Monday, November 30, 2009

Our Come-Back God

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 21: 25-36
1st Sunday of Advent, Year C
November 29th, 2009
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership

Our text for today begins with words which describe the terrible, horrifying and dreadful experience of the absence of God in the world:  
"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”
How would you describe the human experience of God’s absence in the world?   Words like “distress among nations,” being “confused” by the roaring of the sea and the waves”, “people fainting from fear,” and the “foreboding at what is coming”, are graphic, vivid descriptions which make God seem far away.  This is our human experience sometimes, isn’t it?  Can’t you remember how we all felt when we watched as the 2004 Tsunami hit the coasts of Thailand and Indonesia in the Indian Ocean?  Most of us wondered “Where was God” in that terrible tidal way of terror and destruction?   In the same way when the Twin Trade Towers fell in New York or when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levies broke and flooded the entire city, weren’t we all “distressed”, “confused”, somewhat “afraid” and “shaken?”    How are we feeling right now, as this economic crisis continues and who knows when it will end?

Only a couple of weeks ago in Fayetteville N.C., one of the largest Baptist Churches in North Carolina, Synder Memorial, became distressed, confused, and shaken by a murder-suicide among their membership.  Without warning, 47 year-old Real Estate developer Billy Maxwell suddenly took a gun and unexpectedly took the life of his wife Kathyrn, the life of his 17 year old daughter Conner, who was a cheerleader and soon to be high-school graduate and his 15 year old son, Cameron, who was involved in sports and model student.   Billy Maxwell was Cameron’s Father and his School Coach.   No one in the church, the Christian school, the community or the extended family could figure out what happened to this otherwise “brilliant” businessman and wonderful husband and father.  No one could make sense at all out of what happened.   All were distressed, confused and shaken.

Life can be this way at times, and it can appear to any of us that the end of the world is just around the corner.    But is it?

WHEN GOD SEEMS ABSENT
The 1960’s were times just about as distressing, confusing and life- shaking as any have been in recent years.  Do you remember all that was going on?   The Cuban missile crisis was in full swing.  The president had been shot in Dallas.  Martin Luther King was slain in Memphis.   Then Robert Kennedy was killed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.  Integration was Revolution.   Right near the end of that time, the singing group, “The Temptations” had a song entitled “Ball of Confusion” which expresses how most everyone was feeling: 
The sale of pills are at an all time high 
Young folks walk around with Their heads in the sky.  
Cities aflame in the summer time And, the beat goes on
Air pollution, revolution, gun control, 
Sound of soul, Shootin' rockets to the moon
Kids growin' up too soon 

Politicians say more taxes will Solve everything
And the band played on   So round 'n' round 'n' round we go
Where the world's headed, nobody knows 

Just a Ball of Confusion
Oh yea, that's what the world is today.


Fear in the air, tension everywhere
Unemployment rising fast, 
The Beatles' new record's a gas 

And the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation
And the band played on  Eve of destruction, tax deduction /City inspectors, bill collectors
Mod clothes in demand, Population out of hand 

Suicide, too many bills, hippies movin'
To the hills  People all over the world, 

are shoutin' End the war And the band played on.
(Copyright 1970 Jobete Music Company, Inc. 

at www.sing365.com .)

Among all the other things going on in the troubled 60’s was the “God is Dead” movement.  Do you remember the cover of Time Magazine in 1965 which announced God’s death?  In actuality God did not die, but certain theologians in America announced that most modern people were now living as if there was no God in their minds and hearts.  And it is true, since that announcement, we continue to see some very real ways the “official” presence of God has been disappearing from our public square and public places--- the end of prayer in schools, attempts to take the mention of God out of the pledge of allegiance or off of money, the very seldom mention or consideration of God in a public forum.  “Christianity will continue,” said the theologians but it will continue “without putting God back into modern life” and learning to live without his presence and closeness.” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,941410,00.html).

But the death of God was much too overrated, just like the end of the world is very often over-stated.   God did not die, but in our own time, God, faith, religion and belief has changed, is still changing, but it has made an amazing come-back.   It was this way during the time of Luke’s writing as it has been in our own times.  Do you see what he says in our text?  Just when it looks like the world ends with distress, confusion, fear and just when he mentions about the “heaven’s being shaken with fear” the very next words we hear are this:   “…Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.  28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Do you grasp the implications?  Just when you think the world is falling apart or that God is completely absent, the very next word is that “then, they will see the “Son of Man coming….with power and great glory.”   Right when you think things are going to get worse, everything dramatically changes and God shows up. 

Luke wants us know that our God is a “come-back” God!  When the world is at its darkest, like the world can be right before the dawn, this is when God has the strangest, most amazing habit of showing up.  As one black lady put it, “Our God is a “just in time” God.   When people were about to give up, Jesus says, this is when “they will see the Son of Man coming in the cloud with power and glory. “ This is when we too should “stand up” and “raise up our heads” because it is right then, at the lowest point and at the darkest moment, “when our redemption draws near.”

But doesn’t this sound a little confusing too?   How in the world can the world come together when it seems like it is falling apart?  What “strange truth” is Luke trying to tell us about the human condition, about redemption and about our salvation?  Why is it that when should look for God in all these, what appear to be, worse places?

WHEN THE END IS THE BEGINNING
For most all of my life, I’ve heard people predicting the “end of the world”.   The first time was as a small child, during the Cuban Missile Crisis when a little known evangelistic preacher named Darrel Dunn went around the country warning us that a coming “one-world government” was about to form and the end was near.  It was about the same time, when even evangelist Billy Graham joined in with a different kind of warning with his prophetic book entitled, “World Aflame”.   But the end didn’t come exactly and Graham himself later changed his own views.  It didn’t come in the 60’s, the 70’s, nor with the famous prediction that the world would end in 1980's by Hal Lindsey  or the very famous prediction of 1988, nor did the world end with Y2K, or the expected world-wide computer glitch.  And now, the very new prediction that world will end in 2012 based on the Mayan Calendar will also fail.  It will fail because that Mayan Calendar did not really predict the end of the world, but the calendar just simply ran out of dates and couldn’t count any further.

Of course, with all the predicting that continues, some day somebody might get it right.  The world could end.  Doomsday is possible if humans keep doing stupid things to each other and to the world.  It could end whether it is predicted or not.    God could let down the curtain, but what would this mean?  But of course, there is another truth here: the world could end for us suddenly, whether the whole world comes apart or not.  This is why we are told to “be ready.”   And the world might not end with the earth being completely destroyed, but it could end, just like it did in Jesus’ day.  It might end because a certain way of life fades away or because a new attitude, a new perspective or a new understanding begins to prevail. 

I remember when a world ended for me.  It took place in 1975 when I was almost killed in an automobile accident.   After that event everything changed.  I began to see everything differently.  Nothing remained the same.  And do you know something, it was both “good news” and ‘bad news’ at the same time.   My world came apart and come together at the same time.   It was ‘bad news’ that I lost the perfect use of my left leg.  It was ‘bad news’ that I didn’t get to go to Carolina to study Journalism.  It was ‘bad news’ that I never ran again nor could I ever work a blue collar job, do hard labor, or work in a factory.  

All this was bad news, but it was also “good news”   It was good news that when I lost the perfect use of my leg, I started having to learn to use my brain.  It was good news that I didn’t go to Carolina, but I went to a Baptist, Christian school and instead, studied religion.  It was “bad news” that I never was able to run again, but it was “good news” that I did start learning how to ride a bike and that took me even further.  And lastly, it was “bad news” that I couldn’t work in a factory, or work hard labor, but it was also good news that I had to finish college, I had to learn a different way to work and it has given me a lot of advantages I wouldn’t otherwise have had.  One world ended, but a new world began.

