Define the terms, and then …

Define the terms.

I met the father of our church’s new worship leader last weekend, visiting from out of town. As we chatted for a few minutes, I mentioned that I write a blog. “What about?” he asked. “Issues of the day, and my faith, mostly,” I said.

“Define the terms,” he said.

I knew exactly what he meant.

It’s why I don’t often engage in your conversations, preferring to carefully avoid most of those terms.

Love.

Hate.

Inclusion.

Discrimination.

Racism.

Believe.

Faith.

Freedom.

Addiction.

The economy.

Right vs. wrong.

Rights.

This list is hardly exhaustive.

Every one of these words means different things to different people. That’s why Facebook memes are so inflammatory. You post something to make a point, and someone else interprets it entirely differently.

Even worse, most of you have no intention of discussing the issue, but only in preaching to your choir.

A poll

Case in point:

“Do you think Trump is a racist? Simple yes or no.”

Depends who you ask.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

No. No. No. No.

Never the twain shall meet in this online poll currently making the rounds. Neither side has any intention of discussing the issue.

“Intelligent discussion” is an oxymoron.

Love, hate

What is “love?”

That word has a myriad of definitions and meanings. Each of us defines it slightly differently, from our own perspective.

Indeed, we define all these hot-button words from our own perspective.

“Hate.” Is there really as much hate out there as we say there is?

What is hate, anyway?

Some of you define “hate” as any stance different than yours. I’m not exaggerating.

How do you expect to get along with anyone while throwing that word around? You’ve marginalized yourself.

The economy

Is “the economy” doing great? Depends who you ask.

If the stock market is your indicator, then yes. If finding a good job that pays the bills is your indicator, then no. There are lots of jobs out there, but many of them are outsourced or lower-paying service jobs, with fewer well-paying manufacturing and management careers than there used to be. We don’t like to talk about that.

Inclusion, discrimination

“Inclusion.” Oooh, there’s a good word. Of course all should be welcome just about anywhere. But that’s not what inclusion means in today’s America. A certain sector of society has taken over that word, and politicized it.

Even inclusive people exclude those who don’t think like they do.

Let that sink in (I don’t like this phrase, but it fits here).

“Discrimination” is another often misunderstood word. I’m a member of AARP, and I get emails and Facebook posts almost daily talking about “age discrimination.”

When I say discrimination, that’s not what most of you think about, is it? But it’s very real. I switched jobs several times in my 50s, and I’m sure I experienced age discrimination to some degree while job searching.

Most of you put “discrimination” and “racism” in the same sentence. And you should. Because racism is very real as well.

But again, what is it? To those of you who have experienced racism: Do you have any interest at all in ending it? I’m serious. Because I’m a white male, I’m often guilty by association.

Many white males are racist. I am not defending them. But if you look down on me only because of the color of my skin, you’re racist too. By definition. I can change my attitude, but I cannot change the color of my skin.

Can we have an intelligent discussion about that?

Probably not, because there’s another issue at work here besides defining the terms.

Getting personal

I’ll explain this by quoting an article in the Aug. 20 edition of the (Elyria, Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. The Avon Lake City Council was prepared to enact a law increasing the penalties for drivers passing a stopped school bus – until a resident, who’s also an attorney, objected, calling the local law unconstitutional. He claimed it was an attempt to supersede state law.

Well, OK. The attorney has a right to say that.

A city councilman didn’t think so. He said the local law had been reviewed by Avon Lake’s law director, then added, “I’m sure everyone is very familiar with his reputation,” referring to the attorney.

The attorney responded, “That’s a personal attack on me. I want him sanctioned. Discipline him, chair – or don’t you have the guts?”

Then this: (The attorney) spoke out several times at Monday’s meeting, talking over council members to the point police officers were called to keep the meeting civil. Following the meeting he was escorted out of Council chambers by police.

That’s the problem with civil discourse today. We can’t discuss issues without getting personal. Neither side can.

We must stick to the issues, and agree to disagree at times. There are ways to oppose a law without name-calling.

Rights

Perhaps we need to tone down the social rhetoric in public, and focus on issues of real government (federal, state and local):

  • Paying for and improving public schools.
  • Maintaining roads and bridges.
  • Balancing the budget.
  • Ensuring trash pickup.
  • Improving water quality, both in our homes and in our lakes and rivers.

These issues get lost behind abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, gun rights and other rights.

Right?

Who decides what rights are right?

