Coerced Faith?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,               but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will       say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in     your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them,      ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”                                                       Matthew 7:21-23

I read a news article this week about a mother in Phoenix, AZ, who used a taser to get her son to church on Easter morning.  The 17 year old boy wanted to stay home with his friends who were freed by their parents from mandatory church attendance.  His mother had a different idea.  When the boy refused to go with her, she ran to get her taser and, coming back into his room, tased him according to the boy, his brother and cousins.  Despite the mother’s denial, the taser marks could be seen on the boy’s leg by the police.

What kind of faith comes from coercion?  What kind of faith grows from enforcement?  I’ve counseled people who are struggling with their faith, and helped people discover ways to “fake it till they make it”, but it’s one thing to voluntarily go through the motions hoping to prime the pump of faith, and quite a different thing to be forced at the risk of bodily harm to act faithfully.  Coercion in the realm of faith is oxymoronic.  If I am forced to confess faith, then almost by definition, I have no faith.  If I only believe in order to avoid harm to myself or others, is that real faith?

This past Sunday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are asked to have faith in Christ and his resurrection.  This isn’t faith as a proposition we believe in intellectually, like 1 plus 1 equals 2. No, this is a call to put our trust in Jesus, to make his example and God’s will the guiding principles of our life.  Going to church is not faith – I’ve long said that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in McDonald’s will make you a hamburger.  No, the Christian is the one who chooses to follow the lead of Jesus in their every day life.  While corporate worship, reading Scripture and praying are all important, the most critical element of our faith is the choice to act in a certain way, according to God’s will.  But if we are coerced, then there is no choice, and thus there is no faith.

So as we go through this Easter season, let us be reminded that no one can force another to believe.  Nothing we say or do can force faith on another.  It is our lives, the example of loving words and actions that may attract people to faith, never a taser.

Prayer:  O Risen Christ, you could have called down angel armies to coerce our faith; you could have engaged in splashy miracles far and wide to make us believe in you.  Instead, you invited our faith by your love and sacrifice.  Teach me by your example so that I, too, may lead others to you through loving words and deeds, and recognize that coerced faith is no faith at all.  Amen.

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Scylla and Charybdis

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“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”                                                                     Matthew 11:18-19

 

My little dog is afraid of storm sewers.  We go out for a walk every morning, and when we get near a storm sewer, he sits down in the street and looks up at me, as if to say, ‘How are we getting around this one?’.  If I’m lucky, he’ll let me walk him out to the middle of the street (if no cars are coming) to pass by the storm sewer and then return to the side of the road.  Sometimes, there is only a sewer on one side of the street. But often there are sewers across from each other.  When we come to them, the dog simply will not go any further; I have to pick him up and carry him past the storm sewers before he’ll proceed.  Like Odysseus sailing past Scylla and Charybdis on his way home from the Trojan War, dangerous sea monsters who lured sailors  from the left and the right, my puppy and I navigate the way between dangers to the left and the right!

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus reminds us that it is very easy to fall into the same trap.  We may condemn something only to sail so far in the other direction that we are ensnared in an equally dangerous position.  Whether it is condemning Jesus or John, criticizing a political figure, starting a diet or anything else, there is always the possibility that by swinging too far one way or the other, we may end up in danger.  Years ago I watched a friend who had struggled with her weight for years go on a diet.  She lost weight, and then she lost more, until she began to look like a walking cadaver.  Overeating wasn’t good for her, but neither was anorexia.

Today we inaugurated a new president.  Some love him, some claim to hate him.  But whatever your opinion, let’s be careful not to swing so far to extremes that we end up losing our humanity.  All of us have good and bad.  Let’s applaud the good and challenge the bad.  We will probably disagree on what is good or bad, but we need to avoid the extremes between which we sail.  We should never idolize a political figure as if they could save us – only Jesus can do that.  And we should never demonize a person, forgetting that Christ died for them and they, too, bear the image of God.  Let’s sail carefully between idolatry and demonization and find our way safely through the coming years.

Prayer:  Almighty and everlasting God, who alone has the power to save us, and whose love is what gives value to our lives, help me this day to see this world as you do.  Let me stand for justice, but not by becoming unjust myself.  Let me call for love, but not with hate towards anothern my heart.  May I walk between righteousness and mercy in ways that reflect your grace.  When I am tempted to condemn, remind me of my own sin and show me the path that veers neither to the right nor the left, but follows your way of salvation.  This I pray through Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

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Want to Live Forever?

