Friday, September 26, 2008

Who Gets the Check?

Is it my imagination or just bad memory? I've been watching the news during this economic crisis and I maybe wrong, but I think I'm seeing a glaring inconsistency. These same guys who consider themselves the free trade, free market, cut taxes, small government, fiscal conservatives are the ones who are now begging for a big government rescue, a buyout at the taxpayers expense, to cover years of bad decisions and mismanagement. I'm trying to get my mind around 700 billion dollars. At the going rate, how many generations does that come to?

Our government can't find a dollar for all the families who are losing their homes. And no funds are laying around for those wiped out by the hurricanes. But let the high rollers get in trouble, and truckloads of money immediately pull up to the curb. I guess I just don't understand the problems of applied economics, but I get to help pay for them anyway.

And, in the midst of this tirade, there may be a truth for us to keep in mind. We are all too quick to believe in the myth of our own autonomy, our imagined self-sufficiency. Like our childhood superheroes, we naively believe that we are impervious to problems, immune to the painful crises that plague others. Well, don't you believe it.

Jesus told a story about a man who suffered from just such a delusion, a well-heeled farmer sitting in the lap of prosperity, nameless to us except for the tag Jesus gave him - "Fool." No matter who we are or how pretty we are sitting, it can all be gone in a moment, in a heartbeat. Or we may be gone. Either way, it will be up to someone else to pick up the check.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The "Don't Pray" List

I almost never post my thoughts twice on the same day, but I can't let this one go. I read this article this evening and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Sadly, it appears that Hindus, Muslims, and atheists believe more in the power of Christian prayer than many of us Christians do. See what you think.

Elias Al-Karim says he’s always gotten along well with his neighbors, who are evangelical Christians. But he was angered recently to learn that they had added his name, and the names of his wife and children, to Community Faith Center’s corporate prayer list. Elias called the church to complain.

"We do not want prayer from Christians, and we did not ask for it," he told a reporter. "It’s a violation to pray for someone without their knowledge or consent."

To ease tensions, the church did what many churches and ministries are increasingly doing: started a "do not pray" list. The list grew rapidly after Al-Karim alerted the local newspaper about his experience. Hundreds of Muslims, atheists, Mormons and even pagans called to have their names added to the list. Now when prayer requests come in to the church, names are checked against the list before they receive prayer.

"We have to respect people’s wishes," says the pastor. "If they really don’t want prayer, we honor that."

You can find the full story here. So, is this pastor right or wrong?

I have never felt particularly comfortable with large churchwide prayer lists. I understand the rationale and we all need to be reminded to pray for those in need. I just don't think God is ever impressed or moved by the number of our combined prayers, as if we can push God to do our bidding by the sheer volume of our prayers. It seems to me that God answers prayers that are genuine and passionate and consistent with His own character and purposes, regardless of how many are praying. "The prayers of a righteous man availeth much." Not a righteous mob.

Those who dial up the "Don't Pray" list had better change their strategy. It's not a bunch of kneeling Christians that they should be worried about. It is the restless, relentless Spirit of God, the most ruthless member of the Trinity, who will stop at nothing to win their love. It is the Hound of Heaven who pursues not to destroy but to capture by His grace. And there's no stopping Him.

Winning for a Reason

“I said this was going to define my career, but you know what, it made my career.” -Kenny Perry

I watched Sunday afternoon as Kenny Perry, choked with emotion, spoke those words. What was he thinking about? What made this win so meaningful for him? Here's my theory. This grueling Ryder Cup match was not about the big check or the lucrative endorsements or the individual achievement - the kind of things that professional golfers go after every other week of the year.

This was bigger, much bigger. This match was about playing for a team and a cause beyond any one person's ego or ambition. This was playing one's very best for something bigger than a bank account. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" Competing to restore our national pride in an international sport is a strong motivation, whether in the Olympics or the Ryder Cup or the America's Cup.

