Friday, October 23, 2009

Why Giving IS Better Than Receiving

I was listening to the radio recently when an ad came on offering a "free" vacation to the Caribbean.  It said that 500 of these vacations were being offered in our area for a limited time.

Hmmm...what's the catch?  Well, the first suspect thing I heard in the ad - which went by very quickly, making it hard to hear all the details (of course) -  was that this was a free TWO DAY vacation. That's not very long to spend in the Caribbean.  As a matter of fact, they would probably tell you that you can't even get on and off the cruise ship in two will have to add a few more days to the cruise to take advantage of this your own expense, of course!

Other details escape my memory, but it was a reminder about a lot of the "free" offers that are out there...remember the old saying, "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is"?

Some "gifts" are like that. They come with strings attached. Whether it's the gift of a free (two day!) Caribbean vacation, or the gift from a friend, relative or business associate who then expects you to remember their generosity when they need something from you!

So why are we such suckers for "free" stuff? Why do we want to believe that we can actually get something for nothing?  Life doesn't work that way...there's always a catch. Nothing's really free, and most of the "free" stuff is junk either breaks almost immediately, or never lives up to it's promise to begin with.

There's something in the human heart that wants to take the easy route, to get something for free rather than work for it.  Which may just be part of our current debt problem in America:

Why should I save up for something I want when I can use a credit card and charge it now?
Why wait?
Why delay my pleasure and gratification of my desires?

This seems to be the attitude of the young man in Jesus' parable about the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). He's the younger of two sons, and he demands his share of his inheritance from his father.  He doesn't want to wait to receive what's "rightfully his."  He wants to enjoy life now

The father gives him his share of his inheritance, and soon he's headed for the bright lights of the big city.  It's party time!  But it doesn't take long for him to burn through all his inheritance, and he goes quickly from being the life of Bourbon Street to being an untouchable street person.  The only job he can get it feeding hogs, which for a kosher Jewish boy is not real desirable or good for the ol' ego!

I want to pause here to make a couple observations: 

First, I suspect that, while all the spending and high life seemed fun at the time, this young man had little appreciation for what it all cost. His money was easy come, easy go...and I doubt he was really getting much satisfaction from the spending, because he had no idea of the value of that money. He had no idea how much toil, saving and patience was necessary to create that wealth...why would he? It was handed to him. 

When we "buy" something on credit, we dont' fully appreciate its value. That leads to lower satisfaction with our purchase. And it leads to the desire for something new again because my pleasure was short-lived.

Second, because he himself did not earn the money through toil, saving and patience, he also did not look ahead and plan for tomorrow.  He was living for the moment. He probably thought dad's 'gravy train' would never run dry. He had no sense of self-responsibility. He wasn't tracking his spending, or his bank balance. He wasn't making any effort to take care of his future financial needs with today's time, strength and opportunities.

When we keep spending all that we have - and MORE than we have - today, there will be nothing there to take care of us tomorrow. Which means we will have to continue to work - both for our own needs, but also to pay back whoever else we owe for yesterday's fun and forgotten stuff. And often it means serving someone else, instead of being self-employed or in control of our own life.

While these observations aren't the main point of the story of the prodigal son (I'll get to that in a future post), they point to some important principles for living that I've talking about in this current sermon series on stewardship

1) God wants us to be content with what we have, so that we will be good stewards of the wealth he entrusts to us. Toil, savings and patience lead to a personal balance sheet and net worth that's in the black instead of in the red.  But you will only exercise the discipline necessary to live this way if you truly trust God to meet your needs and CHOOSE to be content with what you have. That's right, contentment is a CHOICE! And I'm going to talk about this on Sunday...the message is called "Cultivating Contentment."  Contentment makes saving and planning wisely for the future possible.

2) When you choose contentment - and over time develop a net worth that's in the black - you have resources that can be used for your own needs and wants, but they can also be used for God's purposes.  You have the financial means to invest in worthy causes and ministries.  You have the resources to help someone else who has hit a rough spot. You have the resources to invest in your own or someone else's great idea for a product or enterprise than can create more wealth for the future. And you will likely create more jobs and livelihoods for other persons, blessing their lives as well!