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have imageseen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[a] full of grace and truth.”                        John 1:14

“WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?” the headline read. Sounded intriguing. Reading on, I discovered it was a story about a new start up company, eterni.me, that storsd your memories for future generations. Someday they hope to download brains directly into a computer, but for the time being you just write out or record what you want stored, and they’ll maintain it for eternity. That’s not exactly what I think of when someone asks, “Want to live forever?”

But that got me thinking. Christmas is God’s response to that question. God realized that the weight of our sin and the inclination of the human heart was such that we could never get back to a full relationship with a God all on our own. We were facing the consequences of our sin. We couldn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get back with the program to have everything right with God; the gates to eternity were closed to us. The only way to change the trajectory of human life was if God intervened; we needed a Savior. And so, in an unimaginable action, God, the divine, became human; the Word became flesh and Jesus was born. The one to whom all creation bowed gave up his standing to become a frail human being who would be helpless as an infant, experience pain and suffering, and even die in a shameful and agonizing death. God showed a willingness to do the unthinkable, to do whatever was necessary, to restore us to the circle of God’s kingdom and the possibility of eternal life.

Augustine rightly observed that without Christmas there could be no Easter. A corollary to that is that with Christmas, God proved willing to go to any length, from birth in a stable to death on a cross, to save God’s people. So on Christmas Eve as we go to the manger to rejoice at the birth of a baby, let’s also remember the incredible commitment of God. In the Lord’s willingness to allow the perfect to become imperfect, the eternal to become mortal, events were set in motion that would allow imperfect and mortal humans to receive the gift of eternal life. Christ came low so that we might be raised up and live forever. That’s a whole lot better than storing memories on a computer.

Prayer: O child of Bethlehem, in your willingness to leave your eternal home, you opened the door to my eternal home. In your willingness to die you enabled me to live forever. The Lord of creation became a helpless baby dependent on others. May I recognize even in Christmas the incredible sacrifice you made, and offer my worship and adoration to the one who came to save me. Amen,

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A Kitty Hawk Christmas

image“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”     John 1:5

On a December day back in 1903 at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made amazing history.  After numerous failures to fly a heavier than air machine, the Wright brothers accomplished something that no one had ever done before.  Ecstatic, they sent a telegram to their sister, Katherine, back in Ohio.  It read “we have actually flown 825 feet.  Will be home for Christmas.”

Overjoyed, Katherine ran down to the local newspaper and pushed the telegram, one of the greatest news stories of the century, into the hands of the editor.  After reading the page, the editor smiled.  “Well, well,” he said.  “How nice the boys will be home for Christmas.”

That editor had no idea what great news he had received; he failed to understand the importance of what had happened.  The scoop of the century was his, and he let it slide right through his fingers because he wasn’t looking for the right things.  He was unprepared to look for the new things that happened, the unexpected things that thrust their way into the world.

Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?  A virgin is visited by an angel and given startling news.  A child is born and angels proclaim his birth, a star sparkles in the night sky above Bethlehem, but few took notice.  There is no record of celebrations and festivities except among a few people on the fringes of society – shepherds who were from the lowest of society’s classes, and wise men who came from some foreign country speaking a foreign tongue.  There are no accounts of government declared holidays, no synagogue ceremonies to memorialize this great event, no news reports from the day.  Just the worship of poor, dirty shepherds and the gifts of a bunch of new age astrologers.

This Christmas, will we have eyes to see what God is doing in our world?  Are we so caught up in looking for what we expect, that we fail to notice the unexpected but wondrous activity of God among us?  It won’t be spectacular, just a baby born to a poor couple in a backwater town, just an act of kindness by a Christian toward a Muslim, just a simple thing that might not seem so extraordinary, but oh, what an amazing thing it will be.  Let’s keep our eyes open and watch for the unexpected, for the in-breaking of God, for the light that will not be overcome in spite of our blindness.

