Tag Archives: faith

Thoughts Toward Sunday

The lectionary readings this week will be Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7 and Luke 16:1-13. I haven’t normally focused on the weekly texts, but this group was arresting.

 The texts for this Sunday’s reading are strongly fitting as a warning against the class envy and class warfare being promoted in current political action. Our president regularly castigates “the rich”and“fat cat CEO’s” and “greedy bankers.” Yet he himself lives like a very greedy showoff with parties and vacations back to back while scorning traditional American values such as hard work, personal integrity, and the ability to prosper in an environment that promotes free enterprise. Our president behaves as if his office is a mandate to destroy American prosperity that grows out of opportunity for all in the name of “spreading the wealth around.” His method for achieving this objective is to abrade the citizens with the notion that people who are poor today would be rich if only the rich had not stolen all the wealth. Any person who understands economics knows what a big lie this is. This week’s lectionary readings completely disassemble such a notion.

 To our president, Amos would say, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy.” Likewise to our congress. The policies and legislation passed by our national leaders have increased the number of “the needy” to record levels. (“Needy” means people living on incomes less than the current legal definition of the poverty level.) Our leaders continue to trample on the needy by pushing more and more people into dependence on government, while simultaneously stealing more and more of the nation’s wealth by oppressive taxation and by policies that make it impossible for free enterprise, the source of employment for everyone, to thrive. Further, our leaders refuse to do the work of government to protect the nation from invasion, choosing rather to encourage an invasion of illegal aliens by the means of a refusal to enforce immigration laws.

 Luke would say that these people are like the faithless manager. This man was accused of abusing the trust of his employer, and as soon as he was called to account, he proceeded to abuse that trust even more. When he ordered all the customers to reduce the amount owed on their bills, he quite literally stole the reduced amount from his employer. He did it to buy friends. Our leaders do the same thing by injecting the DREAM act into a bill to fund our national defense.

 What a perfectly ridiculous joke! To couple funding for defense with legislation that will legitimize the most destructive invasion we have ever experienced is an outrageously obvious attempt to buy friends from among the enemies of our nation’s already battered economy. The government leaders, like the steward who wanted to create a safe haven for himself, are buying votes, just as the “steward” bought friends, from the very people who are poisoning our economy, siphoning off the wealth of our nation to other countries and reducing the number legitimate job opportunities for legitimate citizens. Not to mention the overwhelming difficulty for law enforcement created by burgeoning drug merchandising and human trafficking coupled with the crushing load on American social services expected to serve people who ought to be demanding that their own country do a better job of serving them.

 Paul says that we should pray for people in high positions. He does not say that we should pray for them to continue to oppress us. Rather, we should pray that they will do their work of protecting us from foreign invasion and the work of keeping order domestically that we may be able to live in peace and prosperity.

 Psalm 113 puts it all in perspective. People dare not hope in the government we endure in time and space. This world’s institutions are temporary and broken. We don’t hope in government; we hope in God. We live our lives in relationship with God no matter if we are rich or poor in the time/space sense. We look at our lives in relationship with God, and we are rich. Our gratefulness for the fruits of that relationship enables us and motivates us to be kind and generous to the poor. We trust God to accomplish his sovereign purpose, and therefore, we live lives made righteous by God’s grace, loving and serving our neighbors as citizens of his kingdom.

 In the context of God’s kingdom, self-centered, arrogant, wicked government leaders will ultimately be judged for their failure to serve God and the people. As the proverb says, the wheels of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.

Where is the real power center?

This weekend I read an interesting statement. “One of the hardest lessons for a follower of Christ is that visible power is not always the highest level of power.” (Thibault, Jane Marie, 10 Gospel Promises for Later Life, copyright 2004, Upper Room Books, Nashville, p. 52)  The author was actually talking about the apparent powerlessness in people’s lives as they age, but when I read the statement, I realized that it applies to everyone. The feeling that we have lost control of our lives is a crazy-making experience at any age.

 I feel that way often these days. It is not my health, or even my finances. It is actually my country. I see this country do things and go places and harm people in ways that are completely incomprehensible to me. I feel simultaneous amazement, despair and total incredulity. Is this really happening? Why can’t I do anything about it?