I know. It's just a game. Just a silly old golf game. But Kenny Perry reminded me of a significant truth, that we all find our deepest level of fulfillment when we give ourselves to something bigger than our own self interest. Winning only for yourself is just feeding a wolf that will soon be hungry again. But achieving a victory for the teammate beside you and the flag above you fills you up until the tears run down your face and you can hardly talk. Now that's a game worth playing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Better Check Your Blind Spots

These days I am trying to teach two teenagers how to drive. I've been giving lengthy explanations about the difference between a green light and a green arrow, and what the words "Stop" and "Yield" really mean. And we have had interesting conversations about blind spots and how to check them. Someday soon, I will have the courage to give them the keys for good.

Blind spots. I guess we all have them, and we are much better at spotting the blind spots of others while remaining largely unaware of our own. Sadly, churches have blind spots as well, people we do not see or acknowledge even though they may be in plain sight, right in front of our eyes. And all too often, we steam roll ahead, oblivious to the damage we do and the pain that we cause to those we have failed to notice.

Let me mention a few examples of those who seem to live perpetually in the Church's blind spot: single parents, the divorced, the abused, and the working poor. I'm afraid there are many others we could mention, but lately our church has been awakened to the needs of single parents in our own community. We are finally mobilizing our ministries to help address the practical, everyday needs of single parents. In this process we are finding many willing partners in our town - the community college, the local hospital, our county's social services, and several large employers.

Not surprisingly, some of our sister churches have been the least interested, the most hesitant to admit the need, and the last to get involved. Too many churches are pretending that the traditional 'Ozzie and Harriet' family is still the norm while gearing all their attempts at family ministry to a shrinking minority of "Christian" families.

God, forgive us for our blindness. Forgive us for not seeing the obvious, for not meeting the needs that have long been right in front of us, for not doing the deeds that match the message we proclaim.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Barack and Joe or John and Sarah?

"Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?" - Confucius

As the presidential campaign heats up, our real feelings about race and gender and leadership are boiling to the surface. Some people seem very positive, believing that our country has moved beyond racism and bigotry in this context. Others are much more pessimistic, fearful that some segments of our culture have progressed very little. And regrettably, we have not yet been able to exorcise all of these ugly forms of prejudice from within our churches. I still sometimes hear political discussions among "Christian" people with thinly veiled racism and sexism expressed in the guise of just talking politics.

The African Bishop, Desmond Tutu, was once asked why he became an Anglican rather than joining some other denomination. He replied that in the days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect.

"One day" Tutu says, "when I was just a little boy, my mother and I were walking down the street when a tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as was expected of us, this man stepped off the sidewalk and, as my mother and I passed, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her! I was more than surprised at what had happened and I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’ My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He’s a man of God, that’s why he did it.’ When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God."

May we all grow up to become men and women of God, respecting the dignity and worth of every person for whom Christ died.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Trouble With Trophies

"Oh yeah, life goes on . . . long after the thrill of living is gone."
- John Mellencamp, "Jack and Diane"
Tonight I watched my daughter play volleyball. It was an away match, and while I was drinking a Diet Coke between games, I noticed a remarkable trophy cabinet, not unlike trophy cabinets in just about every high school in the country. What made this one especially interesting was the age of some the pictures and trophies. The Bulldogs apparently took second place in the local tournament in February, 1933. Another basketball team managed to win a Big Three Tournament in 1929, bringing home the first place trophy with engraving that is now barely legible.

I did a little math and calculated that those who played on that championship team would be 95 to 99 years old, if they are still alive today. Wow. Do you suppose any of those old-timers are still sitting around the nursing home, telling anyone who can hear them all about the big game, the clutch free throw, the final basket at the buzzer?

It's an honor to be remembered, but even our most cherished moments, even our engraved victories, even our noblest accomplishments seem to fade with the passing of time. But still we hang on, longing to leave some kind of legacy, something that will remain after we are gone.

As I recall, the only trophy that I ever received was for winning 1st place in the 9 year old Punt, Pass, and Kick contest in our little town. In one of our moves, my little trophy mysteriously disappeared. Suzanne had no explanation. I checked the Hall of Fame in Canton - it's not there. And, I have searched the Smithsonian. It's not there either. So, my accomplishments, my glory days, have faded into obscurity. Oh well. Life goes on . . .