Prayer:  Holy God, in the birth of Jesus Christ you acted to bring together the everyday and the extraordinary, to merge the Word and flesh, to do the unthinkable and the unexpected.  Few had eyes to see and notice the event, but that didn’t stop you from acting to save your world.  Grant me the eyes to see your activity, and the courage to align my actions with yours so that your kingdom may be served and the light of your love strengthened in the world.  For I ask it through the babe of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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No Running Allowed

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My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.”                                                                                                                 Isaiah 26:9

On Thanksgiving day I used my new non-stick roasting pan for the first time.  I had wanted as roaster for the longest time.  This year, as I got in to cooking more, I found myself dreaming about roasting pans, checking them out on line and really yearning to get one for this Thanksgiving day.  So on Tuesday, I finally broke down, went to Macy’s, and bought one they had on sale.  And on Thanksgiving Day, my turkey came our remarkably well and the clean up was a breeze with the non-stick pan.   It was worth the wait, and I was so glad I finally got what I had been yearning for.

This Sunday begins the season of Advent, a time that recognizes the human yearning and longing for communion with God.  The culture around us has already begun to celebrate Christmas with store decorations, radio music and TV shows.  Over Thanksgiving weekend, you could see ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ on TV, listen to carols on the radio, and finish your Christmas shopping on Black Friday, all before the Thanksgiving weekend was over.  We have become a culture of instant gratification, no longer willing to wait and long for, to want and yearn.  We run toward Christmas, and we want it now.

In the church, we see the effect of this as churches cut back on Advent observance and start Christmas celebrations early in December.  Church members want to sing Christmas carols on December 1st, want the church decorated before the first Sunday in Advent, and schedule pageants and cantatas earlier and earlier in the month.  But the Christian calendar is not made to hurry up the season; it is created to remind us of our yearning, our longing for something or someone who will bring us back into relationship with God once more.  It tells us that we can’t make that happen ourselves; we have to wait, to watch, to hope with yearning and longing for God to act on our behalf.

So this December, I invite you to hold off on celebrating Christmas.  Take time to yearn for a Savior, to long for a renewed relationship with God.   Let this season of waiting remind us that in Jesus Christ, God did for us what we could no do for ourselves, overcoming the separation from God created by our sin.  All our singing and decorating can’t restore our communion with God; only waiting for and receiving Jesus as our Savior can do that.  And we couldn’t make that happen any sooner; we can only wait on God with yearning and longing.

Prayer:  Holy God, help me to wait for this Christmas with a sense of yearning, to long for the celebration of Christ’s birth with a renewed appreciation of what you have done for me and for humankind in the birth of your son.  Let me rest with that yearning so that I may understand once more how far from you I am on my own, and how great was your response when it came.  Let me not rush to celebration, but instead, allow me to live in that place of need, sustained by my hope in you and always aware that I am dependent on you to love and to save.  For I ask it in the name of the one who came in the fullness of time to save your people, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Rowboats and Sailboats

Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of imagehosts.                                           Zechariah 4:6b

Are you a rowboat or a sailboat?  I recently read a description of churches distinguishing between rowboat churches and sailboat churches, and I think the analogy can be applied to people as well as congregations.*

A rowboat person takes stock of the gifts and talents God has provided, rolls up their sleeves, and says, okay, it’s time for me to get to work.  They are grateful for what God has provided, offer thanks, and then step forward to add their contributions.  They assess, can I do this.  If the answer is yes, They work hard, stay focused and get the job done.

A sailboat person, however, has a different approach.  They don’t pick up the paddle and start moving the boat forward under their own power in the direction their paddling takes them.  No, they set their sails to catch the wind of God’s Spirit.  Yes, they have to put up the sails and tend the tiller, but they leave room throughout their life for God’s Spirit to be present.  With God involved, they are always attentive to the way God is setting the direction of the wind and providing for forward momentum on God’s path, because when they move with the wind, they go farther and faster.

Sometimes, we get caught up in acting like rowboats, choosing the direction, working up a sweat trying to get where we want to go.  We listen for God’s call, and then decide if we’re equipped to do that.  If we decide to move forward, we’re grateful for the boat and our strength, give thanks to the Lord, and then forget about God as we start rowing.  Prayer becomes the bookends of our lives – maybe a short morning prayer or devotion, then a day of hard work followed by a short prayer at bedtime.  God set a direction, we waved goodbye, and headed out from port.