Why is GIVING better than RECEIVING?

Because if you are in a position to GIVE, it means you have disciplined yourself to earn and save, creating wealth that can help others.  It means you are being a responsible, productive person and you are using the gifts and resources God has entrusted to you in faithful stewardship.  And someday you will hear those words of Jesus spoken in another parable, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

So while sometimes it certainly is a blessing to receive (it certainly has been at times in my life)... is truly the greater blessing to GIVE than to RECEIVE.

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's NOT the Economy, Stupid!

The number one concern of most Americans right now is the economy and jobs.  We've had several church members lose their jobs in recent weeks. Many more are concerned about further cuts that could happen in their workplace. 

Meanwhile, most of us aren't prepared for a layoff.  Americans are saving between -1% and 1% of their income!  (This compares with an average savings rate in China of around 25%!)  And we are in debt - the average credit card debt in America is over $9,000.

Our federal government reflects 'we the people,' with debt that is growing daily and is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, money that we are borrowing from other countries and will have to repay - someday, somehow.

What's our problem? 

Guess what - it's NOT the economy!

While we definitely have financial problems, our money crisis is a symptom of a deeper problem.  All of our spending and borrowing and debt points to a flaw in our collective character (and our individual minds and hearts). 

In spite of having so much - in fact, having all that we need and more...

...we are not CONTENT.

We are restless, bored, searching for something ... and in the process we shop, we buy, we borrow, we travel and vacation and entertain ourselves - we go deeper into debt, and still feel the same restless dissatisfaction.

What's missing inside each on of us that keeps pushing us to want more?

Part of what's missing is a sense of purpose and identity...
...what's missing is knowing WHO I am and WHY I'm here.

We have an internal need or desire for significance and purpose, and unless we fulfill this, we are restless. Our antidote is to spend, spend, spend and we are in serious debt, which leads to further stress - and often more spending!

This internal desire for purpose is something that God put in us when we were created as human beings.  We're not satisfied to just consume and act like animals.  We need something more to be fulfilled. We need to give and contribute.  We need to know we're making a difference.

This is a spiritual issue - that is, it goes beyond the physical or the biological - or the financial!  God created us as spiritual beings, and part of our spiritual fulfillment comes from learning his purposes for us. God is our compass and roadmap.  No wonder Jesus said he was the light, and the bread of life.  Without him we're directionless and hungry for more...even when we've gorged ourselves on food and pleasure.

This Sunday will be the second in our series called "Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity." I'm going to address this issue - helping us be clear about our purpose and calling.  When we discover and accept God's plans and purposes for our lives, we are able to experience the freedom that comes from contentment.

I'll also share some simple financial principles we all need to remember to act wisely in the area of finances; that's why this message is entitled "Wisdom and Finance."

And we're giving every person who attends Sunday a 'sticky card' (that you can stick to your bathroom mirror or a window) that has these important financial principles on it. This tool will be a daily reminder to encourage you to be content and discover God's deeper purpose for your life!

I look forward to seeing you this Sunday!

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Right PLACE to Share Christ?

In my previous blog post, I suggested that as Christians we need to be careful about WHERE we go and the ACTIVITIES we're involved in with our non-Christian (I also used the term "pre-Christian") friends. Specifically, I suggested that hanging out in bars (or other questionable places) can be problematic for believers, since there are usually temptations we should avoid.

I received an excellent response to my comments from a pastor (who I am blessed to know as a friend and colleague in ministry) who serves in a smaller community where sometimes the bar is the only place in town to get a sandwich or connect with people. (This was true when we lived in St. Edward, NE, as well; the two places in town where you could sit down and have a decent lunch were the Hitching Post Bar (& Grill) or the City Cafe, which was connected to the Polka Dot Lounge.) 

He made some valid points with passion and clarity, so I asked his permission to share his comments, which I'll follow up with a couple thoughts in response. (And thanks, brother, for letting me share your wise words!)