It wasn’t much different in Jesus’ day.   When Jesus gave us all these dire predictions, he told us how metaphorical and figurative they were when he also said, “This Generation will not pass away until all these things are fulfilled”  (vs. 32).   Most people skip over this little prediction when they are trying to interpret Jesus’ sayings about the end.   But we’d better not, because this is the key to everything.  It the key to other passages on prophecy just like idea of “redemption drawing near” is the key to this passage.   Jesus was not predicting any sudden end to the world that was not also a new beginning.   He was predicting that at the same time “this generation” would experience all these cataclysmic endings, they would remain until they experienced a new angle on God’s deliverance, redemption and salvation.  Do you see how Jesus does not say drop your head nor bury your head in the sand, but Jesus says rather, “Lift up your head, for your redemption draws near!”   How does redemption draw near when everything is fallen apart?

The most important, most graphic image Jesus uses here for predicting God’s comeback in the midst of an ending ‘world’ is the image of the fig tree in summer time.  I like this image, because Jesus does not pick a dying tree in fall or winter for his pointer, but a blooming, flourishing, spouting, and greening tree in summer.  How come every prophecy preacher misses this image or refuses to point it out?   Why don’t they want you to see that right when everything is coming apart, it is also coming together? 

But How can this be?  How can a new day come, when an old day is passing away?
It can come because, in the end result, God is still in ultimate control.   And because God is always in final control of this world, he does not allow there to be an ending unless there is also a new beginning.  This is what God’s control means.  It doesn’t not mean God determines everything that happens or that there are no accidents, but it means that God is there sustaining, guiding, prompting and patiently working in all things and with us as his partners to bring about his purposes for our world and for our lives,  even in the worse of situations.

THERE IS NO TIME WITHOUT HOPE FOR THOSE WHO TRUST GOD
And what should this mean for us?   What should it mean that with every ending there is also a new beginning?  What should it mean that in everything that happens, even when the worst things happen, God is still there sustaining, guiding and patiently working in all things, so that with every ending, there can also be a new beginning?

I’ll tell you what it means.  We can see it right here in this text:
More than anything else, there is a great yearning for God in this text.  Do you see it?  We are not to worry or wish for the end, but we are to hunger for God.  When life gets empty, void, broken or filled with despair, then we are to turn to the God who will make a come-back.

Secondly, this means that we are supposed hold up our heads and find hope for salvation and redemption, no matter what is going on around us.   Because we believe in God, it is not enough to believe that ‘anything is possible’, but even more we should believe that something new is coming and is not just possible, but probable, even promised.   Even is a dark, sinful, dirty, and broken world, we can’t give up, because God will make a come-back and so can we who trust and wait upon him.

Finally, this text calls us to not to escape, give-in to or avoid the hard issues of the world through alcohol, drugs, and weakness, but he calls us to ‘watch and pray’ because when the world is falling apart, we are not just going to be the “last man standing” but if we hold out by faith, we will prove to be the “first person” standing in the new day which is promised to come.  It will come, and it must come if we will “guard” our hearts and not let ourselves get sucked into the darkness around us.   The brokenness and darkness in our world is a trap for those who give up, but it is a beacon of hope to those who don ‘t give in, but look up and expect that with every ending, there is never an ending, but simply a new beginning with begins with God and never ends.

Last week, Teresa and I saw the most amazing movie of Hope showing this advent season in movie theaters.   The movie is called “The Blind Side” and stars movie queen Sandra Bullock.  It’s the story of the fall and current rise of Michael Oher, current rookie right tackle for the Baltimore Ravens.  

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I’ll turn you to a resent New York Times article which tells the story as “The Ballad of Big Mike.”  Big Mike was a big young man who’s mother was a drug addict and left Big Mike out in the cold, literally.  But one day in winter, while walking to a school gym, not to play ball, but to find heat, Big Mike was picked up by a well-to-do, Christian family in Memphis, who took him in, gave him a place to sleep, taught him to play football, helped him overcome mental deficiencies, and finally adopted him as a 320 pound, 17 year old giant. 

I don’t time to tell everything about the movie, but my favorite moment in his turn around, which is not fully developed in the movie, is when Big Mike is struggling in his first football game and an opposing defensive player is giving him the psychological work-over.   The other player is a measly 220 pounds and Big Mike is no less than 100 pounds heavier and at least 10 times stronger.   But the boy’s taunts have Big Mike confused and beaten down in his own mind play after play.  Then in one moment, when the other players have moved on down the field, a commotion is taking place.  When the coach, his adopted Father looks back upfield, he sees Big Mike picking this guy with a legal block and is moving him across the field, through the opposing bench, across the running track and has moved him over the chain-link fence.   Referee flags start flying everywhere in the air.

“Michael, what are you doing?”   His coach Father screems.
“I’m taking him to the bus!  Big Mike answers.  “I’ve had enough of his mouth and it is time for him to get on the bus and go back home!”  

After that moment, Big Mike, whom we now know as Michael Oher, is on his way to become one of the greatest Right Tackles and highest paid Quarterback protectors in professional football.

The message of the movie goes without saying.   Don’t ever give up.   When you least expect it, God shows up.   He did for Michael Oher.  You might not make millions.  You probably won’t get drafted as a professional athlete.   But let me tell you this.  If you will wait on God, keep up your guard, and if you will look up, even when things appear to be at their darkest, your own redemption will come near.  It will come near, because, as Luke believes and we will discover for ourselves, through faith, our God is a come-back God!  


With every ending, there is a new beginning.   When the night gets it’s darkest, this always is how it is just before the new dawn.   Yes, there will be strange signs in the skies.   The earth will be distressed and nations will get confused.   The seas and the waves will roar.  People will faint for fear and there will be all kinds of negative, depressing feelings around and even the heavens will be shaken at times.  But still, don’t dare give up, give in nor let down your guard or give up the ship, for it is right here, in the very next moment, right in this darkest moment, when God makes his come-back and your redemption finally comes.   If you don’t believe me look at the fig tree or just look at any tree.  Winter is indeed coming and here, but as soon as it ends, the blooms will shoot out, the leaves will turn green and you can be sure, life will make a comeback, because we have and serve a comeback God.   Amen. 


© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Coming Face to Face with Truth

A Sermon based on John 18: 33-37
Christ the King Sunday, Year B
November 22, 2009
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership


Childhood can be filled all kinds of mysteries and riddles to be solved.   The challenge to figure out the truth is part of the wonder of it.   I’ll never forget how one day I solved one of those wonders.  Like most children, I used to believe that Christmas fell out of the sky.  One night I found it under the bed in our guest room.   Christmas was altogether different after that.  I solved the mystery but at the same time discovered another one, just like that.

Another amazing wonder of my childhood was visiting relatives on Sunday afternoon.   On some occasions we took my Grandmother to visit her sister Bessie in nearby Davie County.  At that time, my Aunt Bessie was supposed to be the most “religious” devout woman in our extended family.  She was said to have read the Bible through at last 7 times and she did not believe that humans had landed on the moon.  She didn’t like Hollywood either and she believed that somebody just made the “moon landing up” in a Hollywood studio.   

