Tag Archives: God’s love

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

                                                                               

 

 

                                                                                                       

 

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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”.

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!!

Questions for God

If you had one question that you would like God to answer what would that question be?    My hospice Social Worker posed this question to me this week and I must admit that I did not have an answer.   She did, and told me what her question would be .   I will respect her privacy and not reveal it,  but it was a good question.

I was reminded of a patient I had as a hospice chaplain.   This patient (who I will call “Chuck”) was experiencing the ravishes of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).   The disease had struck him at a young age in his late thirties’  and had moved rather quickly in his case.     He had lost all movement ability except his head and was confined to a nursing home.  He was bitter about his life.   On one of my visits I remember him saying “Chaplain,  when I die and see God, I have just one question I want to ask.   I asked him what his question would be and he replied with a single word:   WHY?

Like many people do, Chuck was blaming God for his disease.    How often people blame God for the bad things that happen to them but fail to thank God for the good things in their life!   I myself do not think that a God of love who wants relationship with his children would cause harm to them.  Instead I believe in a God who weeps with us when disease and harm befalls us and encourages us and is there giving us strength to deal with the pain that is our lot as humans beings.  And I think that scripture backs me up in both the Old and New Testaments that God is a God of love and forgiveness:

For example:Read Psalm 27 and 34.   Read Isaiah 35:3-10    Read Matthew 11:28-30    Read II Corinthians 4:16 -5:2.  Read Revelation 21:1-4

I haven’t decided what my question will be.   What is your question?   I would love for you to share it with me and with those who follow this blog.

 

Practicing What We Preach

Yesterday I spent an hour with my hospice Chaplain.    I shared my concern about “leaving things hanging”,  and gave her an example of where my files are and my loved ones not being able to find them.   Before she could reply,  my son spoke up and said;   ‘Don’t worry about those things,  Dad,  we don’t want you  to spend your time shuffling files and papers—we’d rather spend the time with you  and we’ll  find what we need when we need it.

That led to a discussion about “letting go” of our anxieties.   My chaplain asked me to tell her a time that I felt God working in my life.   I gave her an example from the time of my first wife’s death.      She fell and in a week died of severe brain bleed.  It was so sudden that I had a hard time dealing with it because I was dealing with a situation that I couldn’t fix.   At one point I remember crying and telling God “help me, I can’t do this alone”!!    And a sense of peace came over me that let me know that God was present and would help me cope with my grief.   That moment changed my relationship with God forever…I truly knew God was in that room!! I felt  his presence.

As the chaplain left she gave me this advice:    “You need to take all of your anxieties and give them to God.     Let go of your anxieties and put your trust in God !”

How many times I have given this advice to people who are approaching end of life, both in the role of a hospice chaplain and a pastor?—yet I had not done it myself.   I realized I need to practice what I preach!

I think there is a lesson for all of us,  particularly ministers,perhaps,  but really it should be a lesson for all Christians.    The lesson is that if we really believe God is a God of love and is present in our lives we should put our trust in God in all things.   Our anxiety means we are not doing this.  We are not trusting God.

We need to read again what Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew, chapter six, when he told his disciples to consider the birds of the air who do not toil or spin, and yet God takes care of them.    He tells his disciples that if God does this for birds, why will he not also take care of you for you are worth many birds to God.

We Need Each Other

All human beings live under the illusion they  are the ones who are in control of their lives.  Especially Americans see themselves as “rugged individualists” who have a “I can do it by myself and don’t need anyone else to help me”attitude.    This even shows up in our attitude toward church in the  feeling that “I  don’t need the church.  I can have my own personal relationship with God without s bunch of sinners around me who are more messed up than me. ”  These people say “I am not religious, I’m spiritual’.

This illusion is exposed when we face end of life.     I am seeing how illusory the attitude is as I grow more and more dependent on hospice and on  those I love     There are many things I can’t do and my wife and son Greg are always there to help me.   Without them I would be in a nursing home already—-but with them with me and with hospice  I am able to be home in surroundings I love.  I am loved and cared for by others  and am very blessed with a church family  who visits, sends cards a .  I am  seeing how false the illusion of “individualism”is as I get telephone calls and cards from friends and loved ones both in the church and outside the church.

