We are getting there, but we have made mistakes along the way.
Look at the history of people who call themselves "Christian." We are told time and again in scripture, "Humble yourself and let God lift you up." We don't do humility very well. As Mac Davis sang, "It's hard to be humble." We do self-centeredness much better. We do self-righteous much more easily. We would rather be heard than hear. Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University calls it our "self-serving bias," suggesting that all of us tend to be somewhat senf-centered. The Apostle Paul calls it (in the Jerusalam Bible English translation), "self-ingulgence," posing that "all have sinned and come short" of the glorious life God has planned for us (Galatian 5 and Romans 3).
Oh yes, Christians are not perfect, but by the grace of God we can (are?) getting there. We make mistakes along the way. We and those around us make decisions and we live with those decisions, right or wrong, the best we can. Sometimes we seek to learn and follow Christ's teachings and God's intentions. Sometimes we rebel. Sometimes we chase after new idols and give up on God to justify those idols we already prefer -- greed, money, food sex, our opinion, family, a peer group, a social class, entertainment idols, political idols, or anything else that replaces God and God's Truth in our lives (not that those things are inherently bad in themselves, but if we replace God's plan as described by the words of Jesus in the gospels, they become mere idols, even though we may use "God" language to talk about our faith. Sometime we simply grumble. Sometimes we take a hike, thinking rightly or wrongly that we need to be somewhere we are more comfortable in worship and in a church or that we need to give up on church entirely because God has not shown up when we beckoned in the ways we wanted. Sometimes, by grace through faith we work to change things, to make our little part of the world better by being a blessing to others, by smiling, by sharing cheer and joy, by volunteering to do good things, by planting trees and flowers and gardens and share the bounty of beauty and life. Sometimes we listen and learn, hearing the people around us, and "hearing" God speak and declare, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland" (from Isaiah 43:19). When we are full of ourselves, there is little room for God in us. What is it that Christ has asked of us? To follow, to be humble, to learn, and to go forth in his name or as the prophet Micah says, "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Change is not easy, but we are being transformed and by the grace of God and our willingness to let God transform us, we are being made perfect as Jesus declares, "Be perfect therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (from Matthew 5:48). "I am only human" is not an excuse. It is a copout. We do make mistakes and it is usually out of our own self-centeredness, even when we are certain we are right, but God's grace is at work, even there, even in the secrets we keep from ourselves and others, even in the feelings of self-righteousness we try to impose on the world around us.
Being self-righteous is easier than being a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ. There is nothing easy about the latter, but it is the way. Judging others is easier than accepting what needs changing about ourselves. We are good at blaming someone else for what is wrong in the world, in our communities, and in our lives, than accepting the responsibility God gives us to change and be changed. We start out in life, self-centered. It is in our genes to survive and we are dependent on everyone around us to meet our needs. Somewhere along the way, by the grace of God and those around us, we grow out of that and learn to genuinely care about others, not because it gives us pleasure to do so, but because it is who God has made us to be, caring and compassionate, hopeful and helpful.
Read the Bible. It is there that a conversation with God can shape who we are and we can stop making excuses. God does not ask for our excuses. God invites us to a radical life of faith, hope, and love, to love God in word and practice, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Are we there yet? No. We have a long way to go, but by the grace of God, we are getting there.
Pray and meditate, because it is there that we learn to trust God, to listen instead of letting our thoughts, our opinions, and our attitudes rule our lives.
Worship, because it is there that we learn and practice loving God with others who are trying to do the same.
Be blessed to be a blessing. This does not mean entertain and be entertained all the time. This means genuinely accept what it means to be people loved by God and created by God to love others.
Our highest goal, in spite of what some may think and say, is not to go to heaven. Our highest goal should be to live this life God has given us in a way that honors, blesses, and pleases the Lord. When we learn to walk in faith, hope, and love with Christ here, in this life, on this earth, we will not be strangers when we meet him on our knees in the next life.
HOW HAVE WE GOTTEN TO WHERE WE ARE?
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" Matthew 23:37-39
Jesus could well have said, "Washington, Washington, . . . " or one of many other designations of where people claim to gather in the name of God. I pray that what I am doing here is not "slaying prophets."
Or, he might have called our home town, meaning us and what we have done with our lives, claiming faith, sometimes living it, and sometimes
I share with you a few things I have learned in my life. I offer this because I think it really matters. You may find this offensive and completely out of line. Your faith in Christ may allow that. Your personal values may require that. You may decide I am a heretic, needing to be burned at the stake, or worse.