Are certain issues topics of right vs. wrong? Which ones?

We answer that question differently, so we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on much these days.

Here’s a thought. Let parents teach their children whatever social values they choose. In school, all children matter – because all children belong there. Teach them reading, writing and arithmetic.

Can we start with that?

Can we set up an educational system where every child has a chance to succeed, no matter who he or she is or what their background is?

It can be done, if all of us start with that question.

Believe

“Believe.”

Believe what? Everyone believes something. Everyone believes lots of things. We believe the sun will come up tomorrow, for example.

What do you believe in? Why?

Let’s talk. Not argue or curse, but actually talk.

Which requires two listening ears. By both of us.

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The nation’s answer

Change comes from the inside out

Where are You, Lord?

It’s hard to see You sometimes. We just had a weekend with two – count ’em, two – mass shootings. As usual, emotions flared on both sides. Control guns. Improve mental health.

Where are You, Lord?

When we focus on our own issues and point words at each other, we miss You. We scream and yell. We blame. We get angry.

We despair, because we’ve seen it before.

Yet mass shootings are like plane crashes, aren’t they, Lord? They are few and far between, but they are dramatic and deadly, so they get the headlines.

Vehicle crashes happen far more often. People commit suicide far more often. People even kill each other, one-on-one, far more often.

Those situations may get a mention in the media, or they may not. They often are not front-page news.

Yet vehicle crashes and suicide affect far more people than mass shootings do.

I personally knew two people who committed suicide, one a few years ago and one about three decades ago. What if I had said something … if I only knew … perhaps …

Are You there, Lord?

You are.

People have reasons for doing things, good and evil.

Taking away the gun may prevent the mass shooting, but would it save the man’s soul? Would it change the trajectory of his life?

Are You there, Lord?

Is there a bigger picture here?

Can we change what we have become?

We can’t legislate that, can we, Lord? That’s what we want to do. Gun control. Improve access to mental health treatment. Let someone else fix it. Create a program that people can avail themselves of to improve their lives.

That will solve the problem, right?

Many mass shooters are loners, quiet people with few friends who stay in the background of life, exploding at the worst possible moment. I saw a report that 26 of the last 27 mass shooters were fatherless.

Is that the trigger, Lord?

We’re all about personal rights now, individuality, non-conformity, breaking the rules, love (my way) … we don’t hold each other accountable anymore.

Not even in our families.

Our broken families.

Or our churches, many of which are no different than society at large.

Where are You, Lord?

If following You doesn’t change us, what’s the point?

If I can believe whatever I want, then why believe anything?

Is there no right and wrong, Lord?

If mass murder is wrong, then what else is wrong?

Who decides?

That’s why we can’t agree on anything, Lord. We have no foundation in our lives anymore. No good vs. evil. That’s all fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Cinderella and the Evil Stepsisters. Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Fairy tales.

No respect for authority. No respect for people of a color or ethnicity different than us. No respect for people not born here.

We’re all just visitors on Planet Earth, aren’t we, Lord? We’re not as different as we think we are.

We say hi to our neighbors but we don’t take time to know them.  Some of us move around more than others, so we have to work harder to meet people.

We’d rather do our own thing.

And then we wonder why we can’t get along with each other.

Even if we follow You, Lord, that doesn’t guarantee that we will get it right.

Reading the book of Acts, the early church had just as many issues as the church in America does today. They had to call their leaders together to hash out some very divisive issues.

But they did it, Lord.

And the church grew because they followed You and Your Scriptures. They rejected the belief that “they have to do it our way.”

Why can’t we get this right, Lord?

In Your last prayer on Earth, You prayed for unity among the believers. You knew how crucial that was, and still is.

We blew it, Lord. Again.

Both sides think they have the right answer, but neither does.

Only You do.

Unconditional love is a phrase we don’t hear very often. Not love (my way). Unconditional love.

What You want.

What the other person wants.

Not my will be done …

Who prays that anymore? Truly prays that?

I’ve been involved with a Tuesday morning prayer group for a year now. (See photo above, taken by Jason Russ. Used by permission.) Not that I’m a “prayer warrior” or anything. But we cry out to You.

Imperfectly, because we are imperfect human beings. But we pray.

We ask forgiveness.

We have our wants and needs, and we pray for those, too.

We pray for healing. Our own healing. Our city’s healing. Our nation’s healing.

Again, we pray imperfectly.

But we pray.

