Sometimes All You Can Do is Cry

I’m not a bigot!   I don’t hate people, I love people.   I don’t oppress individualism but instead I celebrate how God has created all of us to be unique, made in His image.   I realize that you are different from me, and I from you, but that is all part of the kaleidoscope that God is forming in human history.   It’s a beautiful thing!   As far as being children of God, coming together in His name and for His purposes, I revel in the diversity that He has instilled in each of us.   We are a most unique and beautiful garden of creativity and life.  

Yes, I am unique, an individual and I have my natural God instilled characteristics.   But the church today is telling me that my God instilled desires can be sinful if I follow through on them. Even though I am God-created in His image, I am not allowed to follow though on my natural tendencies and desires! The church is saying that we were all created in His image but all are also infected with a cancer of the heart called sin.   This “sin-cancer” comes in the form of free-will.   This is a trait of God that He has gifted us with.   We can choose our own way, make our own path, decide what is right and wrong as well as accept or reject God and His ways.

Free-will, or this doorway to blessing and sin, originally got Adam and Eve into big trouble, that is if you believe in them.   You see, created in the image of God, Adam and Eve were still imperfect.   They had faults.   Big ones! One day the temptation to disobey God’s instructions to leave a certain tree in the garden alone finally overwhelmed the couple.   They gave in.   Even though they knew that God said not to touch it, they buried that knowledge, gave into the temptation and acted, and it was in that act that sin separated humankind from a holy God.  

But hey, they were wired that way from the beginning!   They saw that the tree looked good!   It didn’t hurt anyone else, come ‘on God!   It was ingrained in them to be inquisitive and to try new things, they weren’t hurting anyone!   But still God saw the act as disobedience and removed them from the Garden of Eden.   Why?   To punish them?   No, to save them!   It was an act of love.   More on that later.

So again, I wrestle with the fact that no one else was hurt, only Adam and Eve were affected, at least at that time.   So, what, all of a sudden, they knew what the difference between good and evil was.   OK, cool, but is that a reason to get all huffy about it?   The issue here is one of “obedience.”   Its not so much that all of a sudden, they knew the difference between good and evil, but that they disobeyed God willfully.   In the garden they had only one thing to stay away from, but what if there had been ten things?   What if they had moved a forbidden stone, or said a forbidden word?   It still would have been the sin that separated them and us, from God.   Again, the issue is obedience, not just the act of plucking an apple and being enlightened regarding God’s edict of right and wrong.   The issue of sin is totally centered around willful disobedience to God.   That includes things you understand, and things that you don’t!

I used to think that the forbidden fruit in the garden was never to be eaten and experienced by Adam and Eve.   But Scripture reminds me that all of God’s creation is “good” and that all things are in obedience to Him.   When we fall short in that area, we sin and separate ourselves.   I wonder if one day God had planned, when they were ready, to let Adam and Eve eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?   I believe He did.   Why?   Because He has held nothing back from humankind, but God is a God of order and purpose.   As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything under heaven.

So, was it fair of God to create humankind imperfectly, knowing we would fall into disobedience and suffer for it?   Why would He allow me to have certain yearnings, desires and inclinations ingrained in me from birth, not of my own doing, and then tell me its sinful if I disobey His edict not to proceed with my desired physical activities?   Seems like a sick joke, or maybe a trap!   Really, the issue is also one of taking God at face value.   Believing in Him and His Word.   God wants a relationship with children that “choose” Him and desire to trust in Him regardless.   Look at Abraham, was it fair of God to demand that he sacrifice his son by killing and burning him?   Its all about trust and obedience, not about understanding and agreement.

