Sunday, September 25, 2016

How we are Called to Serve Others instead of Ourselves

1 Timothy 6:10-12 (GNT):  A Call to Service
For the love of money is a source of all kinds of evil. Some have been so eager to have it that they have wandered away from the faith and have broken their hearts with many sorrows. But you, man of God, avoid all these things. Strive for righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. Run your best in the race of faith, and win eternal life for yourself; for it was to this life that God called you when you firmly professed your faith before many witnesses.

Paul’s advice to Timothy is universal to Christians today. Imitating Christ in this world is something we can do by practicing genuine “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” in our everyday living, for God certainly knows our hurt, limping world needs it. The world, for instance, and its allure of busyness and money-centered, faux happiness poses a distraction to our calling as servants of Jesus Christ. But if we look around us, we can see God in action, inspiring us to serve.

The other day during my study hall, I observed a teacher who was on break enter my room to spend time tutoring a struggling student. Although that teacher had copies to make, emails to write, assignments to grade, and a breath to take before their next class, they chose to serve the other instead of themselves. This may not seem like much on the surface (helping students comes with the job description), but as a teacher, I know the value of every short minute off I get during the day and the stinging temptation to stay far away from students during that time. There are many moments when I, too, am presented with opportunities to serve. Sometimes I take them; sometimes I avoid them. It’s human to fall into selfishness, for we are flawed. But when reflecting on this teacher’s service, I am inspired to love my neighbor more in the small moments and opportunities of my day.

Paul reminds Timothy (and us) to run, strive, win, and serve with the grace and love that God puts in our hearts. I pray that this week each of us be the inspiring example for someone else to see, igniting in them the faith, hope, and charity to serve and love others.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Why our Neighbor Includes our Enemies, too

Luke 6:35-36 (NRSV): Loving the Other
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

In his sermon on the plain, Jesus extends the traditional teaching of Leviticus 19:18 to go beyond loving just “[our] people” as our neighbor to loving all people, even our enemies.

Throughout our country there is a xenophobic attitude toward the other -- immigrants, refugees, the poor, people struggling with identity, and people of other faiths. Christ calls us to love everyone, especially those we are tempted to (or feel justified to) hate, giving to them without expecting a return. And on top of this, we are to pray for them while exercising mercy and kindness: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (36) . These are demanding words, words that call us to renewal and prayer. No one ever said discipleship is easy.

I pray that as we encounter our neighbor this week, we look on all people equally, with mercy, kindness, self-giving, prayer, and hope.

Have a blessed week.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why we Need to Take Ownership of our Sins

Psalm 51:1-10 (NRSV): Taking Ownership
Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions. . . .
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me.

I think of myself as a positive kind of guy, trying my imperfect best to love God above all things and my neighbor as myself. But my actions sometimes say the opposite. Just ask my wife; she knows me best. So I see myself one way, but my life tends to reflect the opposite. Why? What is it about my desire to be the best servant I can only to come up short in the quest, to violate the rules of love for my own pride and comfort? And when confronted with my selfishness, how do I handle it?
In Psalm 51, David offers his prayer of contrition to God, asking for his forgiveness and for a clean slate, so to speak, a clean heart. David admits his guilt regarding the murder of his friend and servant, Uriah the Hittite, and the adulterous relationship with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 12:1-15, God sends Nathan the prophet to confront David regarding his sin. Nathan’s story and prophecy reveal not only David's hidden sin but God’s care for David and, eventually, David’s contrition poured out in this beautiful Psalm of contrition, repentance, and forgiveness. In Psalm 51, David knows that God is a God of mercy: “According to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (1). As the prophet Nathan points out in 2 Samuel 12:13, God forgives David. And although there is a steep price that David pays for his sins, God blesses David, his future family, and his kingdom. After all, when God comes to redeem the world through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, he uses the Davidic family line.
As depicted in the fall of mankind in Genesis 3, our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit, and through that submission to temptation fell from perfect unity with God. Ever since then, we humans have had a reputation for making mistakes. When our mistakes reflect a lack of charity toward God and others, we sin. In my experience, the difficulty is not so much in knowing humans are sinners but it in owning up my own personal mistakes. My pride gets in the way and justifies my rude, self-serving behavior as part of the conditions of the modern world. Admitting my sins is no easy task. But David, God’s anointed king of the Hebrew Scriptures, fesses up to his wrongs. He takes ownership of his mistakes, digs deep by showing true contrition, and then begs for and trusts in God’s mercy. David wants to push “restart” and become a better servant of God. David asks, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (10).
What lesson can I take away from David’s self-admission, contrition, and trust in God’s mercy? Well, I need to authentically own up to my weaknesses. When I make mistakes that violate the love of God and others, I need to recognize them for what they are. After this admission, moreover, I need to ask for and trust in God’s forgiveness (and mean it). Finally, I need to allow the Holy Spirit to work in me, making me a more loving, self-giving person.

I pray that as we go out to serve others this week, we think through the heart of David as he wrote the words of Psalm 51. We are all imperfect servants loved and forgiven by an awesome, merciful God.

Have a blessed week.


Monday, September 5, 2016

When we Realize Discipleship is not Easy

Luke 14:25-27 (NRSV): Discipleship
Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

As a man who desperately loves his family, this used to be one of the toughest passages in Scripture for me. How can Jesus ask me to hate my wife and children and even my own life? Would Christ really ask me to choose him and abandon them? Upon prayer and discerning the intended hyperbole in Jesus’ words, the true meaning of the text comes alive. As a father and husband, I must honor Jesus’ desire that he be at the core of those relationships. He doesn’t ask us to abandon our families, but he does ask for a costly change in our way of doing family. Jesus asks for our discipleship in all we do and are; he desires to be at the foundation and pith of our lives.
In front of a large, pressing crowd, Jesus lays out the conditions of discipleship. The NRSV translation reads, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate . . .” But the GNT translation, which I prefer here, says, “Unless they love me more than . . .” (26). The second, more dynamic, translation embodies what the first implies: We are to prioritize God in our lives. Jesus indicates that he wants to be the center and focus of our lives, the primary purpose over all things -- yes, even family and ourselves. Does this mean we must ignore, despise, and even hate our families because we are in Christ? Absolutely not. But it means that our role in the family must revolve around Jesus. Everything we are and all we do should be done with Jesus in mind, doing our best to follow his way. This sometimes means we will “carry the cross” of rejection and disapproval of others (27). People will question why we are so “Christian,” and, in effect, try to influence us to make moral/ethical exceptions. People will question (as I myself sometimes question) the purpose and direction of our Christian conscience.
In order to be a devoted disciple, Jesus reminds us to be aware of its costs, the changes that are required in our personal lives.This may mean changing jobs, friends, and even peacefully severing ties with toxic family members. Discipleship is not cheap and easy. It will entail personal commitment, cost, and the cross. Jesus says a true disciple has to be willing to give up everything, even the things that comfort us the most, if they separate us from God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian of the 20th century, wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. In that text, he explores what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer defines both “cheap” grace and “costly” grace in the following excerpts from his book:

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again . . . It is costly because it costs a [person their] life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life . . . Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life . . .
Bonhoeffer knew costly grace first hand, for he gave up a cushy teaching position in the United States to go to Nazi Germany to preach the Gospel and attempt to undermine Hitler’s systematic annihilation of God’s image and likeness. Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer's example is extreme, but it reminds us to do what we can to affect positive change.
What has been cost of discipleship in our lives? Have we been faced with any costly moves in our faith and personal relationships? For it is the moves of great cost that force us to grow in Christ and bear good fruit of love in this world.