I humbly ask your forgiveness in advance. I pray for God to bless you in the richness of His grace, even if you decide to "unfriend" me or disregard what I write. You may be more right than I am. I also apologize for the length of this. Please be patient with me. And I thank God for you in advance if you are so patient to read the whole of it, consider it, and pray about what God wants you to do with it. May it be edifying for you. (I like to use a Bible word like "edifying" from time to time.) I apologize where my sentences are difficult to understand. I hope you will work through those parts or ask questions where I am unclear about what I have said and meant. May you and God enlighten me where I am wrong or vague or both. I invite and encourage you to a properly fitting and appropriate response in faith, hope, and love.
I take the Bible seriously as a gift from God, written by those who have been in a faith relationship with God and have sought to work out what that meant to them in such ways that it serves as a guidebook and holy scripture for the rest of us. It includes human success and failure, sin and redemption, law and grace, apocalypse, adventure, parable, hymn, poetry, and more, but perhaps most important, it includes Gospel -- the story of how God came, incarnate in a human being to seek out the lost and redeem them. Some people take the Bible more literally than I do. I am not a literalist and do not worship the words in the Bible or a particular translation. Some take the Bible more liberally than I do. I can be liberal in that I want to be open to what God has done, is doing, and will yet do. I believe few take the Bible more seriously than I have tried. I pray for grace and enlightenment where I fail to properly respect and understand how God attempts through its words to give me the Truth in which I should live. If the Christian or Jewish Bibles are not your standards or among your standards for faith understanding and how to live the life of faith or simply, how to live, then we may have little common ground on which to agree and live together.
I use the New Revised Standard Version here, knowing that a few of my friends still think the only legitimate English translation is the King James Version and also knowing that some of my evangelical friends are offended that some of the words in the NRSV are not translated the way they prefer or that the translators made some attempt at being inclusive.
I also use the male pronoun for God at times, not because I perceive God as exclusively male, but because I do not perceive God as merely exclusively female either, the male pronoun is the traditional language of scripture, language without a pronoun can become terribly redundant and impersonal, I do not perceive God as neutered, and we do not have a theocentric (God-centered) pronoun in our English language that is adequate for talking about God. I apologize to those who may be offended by my use of "God," any pronoun I may use or lack thereof, or even the irreverent suggestion that I may speak or write of God without some holy ritual that cleanses me and indicates the proper respect, fear, and awe. The offenses are not intended. I believe that God is neither male nor female but both and more.
There is none greater than God in our belief or imagination or more important, in reality. God is that ultimate Reality, the Originating Cause, the True Person, the Creator, the Redeemer-Savior, the Spirit that is One with and One apart among all that is. And for Christian reference, Jesus is our experience of God who entered the human experience of time and history in order that human beings might realize that God has reached into our meager existence to give us what we have and what God has made us to be. For the Christian Jesus is God in the flesh, all that it means to be God in the flesh, God in human history and experience. When Jesus died, it was God in the flesh that experienced that physical death, but God did not end. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit that emanates from God-Creator and Son Jesus to be the God that continues in our flesh and our experience of time and history and what it means to be in covenant communion with God.
In this world a lot of people seem to have an agenda that keeps people divided and angry and distracted. Angry people, political marketeers, and others exploit the emotions in "free" countries to get support, to gain votes, or even to sell products because that is what they do, among other things. Entrepreneurs are taught that, if you want to find your market, you look for a problem that you have experienced or know about and then, create a product or service to address that problem. If a problem or need does not already exist, then create one if you can. Convince people they need what you have to sell them. If you do this effectively, we call it success, whether it is morally and ethically right or wrong. A repressed, squashed down economy says that if something creates jobs, then it must be right. That is a response, driven by fear of losing livelihood and worth. We cannot lose the personal and community human worth that God has given, but we can experience human deprivation, degradation, persecution, and sacrifice, which is what Christ did for humankind.
John writes "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:18-19)
Money was an early invention that enabled people to more conveniently barter for the things they needed instead of carrying trade goods. Money became a popular and widespread tool to enhance life and make it more convenient. Somewhere along the way, money and the things money can buy became the measure of a human being. It is not God's way of measuring human worth and success. Whatever happened to trying to successfully follow Christ, to "trust and obey for there's not other way?”
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians Christians, "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:4-11)
And Jesus says in Luke 12:15, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."
Answering the commandment to "love your neighbors as yourselves" is impossible if we have invested our values in the financial degradation of human beings that the Lord has declared holy and sacred and of infinite worth in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Both Democrats and Republicans sometimes (or often) market their political agenda and that of their supporters, based on the fear they can generate, direct, and exploit among the American population. They tell us to be worried or afraid about our situation and the other political party, that electing “our” party will fix the problems, but when has an election not shifted the enduring problems (and blame) from one group of people to another? The reality is that both parties are a mixture of helping Americans, taking care of themselves and special interests, and keeping most of us confused about the real issues and their lack of desire or ability to solve the problems they blame on the other. Washington politicians are considerably more aware of the way the world of power and money operate than we are who have relatively little of either. It is their livelihood and they will do little or nothing to threaten that. The professional politicians are head and shoulders above the rest of us in political power knowledge and the way it plays out. They keep it complicated that way for our sakes, of course.