Prayer changes not only our city and nation; it also changes us.

One person at a time.

Where are You, Lord?

That’s where You are.

You are just waiting for us, that’s all.

Waiting for us to pray to You.

To seek Your will.

Not my will, but Thy will be done.

On Earth as it is in heaven.

Oh, how we need You now, Lord.

We are lost as a nation. We can’t save ourselves.

We don’t need You as a policymaker, Lord.

We need Your unconditional love.

We know You love each of us that way.

Help us to love each other that way too, to follow Your example.

Nothing else works. We’ve tried.

Oh, how we’ve tried.

I can’t go to Dayton or El Paso and make everything right.

But I can do something right here, right now, right where I live.

Show me, Lord.

Lead me.

What my neighbor does is up to him (or her).

This isn’t rocket science, Lord, but it is radical.

Unconditional love.

Only You, Lord, know what that truly looks like.

Show us, Lord.

Because that’s the only answer than will work in the long run.

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?

We cannot escape

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

 

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

baby-growing

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them – they are more than the sand;

I come to the end – I am still with you.

 

osr 4

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me –

those who speak of you maliciously,

and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Psalm 139

True love changes us

Love people just as they are.

Yes and no.

Yes, all people are created in the image of God and have specific gifts, talents and abilities. Even more than that, each of us has a purpose here on Earth.

I accepted Christ as my savior as a teenager mainly because counselors and other campers at a church camp I attended accepted me for who I was, even though I did nothing to earn their love. I wanted what they had, and it was Jesus.

Love people just as they are.

No. God loves us too much to leave us there. Accepting Jesus as my savior was the starting point, not the final destination. The road of life needs to be re-paved; the old one eventually will wear out.

If we claim to follow Jesus, we must grapple with this:

 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? On what will they give in return for their life?”

Matthew 16: 24-26

 

And this:

 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:14-15

 

Deny themselves? Take up their cross? Repent?

No wonder Jesus said the way of life is narrow and few will find it (Matthew 7:14).

Deny themselves

I’ve written about this several times recently, and gotten some push-back from it – not surprisingly. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. The world doesn’t revolve around me. Or you.

The church I attend has a term for this: Live surrendered.

It’s not easy, certainly.

I do not have this life (or the next life, for that matter) all figured out. There’s plenty I don’t know. Am I willing to learn?

We all know how difficult justice is to find in our court systems. Lawyers gather as much evidence as they can, for and against, and the jury weighs the evidence and makes a decision. That’s the best we can do.

Yet sometimes innocent people are convicted, and occasionally guilty people go free. It happens. We know this.

Is there a better way? Is there such a thing as true justice?

Yes, there is. But we might not get it until the next life.

At that point, when we see what justice really looks like, we might wish we didn’t have to face it. Because all of us will have to face it.

That’s a column for another day.

The point is: I don’t have all the answers. I know someone who does. That someone is the One who created me. Sometimes God will tell me what the answers to my questions are, sometimes He will not. I follow Him anyway. This is called trust.

I trust that God’s way is better than my way. (Sorry, Frank Sinatra.) That’s what denying ourselves means.

Take up their cross

Yikes. The cross is an instrument of death. We wear it around our necks as jewelry, build them alongside highways and hang beautiful ones inside our churches.

Crucifixion is one of the most horrific forms of death man has ever devised. The purpose – the only purpose – of a cross is to kill someone.

Jesus had a cross. We know that. But he said that followers should take up their cross. Do we have to die too?

In a sense, yes, we do. For the wages of sin is death … (Romans 6:23)

We earn wages. Sin has a price. It’s death.

What is sin? Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

If we think this through, we know this is true. If I’m guilty of theft, I’m not necessarily guilty of murder, but I’m still guilty of breaking the law and I have to serve a sentence for the theft I committed. Right?

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

What are God’s laws?

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

How do we do that?

On one level those words are easy to understand. But it takes a lifetime to fully know how to love God and love people. (Quick note: Do we love God with ALL our heart, soul and mind – or just with the parts of our heart, soul and mind we want to give to God? We aren’t allowed to interpret the Bible the way we’d like. We either follow it, or we don’t.)

Repent

Gotquestions.org has a good explanation of repentance:

In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14, Acts 3:19). In summarizing his ministry, Paul declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). The full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action.

Love them as they are? Yes. But that’s only the starting point.

Why change?

“No slave can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13)

“They (my followers) do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (Jesus, in John 17:16)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Denying oneself. Taking up our cross. Repenting. And following Jesus.