In the human realm sin is born out of the choice of one’s heart to turn away from God and follow our own will.   I know, it sounds selfish of God, but His reason for putting limitations on us is not to be mean, but to protect us out of His love for us.   God knows what we are ready to experience and what we are not.   Surely, we can clearly see from the garden experience of Adam and Eve that God’s desires for us is to live joyful fulfilled lives, not lives of inadequate experiences.   But just because we feel like we are “ready” it doesn’t mean that we are.   That’s where God’s will, direction and Word come in, they are there to guide us into a perfectly heavenly life with Him, one that does not encompass disobedience.   But as demonstrated by Adam and Eve, it takes obedience even when you don’t agree or feel like it.   Period.

So, in the United Methodist Church (UMC) the hot topic of the decade is sexuality.   Is same sex attraction normal, God given and acceptable?   What does the Bible say?   Is it still relevant, or is it outdated?   Who gets to make that determination and why?   How can it be wrong if I was born this way?   Part of the answer to these questions resonate from what our definition of God’s Word is.   Is it the Bible?   Is the Bible God inspired and perfectly filled with God’s directions and wisdom?   Or is the Bible simply a God inspired book that was once more relevant than it is today?   About God you have to choose, just like Adam and Eve had to chose as well as Abraham.   These choices do not come lightly and without challenge though.   Is it really God speaking truth to me?   Do I need to sacrifice what I don’t want to in order to be obedient to Him or can I find some flexibility somewhere?   Am I going to be intolerant of others and homophobic if I don’t accept the cultures definition of natural sexuality?   What about the UMC?   Am I going to be seen as an outcast if I hold onto the inerrancy of Scripture? There doesn’t seem to be an equitable way out!

Even more importantly, what about my relationship with God?   Is it going to be deemed null and void just because of this one issue if I reject it being sinful?   How do I handle it when my family members disagree?   What if my loved ones are LGBTQI?   Am I being put into the same position as Adam, Eve and Abraham?   Certainly, if God is a loving God He would not condemn people for simply being who they are, right?   Ask Adam, Eve and Abraham, maybe.

If two people love each other surely their acts of love cannot be seen as vile to God!   Again, we as His children are not to judge others, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.   But Jesus also said that if we love Him, we would obey Him.   Its that simple.   Man, I don’t like hearing that!   I don’t have to like it, believe in it, understand it, condone it or anything else, it is simply an issue of obedience and trust in Scripture.   Everyone, at some point, has to decide of what they hold as truth regarding God and His Word.   Is He real?   Is the Bible really His Word, and if so what am I going to do with it?   Do I trust that even though I am asked to sacrifice what I see as acceptable, normal and fulfilling today, that God will abundantly reward me for my obedience and that one day I will understand that He was right?  

As the UMC sets the stage for a vote in February 2019 on the issue of sexuality, ordination of LGBTQI persons and same sex marriage, I sense that I am at the same crossroads as Adam, Eve and Abraham.   Oh my, what to do?   What to believe?   How to weigh the consequences of the choices?   Its clear that the post-modern culture in the United States is supportive of the LGBTQI community.   We live in a free society of personal freedoms and free thinking.   More and more things are becoming acceptable in the world today and many believe that Scripture will only hold us back from experiencing the abundant life God has willed for us.   I’m not so sure.

Is it fair, or even reasonable, that God should want me to make a choice that would potentially alienate me from many in the culture, my community and even my own household?   How can I live with myself when the choice will ultimately lead me to alienating either God or a loved one?   There is no way out!   I’m trapped because I will be choosing between those that I love with all of my heart.   At least, that’s the way I feel!   Is that fair?   If God is perfect and doesn’t make mistakes, then I’m supposed to accept that this choice, as harsh as it is?   Whoa, God I don’t want to make this type of choice!   Isn’t there another way?   Isn’t there a way forward, where we can all have what we want?  

That’s the problem.   Unless we challenge the inerrancy of Scripture there is no way forward for all to be satisfied.   While we all want to say that God is never wrong, God is holy and never makes mistakes, we can say that Scripture is relative and must be processed to see what still applies to us in the post-modern world.   If that’s not enough to get the job done, we can no longer believe that God writes His timeless Word in a way that would be relative in all cultures, all times and all sets of contexts.

