hatred and violence; divided by LGBT gender issues; fearful of each othere to mass shootings and listening to the prophets of hatred and gloom;  where the rich grow richer at the expense of the poor; where children go to bed hungry every night while surrounded by plenty; torn by differences in religion and race—-the solution of love is the only solution.

The word ‘love’ in English can have many definitions.   The Greek and Hebrew languages do a much better job in defining a more precise meaning.   The  Hebrew word ‘hesed’ is always used to express God’s unconditional love for his children.  In Greek there are several words we translate in English as love.  

In Greek, eros is the word for physical love and sexual love.   philos is the Greek for love of brother and sister— love for family members.  The Greek word  agape is translated “love”  and is the Greek word for unconditional love—love that loves with no expectation of return.  This is unconditional love-— the love that loves us  regardless of any return of love by us.   This is the way God loves us and the way we are told by Jesus to love our neighbor in the Great Commandment:   You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul,mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself.    

What we need in this fractured and torn world today is LOVE.   UNCONDITIONAL LOVE.    We have tried the other ways—power  as military  and economic might;   hatred;   exclusion by building walls to shut others out; arming everyone to carry guns. How have they worked for us?   Not well!    The only solution we have not tried is  Unconditional Love.  Such Love put into action is a mighty force.    Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahtma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assissi and Jesus all lived by this kind of love and were a mighty force for change in their time.  They practiced agape love to the best of their ability.   Although severely and hurtfully opposed by the forces of power, in some cases jailed, beaten, and finally for King and Ghandi assassination and death—their lives and work remain a testament that love in action is a mighty force to change a fractured and torn world toward a more just and peaceful world.

Love is important!  It is what the dangerous, hurting, hatred and strife-turned world needs.   Have you ever considered what would happen if the United States used even half of the billions and billions spent on maintaining our military might and developing the means to kill our enemies to show  our love to them ?   Never underestimate the power of love to change enemies to friends.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love;

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. 

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

No, not just for some, but for everyone!!

Needed: A Cultural Sea-Change

In a recent post written about the mass shootings in America and the escalation of violence in our country,  I wrote that every time there is a shooting those who are leaders—mayors, police chiefs, governors, all the way up to the President of the United States say:   “This is enough —this must stop.”  But it does not stop—-and it won’t  stop until there is a sea-change in our culture.  What might that cultural change look like?  I’d like for you to think about that with me today….

One of the major changes must be in how we define success.  WE MUST HAVE A NEW DEFINTION OF SUCCESS.

Our current culture defines success as power.  It scorns failure, powerlessness, and any form of poverty.  It rejects all human vulnerability and seeks dominance instead.  Our definition and image of success is POWER.  Our political leaders in the current election are seeking to project a strong, secure, invulnerable image of power and control.   Dominance is what the American people are demanding and what Trump is exploiting  when he calls for “making America great again.”

What is the change in definition of success that we need?   It is found in the Gospel—the good news that Jesus brought, taught, and modeled for the world through his life and ministry.  We have thoroughly missed the gospel message about the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought as seen, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (cf Matthew 6 and 7).  He brought his message to a culture like ours that was dominated by Rome.   The Romans worshiped power and maintained their power with the sword and with fear.   They punished those who rebelled against them by hanging them on crosses for days until they died by sword.   They called Caesar their god and among the gods they worshiped were Jupiter—the god of the thunderbolt and Mars, the god of war.  Into this harsh and fearful world Jesus brought a different way to live as a society.

The Sermon on the Mount praises those who his society looked down on.   “Blessed are the Poor”  he taught—not the rich but those on the bottom of the social ladder.  “Blessed are the Meek”—not the strong and powerful but those who are weak and vulnerable.   “Blessed are the merciful” —those who show mercy to the poor and vulnerable rather than trampling them under foot.  “Blessed are the peacemakers”—not the generals who wage war but those who seek peace over the destructiveness of war and strife in society.   “You have heard that it was said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you;  Do not resist an evildoer  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.’ ”  You have heard that it was said ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ but I say go you:  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

This is a completely different way of living and turns strength and domination way on its head. It is a sea change in the status quo. True success would be a nation where poverty ceases to exist; where there are no children going to bed hungry; where people receive adequate medical care as needed; where laws are passed to benefit the common good and not just the few who are rich; where civility is practiced and people listen to each other; where color of skin and language spoken and religion practiced make no difference; where those who lead are servants of all and people are honored for strength of character and not for the money they make or the power they have;  where love and compassion are freely practiced; and where people help others rather than scorn their helplessness.

We today have thoroughly missed the point as did Jesus’ followers .   That is why Jesus says in Matthew 21:31 that “prostitutes, drunkards, and  tax collectors (hated in Jesus’ time) are getting into the Kingdom of God before the chief priests and religious elders.”