We are born to live in relationship with others.    We started as babies completely dependent on our parents for a long period of time., and  many of us end our lives in the same way—dependent on those who love us.  All of our lives we need relationships.   We are created in the image of God who wants relationship with us—-  Love is a relationship word and cannot be limited anymore than God can be limited .   Love is shown only through action in relationship to others;

We need others in our lives if we love God.   God is not completely loved by us until we love our neighbors., because they are all God’s children.    It is the role of the church to provide those relationships and to encourage us to develop relationships with God and our fellow human beings.  To those who who say  “I have a personal relationship with God and that’s all I need” I would say “stop fooling yourself.”    You cannot fully love God if you don’t fully love  your neighbors., God’s children, made in God’s image.

God  works with these neighbors to provide his love and care to you.     They actually are the deliverers of God’s grace.   You cannot receive God’s love and care on a bank with a fishing pole in your hand.   You receive God’s love through others who love God and are recipients of God’s love and grace.

What is Life All About?

Maybe we don’t think about this question and all the questions it generates until we face the end of  our life.    Then the questions come quickly!  What have I accomplished by my life?   Have I been successful?   Has my life made a difference?   For whom?    How do I want to be remembered?    What legacy have I left behind?    When people think of me after I’m gone, if they do, what will they think about? In general, what meaning does my life have?

As one who just went on hospice this week, I think I can speak to this topic with a far deeper insight than I could  have done two weeks ago……

I’ve had a great life!   My office walls contain many awards, commendations,  mementos; three higher education degrees (a Bachelor of Arts and 2 Master’s degrees),   Recently on my 80th birthday reception more than 100 people from all over Kansas showed up to celebrate with me.  They included extended family, friends, colleagues in ministry, etc.–.     I have enjoyed a wonderful loving and caring relationship with my wife Kay the past 4+ years.   She has a deep love for God and a deep love for me that doesn’t stop when the going gets rough, as it is now.  I am so blessed by her love.       In my lifetime  I’ve been able to travel to Russia and have memories and souvenirs from there, as well as traveling to Alaska and other parts of the U.S.       I’ve had reasonably good health up to the last year which enabled me to remain active..    I’ve served many churches  as pastor and earned from them the title I appreciate the most—pastor.    I have awards in both education, including membership in the educational fraternity, Phi Delta Kappa and am listed in Who’s Who in Education. after 30+ years of teaching in high school and college.  In Christian ministry I have the “Honored Minister’s pin: and am a “Minister Emeritus in the region of Kansas—-all highly significant awards.

But what I want to express here is my most important possession, although it is not  really a possession.     I am loved!       I am loved by God;  I am loved by my wife;   I am loved by my children and grandchildren; I am loved by my step-children and step-grandchildren and by many of my  former students and parishioners and by people I have worked with in both the regional church and the  individual parishes I have served.

As I contemplate it, my life has been surrounded by love and all of the accomplishments that I could have made—-are all built around that LOVE.    By the love and support I have received.  Everything I have accomplished has been because someone loved and supported me.   To give every instance as an example would be to write my biography.    However, two of the accomplishments that I am most proud of that  are built around love are my son and daughter.   They came out of  love for my first wife Dee, they were raised knowing that we loved them.    I remember a conversation with them a few years back when I said—“you know we didn’t always do things right when we were raising you—-we made a lot of mistakes.”   Their reply was that the mistakes were not that  important to them now.  What was important they said was that they always knew they were loved and we were there for them when they needed it.  Both of these children are now independent, loving and caring individuals.   They are an accomplishment of love.

The apostle Paul wrote in the 13th chapter of II Corinthians these well-known words.   They apply so well to what I am truing to say:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.   And if 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…..

Put love at the center of your life.   Give it and receive it freely.   It is the most important possession that  life can give you.   Love is the source of all the meaningful accomplishments you make in life.  THEY COME FROM LOVE FOR GOD AND LOVE FOR OTHERS.  AND WHEN YOU PUT LOVE AT THE CENTER OF YOUR LIFE YOU PUT GOD THERE   BECAUSE  GOD IS LOVE.