This is what true love is.

About vines and branches

Many of you offered your thoughts on my most recent post, in which I said that life does not revolve around us. God created us, so God gets to set the rules and guidelines for us to flourish as human beings. Your thoughts and comments were enlightening and wonderful.

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2019/02/27/a-united-methodist-divide/

In that vein, I’d like to show you what I mean.

God speaks to us in many ways – most directly through His Word. We can interact with it, but we can’t explain it away.

In that vein, here’s one discourse from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He describes what it means to be a Christian, using an illustration that’s easy to understand.

My pastor preached for 2.5 years on the book of John, so there’s all kinds of commentary on these few words. I’ve given you just a few thoughts that I’ve learned along the way. Here goes:

 

From John 15, Jesus speaking (I speak in italics):

 

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. (v. 1)

 

God is the one who gives the tree life. I do not. As we’ll see in a minute, you and I are small but significant parts of the tree, but we depend on God for sustenance – not the other way around.

Also, Jesus calls himself the “true” vine. He said in the previous chapter that he is the only way to God, because he is God. If you call yourself a Christian, this is not open for discussion.

 

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (v. 2)

 

My Father does what a father should do: He disciplines me. Even as an adult.

If there’s a branch in my life that’s dead, God prunes it. He gets rid of it. That leaves the branches that are growing, alive, thriving – so they can flourish.

I’m not a green thumb but I am a homeowner. I’m not afraid to take my pruning shears to a plant or tree in the yard with dead stalks or branches. This gets rid of ugly dead stuff, and allows the leafy or budding limbs to grow fuller.

This process works in nature, and it works with humans, too.

Pruning is painful by definition, but in the long run, it improves my health, as it improves the life of a plant or tree in nature.

Therefore, I submit to the process. Most of the time, anyway.

 

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (v. 3)

 

A footnote in my Bible says that “the same Greek root (word) refers to pruning and cleansing.” So, when God prunes me, that means he is cleansing me as well. Washing me clean. Purifying me. Improving my condition, inside and out.

 

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (v. 4)

 

Ah, here’s the heart of John 15 – which is Jesus’ heart. According to my Webster’s dictionary, “abide” has a couple of meanings:

  • To endure without yielding, to bear patiently, to accept without objection
  • To remain stable; to continue in a place, sojourn

I may not understand God’s discipline, his pruning, but I accept it. I don’t fight God. I continue in his presence; I don’t leave him behind.

This is hard. I know people who have left the church, and others who have compromised their Christian values, because abiding in God is very hard.

I’m in an Old Testament Bible study at the moment where we’re studying the life of David. Despite all the ups and downs of his life – and there were many of both – David finished his life well. He finally got the parenting thing right after a lifetime of screwups by preparing Solomon for his upcoming reign. David finished his life on a high note.

This is what it means to abide. He kept at it. He reached the finish line bloodied and bruised, literally, but by remaining in the vine, his branch bore much fruit.

David is a good example to follow. Not for his parenting skills, but for his perseverance and faith in the living God.

 

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (v. 5)

 

This is how nature works, and this is how God works. When the branches remain connected to their food source, they thrive. When they are removed by pruning (or in a storm, ie, the storms of life), they die.

 

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (v. 6)

 

After every windstorm, I walk through my yard and pick up dead branches and twigs. They go in the yard waste bin, to be thrown away.

Without connection to our source of life, we die. Our source of life is Jesus Christ. He said so himself, right here.

 

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (v. 7)

 

The Bible does not teach a “prosperity gospel.” God will not grant our wishes unless our wishes line up with God’s wishes. We learn what those are by abiding in him – that is, spending time with him, sojourning with him.

 

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (v. 8)

 

Here are three results of abiding in the vine: God the Father is glorified, we bear fruit, and we become Jesus’ disciples. These three results go together.

Over time, our branches will flourish. These results are not one-time events. Branches grow slowly. Leaves die, and are renewed every spring. The branch grows larger and stronger, with more leaves and fruit.

When trees come to life this time of year, we get excited. We love new life. We all do. God wants this for us too. Are we not worth more than nature?

 

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (v. 9)

 

This is what love is. Pruning. Abiding. Nourishing. Growing. Showing fruit. All of it. We can’t circumvent the process.

