Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembering Heroes

They did not join to be heroes.

They joined because they could not find jobs. Or they joined because they wanted to go to college and they needed the money. Or they joined on a lark. Or they joined because they were young kids who wanted to be men and women, and they thought it would toughen them up. Or they joined because they loved their country with a kind of puppy love, an idealistic, simplistic, love that did not yet know the meaning of sacrifice. Or they joined just to get away from home.

But they did join, that was the main thing. They made the commitment and they took the oath.

When they got joined, it was nothing like they thought. They thought their enemy was on the other side. Instead they found their first enemy was the drill sergeant at basic--angry, tough, demanding, uncompromising. They all hated him at first, but he wasn't there to be liked.

As the training went on, they discovered the reality of the world, that their instructors were not the enemy. The first enemy was themselves. They groaned at every reveille. They groaned through every pushup, and every four mile run. Their bodies ached and rebelled. But they prevailed. They fought their way through homesickness, loneliness, doubt, and fear, and they won. They beat themselves.

Along the way they made friends -- boys becoming men and girls becoming women--all becoming soldiers together.

Their unit became a new family, as precious to them as the family they left at home. They did not think of their country, some abstract idea, or the dangers ahead. They only thought of those buddies around them that they loved, and the wives, mothers, brothers, sisters, and girlfriends they left behind.

When the time came to go to war, they went out of obedience,. Obedience was the true fruit and the true gift they were given in all those weeks of basic training. They had learned to be part of something greater than themselves, which is what it means to be mature. They were no longer boys. They were men, who bore their part of the burden of the world.

There is no good war. War is the closest thing to hell on earth, where those who fight are both the tormented and the tormentors. It is dead bodies, broken limbs, weeping mothers and crying children. Anyone who glorifies war glorifies hell. Anyone who wishes for war wishes for hell. No one sane wants to be there.

But when their time came to put their lives on the line, they stood. They did not stand there because they loved their country. Most did not know why they stood, or the exact nature of the cause for which they fought. They stood there because of their buddies. They stood there because of those at home, whom they all, on both sides felt were in danger. Most of all, they stood there because they wanted to stand for their own honor, so that they would not be cowards. Their fear of being a coward was greater than their fear of death. The months of training and preparation had given them that honor and self respect, and now the honor and the man had become one. They were inseparable.

That was the point when the boys and girls who had become men and women became heroes, and their honor became greater than life itself.

Wars are fought for all kinds of reasons. Some of our wars were fought out of necessity. Others we have stumbled into needlessly. No one is wise enough to say with certainty which one was which. But wars and the military have given us one gift that is greater even than freedom itself. It has produced men and women of honor who will sacrifice and serve others the rest of their lives.

So God bless our troops. God bless our veterans. We thank you and the military for the gift of lifetime heroes.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Greatest Gift

Which of you, if your son asks you for a fish will give you a snake or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give the Spirit to those who ask him?

Choosing the right gift for the right person is a difficult process. Should we always give people what they ask? What if it is bad for them? Should we give people what makes them happy right now, or what be useful to them in the long term? What message are we sending by the gifts we give?

It is not just us who struggle with these questions. So does God. “Struggle” may not be the right word, since God knows even before we ask what is best for us. Nevertheless, the same consideration that we give to gift giving are the same ones that God Himself must ask as well.

That is why when we pray, we don’t always get what we want. God’s concern for us is too great for Him to simply be a gift-giving machine. He takes our whole lives into consideration when he answers a prayer.

In this passage, we see three issue that God considers when He answers prayer.

Is it what we want?

“Which of you, if you son asks for a fish, will giver a snake instead?” this passage actually exists in two textual forms. One says “stone” and the other says “snake.” There is a big difference between a snake and a stone—one will bite us and the other will not. But whether we are talking about snakes or stones, the are poor substitutes for a delicious fish dinner.

God wants to give us what we want, just as we want to give our loved ones what they want. It is our joy and pride to do so. If we could, we would give more to those we love because they are special to us, and want them to be happy.

