Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Call to Obedience

“If only I had faith . . .” When there is an “if only” statement, it is generally followed by a “then” statement. So what is the “then” that follows the “if only I had faith” statement?

Here are some possibilities:

  • “Then” my prayers would be answered.
  • "Then” I would ace my exams.
  • “Then” I would get well.
  • “Then” I would win the lottery or get a raise.
  • “Then” my children would be OK.
  • “Then” I would find the love of my life.
  • “Then” my spouse would be nicer to me.
  • “Then” I’d lose some weight.

Lots of options for our “then” statements here.

I wonder what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they said to him one day, “We need more faith. Tell us how to get it.” (Luke 17:5, New Living Translation). Perhaps they were asking for more power in order to bring healing to others. Or for more willingness to lead sacrificial lives. Or for an ability to really forgive others. Not too long before, Jesus has reminded them that every time someone asks for forgiveness, they are to offer it. That’s a tough one for most of us. Definitely takes a lot of faith to do that. And all of these possibilities seem like reasonable requests for an increase in faith.

But Jesus certainly doesn’t give the kind of answer most of us would like particularly well. He just tells them that if they had even a tiny bit of faith, they could do anything they wished. What they really needed was to learn to obey God.

Hmmm. This is kind of like me saying, “Hey, God, one of my sons is moving to France next year and I’d really like to learn French—how about giving me a gift of speaking in that language?”

Then God responds, “What a great idea! I’ll definitely give you that gift, Christy. Here’s what you do: take several classes the language, start listening to teaching CD’s when you are in the car. Read French literature when you want to relax a bit and plan on several months in some French language immersion classes. Before you know it, you’ll be speaking it beautifully! That’s my gift to you.”

Ouch! That’s a lot of hard work! I just want it handed to me, all nice and neat, no effort required. Nothing like exposing my laziness! I suspect that’s what Jesus had in mind here when speaking to his disciples. “You want the easy road—but I’m calling you to the road of obedience and hard work. It may be tougher in the short run, but the long run rewards are so much greater.”

So, will I make the effort to learn French? Probably not. I admit it—I just want the result without the hard work going into it. But there are areas of my life where I will make the effort—and one of those is seeking each day to have an obedient heart toward God. That is worth the hard work. Hope you’ll join me.

Wishing Death or Wishing Life

A recent article in Time Magazine speaks of a well known writer’s crusade against anything religious. Here’s how it starts:

Christopher Hitchens once devoted an entire book to portraying Mother Teresa as a phony, so perhaps Billy Graham got off easy when Hitchens described him, in a recent C-Span appearance, as "a self-conscious fraud," who didn't believe a word of what he preached, but was just in business for the money. The celebrated atheist, whose latest polemic, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is firmly entrenched on the bestseller list, also called Graham a power-worshiping bigot who made a living by "going around spouting lies to young people. What a horrible career. I gather it's soon to be over. I certainly hope so." (,8599,1662757,00.html)

I’ve only read parts of Hitchens’ latest book, so I can’t speak fully to his argument, but I do know that he thinks religion is the cause of most of the horrors in the world. In some ways, he may be right. Most thinking people are pretty horrified at the toll that religious wars have caused. There is just something about the nature of our religious beliefs that often leads to extreme intolerance and even hatred and violence. No question that it is disturbing.

I also know the other side: the enormous amount of good that has been done in the name of religion. Here, Christianity leads the pack. I have no clue how many hungry have been fed, naked clothed, prisoners visited, immigrants welcomes and sheltered, or hospitals built and maintained in the name of Jesus because people know that God’s call on them is to relieve suffering wherever they find it.

Now, are good things done by those who have no religious beliefs? Of course. But the argument holds the other way as well. Horrible things are done by people who have no religious belief.

I wonder sometimes if Hitchens is raging not so much against religion but against the power of the human soul to do evil. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to support that contention. What fascinates me about the quote above is that Hitchens’ freely wishes death upon another person, i.e., Billy Graham. He himself in that statement is guilty of just as much evil as anyone else who has wished death upon another person, whether that person is doing it in the name of religion or some other cause. Like most of us, however, it looks like Hitchens has a well-developed ability to stay blind to his own shortcomings while feeling very, very free to point out anything he doesn’t like in others. And to feel free to wish something upon others that I’m betting he doesn’t what to happen to himself.

