Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Is It Okay To Preach About the "S" Word?

Dear Friends,

My Lutheran pastor friend and I were lamenting the other day that in many churches, sin is no longer talked about from the pulpit. I had read an interview of a pastor in a large east-coast church that is in my friend’s denomination. That pastor was saying that, last year, as the season of Lent approached, she realized that she no longer preached about sin. God convicted her to preach a whole series on sin during those Lenten Sundays. After a few weeks, a man came up to her and complained, “I don’t feel good about myself anymore when I listen to you but then I go home and listen to Joel Osteen and I feel better about myself.” That confirmed to her that she was doing the right thing! There is an old saying that preaching should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” but too many preachers avoid the dreaded “S” word and preach only messages that entertain and sooth the soul and are then completely forgotten about later that Sunday afternoon.

That “S” word–Sin–sparks raging debates among pastors in the Protestant traditions! They agree about the theological concept of sin. But many would strongly recommend that you don’t confront sinful behavior in sermons because you alienate the new believers and offend the mature members. Joel Osteen, was asked by Katie Couric why he doesn’t preach on sin. He said, “I don’t like to harp on those things. God is for everybody. And God loves everybody.” That is the unspoken theology of most megachurches and one nationally-known pastor, in an article on church growth, wrote that pastors who preach about sin are doomed to pastor small churches. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, but is healthy church growth “numerical,” or is healthy growth the body of Christ growing spiritually and becoming more like Jesus? If it’s the latter, then we’ve got to preach the “S” word. 

The two elderly Southern sisters were sitting together in the front pew of church listening to their fiery preacher. When the preacher condemned the sin of stealing, these two ladies cried out at the tops of their lungs, “Amen Brother!” When the preacher condemned the sin of lust, they yelled again, “Preach it Reverend!” And when the preacher condemned the sin of adultery, they jumped to their feet and screamed, “Right on Brother! Tell it like it is! Amen!” But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two got very quiet. One turned to the other and said, “He’s quit preaching and now he’s just a meddlin’ where he don’t belong!” 

We are okay when pastors pound the pulpit and condemn those “safe” sins – the major sins that we don’t do. We just don’t like it when he sticks his nose in our business and harps on our minor sins. That’s because some of us seem to ascribe to a Believer’s Theology, that has God rating our sins with a point system. Let’s see how that works...

It’s as if God gives you 3 demerits for the sin of gossip but if you dropped a juicy bit of gossip while making it a “prayer request” for someone, you get three gold stars. You’ll get 5 demerits for lying, 7 for a lustful thought and 20 demerits for cheating on your income tax. But you’ll receive 1,500 demerits for sexual sins and 7,500 black marks for murder!

We love this concept of the “sin scale” because we can then believe that our unrepentant petty sins are “no big deal” which is why we are so offended when the pastor puts those “safe” sins that we don’t do (murder, sexual sins) in the same category as the “minor sins” that we do commit. (gossip, gluttony, unforgiveness, astrology, greed, envy, pride, selfish ambition, ingratitude, arrogance, jealously, anger, lying, bitterness, boasting, slandering, impatience, name just a few) Those are the dangerous sins that we do daily in thought, word and deed. Dangerous because we pay no attention to them, and that’s why those are the ones that can get wedged between us and God until we confess and repent of them. But wait! Doesn’t God’s grace cover these? Isn’t repentance just some legalistic church rule?

Some mainline preachers teach a universal theology that because God loves everybody, everyone is saved and there is nothing we need to do or even believe. But Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned this theology as “cheap grace” and said “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” The fact is that Jesus requires repentance!

Repentance is the continual turning away from sin. Jesus said that if you don’t repent and turn from your sins you will all perish. Luke 13:1-5 In the first church, Peter preaches that all must repent and be baptized Acts 2:38 and said you must  repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out. Acts 3:19 Paul says that God commands all to repent and turn from their sins. Acts 17:30 Jesus sent His disciples out to preach that people should repent and turn from their sin Mark 6:12 and so I too meddle in the lives of people and annoy them by preaching the same message about those minor, little, insignificant sins that I’m constantly preaching to the man in my bathroom mirror. This Lent is the perfect time for us to look within to see what are those “dangerous sins” that are coming between us and God. 

The words of a wise 14th century English monk are true, “On the path of purity and spiritual growth, you can’t afford a reckless attitude toward even the smallest sin.” And then Jesus bottom lines this whole issue of sin for you and me. He says: “Repent..”

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Take a Spiritual 'Selfie" This Lent!