Nevertheless, there is a school of thought that suggests that God is different, that he makes us take what we need, not what we want. It is the belief that whatever we get we ought to appreciate because God gives it.

When I was a child, I did not like to go to church, just as many children don’t today. The music was boring, the seats were hard, the people seemed unfriendly, and the preaching was boring. Nevertheless, when I went to church, we always began by saying “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go into the house of the Lord.’” Talk about mixed messages! Not only was I supposed to go and put up with all this, but I was supposed to be glad about it!

As I grew up and became a pastor, I also became aware that many people had not really outgrown this dislike of church, not even the people who attended. Their parents drilled into them that God wanted them to be here, whether they enjoyed it or not. In truth, their parents didn’t like it either. They just grew up with a sense of duty that said they should go, and that they should pretend that they enjoyed it. So their hearts were far from God, even when their bodies were in His house every day.

Unfortunately, they had developed an unhealthy picture of God. God was a person who punished us for telling the truth about what we do and do not like. Instead of a God who wanted us to be happy, we have often pictured God as someone who wanted us to be unhappy, unless we did things absolutely correctly. He was a God of discipline, not love.

This is not the real God. The Catechism says that our chief end is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” God want us to enjoy his company and his presence, without pretense or hypocrisy. It Is His desire to give us what we want, not to make us want what He gives.

God will not give us what hurts us. “Or if he asks for an egg, will give Him a scorpion?” The first rule of His gift giving is that He will not harm us. He will give us nothing that will bring us to harm. We would not give a baby a set of steak knives, nor would we give a blind man a car. He knows what will and will not give us the greatest long-term benefit.

Let us suppose that a man prays to win the lottery. A sudden fortune can ruin a man a surely as sudden poverty. Many lottery winners have found that it only brought pain. Marriages are put under strain. They are besieged with con artists and beggars. Relatives and friends fight over the winnings. Many have even gone on to die in poverty, because they could not handle newfound wealth they did not know how to manage.

There is a secret to giving that God knows, and few others. You cannot give anything to anyone without taking something else away. If we lift a person out of poverty by giving him what he needs, we take away his responsibility of earning it. If we give advice, we take away a person’s need to figure things out for themselves. If we give people everything they want, we take away their right enjoy what thy earn. If we give people leadership, we take away their freedom.

God is capable of giving us everything. But God knows that we are better off when we learn responsibility and self-reliance. He protects us, but he will not work for us. This is not because he hates us, but because He lobes us and wants us to be happy. He does not overprotect His children.

Third, God give th4 Holy Spirit, the greatest gift of all. This verse also exists in two forms. In Matthew 7, Jesus sasy “How much more does your Heavenly Father know how to give good gifts to His children.” Here it says the Spirit, not good giftd. This is not a contradiction, but an expansion of interpreta6tion. The Spirit is the best gift of all.

Think how rare and beautiful this statement must have been, especially to the Jews who first heard it. Having the Holy Spirit was an extremely rate commodity to them. The first person who had it was Moses. Anyone who wanted 6o know God had to go to him. Then, he shared it with Aaron, and then with the elders. But the average person could not even get near the spirit. Later, a few other people had the Spirit—Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and the prophets, but it was never more than a very few people at any time. Most people knew God indirectly, not directly.

That was all about to change. The prophet Joel predicted it.

The time is coming says the Lord When I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh And your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

And your old men will dream drieams, and hyour yound men will see vision

Evern upon your maid an your manswervant wil I pour out my spirit, says the Lord.

In Jesus day, they all agreed that John the Baptist was a prophet and that he had the Spirit. Many ebelived that Jeus had the spirit. But how could an ordinary man or woman have the Spirit. Would God let everyone know the Spirit.

Think of what the Spirit meant. It meant that they could talk to God, and hear from Him. It meant that God himself wiould comfort them, that He would empower and direct them.