I like your BLOG... and the layout and photos are great... but I would like to comment on one item: the bar! I have another perspective.

In some locations the bar is the ONLY place to hang out! To eat, to get a diet Pepsi or iced tea... and the only place where a Christian may have constant contact with acquaintances who NEED to HAVE a Christian friend.

While I agree that hanging out in the bar to drink and ogle the opposite sex is a very bad habit to develop, and some bars are nothing but trouble... not every bar is like that.

My church members would tell you that I have made a quantifiable mark on this community by hanging out in the bar. While there, I am clearly identified by the patrons as "Pastor," so that everybody else knows that I am there too! As a result the language has improved, the atmosphere has changed and quite a number of people come and sit with me to ask their religious and philosphical questions. Several have started attending church. Several have requested that I do their funerals. Two have accepted Christ on their death beds!

THAT's why I hang out at the bar in (name of town where he serves). However, if the bishop moves us in the future... somewhere like Lincoln or Omaha... (who knows?) I'm going to find a good bar to hang out in! Because hanging out in this one has made an incredible difference over a three year period.

I don't like foul language, men hitting on women & vice versa, or loud obnoxious arguments... but in three years that has died down quite a bit... because most of the people know there's a Christian pastor in the bar who preaches what he believes and believes what he preaches. Sometimes they try to "shock" me... but my failure to react generally produces an apology. It has actually been fun!

Not to mention that there are a bunch of people who don't have a pastor. That's my OTHER congregation.

I appreciate the perspective my friend has offered.  It emphasizes an important point or principle:

What is your intention for going to a place (bar, etc.) where Christians would not normally hang out?  Are you going there "armored up" in prayer - with the intent of being salt and light, or are you going there "broken up" and planning to drown your sorrows or look for comfort and encouragement from the wrong person?

Answer these questions honestly, and you'll know whether it's right for your to be there.

My pastor friend has shared that there is potential for serious ministry to happen in unlikely (or maybe the most likely!) places. Jesus didn't shy away from such places or persons. He spent a lot of time sharing his passion for the least, the last and the lost, and connecting with them and their needs.  It all depends on your intention; your spiritual maturity and your willingness to be used by God.

So....are you taking Jesus with you when you go to such places?

That's the ultimate litmus test.

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Who Should I Be Spending Time With?

Here's an excellent question someone texted to me at the end of last Sunday's (October 4) sermon:

How do we balance bringing lost people to Christ with not keeping "bad" company?

Someone else texted me nearly the same question, so it was obviously a blind spot in my message!

For those of you who weren't there, the message was "WHY (join the) CHURCH?" I gave several reasons why I believe Christians need to be connected to each other in the body of Christ:

1) We all need healing in our human relationships.  All of our relationships are broken and damaged in some way by sin, and in the body of Christ, through God's grace, we learn how to have healthy relationships with others. We discover healthy connections based on unconditional love, forgiveness and grace rather than performance, perfection or possession.

2) We reflect God most accurately when we are in healthy relationships with those around us. Before the world existed, there was God alone, but God was not alone!  God was in fellowship - in connection and relationship, if you will - as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We were created in God's image, and deep within our "God image" is the need for relationship with others. People are hungy for authentic friendship and relationship; the church should be a place where people experience these kinds of meaningful connection. 

3) We cannot grow as disciples of Jesus Christ without vital connections with other growing Christians. Spiritual growth happens as we study together, pray together, worship and serve together. We need modeling. Jesus own disciples needed to spend time with him in order to be influenced by him. Those we spend significant amounts of time with will influence us the most.

So...we need to be connected with other believers in the church in order to keep our spiritual life vital and growing. 

But we also need to reach the lost. This is accomplished as we build relationships with them so that our witness to them is genuine and based on real connection, not just shallow attempts to "win them for Jesus."  And most of us have non-Christian friends, neighbors and co-workers with whom we spend significant time.

So back to our question:

How do we balance bringing lost people to Christ with not keeping "bad" company?