Dear Friends,

Mental health professionals are concerned about a self-obsessed generation raised on the idea that they are special and who are fueling the “selfie” phenomenon. (a selfie is when you use your phone to take a photo of yourself) A clinical psychologist recently said, “If someone is obsessed with taking selfies, it is most likely because the individual is self-absorbed and narcissistic.” Selfies have become an early warning sign of Narcissistic Personality Disorder which involves a preoccupation with self and how one is perceived by others. Many who struggle with this disorder are obsessed with receiving recognition and gratification from one’s physical appearance and they are driven to create the “perfect” selfie to post on social media. Sadly, their self-worth and “celebrity status” among friends is determined by the amount of “likes” received.

Wherever we go these days, we see people taking photos of themselves. It is often annoying or inappropriate. Who can forget the photo of Michelle Obama’s icy glare when her husband was goofing around and taking selfies during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service? And one time a church pastor even took a selfie of himself and some church friends after a service that he put in an AMEN Corner that he wrote about “selfies.” Really! What’s up with that guy...

But unlike sharing the perfect selfie today that makes you look hot, cute or handsome, the Apostle Paul shared a “selfie” with the world that wasn’t very pretty. Paul’s selfie is authentically raw and deeply honest. He throws off all pretense and admits that he is “all too human, a slave to sin.” He confesses, “I want to do good but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”  Romans 7:14-25 NLT Paul knows that he is “in Christ” and is no longer defined by his sins but deeply rooted within is his struggle with sin. It’s as if Paul is saying, “I’ve been following Jesus for twenty five years and I’m still messing up.” I don’t know if you can relate to that... I sure can. 

We are in our season of Lent that has evolved into a trite “giving up chocolate or ice cream” type of fast but in the ancient church it was so much more than that. It was a period of soul-searching and self-examination. It was not a guilt trip, but a spiritual time of remorseful repentance that is healing and life-changing. 

Paul was not probing into his struggles with sin in order to emotionally beat himself up. But he knew that there’s power in the unfiltered assessment of life. Paul shows us that when we take off our mask of awesomeness and take a raw and unfiltered spiritual selfie, we set our “self” aside and invite the healing power of Christ to come within. Paul said, “..I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9b 

Use this time during Lent to take a “spiritual selfie.”  An internal review of where you are doing well and where you might be missing the mark. Ask God to reveal even the slightest and seemingly innocuous sins that are offensive to Him. Use this time to ask the Holy Spirit to help you clear out what’s getting between you and God in order to allow more room for Him in your life. 

It’s only when we take that authentic spiritual selfie that we can see all our warts and blemishes. And that’s when we can truly come to love and appreciate the grace of God. It’s when we show our ugly spiritual selfie to God that He reaches out and gathers us in His arms. So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to Him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. Romans 8:1-2 NLT

Sin no longer has a choke-hold on us. Through Christ Jesus, we are freed from the power of sin but never from the struggle with sin in this earthly life. It’s still a battle. And, we can choose righteousness or we can yield to evil. There is a Native American story about a conversation between a Cherokee grandfather and his grandson. The grandfather said, “There is a battle between the two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealously, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other wolf is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.” The little boy thought about it for a minute and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The wise old man looked at his grandson and replied, “Whichever one you feed.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

My Obituary?

Dear Friends,

Have you given any thought to your obituary? I don’t mean to bring up a depressing subject, but you all know that you’re not getting off this planet alive. Right? Last week I was reading newspaper obituaries which is something that I normally never do. What struck me was how a lifetime of our priorities and passions are so neatly and concisely stated in a few words that summarize our earthly existence. Academic degrees attained, military service, careers, children raised, memberships, golfing and bowling accomplishments, service awards. Some written with tedious details that sound as if written by a public relations company and some written by family members who convey their love and sadness in the memories of their loved ones. But nearly all sum up the person’s life with a list of what they’ve done. It’s a “life resume” of their most important achievements. But all stand before Jesus someday and He will not be interested in our military record, golf trophies or our career promotions. Even our “church activities” are of no importance. We are known by others for what we’ve done. We are known by God for who we’ve become.

As I thought about my own obituary, I’d like to have it sound like Marian Jean Kalionzes’ who died at the age of 91 on March 7th. “She knew the assurance of her salvation through Jesus Christ and spoke with conviction of the life awaiting her in Heaven. Her faith never shaken, she encouraged the many who loved her up to the finish...”

A friend was reflecting on this time of Lent and how they wished to be remembered when they have left this planet. They were thinking about what they needed to do and change about themselves now in order to accomplish their desire to be thought well of by others. 

Lent is a season of self-reflection and repentance. The Biblical definition of REPENTANCE means to be remorseful and contrite over our sinful behavior and then have a change of mind about our behavior that results in a change of our actions. Acts 26:20 If giving up something for Lent is no more than a obligatory church tradition, we can proudly fast for 40 days on chocolate ice cream to accrue religious “Brownie points,” but then we come out of Lent looking the same way we did as when we entered the season. God requires more.

At some point in time, the clock will stop for us. Our body will be done. And who we are at that moment, will be how our loved ones will remember us. I don’t want to have the words “Cranky Old Codger” chiseled on my tombstone. 