So, in February of 2019 a vote will take place at a special session of the UMC General Conference that could bring unity or division to an already fractured church.   But before that time, each one of us must make the choice of what side of God’s holiness and the inerrancy of His Word we will stand on.   These are life changing choices!

I kinda feel like I’m standing in the garden with Adam and Eve.   Which way do I go?   What should I choose?   If I understand God’s Word, is it right for me to question it?   But what if today’s culture and understanding are completely different than what existed 2,000 years ago?   Certainly, the overall context is different, and people are much more educated etc.   God has given me an ability to comprehend, understand, experience and figure things out, so deciding if the Biblical view of sexuality is correct is good, right?

Ultimately, I believe we all come back to the same overall issue, is God’s Word found in the Bible, and does it still apply today?

Don’t cry … choose …

Leonard

Leonard lived with his wife and daughter in a small worn out dilapidated trailer on the outskirts of a small town in Michigan.   Throughout his life he worked at various jobs.   He worked in factories, small businesses and for himself doing odd jobs and lawn care.   Leonard never accomplished a great deal in his life from a worldly perspective, but he did the best that he could.   While his life was simple and less than earthshaking he knew he had to provide for his family and he did it regardless of the difficulties each situation presented. Leonard was not a wealthy man when it came to the material things of this world, but he was rich!

I met Leonard one day after his daughter appeared at the free clothing store my church was operating. Her name was Lauren and she possessed a quite meek and unassuming spirit.   One day at the Free Store Lauren came in quietly and spent a few hours shopping and going through the racks.   She was amazed that the clothing was “free” and that it was of good quality and without blemishes.   As I approached her she quietly gazed at the floor because she was embarrassed.   She was very aware that her dress was shabby and that her hair was un-kept and tangled.   As Lauren and I talked I quickly realized there was a deep pain and sorrow in her heart.   Her dad, Leonard, was dying a slow death because of a lung disease.

Several days later I gathered some food from our food pantry to take to their home.   Lauren had told me that they were struggling and didn’t have any food in the house.   When I found the small trailer, I knew I was in for a shock.   There were piles of “stuff” all around it as if someone had moved in and there was not room in the house for their belongings.   When I went in I entered into a situation of utter despair.   Leonard was on the couch, TV blaring and you could tell that he was almost unable to breathe at all.   Leonard had one lung that had quit working years before and his other lung was filled with cancer.   With every labored breath he took you could see the agony of pain in his eyes.

The amazing part of this visit was that in the midst of all of their poverty, strife, dysfunction and pending death I found an amazing level of faith in Christ.   As I sat with Leonard he would struggle to tell me about his faith in Jesus, but always the light of his face would beam as we talked about Jesus.   It became obvious during my visits that Leonard had for many years enjoyed an abiding relationship with Christ, one that I envy to this very day.   Leonard had transferred this relationship to his wife and daughter as they too were filled with joy and faith in God.   That faith in God had rescued them from the clutches of despair even though Leonard would soon be missing from their presence.  

As I talked with the three of them we talked about how “searching for God” was the one single most important thing Leonard had ever done in his life, and it would be the same for the family.   Astonishingly that day, I saw one of the most powerful sermons of my life played out before me.   From the lips of a dying man, and from the mouths of a daughter and wife that would soon be experiencing a great loss, I heard about the hope that we have through Jesus Christ in a life changing way. The bottom line: “Seek God First!”

Psalm 14:2 The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.   (Just one of Leonard’s favorite verses)

Veneta

She was a dear old soul who greeted you with a warm hug, smile and a story. You could see by her demeanor that her heart was open to all that came into her life and her smile was one that would be engrained into the memory forever.   She was a champion of hospitality, not just the lonely old lady yearning for someone to talk to, Veneta was inviting and truly enjoyed all that she came into contact with.