I don’t think I could feel more despair if a soldier had suddenly arrived at my door and escorted me in handcuffs to a re-education camp. I used to read stories of the Israelites going into exile because their conquerors wanted to erase their memories of the way it was when Israel was an independent kingdom, and I had no idea what they were feeling. In those days, I imagined that relocation was like taking a permanent vacation to another country, and as a child, I thought that might be fun. Today I feel that without being moved out of my country, I am constantly subjected to a barrage of re-education by the press with the objective of making me forget what it is like to live in a country governed according to the Constitution of the United States. Somebody, obviously a lot of somebodies, intend for me to learn to live a different sort of life. I experience the visible sources of power as both oppressive and confusing.

 You may not agree with my political despair, but you probably experience your own sort of despair. We both know that sick feeling as we examine our options and discover that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do to push back against the power being brought to bear on our lives, power that is taking us where we do not want to go, regardless of our wishes or even our deep convictions. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, you know how I feel. If you just discovered that the person to whom you committed your life “till death do us part” has no such reciprocal commitment, you know how I feel. If you have been laid off from a job that was both personally fulfilling and well compensated, giving you means to care for your family and enjoy a few things above the survival level, and now when you search for work, that kind of work is no longer available, you know how I feel.

 We all have to go through times, sometimes very long periods of time, when we are in the grip of power we cannot resist or defeat. The days look hopeless. The nights seem endless. There seems not to be any light at the end of the tunnel where we live our dark days. Maybe there is no end to this tunnel of doom.

 What do we do about this situation? Despair and dismay destroy our ability to appreciate anything beautiful. They crush our hope that we can accomplish even small things. What do we do?

 If we truly believe that we are completely at the mercy of only the powers we can see in the world of time and space, then we are truly doomed. In fact, if we believe that the reality we observe in time and space is the only reality, then we are doomed. This reality has a propensity to cave in to evil intentions and monstrous egotistical power. Furthermore, nothing in the world of time and space lasts forever – not the happiest life, not the best of people, not the most beautiful bridge or the finest painting. Nothing at all lasts forever. Everything ends and everything dies. Our best survival strategies still end in death. What can we do?

 Our only hope is that this world we can see, hear, smell, taste and feel is not all there is. Our only hope is God.

 This message is the whole point of the Bible. The Bible tells us from the first word to the last that this reality is not all there is. God himself created this reality for our joy and blessing, but when we allowed ourselves to be deceived by Satan, then we allowed ourselves to believe that this world is all there is, and that is when we lost hope. The Bible tells us that we can have hope, because the evil, destructive power we can see at work around us is not the strongest power and is certainly not destined to hold sway forever. There is hope.

 In the days of the Roman Empire, a lot of people had reason to feel hopeless. The might of Rome was greater than anyone in Galilee or Judea had ever seen before. Rome’s power had conquered nations across the entirety of the world Mediterranean peoples had known. Roman power suppressed all power but its own, and eventually the emperors of Rome demanded not only submission, but actual worship. The book of Revelation was written to Christians who were in danger of losing hope in God while living under the boot of the Roman Empire. They were being tempted and/or threatened to worship the emperor of Rome, and the impetus behind that demand was to shore up Rome’s political power. The emperor wanted all his subjects to look to him for what they needed, and he wanted to be the one who decided what they needed. Christians had to ask themselves whether they wanted to be subject to the power of Rome, the power they could see at work in the time/space reality, or if they were actually subject to the power of God, the eternal, infinite Creator who had given his Son’s life for theirs. They had to decide if this world we can experience with our physical senses was all there was, or if there were something more, a higher order of power, a different and more compelling Savior than the emperor of Rome. The author of Revelation instructed them to hope in God, not the Empire, and he recorded the promise of Christ to those who hang on to that hope.

  •  To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)
  • Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. (Revelation 2:11)
  • To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)
  • To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. ( Revelation 2:28)
  • If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life. (Revelation 3:5)
  • If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. (Revelation 3:12)
  • To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)

 According to the author of Revelation, we conquer when we put our hope in God alone. We conquer by testifying to our faith in Christ, by living according to his call and his claim on our lives. According to Revelation, Christ says, “hold fast to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (Revelation 3:11) If we have faith in Christ and live our testimony, putting him ahead of everything else, we do not succumb to despair because the Roman emperor thinks he is God or because a twenty-first century socialist government enslaves and impoverishes its citizens. If we put our hope in Christ, we will not despair at terminal diagnoses or give up on life when betrayed or be defeated by the job market.

