Monday, March 7, 2016

The Lost Son(s)

"Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car."

I have always loved that quote. Most people consider it a motto for those who are "spiritual but not religious." Or, as some prefer to call them, the "nones." The "nones" does include those who do not believe in God or a higher power, but the majority of them do believe. The majority of them simply do not believe in organized religion, and do not affiliate with an organized religion. They do not attend Church services. They do not see an importance in showing up weekly in a Church building, and often instead see those who do to be hypocrites.

And this perceived hypocrisy is the point of this quote - just because someone shows up every Sunday and sits in a pew does not make them better than those believers who stay home.

I heard a sermon a couple days ago which focused on these non-Church goers. In this sermon, the pastor basically said that these people are not part of God's Church, and that they do not have faith. But, he went on to say how there is still hope for these "nones" - that God is still waiting and willing to welcome them if and when they're ready.

This is, at best, poor theology. I'd go so far as to say it is the precise hypocrisy the "nones" are trying to avoid. How can any of us say that we are all part of God's Church, but then claim that this truth is only applicable to those who park their butts in the pews every Sunday?

Allow me to change up that opening quote just a little...

"A car which is not in the garage is still a car, just as a child of God not in the physical Church building is still a child of God."

Don't get me wrong - I do believe that the physical church building does have significant importance. I do park my butt in that pew nearly every Sunday (as well as any other chance I get). But this is not what makes me a Christian. it is not what makes any of us Christian. God hasn't welcomed me into his loving arms because I show up to service. It has nothing to do with me at all, and everything to do with God.

These "nones" are no more lost and in need of saving than you or I... and are no less found and saved than you or I.

---

In our Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday in Lent (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), we're told the story of the lost son. On the surface, I can understand how some may see this prodigal son as one who has left the church... and upon returning home, is welcomed back with God's open arms, forgiven, and therefore saved. I can see how this story can be used to support what this pastor was preaching a couple days ago. And yet many seem to miss a vital part of the story.

Yes, the prodigal son leaves home and squanders the money and does come back. And yes, he is greeted warmly with a huge party and lavish gifts. All is forgiven him. But what of the other son?

The elder son had stayed with his father, and had worked. And yet upon hearing of the younger son's return, and the partying that ensued because of his return, he grew angry and refused to join the celebration. He was lost as well. In believing he was better and more worthy of gifts and celebration, he was just as much a sinner as his brother.

And yet we see that with both sons - the one who left, then came back and said "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you" was forgiven; and the one who grew resentful and angry and never said "Father, I have sinned", but instead rebuked his father, was also forgiven and shown compassion. 

I do not believe the point of this parable has anything to do with anyone leaving the church, or not attending Church. The point is quite simply that we are all sinners. We all get lost from time to time. 

And yet our God is ever-loving, and ever-forgiving, and ever-present in our lives. His blessings are for all of us, and he lavishes us with these blessings constantly.

---


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Regret vs Repentance


 The concepts of regret and repentance have been on my mind quite a bit lately. Perhaps this is because I have a bad habit of sinning, and a bad habit of hurting those I love. Perhaps it's because it is the season of Lent. Perhaps it's because I just preached a little on repentance a couple days ago. Regardless of the reason, these two words have been bouncing around in my head, and I feel a need to explain these two concepts as I see them, and as I believe we should all see them...

Regret vs Repentance (definitions according to me)

 Regret: When I think of regret, I think of actions (or inactions) that we wish we could change - Actions we would change if we were able to jump in a time machine and do so. Regret is filled with shame and guilt that eats away at us. It is a "worldly sorrow."

Repentance: Repentance is not just being sorry about something. It isn't a shame or guilt that eats away at us. It is a "Godly sorrow" that leads us to know we have screwed up, and leads us to want to change our hearts and minds.

Remorse: I have added this word simply because most of what I've been reading about this topic have the subject of "remorse vs repentance", or lump remorse in with repentance. To me, remorse is being sorry for your actions... it is feeling guilty. Both regret and repentance can have a degree a remorse attached, which makes this term related to both "worldly sorrow" and "Godly sorrow" depending on the reason attached and what affect it has on our lives.  