I remember the first time I met Veneta.   It was a warm summer day and I was looking at her house which was for sale.   My wife and I wanted to sell our home in Grand Rapids Michigan in hopes of finding a home that we could enjoy near the Michigan lake shore.   As a child, my wife was introduced to the Michigan lakeshore and it had become a staple of fun, relaxation and enjoyment over the years.   As we took off on the search process for a Lake Michigan home we were deluged with obstacles that constantly got in the way.   That one is too expensive!   This one is too ugly!   That one smells!   I can’t believe they really want to sell that dilapidated old money pit for that much!   And the list went on.   Finally, we settled on a cute little yellow home in the village of Pentwater Michigan.   This was a find, but not without issues!

Pentwater is a beautiful little vacation community on Lake Michigan in the central part of the state.   We were quite familiar with the area and knew that homes here would only escalate in price.   It would be a great investment!   It was a small cottage, only three blocks from the shore, but it would be ours!   Woohoo!   So, I made the offer and within twenty-four hours we had an accepted contract that was contingent on the sale of our home.   Now all I had to do was sell our other home in Grand Rapids.   “That’s OK, God is in control!   It’ll happen if He wants it to!”

In the meantime, another offer was submitted that was not contingent.   We had lost our place in line and the home of our dreams was fading off into the sunset before our very eyes!   It was then that I realized I was in pursuit of “my dreams” and not “God’s will” for my life.   I had forgotten the topic we addressed early on in this blog: It’s not about me!   How difficult a lesson that is to learn, comprehend and actually apply to our individual lives!   Surely “my plan” is the same as “God’s plan?”   But through the failures and struggles of selling our home and inspecting others, somewhere in the midst of that we turned our future hope over to God.

As I stepped onto the porch of Veneta’s house I encountered the sign: “Do NOT let the cat out!   Wow, this old lady really loved her portly old fat cat!   Charlie had been her sole housemate since the death of her husband and her love for him had been expressed in the constant feeding him of treats!    He was a pretty cat but had a “roly-poly” belly that spread out like butter in a hot pan wherever he plopped.   In fact, whenever I saw Charlie he was sitting!   Nevertheless, he was loved.  

Veneta’s nature was to care for everything around her and to see the good inside of it.   “Come on in honey” she said as our realtor made the formal introductions.   “Oh, I’ve been praying that God would send someone to buy this house!   You need this house!”   So, looking the house over we determined that the entire thing needed to be gutted and remolded, all the way down to the walls, plumbing, electrical, yup, pretty much everything!   As we considered this home as our lifetime investment and future residence the Spirit of God kept nudging us forward.   This was the place that He had planned for us.   But the thing that was so encouraging was the absolute faith of this old widowed woman.   In her faith, she was nothing less than staunch and unwavering!   Truly she had invested her life in the words provided by James 4:8.

James 4:8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.

Ever since the day I first met Veneta I have been amazed at the faith of this woman that had every reason to doubt and become bitter.   Her health was frail, she didn’t really have enough money to move closer to her daughter to be cared for and she was like a leaf in the wind without her husband of many decades, yet her trust and faith in God was built on the foundation of Jesus: The Rock!   Veneta had sought God first!   “Hmmmm, Lord I want to have faith like Veneta!”

China Buffet

We spent the day in Pentwater Michigan working on a house I have there that is well over 150 years old.   It needs a lot of work!   This home is one I hope to retire in someday but until then it has turned into a “mental health” project.   I can go to this house, plan, build, tear out and make ready for the day I will call it “”home.”   As the day got away from us we started the two hour trip back to the parsonage where we live later than expected.   Along the way the kids were restless and hungry, imagine that!   So we decided to stop at the “China Buffet” at the half way point.  