When I face my hopeless situation, I remember that this world is not all there is. I remember that God sits on his throne, and that he has power and sovereignty over everything that happens. I trust him to be with me as he promised, no matter what happens in this earthly reality. That is the only antidote that gives me peace and happiness in my time of despair. I believe it is the antidote we all need when we feel powerless. It is not for me alone; it is for you as well. Hope in God. He is on his throne. You can count on the One who gave Himself for you. You can count on the One who is the real power in the real reality beyond the limit of time and space.

Pray for the Government?

I pray for government every week. I started doing this a little over a year ago after visiting the National Day of Prayer website. I borrowed their concept of praying for some aspect of our national life every day, but I modified the list a bit. I pray for government every Monday. My high-level prayer is that everyone in government will act with integrity and serve the people according to local, county, state and national law. Beyond that, I pray about specific issues in these various realms. It all sounds fairly benign when stated that way. I might just say “Bless everyone in government and keep our country safe,” but that is not nearly enough.

Praying for government is complicated. For starters, everyone in government, whether elected, appointed, or hired through some civil service process, is a human being. They are all sinners, just like me, and they all do things that make me crazy. Just because they are human. That, unfortunately, is the start, but not the end of the problem.

At every level, there are some people who are in it for what they can get out of it. They have figured out how to scam the system or beat the system to some advantage for themselves. They lie to the public, they lie to each other. They steal by deception or by blatant theft. In most cases, I only suspect, but I don’t have facts to support an accusation of outright criminal fraud. It is hard to pray for such people. I don’t know how to word a truthful prayer.

There are people in government who, to all appearances, serve with integrity and honor – until they don’t. It is easier to pray blessings on someone whose behavior and character appear to be honorable. It is a deep wound to discover that some of them have feet of clay. That discovery is such a challenge, especially if they retain their position of trust after I no longer trust them.

The biggest challenge is the political ideologies that I consider destructive and even unlawful. When I read that some politician or public official has embarked on a program that I consider to be sidestepping or even completely in opposition to our constitution or our laws, I can hardly bring myself to pray blessings on that person. I certainly cannot pray for the success of the program. My prayer is confused and halting. I am angry. I am hurt. I am afraid for the future.

It is even worse when day after day I hear national, state and local leaders line up to support this destructive action. I can pray that the program will be defeated or ended, but that is more like wishful thinking than prayer. In fact, my mental churning and emotional stew makes it very difficult for me to pray about these issues.

One day I wrote to a blogger whom I have long admired. We share a common political viewpoint, but we also share faith in Christ. I observed that even when she had to speak in opposition to a program or a candidate, she retained a level of focus that avoided the ad hominem attacks that so often cloud the issues in the public forum. I asked her how she keeps that clear perspective on the issues without scorning the human being. Her answer was very clear.

She said that she prays for the salvation of every person in government every day. Knowing that God sent Christ into the world in order that the world might be saved, she focuses her prayers on God’s will that all of us be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. I was humbled. I knew immediately that she was right. God’s purpose for each of us is to know Christ and to be reconciled to God through him. We are all failing in our obedience, no matter our level of relationship with Christ, so it is always right to pray that each person will come to know him in a relationship shaped by love and grace.

Now I keep that prayer uppermost when I pray for our government. I still pray about the issues. I think God had a hand in the formation of the USA. The people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the people who fought the Revolutionary War, the people who wrote our Constitution and who served as our early leaders all testified to faith in God, both in their lives and in the words they wrote in our founding documents. They relied on God for guidance in the establishment of our country. They, like me, were imperfect, but they did what they did as an outgrowth of their relationship with God. So I feel confident that God cares what becomes of us.

Therefore, remembering that God worked through flawed human beings to achieve his purpose in the founding of this country, I pray that he will continue to do that. I ask for his guidance in understanding the issues. I ask for his leadership in shaping my actions and comments with regard to the issues. I pray fervently for his will to be done in all things.

I pray for our government, and when I do so, I pray for myself. In this country, we can never exempt ourselves when we criticize the government, for we are the voters who elected the leaders who do the government’s work. If we really want the government to work the way God wants it to work, then we are all called to be God’s faithful servants, obedient to his will in our lives, including the way we vote. I have come a long way since the day I prayed for the defeat of a bill I thought was bad. We may be unhappy with our government for doing things we never expected when we voted for the incumbents, but we must always remember that in this country, at the most basic level, the government is us. We must pray fervently the petition in the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Then we must speak and act and vote in accord with God’s will as we best understand it, and pray with love that our elected leadership will do the same.

