How (and why) God works

With Christmas activities taking place every day, it’s easy to forget “the reason for the season.”

I find three ways to connect, learn and grow closer to Jesus, for whom the holiday was named.

All three are crucial.

Year round. Including in December.

Personal quiet time

I’m a morning person, the first one up in my household. Always have been. When our kids were young, my job started before they got up for school. Even today, I’m up before 6:30 a.m. – without an alarm.

I start the coffee. I feed the cats. I pour a cup of the morning brew. I sit down in my living room chair, the cup in one hand, the Bible in the other, and often a cat on my lap.

That’s the best part of my entire day. It’s dark. It’s quiet. It’s warm (thanks to the cat).

God often speaks to me there.

Today I read the first three chapters of 1 Peter. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit …” (1 Peter 3:8) In church yesterday our pastor talked about the deepest longings of our hearts. A magazine did a survey on that recently, he said, and the most common longings were happiness, money, a relationship, peace and joy.

My deepest longing, however, didn’t appear on the magazine’s list: unity. I wish with all my heart that we as Americans and as citizens of the world would learn to get along with each other. I’ve written about this many times.

Most of our deepest longings are selfish. Mine is for unity among all people. That’s selfish too, I suppose; I wish to be understood as well as I wish to understand you.

These thoughts ran through my mind in my quiet time this morning.

This happens frequently. A verse I read resonates, and my mind probes into it. What does it mean? What would it look like if we (I) truly lived this out?

Unity among believers is the last thing Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane before He was crucified (John 17:20-24). Unity mattered to Jesus, too.

Many of you discredit the Christian faith because we Christians can’t get along with each other, much less with you. Our message to you is fragmented. Some so-called Christians mis-lead you.

This is why we must read the Bible for ourselves. What’s in there? I’m a journalist; I’m a cynic by nature. I’m not going to take your word for it. I will double-check you.

I will read it for myself.

Small group

Having said that, I can learn from you, and you from me. The best churches are organized with small groups of a dozen or so people who get together on a regular basis. My wife and I also attended Sunday School classes for many years. And we participate in Wednesday night men’s and women’s groups to study the Bible and issues of the day, with a Biblical perspective.

I have plenty to learn from you. You have insights into life that I don’t have. I’ve experienced things that I can share with you as well. As we get to know each other better, we discover that we aren’t as different as we thought we were.

We also can support each other through our struggles and trials of life. When someone in our group has a dying relative, others understand because they’ve been there. When someone new joins the group because he and his family just moved here, I can relate right away, because that’s my experience too. When someone talks Browns-Steelers … well, I have ties to both cities, actually.

All these issues can unify us. We connect at this level in a group setting.

The best groups challenge me to learn something new about myself, to step out in faith and do something, to help me understand a truth about God in a different or deeper way. It’s a safe place to be vulnerable. For guys, that’s not normal. And even in a couple of men’s groups I’m in, that doesn’t come easy.

But it’s necessary. I can learn things from you that I cannot learn on my own.

Preaching

Uh oh, here it comes. Yes, there’s a reason to attend a Sunday morning service every week.

The pastor, if he (or she) is inspired by the living God, has done his homework on his message for the day. As a general rule, the pastor dives deep into a verse or small section of the Bible. He offers insights and background that his training and study have taught him. And then he gives practical applications on how we can live out the truths that he is teaching us.

If this is the only Bible learning we do each week, we miss so much. Even if you hear one sermon a week for your entire life, you’ll miss reading most of the Bible. That’s why we must read the Bible on our own, and study it in small groups. We learn truths in different ways, and at different levels.

Real-world application

Does God speak to you when you are alone? Does He speak in your small groups? Is He speaking through your pastor?

I daresay that most of you who are critical of God or the church aren’t participating in it at all, but are criticizing as outsiders. We in America are good at that. We Christians are good at criticizing you too.

All of us would do so much better if we got to know each other better. Find out what makes each of us tick. How each of us thinks.

On Facebook I follow a prominent expert on poverty, who travels the country seeking to alleviate or even end poverty. She commented recently about a library forgiving fines.

Are library fines a poverty issue? Yes. She explained how she grew up in a home with more than 20 relatives. She avoided libraries because if she took a book home, it would get lost in such a crowded place. She missed out on all a library offers – chances to discover new ideas, improve reading skills, learn history and other subjects from those who have lived it – because she was afraid of getting punished for using a library.

I had no idea.

The point of a personal quiet time, small groups and weekly preaching is to learn and grow closer to God and to each other. Is poverty a God issue? Absolutely, yes. It’s easy to judge people who don’t pay their library fines as lazy or thieves – until we understand why.

Unity. My deepest longing. Which I realized in a sermon. Then meditated on in a personal quiet time. And read about online.

I’m trying to live it out. It’s a worthy goal.

This is how God works. Alone, in groups and in church. With real-world applications. It’s all good.

And it’s all necessary.