This is not an easy prescription to heal a hurting and hostile world. It will be achieved gradually and only as we turn to God for God’s strength and aid.  Jesus warned his disciples of the difficulty of the changes needed to live in the Kingdom of God on earth when he said “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction and many take it,  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life and few there there are who find it”. But Jesus also told his disciples “with God, nothing is impossible.”

GOP Convention: The Epitome of Hypocrisy

I believe that the epitome of hypocrisy was seen this past week when the GOP convention leaders asked Governor Kasich to  waive the open carry law in Ohio so that their national convention could be gun-free.   It appears that when it is their lives that are endangered by guns  they suddenly become gun control advocates while denying the same protection to others.  I was bemused that Kasich used their own G.O.P. position in replying  that current federal  law and the U.S. Constitution does not allow a governor to do so.

Their request for a ‘no-gun’ convention flies in the face of the GOP’s  current legislative position, which is to not even allow debate on any bill that would curb the right to bear arms–including any type of arms or ammunition such as AR-15s and  armor-piercing shells with extended magazines.   It is the epitome of hypocrisy that the G.O.P. convention goers do not want to operate under the rules they have set.

The G.O.P. and the “Trumpsters” are now reaping the results of what they have been sowing the past years after they took control of the legislative branch of government.  They have played the politics of fear to the hilt, they have sowed divisiveness and hatred.   They have refused compromise making governing almost impossible.   Now the country is reaping the results of their policies of negativity and advocacy of divisiveness.

In Donald Trump they have found a demagogue who will take their divisive and inflammatory causes to new heights and expose them to what happens.   Hand in hand with the NRA they have created a gun culture that leads to what we see is happening today in our country–an explosion of mass shootings in theaters, schools, malls, and other places that call for police protection which leads to calls for mass police intervention, which leads to further killing of police officers in ambush now these past two weeks. They have “sowed the wind” and are now “reaping the whirlwind.”

After each shooting event those in power say “This must stop!!”   but it doesn’t stop.   And it will not stop until there is a deep cultural change in this country away from the gun  culture and fear and disregard of human life to a culture that  values human life–that is inclusive of all and does not scapegoat  those who are different;  that sees all human life as sacred;  that practices respect for differences of opinion in politics and deals with difference of opinion without attacking the character of the one with whom we disagree;  in short; that lives the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor as we love ourselves.

The roots of the problem in America go far deeper than race relations to human relations.  If we continue to ‘sow the wind’  we will continue to “reap the whirlwind” as we are now experiencing! (Hosea 8:7)

The Vicious Circle of Fear

This has been a week of Violence. Two black men were senselessly murdered by police—one in Minnesota and one in Louisiana. Their deaths were recorded by cameras.   Although it is just Friday we got up today to read of 5 policemen slaughtered by a man with a high powered rifle who ambushed them in downtown Dallas, Texas while they were guarding peaceful protesters of the first two killings. In attempt to show the demonstrators they were there to protect and not harm they did not wear their body armor.  Police were the targets—-seven were wounded in addition to the five killed.

At the press conference this a.m. both the mayor of Dallas and the Chief of Police said the words we have heard many times before—-“this has got to stop” But it doesn’t stop and we need to make some fundamental changes in our culture before it will stop in my opinion. We must look at the cause of this mindless slaughter and it goes even deeper than racism.

The basic cause is FEAR.   For the last two decades the American people have been exposed to the politics of fear.   Politicians trying to gain political advantage;  the so-called “religious right” ;   radio commentators such as Glen Beck;  and Fox News,  to name a few of the many,  have all contributed   to this  culture of fear.  Added to this list is the influence of the social media as one of the main avenues of information—often false—and you have this toxic culture we live in  today.  It is a culture of fear!

The culmination of this fear culture we have been building and the major example of a person using this culture of fear to build political power is Donald Trump.  He has built his presidential  campaign on fear.   For example:  Mexican illegal aliens are invading our country and taking  American jobs—so build a  wall to keep them out and deport all illegals.   Or—do not allow Muslims who are seeking refuge in our country to enter  because some of them might be terrorists.  His rhetoric in campaign speeches is violent and is matched by violent supporters in the streets and at his rallies.

Franklin D Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech to the nation when our country was in the deepest part  of the Great Depression spoke words that are as relevant to our country today as they were to his listeners that were also  gripped by fear:  “Let me assert my firm belief,” he said, “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to retreat or advance….”

Anyone who studies human behavior will tell you that fear causes violence.   It is a kind of paranoia that causes us to want to strike first before we are hurt.  And it is part of a cycle—-fear always eventually leads to violence and then the violence causes even more fear. As the violence accelerates so does the fear and vice versa.

America is near the breaking point as it was when FDR spoke.   Just as major and revolutionary changes were made by FDR and the New Deal, so do some major and revolutionary changes need to be made now.    It cannot continue to be” business as usual”. We need new leadership and fresh ideas if we are to survive and not implode from within.

That is why this coming election selecting our leaders is so crucial!  If we choose those to lead us that do so by fear, this may be our last election!