Think of a world where everyone has the Holy Spirit. There wouldnot need to comfort or encourage one another, because all comfort and encouragement would come form God. There would be no noeed for teachers, sinsce all teaching would come from God. There would be no sorrow, because the Spirit could cause us to understand. There would be no error, becauwe the Spirit wuld keep us from it. No one would ever be lonely, because we would have God with us always. We would be powerful an successful, because we woul have the power of God.

Most of all, God would be with us. That is the greatest blessing of all.

There was story in the news last weak about Ryan Smith, an officer in a national Guard unit who was coming home from Iraq aft4r a month’s deployment. He was told that his eleven year old son Colemen was having a concert at his school in Colorado Springs. He arranged to come home two days early. He contacted a friend who was a helicopter pilot. The pilot flew him to his son’s school just in time for the concert. The children of the school were given a surprise assembly outside. Then the helicopter landed, and Coleman’s father steppedout. His son rushed to his arms.

What was the greatest gift Colemen received that day? Was it the sight o the helicopter? Was I the present which his father had in his backpack? No, it was his father. His father was the present.

When we come to God, God gives us the greatest gift of all—the Holy Spirit. His presence is the gift. It ist the blessing that surpasses all others.

And it is free to anyone for the asking.

The Unwelcome Guest

Luke 11 begins with a truly shocking statement. It’s not shocking to you and I, but to the people of Jesus’ day, it was mund-blowing.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples."

He said to them, "When you pray, say: "'Father,”

“Father.” No one called God Father. No one would dare call Him Father. In the Old Testament, God is sometimes referred to as being like a Father. He is called the Father of us all, in the sense he created us. But the only one who addresses God as “Father” in a personal sense is the Messiah. Yet Jesus began his instruction on prayer with the statement “Our Father.”

How different this Christian view of God as father is from the views of the religious leaders of Jesus time, and for that matter the view of the religions of our time. To them God was all powerful and eternal, but he was distant, cold, and for the most part uncaring what happened to ordinary people.

Worshipping God as they knew him was a formal act. God was like a parade passing by—majestic, grand, but utterly oblivious to us and our petty feelings towards Him. It was like standing in the crowds outside Buckingham Palace and watching William and Kate’s bridal procession. It may be a thrilling sight, but you do not expect them to invite you to the reception. We do not think a great person, like a King or President is not going to know us personally. That would be insanity. The thought of God as our personal Father might be equal insanity.

Consider how big God is. The universe is light centuries across, comprised of millions and billions of galaxies. Yet God created us all. To think that God has some special relationship with us is truly inconceivable.

Yet Jesus called Him Father, and taught us to call Him Father, too. Jesus said that God has a special, personal relationship with Him, and with us.

The Lucan version of the Lord’s prayer is part of a longer passage on prayer, only thirteen verses long. The last passage closes with another passage about God as Father.

If your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?

Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

Because God is our Father, He wants to give us good things. It is his delight to reward us.

How does a parent love the child? On Christmas, we spend money on Christmas presents so we can see the look of delight on our child’s face. Our only regret is that we cannot delight them by giving them even more. A loving husband delights in giving gifts to his wife. Or Mother’s Day, we give gifts to our mothers just because we love them. Their happiness is our happiness. That’s what it means to love—to delight in giving gifts If God is our Father, why would He be any different? He is not. He enjoys giving us presents.

So why are we so timid about asking for things if our Father wants to give?

The love of the Father is what Jesus explores in this parable, which is told between these two bookends of thought about God being Father.

5 Then he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight

and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6 because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'

Once there was a man on a journey. At midnight, he showed up at the door of a friendd and asked to be housed and fed.

Now, this is as highly unusual thing for a man to do. In 5how days if a person were on a journey, and could not find accommodations, he either had to sleep under the stars or in a home. If a traveler were to come to your home, they would come by nightfall. The did not come in the middle of the night, unless necessity forced him.

So this traveler was not late out of disrespect for his host. Maybe he was camping and a storm started. Maybe he was delayed. Only because circumstances forced him did he arrive so late..

We don’t want to impose on others. We don’t want to ask for help. It is only when we can do nothing else that we ask for help.