As a child who especially liked Astronomy and space travel, I didn’t pay much attention to Aunt Bessie’s opinions about the world, but I really did like the fact that, although she had indoor plumbing, she still had an open well at her house.  Each time we visited, my Father and I would go outside to draw up a bucket out of that deep, dark chasm and drink some of the best tasting water in the world.  “Can I do it, Can I do it?” I remember asking my Dad.  He let me.  Afterword, I wanted to linger and just glare into the depths and wonder, but that wasn’t allowed for long.  The forbidden nature of it made everything even more mysterious—even more mysterious than Aunt Bessie herself.

I’m sure children today experience their own special kinds of wonders and mysteries that make life exciting and awe-filled.   One generation of children was the first to peer straight into wonder of automobiles, appliances and televisions.  Today’s generation is just as enamored by computers, mobile phones and video games.   Even now, as we speak, somebody who is still a child at heart may be just as thrilled to have just learned how to “tweet!”   But today, I want us to look straight into another wonder and mystery—an even more ancient one.   It can become just as thought provoking and “deep” as it was the very first time the truth came to us, face to face.  We encounter the depth of this mystery during one of the darkest moments of human history.  Right before the crowd yelled “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!, we come across this mysterious, never-ending question: “What is truth?”   But before we get to this big question, let’s look at the first question the governor put to Jesus.

The question Pilate was all “fired-up” about is a question that still concerns most:  Politics.  The media picks up our biggest concerns by constantly ranting over opinion-polls or raving over the possible political fallout from a newly released article or book.  When you are on top of your world, like Pilate was, and you want to stay on top of it, like Pilate definitely did, then you’re seldom looking for truth for truth’s sake.  What consumes your daily life is constantly answering the unending political questions of the day to find some way to stay on top of life.” 

“Are you the king of the Jews?”   This is what Pilate asks Jesus, but Jesus knows what Pilate is really after.   Jesus does not answer Pilate directly but puts the question back: “Are you asking this for yourself, or did somebody else put you up to this?”  Now, we get a much clearer picture of what’s happening.  Pilate does not really want to know Jesus.  He only wants know who Jesus is so that he can remain on top of his own world.   There’s a big difference between seeking the truth for the sake of the truth and working the truth for our own angles and advantages.

All of us in life are “truth seekers” of some art, aren’t we?   Many people, like Pilate seek the truth, not for the sake of finding or knowing it, but they seek the truth to confirm what they think they already know, or to affirm only what they want to know.   The truth Pilate wanted from Jesus was just enough truth to help him keep his own world secure, at least for the moment, and hold everything together just like it was. 

It’s not really a wrong reason to look for Jesus, is it?  We all live in a world that has the most amazing, mysterious tendency to fall apart.  No matter how much power and control we think we have.  No matter how much money we can accumulate.  No matter how well we try to insure, insulate or isolate ourselves from the possibilities of falling off the top we worked so hard to climb up on, we know the risks are great and that some day and in some way, falling off is inevitable.  Even our words own human words testify against us:  “All good things, must come to an end.”  “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”  “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.  All the Kings Horses and All the Kings men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”  Pilate knew this probability as well as anybody.   When your life has a view from the top, it is even scarier what you might see.  This is why the only thing truth Pilate wants is the kind of truth that can keep him safe right where he is. 

And guess what?  It is really amazing that the Jesus Pilate hopes to find the very Jesus he does find.   As strange as it might seem, Pilate found exactly the Jesus he was hoping for!  Whew!  Breathe a sigh of relief!    For Pilate, at least in this moment, the tension lessens.  Jesus is not who they said he was.  Pilate had heard that Jesus was a kind of “King” that was turning things upside down.  Pilate heard that Jesus was stirring up all kinds of trouble.  Pilate heard that Jesus wanted to be a king who would put demands on people, even asking them to bow down to his own kingdom alone.  Amazingly, Pilate discovers that the Jesus he meets is really not much of a threat at all : “My Kingdom is not of this world?  If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom is not from here.” 

Aren’t you a little amazed too?  I find it very interesting that Jesus tells Pilate exactly what Pilate wants to hear.   Jesus gives Pilate ever reason in this world to let him go.  Since Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, since Pilate is only concerned about is keeping things they way they are, then Jesus doesn’t really matter that much to him.  Pilate finally “finds no fault” in Jesus for the exact same reason many people today don’t find any fault or may I say, any threat in Jesus.   Since Jesus hasn’t come to disrupt anything in our lives, Jesus really doesn’t matter.  It’s not because Pilate sees Jesus as the sinless son of God, but because Pilate has no real interest in the truth Jesus brings, that he doesn’t see Jesus as any real threat to anybody.   Jesus is safe enough to let go.  As Pilate sees him, this "safe", "other-worldly" Jesus wouldn’t even hurt a fly.
    
A Jesus who doesn’t demand anything from us, won’t hurt us much either.  A Jesus who will let us stay in and on top of our own worlds just like we have them, doesn’t really matter that much to us, does he?  This is the very kind of Jesus many might like, isn't it?   And the truth is, most people do like this of kind of safe-sounding, undemanding Jesus, who simply stands before us and gives us what we want and tells us what we want to hear.   We like the Jesus who has his mind on a different world altogether.  Since Jesus lets us go on with our world without making any changes to our lives, we can let him go too, just like Pilate did.   Since his kingdom is “not of this world,” we think he will leave the kingdom we build for ourselves alone.

And Jesus will leave us alone, if we want him too.  Pilate knows this too.  When you know the nice, tidy, unthreatening, comforting Jesus who lets you keep your own world and do with it what you want, without any demands, any commands, any sacrifices or any risks, the only catch is this one thing: the world you now have and the kingdom you now hold on to is the only world the only world and only kingdom you will know.   You see, when we let the “nice and neat”, undemanding Jesus go, and when we, like Pilate, when we wash our hands of having anything else to do with him or for him, and when we think he demands nothing from us and he only does what we want for us, the one thing we can be sure of is that the only world we’ll ever have is the world we will we now have and the world we will one day lose.       

Several years ago, when I was working hard as a missionary behind the former Berlin Wall, a newspaper report sought me out to do an article for the Berlin Morning News.  He wanted to right about why some American would leave the comfort of America and come to the unsettled, insecure world of eastern Europe to live and work. 

One day, after we spend several hours talking about life, taking photos, and interviewing me, and after he told me that even after communism had fallen in Europe, he was still a believer in communism, he also volunteered to tell me that “since he had his own life in his own way, he was sure that he didn’t need God.”    When I heard that what came to my mind was only one further question and I asked him.  “I understand that you can live without God, but can you die without God?   After a period of silent reflection, he much less assuredly stammered, “I think I can.”

This is the “catchy part” of the truth we face in life.   We can find all kinds of different truths “other truths” and purposes to go after with our lives.  But the one question that keeps confronting, coming after, and even hounding us is this: What truth will we die for and what world will we die toward?   When the day comes that we realize that all the kingdoms of this world (even our own) are going and that only Jesus and his kingdom is left still coming, then Jesus starts to matter.   Jesus doesn’t matter all that much, if we are using him in to keep things just as they are or only as we want them.   But when we realize that Jesus is a threat to what want only for ourselves; or when we realize this world is not as stable as we thought it was and we find ourselves only left with the hope and dream for another world out there because this one has fallen so much apart---, then Jesus looks very, very different.      