For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Corinthians 7:10)


Worldly sorrow vs. Godly sorrow

 Worldly sorrow is that guilt and shame we feel - but it is often not a guilt or shame or remorse over our actions, but rather over getting caught or the fear that we could have gotten caught. It is when we beat ourselves up repeatedly for our actions. It is when we know we did something wrong, and so we try to hide it. This worldly sorrow doesn't cause change within us; and instead we find ourselves either standing still in our own misery or repeating the same mistakes over and over again - both of which compound the guilt and shame.

Godly sorrow on the other hand is feeling sorry for our actions, but moves us to change. It moves us to bring our sins to Christ... to the cross. It's knowing we sinned, but instead of hiding that sin, we confess it to God and ask forgiveness. It is changing our hearts and minds - asking God for help in changing our hearts and minds - and letting God forgive us and put us back on the correct path towards him.



Standing still in sin vs Moving forward in hope

As I stated earlier, regret brings a desire with it to go back in time and erase the sin that happened. It makes us want to hide the sin, or pretend it didn't happen. We put all our focus on wishing it hadn't happened, or that we hadn't got caught; or on trying to make it so we don't get caught. We put all our focus on the guilt and shame we feel. We let it eat away at us.

A biblical example of regret and worldly sorrow is Judas Iscariot. While Matthew 27 does say that Judas repented, that repentance didn't come until he saw that Jesus was condemned. That points more towards a remorse born of regret rather than true repentance. And we see that he did feel this guilt and shame to the point he hanged himself. We see that his guilt and shame did not turn him to Christ, but rather away from him.

Instead of getting caught up in regret and wallowing in our guilt and shame, we need to be moving forward. We need to allow our sins to change our hearts and turn us back to Christ and the Cross. This cannot happen if we're trying to hide our sin, or if we're pretending it did not happen. This cannot happen if we were to go back in time and change that sin so that it never occurred. Besides the fact that we simply cannot change our actions, even just regretting a sin to the point of focusing on wishing it hadn't happened keeps us standing still. It keeps us from moving forward.

Instead, we should have a Godly sorrow for what happened. Yes, we will feel guilt and remorse for our actions, but this pain should not exist indefinitely. This pain should lead us to the Cross - to Christ. It should bring about a change within us.

A biblical example of this Godly sorrow can be seen in Peter. At the end of Matthew, Chapter 26, Peter realizes that he has indeed denied Jesus three times, and he runs off and weeps. This remorse is true and leads Peter back to Christ. It can be assumed that Peter's actions do bring about repentance from him, and forgiveness for him, as we see later after Jesus has risen, the young man in the tomb specifies to the two Marys that they are to tell the disciples and Peter that he is coming to see them. We see Peter teaching and preaching about Christ. We see him moving forward in Christ.

And this is what we need to do. We need to accept the sin happened, confess that sin to God, asking his forgiveness, and then move forward in hope and love. Move forward in Christ.



Sunday, February 28, 2016

Divine Punishment for the Unrepentant?



Note: an audio version will be available for this sermon, hopefully within a week.
 
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

On September 11, 2001, the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda attacked the United States with hijacked airplanes. This attack caused the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse, caused damage to other buildings, and claimed the lives of approximately 3000 people.

On December 14, 2012, a lone gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut and opened fire. He took the lives of 20 children ages 6 to 7 and the lives of 6 adults.

When we remember and compare these two news stories, we don’t see any similarities between them. One was terrorism, one was a young man acting alone. One was a grand scale attack, one was an elementary school. One killed thousands, one killed a couple dozen people.

And yet there was one similarity. In both events, many Christians believed these were acts of God. Some pastors even preached that these tragedies brought about by God. One article on rightwingwatch.org says that one pastor claimed both tragedies were “‘gracious’ acts of divine punishment.”[i]
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, one member of the Westboro Baptist Church stated on Twitter “Westboro will picket Sandy Hook elementary school to sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.”[ii]

An article on Christianity Today speaks of how Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell – both well-known pastors - claimed the 9/11 attacks were God’s wrath on abortion and promiscuity.[iii]

When you think about it, it is understandable how some people could make the assumption that these tragedies were God’s punishment. After all, it is a common occurrence we see in the Bible – God striking people down for not obeying him. A group of people sin and do not repent, and God wipes them out. A lot of the stories contained within the pages of scripture seem to show God as an angry, wrathful, vengeful father – punishing his children through death and destruction.