I will continue to vote because it is my duty and honor as an American citizen and as a faithful Christian, but I will pray first and realize that it is not the kingdom of God I vote for, but a human agency and people who sometime makes claims they cannot keep or will not keep because political decisions deal with all the human strengths and weaknesses -- greed, fear, anger, hurt, frustration, love, joy, ignorance, discernment, wisdom, stupidity, expectation, fortitude, honor, pride, mercy, forgiveness, attitude, arrogance, and so much more.
I apologize, but I do not believe everyone who wears a uniform does it for the right reasons and deserves to be called “hero.” That kind of behavior dishonors those who do it for the right reasons and are genuine heros because of the personal sacrifices they have made for the sake of others. But neither do I believe we should punish those and blame all those who wear the uniform for the horrors some commit while wearing those or other uniforms. The uniform invites honor and respect. Lets get it and give it and thank God for those who genuinely care. I call many of them “friend” and am honored to do so.
The human ego can be a most dangerous thing to have and yet it is what keeps us alive and helps us manage in life. The human ego, when it leads to self-centeredness, self-indignation, and self-righteousness, gets in the way of God's Spirit working in our lives. (See Galatians, chapter 5). I may vote Republican. I may vote Democrat. God can work through either. But Jesus Christ is the One I want for my leader and the One the world needs for direction and hope. I have friends who are veterans and friends who are passivists, friends who eat meat and some who are vegetarian. God loves them all and is at work in their lives.
Hebrews 13:16 says "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God."
The economy is not "bad" because the government spends too much money on "entitlements." Consider this list of "entitlements," published by Suzanne Mettler, Clinton Rossiter Professor of American Institutions, Department of Government, Cornell University:
- 529 or Coverdell
- Employer Health Insurance
- Employer Retirement Benefits
- Home Mortgage Interest Deduction
- Hope or Lifetime Learning Credit
- Student Loans
- Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit
- Social Security Retirement or Survivors
- Pell Grant
- Veterans' Benefits
- GI Bill
- Head Start
- Social Security - Disability
- Gov Housing
- Food Stamps
Entitlement actually means that to which people have a right, but the word takes on a negative connotation when we use it to refer to something someone else gets we do not feel they deserve. What is it that qualifies a person to have a right? Citizenship? And a right to what? The fact that they paid a portion into a tax fund that goes to that cause (entitlement). The fact that a person is handicapped or challenged in such a way-- by age or physical condition or mental condition or something else (what might that be?) that they cannot function and meet their financial needs in our culture and society? Where do we draw the lines? And yet there must be limits. There need to be the expectations of people accepting the responsibility for their lives. How well are we doing that according to God and Jesus and the Bible?
You may disagree and I may be completely wrong, but I do not believe the economy has problems because the government is spending money. I ask for your consideration: when the top 10 percent of people in the United States have 85% of the country's wealth, should we call that "success" or should we call it "greed." Why is it that talking about such things is labeled "socialist," or even "communist," rather than "justice" and "Christian" and "fair?” To label something "communist" is to condemn it in the wider public, and to label something socialist is to connect it with communism because that is what Marx and Engels did in their book, A Communist Manifesto. American heroes have died in the fight against communism, so, if you want something rejected, call it communist, even if that something is the truth.
The late Michael Harrington wrote for years about the systematic problems of poverty and hunger, about the need for systematic change, but of course, his "socialist agenda" is threatening to many Americans, so they refuse to read his books, to learn the truth he has to offer, and to consider the solutions he has shown can make positive differences in the long-term future.
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." John 8:31-32
I heard Brian McLaren speak about these kinds of issues. He says the problem is not a Republican or Democrat issue but both (I parapharse from memory here); they are two sides of the same systematic problem. We need a restructuring in our thinking, one in which scriptural justice and community are most important. He is not the first to say such things, but he is bold enough to accept the conflict and the criticism. He also says he has been called communist, socialist, and the "Anti-christ." I head M. Scott Peck over 20 years ago who said the same labels came from his critics.
Years ago I went to hear the Communist Candidate for President in the United States because I was curious how anyone could be so bold as to represent the Communist Party in this country and because he was a few blocks from my office. I still remember him saying, "I know I will not get elected, so I can afford to speak the truth about things the other candidates dare not talk about." And you know what? I will never vote communist or be communist, but this man was willing to talk about things in a way that would have obviously lost significant votes for Democrats and Republicans had they talked about issues and possible solutions in the same way. And some of what he said was glaringly true.