Learn this one thing from Pilate’s mishandling of the Jesus question:  Jesus isn't a deal maker for my life, he's a deal breaker.   I can’t come to Jesus to make a deal with him.  That's what the rich, young ruler learned (Luke 18: 18ff.).    That kind of Jesus doesn’t matter.   Only the Jesus I must fall down before and surrender to matters, or Jesus doesn’t matter at all.  Only when I let Jesus be my king, my lord, my master, my ruler and my commander, and only when I give Jesus all my life, does Jesus make any real difference.

I can’t say what kind of Jesus you’ve thought you were making a deal with.   But I can tell you, even warn you from Pilate’s own experience with truth, that real life and truth is not some kind of game where you get to play “let’s make a deal.”   Only what you give all your heart to really matters.   And even what you give your heart to will not finally matter, unless what you give your heart to is the truth.  If Jesus is simply a Jesus we can easily dismiss when we want to, avoid and forget so we can get on with our lives as we want them, then this Jesus really doesn’t matter, because he’s just “our” Jesus.   But if the Jesus who stands before us is the Jesus we have to bow to, who demands that we give him everything, this is the Jesus who truly matters because we really do make him our king.  

In this world that is running out of kings really fast and in this world that is also running out of kingdoms still to come, Jesus is the only King that matters.   Only the King we will not let go of is the King who does not let go of us.  And only the Jesus who is king when our world goes is the  hope that something is still to come.   Is this kind of King Jesus on your throne ruling your life, or  is the Jesus you have, a Jesus you can let go of because he hasn’t made any real difference nor been any real danger to your world as it is?   Is Jesus really a King for you or just a nice friend to have a long?   It does matter which Jesus you trust.  One day when “all the kingdoms of this world, become the Kingdom of our God and of his Christ” the gospel says “He shall reign forever and ever.”  And he will reign forever with or without you.  For you see, in the final end, the truth is that you won’t matter, but he will.   It makes all the difference in eternity how you see Jesus now.  If he doesn’t matter, then in the grand scheme of things, who are any of us to matter?  But if he does matter, and he matters enough to challenge and change everything about you and you must bow down to him, then you and everything else matters.  And that’s truth---the whole gospel truth.  Amen.   

  © 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Healing Virtues of the Soul: Responsibility

Several years ago, when I was a missionary in Germany, my family went with me to make a pastoral visit in our city on a cold, snowy evening.  


In hopes of starting a snowball fight with my 5 year old daughter, I rubbed my hand across our VW station wagon and scooped up a hand full of snow and started to make my weapon.  Right after my hands came together to give shape to the snowball, I heard a woman open the window of the apartment about 5 stories up.  Quickly the lady yelled in German, “Sie sollen das nicht machen!”  (“You shouldn’t do that!”)   “This woman needs to mind her own business, I thought to myself.  “What right does she have to order me around or invade my privacy”?  But it suddenly came to me she figured me to be a passerby on the street who had rubbed my hands across someone else’s car.   Now that I realize what was happening, I answered her by clasping my glove covered hands and crying back through the cold: “Alles ist in Ordnung!  Das is mine Auto.”  (This is O.K., The car belongs to me).  With that word, the woman pulled down the window and had nothing else to say.  


The more I’ve thought about what happened that snowy night in Germany, the more I realize how uniquely a German moment that was.  Few Americans would take charge to look after another person’s car or hold a person on the street accountable.   Sometimes our American respect for freedom goes too far in the other direction.   My case-in-point is the tragic event of what happened recently at Richmond High School in Richmond, California.  Over 400 students attending a School dance probably knew what was taking place and at least 20 watched and even took photos with their cell phones as a young, innocent girl was being gang raped by at least 4 guys but everyone choose to look the other way.  No one did anything.   No one came to her aid.  No one called the law.  No one even yelled for the perpetrators to “stop.”


Maybe this is an extreme situation at Richmond High, but I think this story, as well as the story of the Snowball in Germany raises an important question: What does it mean to be considered a responsible person in the world?  Do we realize how sick and mean the world becomes when fewer and fewer people feel a connectedness or responsibility to others or for themselves?  And how sick do we become, how sad and sick can our own families become when we lose the ability to be a responsible person in the world around us.   Many Americans value freedom and some value it even more than personal and social responsibility, but the truth is that unless we are responsible with our freedom, we can lose it.  Freedom and responsibility go together like hand and glove and when responsibility goes south (as the expression goes), it is not long until freedom follows.


WHERE DOES ONE GAIN A SENSE OF RESPONSIBILITY?
Have you ever wondered why some people “get” being “responsible” and other people never seem to get it?   I can recall wishing that that the boy sitting behind me in 5th grade got it.  He kept giving me a hard time and I knew that I wasn’t supposed to hit him and that made matters worse.   He just didn’t get it, but I got it and he kept giving it to me.  Why do some people have the ability to be responsible at such a young age, but others don’t?  That young boy’s lack of responsibility was much like the punk rock song which goes: “Responsibility, What’s that?  Responsibility, not quite yet…!  I don’t want to think about it!  We’d be better off without it. I don’t want to think about it.”   But today I want us to think about it.  I want us to think about the “healing power” in taking responsibility for our actions because the world, even our own personal world can get very, very sick when “no one wants to think about it!” 


Where from does a sense of responsibility come?  Responsibility comes from exactly what the word implies.   Responsibility means to answer or respond to something or someone.  People tend to be more responsible when they are responding to something they have been given in their lives.  People who have been given little, often feel little responsibility.  People who have been given much, have a greater capacity for responsibility.  Those who grow up with neglect, have been overlooked, uncared for, these kinds of people often show deficiencies in becoming responsible adults.  A Scripture in the gospel puts it this way:  From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.  (Luke 12:48).  It appears to be much more difficult to be responsible when there is nothing to respond to in your life.   If you parents loved you, you respond back in love to them.   If the people we grow up around are responsible people, we tend to respond back to that community of caring and love by being loving, caring and responsible to other people.  If you have been shown grace, mercy, love and hope, then you tend to respond in the same hopeful, graceful, merciful and loving ways.   But if you have nothing to respond to, little to respond to, or even if you for some reason, you take for granted what you’ve been given, that is where most irresponsibility is breed and born.  People with little good in their lives to respond to, can become irresponsible people unless there in some intervention.


RESPONSIBILITY AS A CHRISTIAN VIRTUE
What kind of responding, responsible person are you?  When you look at your life right now, or when you look at yourself in the mirror do you see yourself as a person with a lot or little response?


A couple of years ago, a man named Wesley Autry jumped onto the subway tracks to save the life of a stranger who during a seizure had fallen onto the tracks.   People called Wesley a hero.   But when Wesley was questioned about the event, he said he only did what he thought was right thing to do.  Wesley told how he had two young daughters and he wanted them to grow up in a world where people still cared for others.  That is part of the reason he did not hesitate to help another.  Responding, not just to the care and love he had been given, maybe also responding to the love he felt for and from his daughters, and as he said, responding to the kind of world he wanted his daughters to inherit, Wesley did what he said was the right thing.


Being “responsive” people who can either accept or reject our duty to others is part of what philosophers say makes us human.  Other animals can be responsive to the world around them, but no animal be socially responsible in the same way a human can (Though it could be said that some animals are more responsible than humans who lose their sense of responsibility). 


On the news the other morning, they showed how a doe accidently got into the cage with some Lions at the national zoo in Washington, DC.  Onlookers cheered for the deer to escape but Lions quickly started to pursue the deer and injured it.   Although the deer finally jumped into the water to escape where the Lions did not follow, and the deer was finally pulled to safety, it was too late, the damage had been done---as Matt Lauer commented, “Lions did what Lions do.”  The deer had to be euthanized.   No Lion would have been held accountable for attacking a deer, because a Lion has a very limited ability to be responsible. We humans have much higher levels of responsibility, duty and accountability.   Again, as Jesus says, “the more we’ve been given, the more that is required of us.”