 

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (v. 10)

 

You and I have some responsibility here. We have to make an effort to keep Jesus’ commandments – all of them. If our hearts are pursuing Jesus, we will abide in his love. Jesus showed us how to do this by the way he loved his Father while living on Earth.

 

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (v. 11)

 

Joy is a gift from God when we abide in him. Joy isn’t the same as happiness, which is a feeling that comes and goes depending on our circumstances. Joy remains. It’s constant. It’s an inner peace that comes from knowing God intimately. And it’s available to anyone who asks for it – if we are willing to abide in his love.

 

This is what it means to be a Christian. It’s unpredictable, it’s an adventure, it’s never dull. My life is very different than it was even six months ago.

It’s never too late to connect, or re-connect, to the vine. This is exciting stuff! I hope and pray that you are, and will remain, connected to the one true vine.

A United Methodist divide

It’s not about you. It’s not about me.

All of life comes down to that.

And we just don’t get it.

The latest example: “Church delegates reject recognizing gay marriage,” according to a headline in today’s local newspaper.

The Associated Press reports:

 

The United Methodist Church, America’s second largest Protestant denomination, faces a likely surge in defections and acts of defiance after delegates at a crucial conference voted Tuesday to strengthen the faith’s divisive bans on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy.

 

I have United Methodist friends – including ordained pastors – on both sides of this debate. It’s tough.

But it shouldn’t be.

The question is this:

Whom do you serve: the God of the Bible, or yourself?

We can’t change God’s law

“Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus told a woman caught in adultery (John 8:11). But Jesus didn’t stop there. He looked the woman directly in the eyes and gave her this admonition: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

This is the definition of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

The LGBT community and its supporters do not understand this. When Jesus told the adulterous woman “do not sin again,” he was not spewing hate. He was telling her: You are better than this. There’s a wonderful life out there for you. Go live it.

It’s not about you. It’s about Me, Jesus said.

Everything Jesus says in the Gospels – everything – points to himself. It’s not about the church. It’s not even about the law, since the church leaders had added so much to the Old Testament laws that no one could possibly keep them all. It’s not about feelings. It’s not about justifying sinful behavior.

God made us. He knows what’s best for us. We can’t change the rules, much as we try.

What is love?

Some United Methodists are circulating A Love Letter to LGBTQ United Methodists.

The letter concludes this way:

 

We will:

give you the space and support you need.
listen to you.
share your stories.
work to end the harm caused in the name of religion.
break the silence around gender and sexuality in religious communities.
center your experiences as LGBTQ United Methodists.
fight for justice.
work toward a justice that is deeply intersectional.
not leave anyone behind.
strive to be better allies.
apologize when we miss the mark.
build this future together.
be by your side.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSf88b_G-Efi2xsqA3nvVJkLxIIjj0lvzIw50mf8kQb2BMl44A/viewform?fbclid=IwAR2SjsJ_G9tKaNFm9GpdLfc4f6xjchyEl6ykhQmtmFb0yyy-ACldu7Y3s1k

 

 

The letter doesn’t quote Jesus Christ. It doesn’t even mention the Bible.

It does refer to God, like this:

 

You are …

a child of God.
beloved by God.
beautifully and wonderfully made by God.
the image of God.

 

Yes. Each person is all that, and more.

That section also includes these lines:

 

allowed to be imperfect.
allowed to ask for more than crumbs.
allowed to have a vision for the future.
allowed to speak that vision aloud.
allowed to fight to make that vision a reality.
allowed to take a breather.
allowed to prioritize self-care.

 

Where in the Bible are any of us, straight or LGBT, allowed those things?

Jesus said: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We are not “allowed” to be imperfect. God has so much more of life than that for us.

“Allowed to take a breather?” From what? From God? From serving him? From pursuing righteousness?

Sexual sins are no worse than any other sin, yet every sin affects other people. The #MeToo movement bears this out.

Unconditional love

“…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus …” (Romans 3:23-24)

But it’s not a gift until we accept it. I can offer you a dollar, but if you reject it, I’m left holding the dollar, and no gift is given.

What’s the point of “redemption in Christ Jesus” if we keep on sinning willfully?

“What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:1-2)

Sin is doing what God hates. Love is God forgiving us when we sin against him. We love each other by following God’s example.

It’s not about me. It’s not about you.

It’s entirely about God.