I will continue to hope for the best and try to seek the truth instead of buying into the manipulative devices that people generate through email and the internet to get people stirred up. I trust in God and realize that human agencies will fail. People do the right thing sometimes for the wrong reason, the wrong thing for the right reason, the wrong thing for the wrong reason, and the right thing for the right reason. To love God and our neighbor, as the Bible says, is to seek the best, give our best, and expect the best, realizing that we all fail and we all need God's mercy and the forgiveness we humbly receive through Jesus Christ.
Jesus says to love your enemies and I must continue to confess that I fail to attain the perfect love he says we should have, but only by seeking the truth and sharing it can I ever hope to understand what he means. My trust is in neither the Democrats or the Republicans, but in Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. My faith is less about being part of the club called "church" and more about living daily as his Church, his body in the world, as I learn more and more to trust him and obey him. I must pray for our government and other leaders. I must pray for wisdom and discernment, for vision and grace for them and for me and for the people I know and love. I have witnessed people at their best and their worst. I believe that God-centered people can and will make a difference wherever and whenever they are. I also believe that most of us make mistakes (sin) and need to confess and humbly accept God’s forgiveness as it comes.
Jesus would be liberal to the conservatives among us as he was in his own time. He would be conservative to the liberals among us as he was in his own time. He would be threatening to the political among us as he was in his own time. And he would be both grace and law to all of us sinners as he was in his own time, bringing healing and wholeness, forgiveness mercy, and demanding repentance.
I do not put much store in inflammatory emails or Facebook messages or internet posts. Nor do I buy into the syrupy sweet ones that make a crowd go, "Awww." What Jesus did for us was neither, it was bloody, gritty, down and dirty. It was sincere, compassionate, sacrificial, self-giving, and God-and-humankind-centered. Jesus gave God and all of humankind his heart, mind, body, and soul, trusting that it would matter and each of us must ask whether that has mattered in our own life in the ways it should. A feel-good religion cannot lead to a proper response to that. A religion that makes people think they are the righteous "in crowd" does not adequately, fittingly, or appropriately respond to what God has done. Jesus says, "Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (See Matthew 10:38-39). Faith is not something we simply have, but something we live and believe and trust and obey. We do that by seeking God's direction in our lives and obediently practicing and growing in our faith.
Religion is a way of talking and practicing a belief in a higher power. It is really about how we live out what we believe. The Christian religion can be replaced by wealthism, Republicanism, Democraticanism, or any of many things that becomes our idol to replace loving God and God's intentions for our lives.
As I get nearer to the end of my days, as I ask myself the question, "In what and whom have I believed," and "In what and in whom have I trusted," and "for what have I stood and shared," I realize how important these things are to my family who will live in the world I leave them. I humbly admit I am too often wrong, but hope and pray that I will not fail to speak what truth I have learned so that people who listen might better understand how to live faithfully in Jesus Christ as Americans, but most importantly, as believers and followers of Jesus Christ. I pray that I have not failed to stand when I should have stood and spoken, and that I have not failed to shut up when I should have been silent. Maybe this was one of the latter.
And now for something different: There is the story of a couple of little boys who set up a lemonade stand on a busy corner to make some money. A man stopped on his way to lunch a decided to help out the little entrepreneurs. He gave them a dollar and one of the boys handed him a glass of lemonade. The other handed him his change. One stayed there by the car. The man said, "I paid for the lemonade and you gave me my change. Is there anything else?" The little boy said, "Mister. We just have one glass and if you drive off with it, we are out of business."
I invite you to consider that God has a plan. You and I and lots of other people who claim to believe in and follow Jesus Christ are important to that plan. Is it Truth we sow or is it hatred and violence? Is it God’s Good News that our lives testify to or is it hatred, division, and condemnation?
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.
16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
If you made it to the end of this, you may be thinking, "That is enough. No more!" Or you may be thinking, "I hadn't thought of it that way before. I need to think some more about that or this." Or you might be thinking, "Allen was angry when he wrote these words." To some degree these are all true. My anger rises from the division among people who claim Christ but hate others in practice. When people criticize Democrats, I take that personally. When people criticize Republicans, I take that personally. When people criticize rather than listen and learn before they speak or comment on social media, we all lose and, if you haven't taken note, we are losing, my friends (or not, if you deem it so). I believe we can do better, but it is up to us to seek the truth and live it in love and grace.
I thank you for trying. May God bless you richly, whoever you are. May you be blessed with Truth enough to live by and to share, Grace enough to forgive by, and Love enough to warm your soul and those around you.