Most of us in church would be considered to be very responsible people.   Most of us try to do the right thing because we had parents who tried to do right by us and teachers who taught and modeled what it means to be responsible.   We live our responsibly “responding” to what we’ve been given.   We can even still grow in our responsibility by continuing to respond to the changing situations and needs around us because this is what “responding” responsible people do.   Since others have understood and adjusted themselves to help meet our needs, we will continue to respond to the needs of others.  To rephrase the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”(Matthew 7: 12), as others did for us, we tend to do for others.


Most all religions teach some kind of personal and social responsibility, though it could be argued both theologically and scientifically, that there is no higher revelation of human responsibility to another than Jesus’ words, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15: 13).   This kind of ultimate sacrifice is still the ultimate call to responsibility and there are service men and women making this ultimate sacrifice for us---and the question still comes---how do we respond to their sacrifice and how will we live, in light of all that has been done to give us the freedom and life we have?  


As Christians, we believe that God has given us a perfect revelation of his love for us in Jesus Christ and that through Jesus God offers grace, mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love to us.  Because of what God has done, we now live our lives in response to God’s great gift of life and redemption.  With this understanding of the responsible nature of the Christian life, how are you doing?  How do you show yourself as a “responding” person who is accountable with the grace and goodness you’ve been given?


A CHRISTIAN IS A RESPONSIBLE PERSON
We don’t have to wonder what it means to respond responsibly to God’s love and grace in out lives.  In Paul’s letter to the Galatians  (6: 1-10) we find some of the best known words in all the Bible, which are also words about our most basic Christian responsibility.    


“Bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ.”  (6:2).  This is perhaps the most practical, healing word in all the Bible.   The image goes all the way back to a time where the people were poor and had nothing except the daily burdens to bear in order to stay alive.  They had no technology to help them, but had to rely upon each other. 


I want you to place this image of the poor helping each other to bear their daily burdens to the 20 plus kids watching at least 4 guys gang rape a young girl, having all the power of high tech in their hands and still doing nothing.  All those thousands of years of human technological advancement right in their hands and they wouldn’t even push three buttons ( 911) to bear the burden and hurt of another human being.


Oh, I know, you might say, “this young girl” was among those boys and she deserved what she got.   It was even reported that she was a lesbian.   I can imagine some of those kids were thinking who were “glad” to see her get “straightened” out in such a way, since she was at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Is letting somebody get what’s coming to them what Christians mean by being responsible? 


I use this illustration because this is an extreme picture, but a very realistic picture of how we too might misread the Christian call to “bear one another’s burdens”.  We might see the need to bear the burden of our family, our friends, maybe our fellow church members, and maybe even certain struggling people in our community----for these people we might feel responsible, but should we feel responsible for an out-right sinner, someone getting what we think they deserve?   


Read this text a little closer and see exactly what Paul means by bearing one another’s burdens:  My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression (a sin), you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.”  Tempted to what?   Maybe tempted to hate them, instead of loving them; maybe tempted to despise them, instead of reaching out to them, and maybe tempted to get even with them, instead of forgiving and leaving the vengeance where it belongs, in God’s hands. 


Here we can find so many powerful dynamics of being responsible.  We see the self-sacrificing, redeeming, evangelical, outreaching, compassionate and caring nature of our faith.  Though I call this the “responsible” nature of our faith, but there is really nothing “natural” about it.  It goes beyond the natural call of human duty and aims toward a higher level of humanity, above and beyond the call of duty, and it takes us straight into the realm of spiritual healing and helpfulness rooted in what God has done for us in Christ.   Did you catch the clarifying phrase Paul uses, when he says, “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”   There is so much pure Christian responsibility in this we don’t have time to try to unpack.


Being a responsible Christian is doing more what law and respect demands--- but the healing response points toward a greater ideal to “do to other as you would have them do unto you.”   God’s Spirit leads us beyond the way things are into the way things could be or should be and can be, if we will allow ourselves to be lead by his Spirit in this way.


What is so amazing about this “spiritual” way is that it not only makes the world look very differently, it makes us a different person.  This is why the text continues by saying, “don’t think you are more than you are” or make sure you “test” your own work.  By putting yourself under scrutiny rather than your neighbor you learn to take responsibility for your own self (considering the log in our own eye---as Jesus said, before we look for the splinter in the eye of another).  This is crucial for learning to respond to God on his terms, not ours.   


So we don’t misuse or abuse God’s love, Paul gives us this very important, qualifying word: “For all must carry their own loads”.  Being a responsible person means that not only do we “respond” to the healing needs of others, but it also means we “do our own part” bring healing and hope into our own lives.


What does it mean to be responsible to “carry our own load”?  Note Paul’s unforgettable qualifier: “Don’t be deceived!  God is not mocked, whatever you sow is what you reap.”  Most of us raised in a rural, farming culture understand better than most what these very agricultural words mean and imply.  Whatever you sow is what you reap!  It is so clear, so precise, so unmistakable, we ought to get it.  But sadly we don’t always.  We don’t get it because the spiritual crop we are growing is not always physically evident.   We don’t get it because we believe our lives will turn out, no matter what kind of habits, attitudes or behavior we exhibit.  We think our marriage will turn out, no matter what kind of conflict, differences, and problems we keep sweeping under the rug.  We think that our children will have all the possibilities and choices we had, no matter how little time we spend with them or how little we model before them what it truly the most important.  And lastly, we think that all we have to do it get the program, go to the right church, read the right book, get the right spiritual guru, so that even without taking any responsibility for ourselves that the method, process or this person we invite into our lives will make everything right without any work or responsibility of our own. 


My only question to any who might think this way is this: On what planet were you born?  Burdens can’t be lifted until we all carry our own “own load.”  When only a few try to do all the work, or when most of the people don’t show up and don’t bear their load, then people get sick in their heads and their hearts, people become constant complainers, not just lazy, but lousy, impossible people who encounter nothing but a spiritual deadness that is an emotional wilderness because they don’t pick up their part of the burden and lift.   


Remember those times in school, when a teacher asked several of you to come over and carry something that one person could not lift on their own?   While you were carrying whatever heavy object it was, the guys would often joke with each other, saying “pick up your end shorty,” or saying something like “hey, guys you gave me the heavy side.”  Don’t you remember this kind of thing happening?  We joked about who was really carrying what, but what we never really joked about was that all ought to be carrying something.  The people who just sit there doing nothing, are not really doing nothing or simply freeloading on the rest, but they also undoing all the good that others try to do.  


An old fable told in most cultures teaches the same essential lesson.  It goes that a father and his son who took their donkey to the market one day in order to buy food. The father sat on the donkey and the boy walked.  As they traveled, on-lookers said: "What a terrible thing;  A big strong man like that riding while the poor boy has to walk."  So the father got off and he let the boy ride. Then people said: "How disrespectful. The father walks while his son rides."  So they both got on the back of the donkey.  And then people said: "How cruel. Two people riding on that poor donkey’s back."    
So they both got off the donkey and walked.  People said: "How foolish. Both of them walk while a perfectly healthy donkey has nothing on his back."