That’s why the United Methodist “Traditional Plan” was upheld. United Methodists have been debating the homosexual agenda for half a century, at least. Delegates repeatedly vote to uphold the language of the church’s statement of values and beliefs, by calling homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Supporters of the homosexual agenda haven’t taken “no” for an answer, and continually re-submit the issue. For half-a-century, the church has stood firm.

It’s not about the church. It’s about God.

The church sets policy, but can’t determine grace

If the United Methodist Church ever strikes that language from its doctrine, that wouldn’t make it “right.”

Our opinions don’t count. When we stand before the living God on our Judgment Day, God won’t use a sliding scale. He won’t change the rules for some.

“Be perfect,” he said.

Since none of us can do that, Jesus came to Earth to pay that sin penalty for us. That’s how we are justified – not by approving laws that defend our lifestyles.

It’s not about me. It’s not about you.

It’s about God.

Criticize me all you like because I don’t support the LGBT agenda. My views and opinions don’t matter. I’m not your judge.

United Methodist delegates set policy, but they don’t deliver grace. They don’t decide what’s sin and what isn’t sin.

Only the living God does that.

He didn’t ask our opinion, either.

The United Methodist Church might fracture over this decision. It wouldn’t be the first time a Christian denomination has split over doctrinal issues.

It hurts, because we should know better.

God loves us enough to not let us remain in our sin. He offers us a better way.

That’s what true love is.

We are loved as is, yes. But faith demands change.

“For whoever has died is freed from sin. … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:7, 11).

Either the book of Romans is true, or it is not true.

We don’t get to decide that.

This is true love. It’s about overcoming sin, not justifying it.

It’s not about you. It’s not about me.

It’s about the living God.

‘That is the whole duty of everyone’

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

So says the wisest person who ever lived, king Solomon. He tried everything: wine, women and song; working hard; seeking pleasure and riches. Nothing satisfied him.

At the end of his days, after he experienced all that life has to offer, he drew the conclusion in this quote.

We still don’t get it, do we?

Solomon doesn’t say that fearing God is the whole duty of the religious, or of a certain nationality or group. No. Every one of us, no matter who we are, must fear God and keep his commandments.

We will be judged. Not by the U.S. Supreme Court, by a fractured Congress or by the court of public opinion. We can argue with our political opponents until we’re all blue in the face, and it means nothing.

Really.

Fear God, and keep his commandments.

That’s it.

That’s what life is all about.

Of course, fleshing that out isn’t as simple as it sounds.

So, how do we do that?

Only one person, in fact, has figured that out.

Since Solomon didn’t get it until it was (almost) too late, let’s look at the life of the one person who understood it right from the start.

One life at a time

That would be Jesus, the sinless one.

His life is explained in the four “gospels” at the beginning of the New Testament. Here’s an overview of Jesus’ adult life as recorded by Matthew, one of his original 12 disciples.

Jesus’ first act was to begin calling future disciples to follow him. He preached to the masses, yes, but he specifically trained a group of only 12 people. Those dozen later changed the world.

As his disciples watched, Jesus preached his most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, to a big crowd. For example:

 

  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  • “… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”
  • “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
  • “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
  • “For with the judgment you make you will be judged …”
  • “Beware of false prophets … you will know them by their fruits.”

 

Jesus stepped up our game. Murder is wrong, of course, but so is anger. Adultery is wrong, but so is lust. Stuff like that. Jesus knows our motives, what we think about. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Next, Jesus proved his authenticity by healing people – a man with leprosy, two demon-possessed men, a paralyzed man, and others.

He spent time with Matthew and his friends. This was a big deal, because Matthew was a hated tax collector. Imagine inviting over your favorite IRS agent who not only collected your taxes but bribed you, taking more than you owe.

Jesus spent more time training his 12 disciples, then sent them out to do cool stuff themselves. He also warned them that they will face persecution because some powerful, influential people will not appreciate them elevating the poor and sick.

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he’d give us a similar message, would he not?

A new command I give you …

Then, Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, rest for the soul and the meaning of Sunday (the Sabbath, actually).

Now, Jesus had crossed a line. When he taught that Sabbath is not about following a host of man-made rules, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Mat. 12:14).

Next come a few parables, stories that Jesus told with a moral. He talked about different types of soil, weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl and a fishing net. He used these illustrations to describe the kingdom of heaven and its value.

Then Jesus did a series of miracles – he fed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish, then walked on water, then healed many people of their illnesses.

Soon after that, three disciples – Peter, James and John – saw Jesus “transfigured” on a mountain, with his glowing heavenly body next to the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah. Jesus was a man, yes, but we can’t forget his divinity as well.