Self sufficiency is a commendable trait, but it does not apply when deal with God. Other people have limited resources. Any request for help takes something away from their lives. God owns everything, has everything, gives everything. Dusk and midnight are the same to Him. God is not diminished by our asking, an nither are we.

Timidity before God is not a virtue. We do Him no favors by not asking. Even if we constantly impose on God we do not diminish Him or exhaust Him. The only thing that exhausts God is our not asking. When we do not ask, we insinuate that God is limited or stingy.

Don’t just ask God for big things. Ask Him for small things. Don’t just ask for small things. Ask Him for big things. He wants to give us all things, if only we will ask all things from Him.

But the friend whom the traveler visited in the middle of the night, was not God.

The friend reluctantly comes to the door. The homeowner looks at his friend. At once, he knows something is wrong. The homeowner lets him in.

The traveler is tired and hungry. His friend’s heart goes out to him. But when he goes to the kitchen, he discovers that he has no food left.

We are like that homeowner. We may have received from God for all we need, but then when the time comes to help others, we become uncertain again.

We believe that Jesus can meet our needs, but it isn’t enough. He brings the needs of others to us. He doesn’t not just give us what we need. He also gives us to give to others allowing us to share in the generosity of giving.

Giving time, talents, and money to God’s work is not a burden. It is a privilege. He allows us the honor of giving. He gives us what others need, so we can give it to them. If we don’t have what we need, God will make sure that someone else will give to us.

The homeowner is not willing to let the traveler go hungry. He goes to his r neighbor.

It would make more sense for him to have a good night’s sleep and go find some bread in the morning. But he does not. He goes to his neighbor at midnight and asks on his friend’s behalf.g

He knocks on the door. His neighbor growls back “What is it?”

“This is your neighbor. I need to borrow three loaves of bread.”

7 "Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.'

8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

He doesn’t just ask for one loaf. The asks for three.

His neighbor gives all kinds of excuses. It’s late, his kids are asleep. His kids will need to be fed in the morning. He can’t spare it.

But the neighbor does not want to be embarrassed. If he doesn’t help him, he will tell the rest of the street. Then he will not be able to show his face in the town without people judging him. So to keep from being embarrassed for purely selfish reasons, he give thim what he asks.

9 "So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

Let’s recap. God is our Father, and our Father wants to give us all things, because He is good. But He does not give until we ask. When we ask, He provides.

How long does He want us to ask? Until we receie. Then, when He has provided us with all we can need, He wants us to keep asking for more, not for ourselves, but for others. He wants ust o be as generous to others as He is to us.

But how can we be generous when we have nothing? No problem. God will give us what it takes to feed the poor around us. He will provide though our own strength and efforts. He will also provide through other people, IN this way, we are part of a great chain of giving. From God, to our neighbors to us to others who need what God gives us. Even if others do not want to give us us, God will make sure that they give anyway, so we an be generous before God.

But to key to all this—the trigger that starts it all—is asking. If we do not ask we do not receive. If we ask, then the receiving never ends.

God wants to bless you, and to make you a blessing. All we have to do is to ask.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Justice and forgiveness

Joy and I have just returned from a weekend mini-vacation in the mountains when we got the news about Ben Laden. 

My first reaction was happiness.  Frankly,  I am glad he's dead. 

My next was shame for being happy about another man's death.  After all,  aren't we supposed to forgive?   Matthew 5:43-46 says  "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. "  How could I rejoice in the death of another?

When I was a young, I was practically a pacifist. I  believed that all war and all violence was wrong, unless it was for the purpose of saving lives.  I am still inclined in that direction.  The killing of Ben Laden however certainly qualifies as a just use of force. History will never know how many thousands of lives may have been saved by stopping the heart  of that evil mastermind. I believe it fits Augustine's definition of a just war--unavoidable, necessary, limited in its effect, and for the purpose of saving lives, not taking them. 

As I've grown older though, I realize that there is another reason for the killing of Ben Laden--justice. Evil cries out for closure. 