They finally arrived at the market a day late.  When they got there, everyone marveled to see the man and his son carrying the donkey doing what everyone wanted, but essentially getting nothing done that was really needed   
(As told by Jim Dornan at:  http://bizsuccess.manila.ph/success-story/success7.htm). 




HOW YOU RESPOND IS WHO YOU ARE
If you want to share in the hope and the healing you have to share in the work.  It is like a pointing of a finger directly at the biblical call of personal and social accountability that is meant by these unforgettable words from this text, “you reap what you sow”.  


This spiritual law is primarily meant to help us heal so that we don’t end up howling in pain over how sick our lives have become.   This is precisely why we are also challenged “not to grow weary in well doing”!    Faithful “burden bearing” and “burden carrying” produces the kind of social, spiritual and relational goodness that brings life, healing and health in our own community of faith and to the larger community we call “the world.”  “You reap what you sow… “  As we might say in our own vernacular: You get out of it, what you put into it.  To paraphrase the rest of the text: “If you sow to the flesh, you get only the flesh and its eventual death, decay and corruption… But if you sow to the spirit, and you partner with the eternal God in bearing and sharing your burdens, you create and atmosphere of life and healing and even in your difficult, hard to bear lives, you will reap the eternal and durable spirit God gives.


Only one question remains: What should we specifically as the response out of our own lives?   We are not left guessing:  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.” How do we spell “responsibility” in our own lives?  How do we spell it in relationship to our responsibility to our families, to this spiritual community and of course to God?  Do I need to be more responsible in my church attendance? Or do I need to be part of a sharing, small group process?  Do I need to be involved in giving back to my community or even to the world that has so many needs I could respond to?  What responsible “right” thing should you be doing to bear and care with your life?


Last week, the day before our country observed Veterans Day, our nation grieved the unnecessary loss of 13 soldiers killed by an emotionally disturbed psychiatrist.  Nothing gives us a sadder picture of an irresponsible human being than one who turns upon his own comrades.  Nothing is more disturbing than someone who ceases to bear burdens or ceases to carry their own load in life. 


What was also clear to see during this time when we see an example of the worse in humanity, we also see clearly saw the best.   Kimberly Munley, a police Sergeant who overheard on her radio what was happening at Fort Hood, immediately rushed to the scene.  Upon arrival she went into the building and confronted the killer without any thought to her own life, even taking four bullets as she brought down the shooter.   Kim is the incredible, living, real picture of a person who not only carries her own load as a police officer, but bore the burden of the others in the situation.   All the reports say this is the kind of person she was.  She was not just a policeman doing her job, she was a human being, being fully human, bearing the burden and ready to serve, even above and beyond the call of duty.


I wonder what Kimberly responded to within her heart?  “She was tiny, but tough… mighty mouse…” some referred to her when she was serving as a cop at Wrightsville Beach.    Was she just a tough woman, or was there also a sense of duty? Speculating about Kimberly leads me to ask about our sense of duty as Christians. When this church has its doors open and is trying to present the gospel, what is your duty?   When we are trying to minister to the children, youth, seniors or the hurting in our midst, and you know you have gifts, abilities, and responsibilities directly related to your commitment as a follower of Jesus and as a member of this church, how are you responding?   The greatest sicknesses of the soul, is the soul that no longer feels any need to care or bear any responsible.   When you live only responding to yourself or not responding at all, it isn’t long until you become as non responsive as a corpse---a spiritual zombie---alive physically, but dead spiritually. 


But of course, there is a cure for this “deadness”.  It’s not waiting for someone or something to come into your life to fix you, but you coming alive within your own skin.   And our text gives the exact RX we need to come back from the dead: So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”


Has your day of opportunity arrived?  Are you ready for the healing?  The very healing you need may start within you when you respond to the love, grace and goodness God offers you in this moment.  Amen.


© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Healing Virtues of the Soul: Spirituality

Most of us remember where we were when we first heard about the collapse of World Trade Towers on September 11th, 2001.  

For me, and for most Americans, it became shockingly clear that our nation was under attack by a fanatical, corrupt religious form of Islam and a terrorist group called Al qadea, which has declared Jihad, holy war, on America.   This extreme form of religious terrorism has threatened the life of Americans and the peace and stability of the whole world.   This is what 9/11 means to most of us, and of course, the war against terror continues in Afghanistan today where many of our young men and women are sacrificing and risking their lives for our freedom. 

Religion Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Interestingly, for some Philosophers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett,  9/11 means something else.  For them and others 9/11 proves just how dangerous and ridiculous religion can be.  One of these new Atheists, Washington columnist named Christopher Hitchens has written a book New York Times best seller which boldly declares: “God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”   

These “New Atheists” who are gaining attention in America prefer not to be called Atheists, but “anti-theist.”  They don’t simply refuse to believe in God, but they are “evangelical” in their mission to wipe all religious belief off the face of the planet so that science can be the true savior of humanity. 


What I would like to say to those who believe that religion is dangerous and even “hazardous to our health”, is that in many ways Jesus would agree.   When you read the New Testament and the story Jesus in the gospels, you immediately discover that Jesus was in a life and death struggle with the religious authorities.  For Jesus, it was religion which made the rich, richer at the expense of the poor.   For Jesus, it was politically and legalistically empowered religion that misread the law, missing the whole point.    For Jesus, it was arrogant religion that would not repent and would not give up its privileged position and become a humble servant.  It was bad, corrupted religion which opposed everything Jesus was for and eventually had Jesus strung up on the cross.   In a very sobering sense, Christopher Hitchens is right: At least, “bad” Religion can poison everything.      

If only the new Atheist knew the difference between good and bad religion---they could do a lot of good.   Which leads me into a very important question for us: What is bad religion?    How can it be that something that is supposed to be so good, holy, right and righteous can become so sinister, wrong, dangerous and evil?

You can find Jesus’ clash with bad religion occurring early in the gospel of Mark.  Already in the second chapter, when Jesus pronounces God’s forgiveness upon a paralytic, the religious authorities start their questioning (Mark 2: 1-12).  Immediately after this, the religious leaders are complaining because Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners (2: 14-17), then become even more nick-picking by observing that Jesus’ disciples do not fast like John’s disciples (2: 18-22).  Everything comes to a head when Jesus and his disciples gleaned grain and performed a healing on the Sabbath (2: 23-3:6).

I know it’s hard for us to get a handle on this ancient struggle.  Something that helped me was a recent news report about a modern day Sabbath elevator law in modern Israel.  Orthodox Rabbi’s today have decided that a Sabbath elevator still breaks the Sabbath and must not be used.  What is a Sabbath elevator?  It’s an elevator that does not respond when you push the button so that it is not really performing work on the Sabbath.  After you push the button, you stand and wait until finally, on its own, the elevator decides to come and get you, thus it is not directly responding to your call.  This elevator was allowed, but no longer.  The Rabbis have ruled against it.

Jesus came out against such rigid, legalistic, relgion.  He declared it inhumane, when he said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  Do you see major pattern of “bad” religion Jesus clashed against?   It was a religion more clearly defined by what it was against, rather than what it was for.   Have you ever seen this “complaining”, negating and negative tendency in religious people?  

Why is it that religion does this to people?  Why is it that religion can take peaceful, caring and normally humble people and make them arrogant, cruel and even turn them into bitter enemies of one another?   Why is it that that “religion” can make people so uptight and angry that most of us were forewarned by our parents that if you want to keep your friends, don’t talk about religion?  Why is it, as Hans Kung the German theologian said, that the worse wars ever fought in the world were “religious wars” and he added, “There will never be peace in the world until there is peace between the religions?”   