We see this alluded to in our text this morning from First Corinthians when Paul speaks of the people who were following Moses. These people had been baptized. They ate and drank the same spiritual manna and water. And yet God was not pleased with many of them and struck them down because of their sin.


So it makes sense that many people today still hold to this belief that God is an angry, vengeful father. The twin towers falling 15 years ago at the World Trade Center - it was God’s wrath on a sinful America. A gunman killing 26 people in a school – it was God’s wrath on a sinful America. Even when natural tragedy strikes, such as floods and hurricanes, many Christians proclaim that it is God’s vengeance on those people for living in sin.

Even if we don’t pin a tragedy on God’s wrath, we still find other ways to point our finger at him. If we have an illness, or other hardship, we claim it is God testing us. When we watch a loved one suffer every day, we say it is all part of God’s plan.

No matter how you spin it – whether it’s God’s wrath, God’s plan, or God testing us – each of these assumptions make God out to be a not-so-pleasant person.

And yet, as human beings, we find it necessary to do this. We find it necessary for there to be a reason behind every tragedy. We need an explanation for why bad things happen. God, as our all-powerful father, is a perfect scapegoat. It has to be his doing. And sin, as our ever present obstacle in this world, is a perfect explanation as to why God is doing it. They sinned, therefore God punished them.

We see this same human thinking in our Gospel lesson this morning. We see humans trying to do what we still do today – blaming tragedy on God’s wrath for sinful behavior. In the first verse of Luke, chapter 13, we’re told of a tragedy in which some Galileans were seemingly slaughtered. And in the 4th verse, we’re told of a tragedy in which some died when a tower fell on them. The text hints that the people believed these tragedies to be acts of God falling upon people who were very sinful and perhaps were unrepentant of their sins.

But in this text, Jesus squashes those thoughts. He asks the people "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”…. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  And his answer to both questions was No! “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

We are told quite specifically from Jesus that God not did kill these people, and these people were no worse of sinners than those listening to Jesus speak. These people were no worse sinners than the rest of us are. Jesus pulls us away from the tragedy that hit these people, and pulls us away from asking “why did this happen.” He pulls us away from our assumptions that these people have suffered because they’re sinners.
And he pulls us away from our assumptions that these people must have been worse sinners than we are. He pulls us away from all that because that is not where our focus should be. When we begin to believe that tragedy strikes one group of people because of their sin, it is easy for us to believe that because we have not been struck down, we’re somehow better than they were.

Instead of allowing us the chance to believe that we are somehow better people, Jesus says No. They did not suffer because they are more sinful. But he continues by saying that each of us will suffer if we don’t repent.

This is a frightening concept. On the surface, it sounds like a very dire warning – a fear-based reason to drop to our knees in front of God and beg for mercy. A fear-based reason to drag ourselves to church every Sunday, and pray, and read scripture. And this fear is compounded when we hear the story of the fig tree that isn’t doing what it is supposed to do.

The vineyard owner wants to get rid of it – uproot it. And because of our tendency to see God as one who strikes down those who don’t do what they’re supposed to do, we tend to put him in the role of the vineyard owner.

This is not the case. Jesus isn’t seeking to scare us into the pews with this story of the fig tree. Instead, he is offering us hope and promise, and the truth of who God truly is.

God is not the vineyard owner who wants to uproot the unproductive fig tree. God is the gardener… giving us mercy and another chance to repent. And he is giving us so much more than that. He is not saying “repent, or I’m done with you.” Instead, he promises to be there with us, giving us what we need to grow. He is promising not to just leave us alone in figuring out how to do what we should be doing, but instead he is promising to nourish us every step of the way.

And yet we still come back to that one word – Repent. Repent or perish. We’re still left with that frightening concept that Ok, great… God is nourishing us and giving us mercy… but we must repent or we will perish. And in the parable of the fig tree, we are told we only have a limited time to do so. This is a very frightening thought.