Some might say that I need to work on my personal “brand.” Personal branding is what young professionals do to invent and establish an image or impression of themselves in the minds of others. Your online and social media image may not be true to your authentic self but is a tightly managed group of online assets that package and promote how you want to be perceived. 

Today there are many books and resources on how to recreate and market a professional image, but our spiritual image was established at the moment of our birth. We were created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 Of course we don’t physically resemble God because He is Spirit John 4:24 but we were created to reflect God’s character and attributes. Obviously not His divine attributes such as His sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. God and God alone is the Supreme Authority, all-knowing, all-powerful and present in all places and at all times. 

But we were created in His image to reflect His character and, as Spirit-filled Christians, we should be looking less like us and more like Jesus every day of our lives. In Galatians 5:22-23 NLT, Paul lists the “fruit” of the Spirit. In the Greek, the word translated as “fruit” is singular meaning that the one single characteristic of a Christian is all of these nine attributes combined: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. These are the Christ-like attributes that identify the true follower of Jesus, but of course while we were created in His image, we can choose to reject that image.   

Is the image you project to others a man/woman of God or a man/woman of the world? When your earthly body dies, what will your obituary say? How do you want to be remembered by your loved ones? Are there attributes of the Fruit of the Spirit that are weak or missing from your life? Are you okay with the idea of coming out of another Lent unchanged? If not, what would God want you to change about yourself?

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Lift Your Spirits!

Dear Friends,

One of my favorite high-tech devices is the Bluetooth Mobile Phone Headset. That’s the device that people wear in their ear to be able to instantly answer their mobile phone and engage in a loud conversation when they’re in back of you in the line at Starbucks. I should quickly say that I don’t use one of those wireless headsets myself. I’m just not important enough to need to be immediately available to my people. Okay...the truth is I don’t even have “people.”

But the cool thing about wireless headset technology is that it has allowed me to now be in public without frightening others. I’m now able to walk down the street without mothers clutching their small children to them in fear. People no longer quietly edge away from me when I’m in line at the bank and I can now even go into retail stores without a clerk quickly slipping behind the counter to stand near the red emergency button.

Because sometimes I engage in what others might describe as “bizarre behavior.” I’ll be in my yard in the early morning hours singing praise songs. I’ll be walking down the street and praying quietly to myself or softly singing a worship song out loud. I’ll think of something and under my breath be praising or thanking the Lord. And so now, thanks to the popularity of those wireless headsets, people no longer look at me as if I could be psychotically dangerous. They just assume I’m on my phone.

One time I was browsing in a thrift store and softly whistling “IN CHRIST ALONE.” A bit later, when I brought my stack of used books to the cash register, the lady asked if I was the one who was whistling. Not realizing I could be heard, I apologized and she quickly said, “No, was nice to hear someone happy!”

Seeing a cross around her neck, I knew she’d understand. So I replied, “That was a worship song and when I praise God, He always makes me happy.” That began one of those conversations where I was thankful that God had brought me into an uncrowded store and into a quiet conversation with this volunteer who was going through a difficult time in her life.

We can find ourselves living in a constant state of brokenness from our past, commingled with too much dysfunction in our present. Where stress and anxiety clutter our mind and prevent us from finding any joy in our day. Where we’re struggling with our present circumstances. Where we might even find ourselves mired in what King David called the “pit of despair.” Psalm 40:1-2 NLT

And then we read something in our Bible that seems laughably impossible for us to do. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always? Even in the middle of what may be lousy circumstances? Yes! And sometimes that’s indeed very difficult to do, but with God all things are possible. Those Biblical instructions or commandments that raise the bar for our behavior are not just directed toward the spiritual saints who have it all together. They’re also directed toward people like you and me.

So, how do we “rejoice always” in the middle of difficult circumstances? Not though any mind-games, psychological techniques or religious formulas. We simply praise God for what He has done for us and worship Him for who He is. King David found himself in that pit of despair and cried out to the Lord. God lifted David out of the mire, set his feet on the “rock” and put a new hymn of praise in his mouth! Psalm 40:3 NLT 

Do I get discouraged, worried and stressed at times? You bet I do. And singing praise songs to the glory of God will always bring me out of my Eeyore-like, self-centered gloom. Praise and worship takes you out of yourself and into the Presence of God. When we are filled with the awe of God, we become less full of ourselves and our self-important problems are put into perspective. 

Our praise rises up to the heavens like sweet incense and He reaches down and gently lifts us into His Presence. Praise and worship are not just what we do on Sunday morning, it’s a lifestyle. When worship is an attitude of our heart, then our lives are lived as an act of worship to Him. Praise comes to our lips, prayer flows out of our heart and in that moment, God meets us right where we already are. We rejoice. Always!