Did you know that early Christians were persecuted and put to death was because some Romans did not think they were religious enough?   Those early Christians were often called “pagans” or “atheists” because they only believed in one God, while most Romans believed in many gods.  In another strange twist, around 313 AD, not long after Constantine the Roman military general was Baptized and brought an end to Christian persecution, he also declared Roman Empire a “Christian” nation.  Almost immediately,  the emperors started to enforce Christianity as the official religion with power of the sword.   Now the proverbial shoe was on the other foot.   In an attempt to make sure Christianity remained pure and in power, as the official religion of the empire, by 385 a synod of bishops brought to trial its first so called “heretic”, a  man named Pricillian of Avila.  After the very first Christian heresy trial,  emperor Maximus cut off his head and the heads of six of his followers.  And do you know what made them such  terrible heretics?  He was a vegetarian.  He advocated not drinking wine.  He encourage careful reading of the Bible, he allowed for “praise music” and he also believed that other writings, although not inspired and were outside of the Bible could also help us live our lives and even understand the Bible better.  Still today, Pricillian holds the important distinction of being the first Christian to be executed by his fellow Christians for his differing viewpoints.   Already, only a few short years after religion gained political clout, fundamentalism had gained a foothold and in the first 2 and a half centuries, long before the terrible inquisition of the middle ages, Christian imperial authorities had put over 25,000 people to death, not because they were atheists, but for being a different kind of Christian (See Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, 2009, p. 6).  

There are still plenty reasons never again to mix politics or the power of the sword with religion.  There are still reasons to be skeptical about extreme and negative religious expression. One of the most popular books today about the changing face of religion in America is a book entitled:  “They love Jesus, but not the Church”, by Emerging Church leader Dan Kimball.   On page after page,  Kimball explains how there is a growing movement in America among many youth and young adults.   The religion emerging in America is to love Jesus, but to have less and less to do with the established church.
  
Many Prefer Spirituality without Religion
Walk down the isle of any major bookstore and you will see the primary watchword of today is not about religion, but spirituality, it is less about belief and more emphasis upon having faith, hope and love without traditional beliefs.  New Churches are popping up everywhere, not only with the denominational name missing, but also omitting the word “church.”   I not only hear people saying “it doesn’t matter what denomination one belongs to”, fewer people make the effort to join or be committed to the local church in their community. 

In the Statesville library, I came across a very “spiritual” book entitled  “When Bubba meets Buddha!”  The novel, written by John Lee tells of a loveable, down in the dump, but also fowl mouthed redneck named Bubba, who meets the Buddha, when Buddha suddenly climbs out of his suitcase one day to take him on a whirlwind journey of spiritual transformation.   Through one spiritual lesson after another, through spiritual lessons from the Bible, from visiting the home place of Helen Keller, from getting to know a Homosexual AIDS victim, who strangely enough is a dedicated Christian who prays and is dying, by learning care for him, not just hate him, and by finally learning the Buddhist way of surrender, Bubba is able to detach himself from his own pain so that he can see the pain of others and he is healed.  Through his spiritual awakening and enlightenment, Bubba is also able to free himself of the empty, vain Christian repetitions of his childhood, which haven’t helped him at all, and to reconcile with his past, with his ex-wife, with his son and he is able to discover a spiritually charged, fulfilling, purposeful life that renews his spirit and saves his soul from the spiritual hell he has been living in. 

Whatever you think about the changing landscape of religion in America, the new Atheists are right and they are wrong.  Religion is not dying in America, but it is changing and changing drastically.   It may take us a while to see all the changes, especially when we are not looking for them, but they are coming.   The most important observation I have for us is this:  Practical Spirituality and Saving Faith is in.  Stuffy, critical, negative religion that does nothing but declare what it is against is out and will have no impact.   It is time for a true Christian spirituality to show up in our lives, or it will be “shown up” by a growing attraction to other spiritualities that “prove” to do a better job at transforming the soul.

Christianity at its Best is Prayer and Practicality
There are issues that concern me about some of the spiritual energy growing in America today, especially common belief that all religions  are the same.  All religions may be trying to come to grips with the same mystery we call God, but they go about finding God in some very different ways.   The truth is, any religion, including corrupted Christianity, can lead you in the wrong direction:  “The way is broad, that leads to destruction…” Jesus declared, “but the road that leads to life is narrow.” 

But though there are some things that concern me, but the growing hunger for a true, transforming spirituality excites me greatly.   I think that Christian spirituality is up to the test to show us the true faith we need to save our souls and the bad religion we don’t need which leads to destruction. 

The first thing that excites me about religion in America today is that GOD IS NOT GOING AWAY.   God did not die, as was claimed in the 60’s.  In fact, religious belief has surged rather than disappeared, as was anticipated.   And not only is religion growing, it is also growing up and more and more religious people are realizing the distinction between having true faith in God and merely having and holding beliefs about God.   Religion can indeed become very ridiculous when it misses the point of what religion is about.   True religion is much more about who we need and about those things we can’t be sure of without faith, than what we are sure about as facts.    True religion is about the fact that we are in this world together and all in the same physical and spiritual boat, no matter what creed, race or nationality we are.   We all we live in a fallen, finite and limited world in need of salvation and peace, but we also have this amazing capacity to wonder, to be inspired, and to love and to ask why we live and there is something, rather than nothing.  Living and dying with these questions which no human science can answer lead us toward saving faith, not just religious belief about God.

There is an interesting little story told by Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno which tells of a young man who returns to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying.  Since the area is predominate Catholic, in the presence of the local priest, his mother clutches her son’s hand and asks him to pray for her.  The son does not answer.  For some reason, he does not know how to pray anymore.   As he leaves the room with the priest, he declares that as much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God.  “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies.  “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.” (Also found in Harvey Cox’s, “The Future of Faith”, p. 3).

Maybe religion has been hazardous to you and you could, like this young man, have lost belief in God.  But that lost of belief does not take away your need to pray or your need for God.   We are religious people, not because we want to be, or even because we choose to be, but because we have to be.  We are religious because this is who we are, whether we admit it or not.   For five years I lived in eastern Germany where the people were taught and trained to be atheist.  They said they did not need God, but interestingly, many times I entered situations where even the most die-hard atheists understood the need to be still and pray.   Most amazing of all, when they did encounter true faith, true hope and true love in the face of the mystery of life and death, it was astounding to observe how God would suddenly show up and become a welcomed guest in their hearts. 

Simone Weil, the French intellectual, political activist and one time Marxists and agnostic Jew, finally became a Christian mystic and died at age 34.  She spent most of her short days living with physical ailments but constantly working for social justice.  Once, in one of her notebooks, she wrote something every atheist or every person who has been hurt by bad religion should hear.   She said, “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.”  (From her Notebooks as quoted in Cox’s “The Future of Religion’, p. 4.)    It excites me that even when people lose their beliefs, they can be right on the edge of finding true faith.  Isn’t that what the gospel of Jesus teaches?  Right when it looked like religion was completely corrupt and Jerusalem was doomed, and God was nowhere to be found, this the very place where faith is reborn.  If you love God, really love God, even when you have trouble with religion, God is right there ready to show himself anew in your heart and life.       