There was one other family there eating but they were busy with carry out orders.   After getting our food we decided to eat there as Chinese food is a little “iffy” to eat while on the run.   While eating two men came into the restaurant and were very loud and obnoxious.   It quickly became evident that they were probably homeless or destitute as their clothes and hygiene was exceptionally disgusting.   There was a stench to them but all they wanted to do was talk; and they wanted to talk to us!   They were not asking for anything other than a friendly open comfortable conversation.   As they kept trying to engage us my wife was kind and considerate and talked with them in a compassionate manner.   But not me, I was turned off and honestly just wanted them to go away, leave us alone, get outta my face, let me eat in peace!   On the car ride that followed I felt as if Jesus was telling me that I was a good Pharisee!   I had cast the first stone through my hearts attitude toward these two men and had passed by them “on the other side of the road.”   I quickly became heart-broken as I realized my mistake.  

At this point my sin was overwhelming.   I hadn’t been Jesus to these two men; I had been the face of a careless person who deemed himself a “Christian.”   In my sadness over my response I again asked Jesus for forgiveness.   It was evident that my sin was not in what I was doing, but in what I had refused to do.   I didn’t want to respond to these men in love but in rejection.   I had no idea what the circumstances of their lives were and quite frankly I didn’t care.

Jesus tells us in this Scripture story that all of God’s children are priceless, even the “smelly” ones.   The sin of our lives starts in our hearts, not our heads.   Hearts have to overrule the consensus of our minds and the primary motivation of our hearts must be “love!”   Jesus always turned the tables toward bettering people rather than rejecting or punishing them.   He many times warned us that the judgment would come but until then all had the opportunity to repent and to restore their relationship with God.   Jesus always reflected a heart of love for everyone regardless of the situation.   Even when He called the religious leaders “vipers” it wasn’t out of hatred, it was out of love and trying to force them to see their hypocrisy.   To this day, I still regret my shameful attitude and inaction toward these two men.   Thank you Jesus for Your example, forgiveness and the example of a wife that modeled You.

“That woman, again?”

John 8:   Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.   “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”   They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.   They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.   When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”   11 “No, Lord,” she said.   And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

 

In this Scripture we see an image of loving our neighbor as ourselves.   That’s what Jesus was doing.   He forgave the repentant woman because of His deity, but in love He also instructed the woman to stay away from her sin.   Don’t do it!   Stay away or you will be right back in the same boat again… sinful before a holy God.   The key to this story is not about the sin that the woman was involved in, even though it was great.   The key is that Jesus gave her another chance.   She was repentant for what she had done and Jesus saw that clearly in her heart.   Jesus chose to forgive her but instructing her to leave that sin behind her.   Does that seem fair?   Is Jesus just wasting His time?   No, He saw in her the same thing that he sees in you and I; hearts wanting to stop sinning but struggling with the temptation of our flesh.   It’s one thing to say we are going to never become involved in a sinful behavior again, but it is a completely different thing to put that into practice.

We all have a problem with the actual application of our desire to stop sinning.   We have a desire to do good and to follow that which is deemed right, but who gets to choose what is right or wrong?   Who is the authority on right, wrong, acceptable and that which is unacceptable?   Hopefully in your life it is God!   If “we” are the authority then that becomes selfish idolatry.   Who are we that we can judge what is right or wrong, especially when our Creator has offered His definition to us through the Holy Scriptures?   Only He who is perfect can give an accurate account of that which is unholy and imperfect.   (Don’t like that statement … get over it!)

Sin is not just sexual.   Sin comes in many different formats.   Sinful behavior can be something that we are doing or something that we should have done.   It can be in the attitude we display to others or simply in the attitude of our hearts.   Jesus saw the struggle in this woman’s life; sexual sin, a culture that made her a second-class citizen with very little security.   But Jesus responded to this lost sheep in a loving nurturing way as opposed to the way the religious leaders of the day would.   The religious leaders didn’t care about the woman; they just wanted to use her for their own benefit.   In fact, they were willing to let this woman die under the Law just to make their point.   But Jesus exposed their attitudes and hypocrisy.   Jesus was in effect demonstrating the basis of the Law; to love your neighbor as yourself.   This demonstration by Jesus was as shocking as it was counter-cultural.   “Really … this woman was guilty!”   “Let her suffer the consequences!”   If Jesus had supported the actions of the religious leaders that day all hope would have been lost for you and me.   If judgement was to be quick, harsh and without mercy in regards to sin, we would have nothing to look forward to except pain, suffering and loss.   But instead Jesus showed mercy, grace and judgement.