But, when we look at what repentance means, we see that the dire-warning we’re given isn’t so frightening at all. Instead, it is a comforting promise and a tool which brings us closer in our relationship with God and with others.

Repentance is not simply saying “I’m sorry” and then going back to the same life you’ve been leading. It is not simply saying “I screwed up” and then going back to screwing up again. Yes, of course as humans, we will still make mistakes. And we will probably still make the same mistakes we have already repented for.

Repentance does not mean we’re not going to still make poor decisions, or that we’re not going to still sin. What it does mean is that we recognize our own sinfulness, and – with the grace and love of God – we follow that compass which always points towards him.  

Repentance is not simply words. It is a change in our hearts. It is a renewal of our spirit to follow God. It is seeing tragedy strike and not assuming “That happened because they were worse sinners than I am”. It is seeing tragedy and not asking or attempting to answer the question “Why did God do this?”

Repentance is understanding that I am a sinner. I have done wrong. I have not done as God desires. I have followed my own desires. And I am truly sorry, and will seek God. I will follow that compass which always points towards God. Seeking God – following that compass – means I will get out of the way and let God get me back on the correct path.

In our 1 Corinthians text, Paul says “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

This text shows us where our compass is pointing. It is pointing towards God. It does not say God is the one testing us. It does not place blame on God or the people enduring suffering. It doesn’t place blame at all, but instead assures us that we can get through all hardship with the strength of God… by asking God which direction he wants us to go…. By showing us where we can find God… And by letting God lead us there.  

And where exactly is God? Where is that compass pointing? He is not causing tragedy and suffering – Instead, he is there within the tragedy and suffering, just as he was there with the injured and the loved ones of those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack. Just as he was there with the injured and the loved ones of those who died at Sandy Hook.

He is there digging around the fig tree and providing the nourishment that tree needs.


He is there suffering with the sick and the injured; with those who’ve lost loved ones or are painstakingly caring for the disabled and sick.

He is there suffering with the poor and the broken hearted; the abused and persecuted.

And this is where each of us should be, and through repentance and the comfort of knowing we have forgiveness and are God’s children, this is where we find ourselves – this is where God leads us – right there beside him, helping those who need us. Suffering alongside those who need strength. Through repentance and forgiveness, we find ourselves equipped with the tools God has already given us to endure – God’s grace, strength, love and mercy.

And now, may the Word of the Lord which surpasses all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in true faith.
Amen



[i] (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/pastor-school-shooting-gracious-judgment).

[ii] (http://www.examiner.com/article/westboro-baptist-church-says-gay-rights-caused-newton-school-shooting-massacre).

[iii] (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/august/24.55.html).

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Whispers in the Hall

A few years ago, I started a novel entitled "Whispers in the Hall." This novel was about a slightly mentally unstable woman. Or, at least, it was going to be. The novel barely got off the ground, and had already veered off it's intended course. But, I had a deep connection with the title of the novel, and so I decided to re-purpose that title. I created an entire blog titled "Whispers in the Hall." This blog was about abuse - statistics, stories, links for help, and things such as. But again, I found I had problems getting it off the ground.

Recently, I have again recognized the connection I have to the title. And I have also recognized that both the novel and the blog were interconnected. This post is not a sermon. It is not a novel about a crazy lady. It is not statistics about abuse. It is simply a rambling that I need to write about a title that is my mind.

I was abused. I have not kept this a secret, although admittedly I have not always been forthcoming about all the abuse, nor about the lasting effects of this abuse. But in the past few months, these effects have hit full force. I am a runner. And there are many triggers to this instinct to run - most of which link back to my childhood. I will drink to run away when a trigger is hit. I will quite literally hide (in closets, dark rooms, under tables, outside in the dark). And I will physically run away.

Everyone I know who has been abused has some form of lasting trauma from that abuse. And there are triggers which will cause a reaction - either emotional, or physical, or both. With me, it can be both. An angry voice will usually cause me to hide. The words "I love you" will often make me emotionally push someone away before they can betray that love. Being sexual will sometimes cause me to feel sick to my stomach. That intense, cold look of anger in someone's eyes will cause me to completely melt down, curled up in the fetal position crying.