Another thing that excites me is that today there is a lot more talk about how bad religion can become this “corruption” desperately needs to be addressed and not swept under the rug.  A lot of bad things have gone on in this world in the name of God and in the name of religion.  This needs to stop—now more than ever.   It needs to stop because the bombs have gotten too big and the bullets can fly too easily and pain can hurt too many.   Exactly because it more obvious than ever how even good religion can be corrupted and turned into deeds of hate and violence toward others, this kind of “bad” religion must be put under the microscope and lose its privilege in our culture.  I think Jesus would say Amen to confronting bad religion because of what “bad” religion did to him.   Religion that is true and deserving of our respect, must earn its respect because it earns and proves its value by the very deeds it does and the very actions it takes.    The new watchword for religion in our day must be the old 7o’s expression: “Where’s the Beef?”  

And that is exactly where today’s Bible text comes in.  Here is the Beef!   Right in front of us is the kind of religion that proves that it is true religion.  It is less a religion about beliefs that don’t matter, but it is a religion about faith that changes everything.  It is less about a religion about words, but is more a religion whose words result in action.  Without this intentional, visible action of goodness, which everybody knows, without loving deeds which are clearly attested, and without the real transformation of our hearts and lives which affects who we are and how we live, religion is dead in the water, the very water of its own baptism---and perhaps it should be.  

This is the new kind of on religious faith many are finding---and the true Christian faith that excites me.   Now, more than ever before, in our culture, in our world, in our time and in our place, “Faith without Works is dead---being alone.”   Now, more than ever before, if you don’t walk the walk, there is no use to talk any talk, because nobody will listen.  But if you do live your faith and if you have the kind of spirituality that inspires you live spiritually, being words that become fleshed-out, this makes all the difference in the world.  Do you have the kind of spiritual life in Jesus and life in the Spirit which fills you heart with love for God and truly impacts how you live your life daily with others?  If you have such a spiritual life, then your faith will survive and thrive in the days to come.  If your spirituality, your faith and your church is nothing but a tradition, a viewpoint, or mere belief in your head, then your religion is as good as dead.        

A living, practical and prayerful faith is what we see in these concluding words of Paul to the Thessalonians.  If the Thessalonians did not have a faith that got into their hands and their feet and the way that they lived, then, Paul says, they would be a people “gone asleep” and “destined for wrath” rather than ready to “obtain salvation”! There are all kinds of powerful, spirit-filled, transforming images of the most practical Christian spirituality in this passage.   But Paul begins already in verse 11 with the admonishment to ‘encourage one another’ and “build each other up.’  If this was our Christian spirituality, to encourage and build each other up, rather than tear each other down, would it make already make a great difference?

The other day I talked with a man who was once a member of a Baptist church in our community and he told me about his beloved pastor of 18 years.  Then, the next words out of his mouth where, and then “some of them wanted him gone” and he had to leave.”  “I don’t know what they found wrong with him”, I only found him to be the best preacher and pastor.  When I heard these words from his lips I heard a bit of despair.  These words hit me because of what the next words in this text which is a “appeal” to “respect” those who “labor among you, who have charge over us in the work of the Lord.”     

Do you see the kind of spirituality Paul is advocating?   He advocates a spirituality of respect, fairness, encouragement and peace.   You can’t have any kind of faith, church, religion or spirituality, when people don’t respect each other.  “Esteem them highly in love…” he recommends.  Of course, I don’t think Paul is advocating allowing a spiritual leader to get by with anything, but I do think he reminds us that unless there is mutual love, respect, partnership, peace for those leading us and that those in leadership also respect those they lead, there is no fertile ground for a true spiritual life.  

It was most interesting, years ago, when I was teaching Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Church” that one of the necessary things he did when he started the Saddleback Church was that he got rid of Business Meetings---all but one---to decide the Church Budget.   His reason was that in his experience Church business meetings were not about the true mission of the church and most importantly, these were times and places where people often found ways to be a war with each other, when they should have been on mission.

I think it is rather amazing how “practical” Christian spirituality gets in this passage.  Paul does conclude his letter with challenges for the church to scaling tall mountains, raise large budgets, have expansive programs or reach lofty missionary goals, but Paul sees the spiritual foundation of the church as having what the world has lost: simple respect, civility, even appreciation of each other.

But practical spirituality only begins here.  He goes on to declare how everything the church does demands more than anything else: patience with each other.  Paul paints Christian spirituality with very broad brush, when he challenges Christians to “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted,” and to “help the weak.”    His word of conclusion is: “Be patient with all of them!”  If mutual love and “respect” is the first practical trait of a truly spiritual church, then “patience” is the second.    Having patience with each other is how a church learns not to “pay evil for evil”, but to ‘seek to do good to one another and to all.’  For you see, if we can’t achieve the living out of our salvation in the church, how can even dare think it that salvation can be real for world.    But when we have patience with each other, we are already showing that we have faith, not merely in ourselves, nor only with each other, but we have true faith in God.  

Finally, look at the remainder of the traits of a practical spirituality:  The people “pray without ceasing”, they find reasons to “always rejoice in the Lord”, and they “give thanks to God in “all” circumstances.”   And when they live faith in the most practical ways, they don’t “quench” the spirit, but rather they ignite the fire of God’s purifying Spirit as they listen for the truth in the most prophetic voices while “holding fast to the good” and “despising the evil.”  

What should be at the core of Christian spirituality in a world made sick by and still is sick of dangerous, even poisonous religion?  Hear these three spiritual ways: RESPECT FOR EACH OTHER…PATIENCE WITH EACH OTHER… and the simple PRACTICE OF OUR FAITH IN LIFE, through a prayer (admitting what we don’t know or don’t have)  thankfulness (realizing what we do have, but can’t hold on to for long) and faithfulness, (holding on the good we know to be true and letting go of the evil).   It is the living practice, not the mere preaching of our faith that will take us to the future and lead us through it.  

One final story about true spirituality came to me in the opening of Bill Maher’s documentary “Religulous”.  His study of the ridiculous side of religion in America began at of all places a “Trucker’s Church”, he found in a small mobile building in Durham, N.C.    Maher shows up at this Church with this small group of Truckers and wants to show just how religion makes people even more ignorant.  He starts the conversation by asking all kinds of hard questions that these simple, hard-working guys have never thought of and he suggests that there are all kinds of contradictions in their faith which they’d never considered.  During the question and answer session, a couple of truckers are confused and walk out, but most of them stay and endure to the end.  Interestingly after Maher had done his best to confuse and shake the faith of these truckers and after he had worked so hard to show us, how religion breeds or maintains great ignorance.   When he prepares to leave the building, the truckers surround him and ask if they can pray for him.  In their very humble prayer, they are thankful for Bill and even for the work he is doing, though they don’t understand it.  They express concern for Bill’s salvation and pray that he have a safe journey.  And finally, they thank God and let Bill know that God loves him, even though he thinks God doesn’t exist. 

After the prayer, you can clearly see that Bill Maher is not a little surprised, even taken aback.  He puts his arms around the truckers and says, “Guys, I know this might sound strange coming from me, but thanks for being like Jesus.   I don’t get that a lot.”   I wonder what would happen if the world got more of Jesus from us?   

Will we be a church that can show the world who Jesus in the most ordinary and practical ways?  We’ve got to move beyond religion and get more into a living our faith.  Interestingly, the most spiritual thing we can do is to let our spiritual faith become flesh in our lives in the most respectful, patient and practical ways.  As the song says, “they will know we are Christians,” not by our beliefs about God, but they will “know we are Christians by our love.”  This is the essence of any true spirituality and has always been and always will be what makes Christianity true.  Everything else is just plain “religulous.” Amen? 


© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.