“Go and sin no more.”   These are some of the most wonderful words I have ever heard and read!   Stop at this moment, put this down, and give God praise for His mercy and grace in your life!   Amen!

Uncomfortable

Today is May 30, 2018 and it is appearing that the world has gone completely crazy!   ISIS is running rampant; Donald Trump is in the Presidency, who knows what is up with North Korea and most Christians in the USA have become comfortable and “lukewarm.”   I can’t imagine what the world will look like in a few years!   But regardless of the time, the message Jesus gave us regarding doing what the Bible says has not changed and never will. In short, we are to be faithful in serving Christ in the world and into the next.  

 

Ephesians 4:1-3

“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

 

We are to follow to the best of our abilities the call to ministry that Christ has placed on our lives.   This call might include several aspects, some of which are a bit out of the box.   If you remember God calls people like Moses who never felt comfortable or capable of doing the ministry that he was called to.   Why is that?   It’s because he wasn’t equipped to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, but God was!

“Doing What It Says” will most likely entail some difficult, unpalatable choices that you had never thought of before.   Peter never anticipated stepping out of the boat much less being martyred upside down on a cross for his testimony about Christ.   Mother Teresa never thought she would end up in Calcutta watching people die on the street, and John Wesley never thought he would be riding around on a horse preaching to anyone that would listen in a field.   Nevertheless, God does things much differently than we ever would.   We simply have to be ready to accept His call and to the best of our abilities, prepare ourselves for Him to work through us and be open to whatever He wants us to do!   Guess what, I never thought I’d be writing a blog!   But God uses people that are willing, that’s the key.   We have to be willing to be used and ready to relinquish our calendar and agenda for His purposes.

NOTE TO SELF: Wonder what’s next?

An Attitude of Giving

Sometimes we feel as if the responsibility of giving rest solely on the shoulders of others.   “How can I give to others when there is so much that I need, or at least think I need?”   Giving is an attitude of the heart.   Giving is a place where we experience the opposite of what is normally expected.   When we “give” we assume that it means it will cost us, we will walk away with less.   Usually that is true.   But it is in the attitude and act of giving that we receive many rich blessings.

What a joy it is to watch a good friend of mine as he “joyfully gives” away the blessings God has gifted him with.   It is a joy to hear he and his wife talk about how money is meaningless to them, and without the opportunity to bless others as they have themselves been blessed, it would all be for nothing.

In one of my small member churches, the attitude of giving was one of generosity as long as “our needs” are served first.   I again want to emphasize, there was no outreach, no evangelism and certainly no sacrifice for the welfare of others going on… it was all about them.   That being said they still were a congregation of loving wonderful people but they had become so entrenched in their own traditions and expectations of what church was that they missed the opportunity to serve Christ.   They felt as if their church was a “victim” of decline, but they as a congregation had nothing to do with it!

 

Mark 12

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

 

She gave to God out of her very need. The others that day were giving out of their very greed, selfishness, desires and agendas.   What about God? How does that honor God who has given up everything for us?   Jesus went on to explain to the disciples that day that it was not the amount that was given that was so important, but the attitude of the persons heart.   Her offering that day to God demonstrated her obedience, faithfulness, trust and love for the God that meant everything to her.  

That brings up an interesting question: “Does God mean everything to you?”

In that small member church, the offering became confused with self-preservation.   They were willing to give to themselves and tell themselves that they were honoring God but they were not willing to invest in what God was doing outside of what they felt “forced” to do through the apportionments paid to the denomination.   They enjoyed church their way, but not necessarily God’s way.  

What did the Book of Revelation say: “I wish you were either hot or cold?”