In keeping with his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus then taught about several other subjects:

 

  • Marrying a divorced woman is adultery, except for unchastity. (The point: No one is perfect, including a spouse. Understand what that means.)
  • “Let the little children come to me …”
  • “If you are rich, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” (The riches themselves aren’t sin, unless they supersede God, which they did in this particular exchange.)
  • “… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

 

The world doesn’t think like this, much less live like this. Christians are to live differently than the world does.

Why follow Jesus?

Next came Palm Sunday, when Jesus orchestrated his own parade and entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He taught lessons for a few more days, then was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected.

Why death and resurrection?

Because Jesus knew we couldn’t keep his commandments, as Solomon discovered. Jesus said so in his Sermon on the Mount, too: “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Only when we follow Jesus can our hearts be changed to “fear God and keep his commandments.”

This is a daily struggle, as those of us who follow Jesus know.

That’s what forgiveness is all about. As God forgives us each day, we learn how to forgive each other.

We need to learn what Solomon learned.

But let’s not wait until the end of our lives to figure this out. A changed life equals a changed heart equals a changed society. We need that, certainly.

We need that today.

 

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

Giving thanks

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

Psalm 118:1

 

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to remind ourselves what we’re thankful for. Some years I make a list. It gets long, including family, good health, friends, plenty of comforts of life, and many other things.

I am thankful for all of that. I never want to take any of those people, including you, and things for granted.

This Bible verse gives a slightly different take on thanksgiving. It reminds us where all of our blessings come from.

So often we keep our eyes on things of this world. That’s a downer for me. It’s easy to see the divisions, crimes, political correctness (in every area of life, including sports) and self-centeredness that dominate American culture.

Children and teens abuse cell phones. The internet features judgmentalism and pornography. Television shows off plenty of flesh and violence. So do the movies, adding cussing as routine language far too often.

But phones, computers, TVs and movie screens are inanimate objects. Technology itself is neither bad nor good.

What we do with them determines their usefulness to us.

Can we be thankful for our technology?

I’m thankful for my laptop, because that’s how I connect with many of you. I value your friendship, even if it’s primarily online.

I don’t have to agree with you politically or in other ways to keep you as a friend. I look for common ground, even if we see life differently.

How can I do that? Because the God of the universe created us both. You are my brother or sister, really. We have the same Father, even as we have different fathers.

I am thankful for that this holiday season. More unites us than separates us, if we choose to see life that way.

Every one of us entered this world the same way, and each of us will return to dust. We do many things to prolong our lives, but the end is inevitable.

That’s not morbid. That’s fact. Indeed, that’s a good thing, from my perspective. I often see this world as a downer; heaven is the opposite. I’m excited to get there one day.

The LORD is good, the verse from Psalm 118 says. Many of us don’t believe that, but I do. When looking solely at this world, we can’t trust anyone anymore, can we? No one is good.

But the living God is.

How do I know? Because his steadfast love endures forever. That wonderful sentence is repeated throughout the Psalms.

Steadfast: Not subject to change.

Love: Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.

Endures: To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.

Forever: For a limitless time.

Aren’t those definitions worth giving thanks for? They came from the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1991.

The sentence came from God, the definitions from a secular dictionary. They go together, don’t they? That’s the way God works.

Steadfast

With people, change is good – because we know we have messed up our lives. Even if we won’t admit it to each other, we know it’s true. To worship a God who never – never – messes up is beyond our comprehension, really.

No temptation affects Him. No anger forces Him to lose His temper. Judgment, yes; condemnation, no.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Jesus was around before time began (John 1:1), and He will be around after time ends (read the book of Revelation). As our creator, He knows our deepest needs and wants to meet them – if we let Him.

Love

Love takes many forms, of course – most of them selfish. We give hoping or expecting to receive something in return. That’s why we hurt each other; there’s no way another person can meet our deepest needs and desires.

That’s why we need to look up. I give thanks to the God who loves me the way I need to be loved.

And because His love is steadfast, it’s there even when I don’t feel it.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus, in Mark 3:35

Kinship is bestowed on those of us who do what God wants us to do. As kin, we will receive an inheritance one day.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ …

Romans 8:15-17

We are adopted children. Parents who adopt choose to do so; in the same way, God has chosen us. The inheritance He offers us is far better than anything our parents can bestow on us, because material things won’t last forever. Neither will we, on Earth.