Silent majority needs to be heard

The opposite of love is not hate.

Both are strong emotions. People with either love or hate care deeply about the issue at hand.

No, the opposite of love – and hate too, for that matter – is apathy.

I … just … don’t … care.

As a holiday weekend is concluding, I’m struggling with this. Perhaps I’m feeling emotional fatigue. Especially since I’ve never learned how to express my emotions verbally.

America the divided

Am I proud to be an American?

That’s a more complicated question than it used to be.

I am free to live where I choose, worship where I choose (or not), work in a career field of my choice (assuming someone would hire me), marry whom I choose, spend my free time however I choose …

Yes, this country offers many good things.

But not all receive those things equally.

This is the message of America today.

We hold up that ideal, but we aren’t close to it. We’re closer than we were a century ago.

Or are we?

Equality an illusion

evicted 2

I just read a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond, which described the substandard housing situation in inner-city Milwaukee a decade ago. We on the outside think the long-term poor often choose to live that way, that if they would just get a job or education, they could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and improve their lives.

But that’s often not possible. The housing culture in the wonderful United States of America is designed to keep poor people poor.

evicted 5

Rents are not much cheaper in poor areas than they are in the suburbs. The federal government subsidizes low-income housing for landlords, so they charge unaffordable rents in low-income areas because they can. And when poor people get behind on rent, far too often they get evicted.

The book follows eight families who faced this. Many of them made upwards of 90 or more calls and/or visits to rental properties to find a suitable place after eviction. Eviction is like a criminal record – often landlords make it difficult for the evicted to rent again.

And if the family, often led by a single woman, has children, that’s another strike. Kids cause damage. Teens do drugs and get into trouble. Claiming this, some landlords don’t want children.

And why are neighborhoods segregated racially? Because landlords make it so. They find creative ways to refuse renting an apartment or house to a minority in a “non-minority” neighborhood.

Us outsiders don’t get it. We can’t just throw a month’s rent at one of these families and think they are good to go. The issues run far deeper than that.

Are there any solutions?

The author suggests housing vouchers, which can be used in any neighborhood.

 

By and large, both public housing residents and voucher holders pay only 30 percent of their income on rent, with government funds covering the rest.

Evicted, page 302

 

Many poor people pay 70 percent or more of their income on rent, which means they often have to decide between rent and food, or rent and the utility bill. That’s why evictions are prevalent among the severely poor.

This problem is nationwide. In 2012, one in nine occupied rental households in Cleveland were summoned to eviction court (page 296). More than 10 percent of all renters in the biggest city near here faced eviction.

Do the rest of us even notice this? Even if we do, how much do we care? Enough to change public policy to improve the lives of the poorest among us?

Compassion helps, but compassion goes only so far.

Just ask the illegal immigrants at our southern border.

Standing for … what?

Pennsylvania Daily Life

And as we celebrated our nation’s birthday, I saw this at work in the way we treat our flag. Even the flag has become a racist symbol.

What does the American flag stand for, anyway?

Does it stand for all those freedoms we like to say we have? Does it stand for the bravery of our veterans and active military service people?

What else does it stand for?

And why do some people not stand for it at all?

When I see unbridled poverty, when I see far too much violence (there was a police shooting in our city last week), when I see broken homes as the norm … can I really celebrate living in the United States these days?

Are there solutions? Or have we given up the fight, given in to apathy?

We think only of ourselves. My rights. I can live with whomever I want, drive whatever speed I want on the highway, spend my money (or other people’s money) on whatever I want …

Without thinking of consequences.

Burying our dreams

We just don’t care anymore. There’s no bigger picture.

No ideals bigger than ourselves.

What is freedom, really? What did our forefathers live and die for?

Did they live and die to create the United States we have today? Is this the best we can do?

Can we learn to get along with each other again? To overcome apathy?

We like to throw around the word “hate,” but it’s often misplaced. Sure, there’s some hate out there, but I don’t think there’s as much of it as extremists on both sides of the political aisle think there is. Most of us, rich or poor, are just trying to live our lives.

Leave us alone, we are saying. Just chill out.

Maybe I’m mistaking this for apathy. Maybe we aren’t as apathetic as I think we are.

Perhaps we do care, deep down in our hearts.

We just don’t know how to show it.

Or, more likely, we’re not allowed to show it.

We get shouted down. The “hate” word is thrown at us if we disagree. The loudest voice is often the one that gets heard in this country.

Which is why I defended the United Methodist Church this spring for standing firm – as it has for more than half a century – to its convictions regarding homosexuality. As one voice swimming against the political correctness tide, I took some flak for that, but the discussion was excellent. Thanks again to all of you who participated.

The loudest, or even the most persistent, voice is not always the right one.

Sometimes, the silent majority actually has something to say.

We care. We really do.

But does that mean anything? Can the silent majority do anything with its passions and desires in this country?

Who’s listening?

Anyone?