The Ministry of Listening

On the night Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Jesus said that his followers would be identified in the culture at large by the love they showed to each other. We often think that we show love to one another by doing things for one another, and that idea is not wrong. Just today in my church, we blessed and prayed for a small group of people who are preparing to leave for El Salvador where they will help Habitat for Humanity build houses. We are accustomed in churches to use the word “ministry” for the types of activity that show our love for one another. We expect someone who performs a ministry to be actively doing something.

In today’s world, we expect people to be very active all the time, whether in ministry, or in other activities. I hear people apologize constantly for any failure to do something, by saying, “I was just so busy.” In other words, people have way too many activities on their to-do lists to do all the activities on the list. One of the casualties of all that busyness is listening. For example, I have a friend whom I seldom actually see or talk to. She is quite busy. She almost never answers the phone when I call. I leave voice mail. If I really want her attention, I send e-mail. She is more likely to answer her e-mail with a quick sentence or two than to call me back after hearing my voice mail. When we do see each other, it always takes a while to get through her recitation of her busy schedule before we can begin to talk about the things that make us interested in each other. This state of affairs is very common these days. A real conversation is about talking and listening, but way too much of our interaction with people is about saying, or texting, or tweeting, or e-mailing, what we have to say. Not nearly enough is about listening to others.

I am starting to understand in my old age that one of the kindest, most helpful things people can do for each other is to listen. Have you ever felt completely alone in a room full of people? It happens all the time. People with the gift of hosting are attuned to the signal that somebody in the room is isolated. They find that person, engage him or her in conversation, and introduce that person to someone by saying something like, “Ellen, have you met Jody? Just wait till you hear where she went on vacation this year.” Jody, who used to be isolated and lonely, now has a cue to speak up, a topic to talk about, and a listener primed to pay attention. Jody feels a lot better about things already.

In the book, No Future Without Forgiveness, the South African bishop Desmond Tutu describes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as South Africa moved away from apartheid. He wrote that very often people said that the simple fact that the commission listened as they spoke was in itself healing. They needed to tell their stories, but they also needed attentive, respectful hearers. After the opportunity to speak the truth to someone who listened all the way to the end, they were ready to forgive the people who had done terrible things to them, or to those they loved. Simply speaking the truth to people who listened started the healing process.

It is easy to validate Bishop Tutu’s observations when you realize the value of counselors, psycho-therapists, and psychiatrists. These people provide the great service of listening to troubled people. Then they ask questions and listen again. Articles and books on the subject are full of examples of people who actually solved their own problems as they simply talked and talked and talked to someone who would listen.

It is a principle of relationship-building that people need to listen. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend, and one of the fastest ways to make a friend is to listen. As soon as you stop talking and give your full attention to the other person, that person starts to think better of you. If you are listening so attentively that you only speak to ask questions, you will endear yourself to the person speaking. It will be obvious that you are not scheming to figure out how to stop listening and start talking instead.

Good listeners don’t just sit quietly. They truly pay attention and try to get the whole story. Some of us tell our stories in a disjointed fashion, jumping forward and backward in time, making it hard for the listener to sort out the narrative. Good listeners ask questions, or even say things such as, “I think you said you went to your grandmother’s house before you went to work that day. Is that the way it was?” The dialogue in police stories on television often moves forward with the question, “And what happened next?” A good listener asks such questions and indicates to the speaker that there is plenty of time and plenty of attention for him to finish the story.

Good listeners actually look at the speaker, too. They aren’t checking the time or staring out the window. They make eye contact with the speaker, giving the non-verbal message that they value what the speaker is saying.

A good listener encourages the speaker by remaining silent when the speaker falls silent. Especially when a story is intensely personal, or when the story is about a very painful experience, the speaker may stop talking. He may be gathering his thoughts. He may be unable to speak due to emotion. He may not know how to put his real thoughts into words. A good listener won’t jump in to make comments or draw inappropriate conclusions before the story is ended. The speaker needs time, and good listeners make it seem that there is all the time in the world.

Jesus said that we should serve one another and love one another. One of the finest ways we can serve one another and show our love is to listen. We all go to God with our troubles and we expect that he will listen. If we want to be like him, we will learn how to serve family and friends by listening.