I'll just offer a couple suggestions, and perhaps others will chime in here from their own wisdom and experience (I would welcome that!).

First, WHERE are you spending time with your non-Christian friends?  Is it an unhealthy atmosphere?  Is it a place that promotes unhealthy relationships?  It's one thing to go out to dinner or go to a sporting event (or concert, etc.) with friends, it's another thing to spend the evening at a bar or other place where the main purpose is to consume lots of "adult beverages" and "check out" members of the opposite sex. 

Did I put that delicately enough? 

Throughout scripture there are warnings about avoiding evil or wicked people and the activities of those who do not honor or worship God. Psalm 1:1 says,

"Blessed (or 'happy') are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers..."

St. Paul says, "Don't be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals" (1 Corinthians 15:33).

Second, is this activity (or group of persons) conducive to healthy relationships, or am I likely to be tempted to think or act in ways that would compromise my Christian faith and witness?  You may say to yourself, "I'm strong, I know my limits," and so on, but be realistic.  We're all human and we're all subject to temptation.  Why put yourself in that kind of atmosphere, and why go there with a non-Christian friend (or friends), seeming to lend your approval to them going there by your presence? 

Jesus says, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).  In other words, "Don't kid yourself, don't be naive and stupid."

God wants us to reach out to the unbelievers around us with genuine love, building relationships that will help them see Christ in us.  You need to be wise and discern how to build those relationships.  That includes what you do when you spend time together, and the kinds of places you go for "fellowship." 

Can you always avoid meeting in a place where you're uncomfortable?  No, obviously not.  But be aware of your witness in that atmosphere, and look for opportunities to spend time with your non-Christian friends in places where you can demonstrate and share the love of Christ in positive, grace-giving ways.

Find the balance in your life.  Spend time with fellow Christians so that you are growing spiritually and being strengthened in your faith.  Spend time with your "pre-Christian" friends and associates when there are opportunities for building bridges of authentic friendship where God's grace can work.

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Stop Trying To Be Good!

One of the greatest dangers to your spiritual growth, and mine, is trying to be a good person.  I know, I know, you think I've really lost it now! But keep reading...

Christianity differs from every other belief system in that your status with God is not based on your good works; your achievements (whether moral, financial, athletic, academic, social, etc.). Your status with God is totally based on God’s grace given to you (a “free” gift), and living your life daily out of that received grace, merited through Jesus Christ.

But many Christians stop walking in the grace that they accepted when they experienced the new birth.  They stop walking in that daily gift of forgiveness, new every morning.  Instead, they - you and me - start working at it, and pretty soon, we start thinking it's more about our effort rather than God's gift.

Eventually we Christians start basing our spiritual journey on our activity rather than our adoption.

When John Wesley had his "Aldersgate experience" of God's acceptance by grace through faith, and realized that his sins were forgiven, he said he went from being a "servant" of God to being a "son" of God; he went from living on the porch to living in the house as a member of the family.

Many of us move back to the porch; we start acting like servants of God again instead of beloved children. We lose the joy of our relationship as a child of God, loved and cherished!  We become like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, who said to his father, "Look, all these many years I have served you..." (Luke 15:29).

He had no joy in his relationship with his father; it was all work and drudgery.

And he despised his own brother.

Why?  Because the younger brother didn't live up to his high standard. And even though the younger brother realized what a fool he'd been, and came home repentant - willing to be a servant to his father - the older brother judged him unworthy.

He wouldn't even call him "brother" anymore.  He referred to him as,"this son of yours" when speaking to his father (15:30). 

This is the danger for you and me.  If we are working ourselves to the nubs for God - with the attitude of the older brother - trust me; we will be keeping score.  And most people aren't going to meet our high standard. And if they get close, we'll raise the bar higher! 

Because we've slipped into "works-righteousness." We've stopped receiving God's gift. Now we're trying to earn it.  We set standards others can't meet, trying to make ourselves look better while everyone else comes up short.

We become Pharisees.