But God wants more for us.  God’s desire is to be in communion with us, to share the load in all we do, to fill our sails and help us set a direction by which we can go farther.  To become a sailboat, however, we have to be attentive to the wind throughout our journey, sensitive to shifts in the wind, looking for the new things God is doing, and always seeking to be faithful.  Prayer is no longer reciting words – it is seeking God and resting in God’s presence, doing our part but always aware of God’s leading, trusting the Lord.

Who will you be today?  A rowboat, thanking God and then intent on getting through the day by yourself?  Or a sailboat, tacking as needed to keep God’s Spirit filling your life and sending you forward?

Prayer:  Spirit of God, fill my life today.  Keep me always running before the wind, depending on you for direction and looking to stay focused on your presence every moment of my day.  Remind me again and again that apart from you, my accomplishments are empty.  With your power in my life, however, I can be an on-going  witness for the love and grace of God.  This I ask through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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*The analogy comes from Joan S. Gray’s book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers, Geneva Press, 2009.

 

With A Song in My Heart and Praise on My Lips

image                  Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”                   Hebrews 13:15

 

Most mornings, the dog wakes me up, ready for his morning walk.  He starts to whine somewhere between 6:45 and 7:30 am, and whatever stage of sleep I’m in, I quickly find myself focused on getting him outside.  I jump out of bed, throw on a pair of sweats and some old shoes, scoop up the dog, and head downstairs.  I snatch up his collar as we pass by the rack, fill my pocket with treats and waste bags, and head out the door.  Four or five houses down the street, I finally find myself truly awake and aware of my surroundings.

And then somewhere before the corner, I realize I am humming a song to myself.  I never consciously decide to hum, it just seems to happen.  And I never choose what I’m going to hum.  Whatever song I’m humming just comes unbidden, creeping out of my subconscious so that I begin humming or singing without realizing it.  And suddenly, I find myself mouthing song lyrics.  Today, it was “Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest height,” from Mary Poppins  Another day it might be a Broadway showtune or a Billy Joel song.  And sometimes it is a hymn – one day last week I realized I was humming “Fairest Lord Jesus” and trying to remember all the words.

I don’t know what causes a particular song to come to mind – perhaps a smell, a sense of the weather, some other association – who knows what.  But I wondered what it would be like to wake up every morning with songs of praise to God on my lips.  Don’t get me wrong – I love the Lord and give God all the glory for the good in my life.  But I admit, I do not “continually offer a sacrifice of praise” in song to God.

Oh, I can decide I should sing a hymn or praise song while I’m walking, but I wonder what it would take for that unconscious process to end up putting a sacred song into my head without my having to think, “Okay, what religious song should I sing?”.  What would be needed to make God’s praise the unbidden song on my lips in the morning instead of a rock and roll oldie that would only yield to a hymn after conscious thought and choice?

As I wondered about that, I remembered how I learned to drive a stick shift.  I started my driving on a ’64 VW Beetle with a stick shift.  I remember how I went through a mental checklist at every stop light – brake with one foot, push in the clutch with the other, come to a stop, move the stick into into 1st gear with the clutch in, when the light turned green begin to let the clutch out as I feathered the gas, go.  I went through that checklist at every stoplight, ticking off step after step.  But over time, I was able to skip a checklist step mentally – I just did it without thinking about it.  And at last, the whole process became automatic, second nature.

Maybe that’s how God’s praise needs to be.   Perhaps I need to be more intentional about running my praise checklist every day – rehearsing the reasons for thanking God, reminding myself of God’s praiseworthy characteristics and repeating songs and words that express that praise and thanksgiving.  Then, maybe God’s praises would come more unconsciously to my mind as songs and lyrics suddenly appear on my lips.  So first thing in the morning, I can give thanks to God for this new day; last thing in the evening, I can praise God for all the good that has happened during the day; and intermittently during the day, I can pause to give thanks where it is truly due – to the Lord who is over all things.  So maybe as I change my routine, the songs of my heart will become more about God and less about the glory days of rock and roll!

Prayer:  Lord of love and life, from you comes every good and perfect gift.  Accept my words of thanks and praise for who you are and for what you have done in my life and the life of the world.  Keep my heart ever grateful; keep my mind centered on your love, and keep my eyes open to see your compassionate hand at work around me.  Let songs of your praise be ever in my heart, my mind and on my lips.  For with thanksgiving and praise, I ask this in Christ’s holy name.  Amen.

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