John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, spent his life seeking to be a true Christian. He knew that such a goal meant much more than saying words that brought eternal salvation. He knew there must also be a component that actively sought to do powerful and transformative good in the world around him. He was not afraid to examine those parts of his soul that might wish death upon another person and then to actively repent and learn to give life instead. Sometimes that is a very difficult process. It means an active and sometimes personally painful choice to love those who differ violently from us. It means doing what Jesus did—going to the cross for others by saying, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do,” in the midst of our own suffering.

I ache for the Christopher Hitchens’ of the world, for those people whose only exposure to religious thinking has been that of hatred and intolerance and rigidity and an inability to be graceful. How sad that those called Christians have failed to live out our call to love one another as Jesus loves us. Unfortunately, I’m betting that these words from Hitchens that were quoted in the Time Magazine article will lead to more hatred poured out upon him by those acting in the name of Jesus. That would only vindicate him. Surely God’s heart breaks when we refuse to love, no matter how painful it is. It’s time to change this pattern once and for all and learn to give life, not death. That is the way of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Little Things Matter

I love reading advice columnists. Many letters from those seeking advice start with a phrase something like this: “My wife/husband/child/parent/significant other is charming, good-looking, adorable, nearly perfect in every way but. . . ”. The “but” often indicates some behavior, generally but not always done in private, that the letter-writer finds offensive or disgusting or horrifying or immoral or simply troubling and not resolvable.

Sometimes the letter-writer just needs to learn some tolerance and lighten up a bit. Often, however, that bit of questionable behavior indicates a deep crack in the soul that ultimately destroys hope of a loving and respectful relationship. I remember reading once that a person should never marry someone who treats restaurant servers poorly. Seems like such a little thing. Yet, it is often the little things that truly show character. And someone who treats wait-staff with disrespect will probably also treat others with disrespect—including spouses, children, parents and co-workers.

Here’s another phrase I’ve often heard tossed around: “The devil is in the details.” I actually prefer turning it to read, “The angel is in the details,” but both phrases say the same thing: little things really do matter. Have you ever been bitten by a fire ant or dive-bombed by a persistent mosquito or buffalo gnat? Suffered with a tiny piece of sand in your eye or a struggled with piece of food caught between your teeth or a splinter in your finger? What about being infected with the virus that causes influenza or an illness much worse than that? Tiny things. Big impacts. Sometimes, life and death impacts. Yep, those little things matter.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is recorded as having made these comments: “If you're honest in small things, you'll be honest in big things; if you're a crook in small things, you'll be a crook in big things. If you're not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?” (Luke 16: 10-12, The Message Translation).

These words make it clear even more clear: those things that are so often dismissed as “little” or “unimportant” matter. They matter a lot. They reveal the essential health or unhealth of the soul. Our soul-health is the measure of the state of our movement toward becoming Christ-like, the goal of all who call themselves by the name, “Christian.” A truly Christ-like person is willing to be held accountable for all areas of life, not just those that are put on for public show.

A counselor who works with pastors a great deal once spoke these words to the members of a class she was teaching: “There is one way I can tell if a pastor is getting into trouble. It is when he or she feels free to dip into the doughnut money and justifies it by thinking, ‘I already give so much anyway—I deserve to get something back.’” Noting the shocked look on the faces of her students, this wise counselor went on to explain. Such a tiny little visible compromise generally means that something major but deeply hidden is very, very wrong. Often, that major issue can be kept secret for years. The public side of that person looks untarnished and good. Nonetheless, that darkness will ultimately come out and leave a lot of devastation in its wake. The devil, or the angel, really is in the details.

We’re going to talk about this more on Sunday in a message called, “The Ethics Breaker” as we look at a really challenging story about a dishonest man who ends up getting a big pat on the back. Come join us—everyone is welcome to be a part of our worship at Krum United Methodist Church, W. McCart and Second Street.