We know this, don’t we?

Endures

The dictionary definition of endure is eye-opening: “To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.”

It’s not keeping the same job for 40 years, or the same marriage for 50. Endurance requires suffering.

A good friend has had debilitating headaches since he was 14. He’s in his early 80s now. Several of you endure chronic pain with no end in sight. I cannot imagine that kind of endurance.

When Jesus Christ suffered taunting, a crown of thorns, 40 lashes and death by crucifixion, He suffered in ways we can’t begin to understand.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Jesus, in Luke 22:42

To willingly accept suffering on our behalf, even when He knew it would kill Him, is steadfast love that endures.

Forever

We don’t think of the afterlife this way, but we should. Our time on Earth is finite; again, we know this, if we’ll stop and think about it.

Then what?

Is this all there is? Really?

Such a downer that would be.

There is more. So much more.

“… he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

John, in Revelation 21:4

This is only the beginning of what heaven will be like. It’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

This is what I’m thankful for this week.

Bonus: I’m now ready for Christmas.

Justice for all, mercy for some

A few lessons I’ve learned or re-learned through a year-long study of Romans in the New Testament:

  • We discover order in nature, but we can’t learn about sin and salvation through nature.
  • Justified: Acquitted of all charges. That doesn’t mean we are innocent, just not guilty. There are no consequences for what we’ve done. This is grace – an act of God. We do not contribute to it.
  • Justification is a one-time act of God. Sanctification is the process of becoming like Jesus, which takes a lifetime.
  • Law reveals sin, but can’t cure it. A CAT scan may find a disease, but the CAT scan itself can’t cure it. Same principle. Jesus, not the law, is the medicine we need to have our sins forgiven.
  • The Old Testament laws weren’t written down until Moses wrote them – 430 years after Abraham lived. Sin still existed, even though no written laws did. See Adam and Eve.
  • God did all the work to offer us salvation from our sins. He initiated, taught, died and resurrected, all while we were sinners. We don’t have to get it right before God saves us. We accept God’s forgiveness; then sanctification starts.
  • Our trespasses can be counted. Grace is infinite.
  • We also died on the cross and were buried with Jesus, and were raised from the dead with Him (see Romans 6:1-4). Burial means death to sin is final.
  • No one is “free.” Everyone serves someone or something, whether we realize it or not.
  • While Jesus delivers us from the power of sin, it’s not a one-and-done thing. Recognizing this conflict proves that we are His.
  • Sin does not define us. The struggle with sin defines God’s forgiveness and love.
  • We have conflict, but not condemnation.
  • Suffering is temporary; glory is permanent (eventually).
  • Justice keeps us on Death Row. God chooses to give mercy to some people. This is not about us. It’s about Him. We have to trust God’s character, because there’s no way we can understand this.
  • God sent the apostle Paul to people (Gentiles) who weren’t even looking for Him. God operates that way frequently.
  • We are transformed by the renewal of our minds. So often we blame our bodies for sin, but it starts in our minds. Always.
  • All people are far more important than humanists imagine us to be. All people are far worse than humanists suppose.
  • Loving God and others is not behavior modification. It’s a heart issue.
  • Harmony and dissonance: Do my notes blend in with the melody? There are no lone-ranger Christians. My notes, played correctly alongside the in-tune notes of other Christians, will make beautiful music.
  • If we respond to evil with evil, then evil never ends.
  • If we respond to evil with love, we absorb the evil. This is not normal.
  • God is in control of all things. This is not difficult to understand, but it is difficult to accept.
  • Following God does not always mean that all goes well. See Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, or Daniel in the lion’s den. Sometimes God brings us through the fire. That often glorifies Him.
  • God establishes authority for our good. Anarchy brings chaos. Even poor leaders are better than no leadership at all.
  • Light shines brighter in darkness than it does in the daytime.
  • The purpose of the law is to help us live together well. We can do this only if we love each other. (The law no longer applies when we die, of course.)
  • Food and drink won’t matter in heaven. Righteousness, peace and joy will.
  • “Accept” means to welcome or receive, not simply to tolerate.
  • The gospel is simple, but it’s not simplistic. The plan of salvation has a few easy steps to follow, but living them out takes a lifetime of learning and doing.
  • Don’t study evil; we know it already. Study God’s word.
  • Avoid people who reject Christ. Don’t argue for the sake of arguing.
  • God has won the war. The battles of this life will end soon.