Forgiveness is easy for easy offenses. But anyone who has personally experienced serious harm done intentionally,  forgiveness is more than letting go a few bad feelings.  We might experience a mild dislike for another, but we  get over it fairly easy when we are young and innocent. We can forgive someone who hurts our feelings easier than someone who kills our child.  Only when we experience real evil do we understand the real need for justice.  The universe is out of kilter. We want God to even the score. Our hearts can never get rest until we do.

Whenever a murderer is executed, reporters interview the family of the victims.  Mercy is the last thing on their minds.    The tens of thousands of people who were the friends and relatives of those who died on 9-11 ached for justice, too.  When Ben Laden was killed,  they believe that justice is fulfilled.  This need for justice is part of what we have inherited in a just and righteous God.

Not until we really experience serious harm do understand serious forgiveness.   To lack justice is like lacking food,  sleep, shelter, or love.  We can give it up,  but is cripples and hurts us. To give up justice is like an amputation of some part of our soul.

Forgiveness is when we voluntarily sacrifice our thirst for justice when harmed.  It does not feel good. There is no instantaneous feeling of a lifted burden. What freedom forgiveness gives us comes only after a grieving that loss of justice.

Don't get me wrong.  I do believe  that forgiveness is  important.  But we must be realistic.  It is the offering a  portion of ours selves--our anger--as a living sacrifice to peace. It is no different from priests who submit to celibacy, or a devout believer who fasts regularly. It is a form of self-denial.  In the end, it frees us from the power of anger,  In the end, we are not happy about it.  But at first, it hurts like fire.

I am glad Ben Laden is dead. This time, God had granted us some temporary, worldly justice. But I am also aware that the next time I might want justice I may have to settle for forgiveness.  I might have give up justice in this lifetime, and that will be hard.  To sacrifice our desire for justic on the altar of forgiveness is part of what it means to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

Remembering and forgetting

The enemy of faith is not doubt. The enemy of faith is forgetting.  Faith requires we remember.  Faithlessness happens when we forget.  This is the secret of Christian life and discipline. 

One of my favorite passages is 2 Peter 1:5-9

" For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge;  and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;  and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. "

Peter lists  the fruit of the Spirit--those qualities of Jesus that the Holy Spirit adds to our nature.  These graces grow one after another out of the heart that is continually watered by Christ.

In other words, spiritual fruit does not need to be manufactured.  It just grows as we are attached to the living vine of Christ,  who Himself is attached to God. 

But what if the fruit do not appear.   What went wrong?

Verse 9 "But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins."

If the fruit does not appear, then  we have forgotten the cleansing of Christ.

Have you ever read the Exodus from the Bible?  It is amazing that the Israelites so easily forgot the hand of God in their lives..  They saw the ten plagues,  walked across the Red Sea on dry land, were fed by miracle food,  watered from a moving rock,  and led by a pillar of fire, yet they kept forgetting. They worried that they were going to die of hunger or thirst or be destroyed by enemies less than a tenth their size.  They forgot the miracles they saw right in front of their eyes.  The nation of Israel forgot the commandments over and over.  The disciples  forgot about Jesus' miraculous power and worried.  They forgot His promises of resurrection. The church forgot salvation by grace for fifteen hundred years. Even today we don't seem to able  to remember God's promises.

A man goes on a business trip, and meets an attractive woman.  Suddenly, he forgets his wife and his wedding vows.  A dieter sees a tasty snack and forgets he cannot have it.  We see other people's sins and forget our own.  We see dangers and forget God's protection. We face death and forget eternity.  We face life and forget His blessings.  We have amnesia  of the soul, and forgetfulness of the heart.

There is only one cure for our forgetfulness--constant repetition.  We need to keep praying, keep rejoicing, keep reading, keep singing,  and keep worshipping.  The moment we look away, we will begin to forget, and that could have disastrous results. 

That's why we keep praying worshipping and reading the Bible--not so that we will learn, but so we won't forget. 

Have we forgotten we are brothers?  Have we forgotten our own sins?  Have we forgotten that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus?  We cannot keep what we cannot remember. If we remember,  we still forever need to be reminded.