Whispers in the hall... those little voices of the abused child inside us... cry out from the depths of our mind - from those sealed rooms we locked them in so many years ago. Whispers in the hall... those little memories we have buried so deep we sometimes don't even remember them... find a way out, though we may not recognize them.

So many rooms and little voices reside within these halls. There is the small voice of the little child molested by a family friend for years - the same little child who used to hide under her bed, and when that didn't work, would hide inside her own fantasies to ignore what was happening to her. There is the voice of the child and young teenager who was beaten and betrayed by parents who were supposed to care for her - the same child who would hide under her blankets or in the closet, or if that didn't work, would hide inside a book or her own writing to escape the physical pain; the same child who eventually ran away from home. There is the voice of the teenager who was raped by a friend - the same teenager who, after the fact, learned to hide in the bottom of a liquor bottle.

So many voices - voices which are eager to cry louder when they see the eyes of another scared little child... even those small scared children whom are living with the mind and body of an adult. Voices which plead to speak out and yet are so scared they want to cower. Voices which want to be more than just whispers in the hall, and yet cannot speak above that whisper. Voices which are only a whisper trapped in a room at the end of the hall, and yet echo through the halls with unavoidable cries and screams.

The only way to lessen the reactions caused by certain triggers is to, once again, face these voices - let them out, if only momentarily. I must once again allow them to be more than just whispers in the hall, lest they trap me, making me but a whisper.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Infinite Love


While speaking with a great and trusted friend today, I asked him to explain the meaning and purpose of Ash Wednesday. Part of his response stuck with me throughout the day:

“It is a time recognize that we are not the ones who can do the work, but rather are the ones upon whom the work is done. We remember that we are finite and rely upon the infinite love of God for our very survival.”

When I read these words from him, my mind did not go to the concept of “you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Instead, I immediately thought of the frailty of human relationships. I immediately thought of the strongest relationships I have had in my life, and the difference those relationships have made in my life and in my relationship with God.

The best friends I have had are ones which have Christ in the center of them. These friendships were not always perfect, and are not always perfect. There has been anger and jealousy and temptations and a myriad of other problems. And yet by having Christ in the center of them – by believing in God’s infinite love, grace, and mercy – the ability to overcome these obstacles became not only easier, but an important necessity. With God living within the combined soul of these relationships, the desire to heal that entwined soul becomes a desired requirement.

By having Christ in the center of them – by being enveloped in God’s infinite love, grace, and mercy – these relationships are no longer finite and frail. They become infinite, immeasurable and unconditional.  By this love being embraced by God’s unending grace and mercy, we are able to pray with and for each other. We are able to forgive. We are strengthened in our abilities to resist all sorts of temptations, and to seek and receive forgiveness when we are unable to resist.

By having Christ in the center of our relationships – by allowing God’s infinite love, grace, and mercy to work within us – we are able to teach and learn from one another. We are able to hear someone say “you are worthy” or “you are a beloved child of God” or “you are forgiven” and believe these words not only in that moment, but forever. The words stick (even though we may temporarily forget them or disbelieve them). The lessons stick. And we have the ability within ourselves, through God, to be able to give these same messages to others, bringing others the comfort and love and the belief in forgiveness that they need to hear and understand and have stay in their souls.

By having Christ in the center of our relationships and our lives – by the truth of God’s infinite love, grace, and mercy – we are blessed with the ability to move beyond our finite existence into one of resurrection and infinite love that surpasses “from dust you were formed and to dust you shall return.”

Thank you God for the blessing of your infinite love, and for the grace and mercy you give to me. Thank you for those whom you put in my life to teach me of your infinite blessings; and for being in the center of their souls and their teaching. Thank you for placing me in the lives of those who need to hear of your infinite blessings, and for being in the center of my soul. Thank you for the friendships which are based on your infinite love, grace and mercy – for being ever-present in the midst of these friendships. Please continue to be ever-present in all of my relationships, strengthening and blessing these relationships so we may each continue to grow.

In the name of Jesus Christ, our savior and Lord – the one you sent to die and be resurrected for the forgiveness of our sins, because of your infinite love, grace, and mercy for us,
Amen