Paul the apostle shared his heart in Philippians 3, confessing that he used to live this kind of life:

       "We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort, though I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more!
       "I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law...and as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault.
       "I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." (Phil. 3:3-8, New Living Translation)

So another danger of this attitude is hinted at by Paul: if I'm earning it myself, I don't need Jesus.  I can manage.

Friends, this is NOT Christianity.  It is counterfeit faith.  It produces judgmental Christians and churches. It divides us instead of uniting us. It's the hypocrisy that the world sees in us. And it's ugly. 

Take a few moments and examine your heart.  Let the Holy Spirit shine a light into the rooms in your spiritual house and check your motivations:

Are you walking freely in grace today? 
Or are you anxious about all you need to do.
Are you keeping score for yourself, and for others?

After you've spent some time reflecting on this, put all the wrong motives and judgmental attitudes at the foot of the cross. Thank Jesus again for offering himself for you, and thank him again for his gift of eternal life - unmerited, unearned, yours by faith in Christ alone!

When you've left that burden at the cross, please come back in the house, and join the family at the table!

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike

Friday, October 2, 2009

The JESUS Question...Is Jesus the Only Way?

After last Sunday's sermon "Why (choose) Christianity," I received several questions from persons that can be summed up in this question that was texted to me:

"If Jesus is the only way...what happens to those who don't hear about Jesus?"

A related question asked, "What about those who lived before Jesus was born?"

And of course, the most direct question like this, simply put, is this, "Isn't saying that Jesus is the only way of salvation descriminating against those who believe something else, or practice a different religion?"

These questions all arise out of our desire to be fair, to appear open-minded, and to not be seen as intolerant by others. ("Tolerance" has become THE highest virtue in our culture today! But, as we see in our society over and over again, "tolerance" can be pretty intolerant of the views of others when it becomes the supreme value to which we must bow.  More about this later in another post.)

So again, our question:

"If Jesus is the only way...
...what happens to those who don't hear about Jesus?"

Christians believe that God loves all that he has created, and it is his desire that all persons come to him through his gift of grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. (Most other religions also believe in the need for 'salvation' and offer some 'way' to achieve it.) But many persons were born before Jesus ever lived, and there are many more who have been born since Jesus lived who have never heard of him (after all, we haven't always had You Tube!).

God loves all these persons, but they haven't heard the gospel message of Jesus.  How can they know of God's gifts of love, grace and salvation?

The reality of our human condition is that we have ALL sinned.  Every person who has ever lived "falls short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).  None of us have met God's perfect, holy standard. We have all lived less than perfect lives; we're selfish, we gossip, we steal, we lust, we want what others have. If we're being honest, we all know that we're imperfect; we know we are without excuse...and this will become painfully true for each one of us when we stand before our holy, perfect Creator.

So we all need forgiveness.  Every person needs God's gift of grace through Christ to redeem our less than perfect lives.

The New Testament tells us how persons will receive this chance to hear the good news even if they are not reached in this life. In 1 Peter 3:18-20 we read:

       "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water."

When it says Christ "went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison," some scholars believe this is a reference to Christ sharing the good news of salvation so that they will have an opportunity to respond.  This is further supported by Peter's words a few verses later in 1 Peter 4:5-6:

       "But they will have to give an accounting to him who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does."

God's desire is that we would "live in the spirit as God does."  He will provide every person a day for salvation as well as a day for judgment.  This is the righteous, perfect God that we worship! 

In Romans 14:9 Paul writes:

       "For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living."

Jesus will reign over the living and the dead.  (James says that even the demons believe that he is Lord, and they shudder in fear [James 2:19].) He is Lord of all, those who receive him, and those who reject him. There are persons who hear the good news but reject Christ; God gives us this freedom and this choice. God will not force anyone to worship him or spend eternity in his presence. But God's desire is for every person to receive Christ's gift of forgiveness and salvation. 

For this reason, and based on the texts above, I believe every person will have an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel. 

But how much better for us, and for every person, to know we have eternal life today, right now?  For this reason the church - and every member of Christ's body - must share his message, so that all can receive this Good Gift!

Stay connected...

Pastor Mike