Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christ Has Come. Christ Will Come.

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. It educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world. At the same time we wait for the blessed hope and the glorious appearance of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ. He gave himself for us in order to rescue us from every kind of lawless behavior, and cleanse a special people for himself who are eager to do good actions. - Titus 2:11-14 (CEB)

Today is Christmas Eve. When I lived in Germany, this was the holiday that was more sacred that Christmas Day itself. This is the day that families would gather together to eat with each other, open presents, go to Church, and sing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Today is the main family holiday for Germans. Because of this, it is also one of the loneliest holidays if one is separated from one's family.

Silent Night has a sacredness to it so that if one sang it too early, one would be scolded. An interesting fact that I learned is that Germans believe that Christ was born on Christmas Eve. This is why this day is called "Heiligabend," or "Holy Evening." "Christmas" is "Weihnachten," which means "Dedicated Night."

I miss Christmas in Germany:  the Christmas Markets, the smell of roasted candied almonds, the candles, the decorations of pine branches everywhere, the dark nights. I loved how German Churches place a very special emphasis on Advent, even more so than my own traditional American Christmas. There was a distinction placed even between Advent Songs and Christmas Songs. (Those who attend Lutheran Churches will know what I'm talking about.)

Which brings me to the Scripture passage. Advent is over, but there is still an expectation. Christ came into this world, but we expect him to come again. For some, this could lend many people to think, "Oh, well. Christ is coming again. Why should we care about what is happening in this world?" I once had to reprimand a friend of mine who decided to throw something in the regular garbage when he could have easily recycled it. His response was that the world was going to be destroyed by fire anyway. That puzzled me and disturbed me a lot.

Jesus didn't come into this world so that we could wait for a better world after we died. Jesus came to give us life in abundance now, not just in the future, but for now. Christ "educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world." This is for now, not sometime off in the distant.

Yet at the same time we have the hope of Christ returning to us. In many ways this expectation of Christ returning to us only reemphasizes for me the constancy of God's character.

What does that mean for me? The everlasting life is something we experience now, not just after death. Live your life to the fullest with Christ as your guide.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent - Rejoicing? But I Don't Feel Like It

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don't be anxious about anything:  rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7 (CEB)

When I see these verses, the old church canon rings in my head:  "Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, Rejoice!" It was almost a litany. I have that as part of a list of Sunday School songs that teach our children to conform to a certain way of thinking without acknowledging that we have other emotions.

There is the song, "I'm H-A-P-P-Y. I feel like I can fly." It's as if we are trying to tell our children that if they are not happy, there is something wrong with them.

It is my personal belief that this verse is one of the most misused verses in the Bible. Don't get me wrong. I believe there is truth in this verse, but we Christians tend to use this verse in the wrong way. People tend to use this verse to say that if we are not happy all the time, what is wrong with us? We are commanded to be happy. We're Christians! (I seriously wish I had a sarcasm font right now.)

Unfortunately, as with most Scripture that we have, it is easy to pervert it and use it to say something it didn't really mean. Often I hear the phrase, "The Bible is clear on this subject." No, that's wrong.

The Bible is rarely clear on many things. It is only one's interpretation of the Bible that is clear.

What are we to do with these verses then? First of all, let us look at them in context. Paul is giving some final words to the congregation in Philippi. When I read it, I get the impression that there were some problems going on in the Church there. People weren't getting along with each other. People were worried about so many different things going on with their lives.

So when I look at these verses, I see that Paul is telling them:  Look at who you are in the Lord! Look at God's favor and presence in you! See what God has done for you. There are reasons to rejoice and be glad! Notice what he doesn't tell them to do:  Stop being sad.

As someone who has suffered from depression, it was often a slap in the face to hear other people to stop moping around and to stop being so somber. I tend to be taciturn to begin with. I don't always express my emotions immediately unless it is something I am very passionate about.

However, there is a word of advice that Paul gives here which I can also recommend. He tells his readers to "bring up all your requests to God in your prayers and petitions." Sometimes we have a hard time telling others about our problems in our lives. We don't like to admit that things are going badly. We don't always like to complain to God, either, thinking that perhaps we are not being grateful enough. However, I believe God wants us to share all of our deepest concerns and thoughts.

During this past year of turmoil, one of the greatest things I have encountered is experience God in my friends and family. I have shared with them my worries, my fears, and my concerns. Do you know how difficult it is for me to open up? This past year was horrible. I yelled out to God. Since the vast majority of my officership (pastorate) was spent in Germany, I yelled out to God in German. It was cathartic. It was healing.

Something harder to do was to open up to my family and friends. I quickly learned who would listen and who would not (or could not). I do not fault the ones who couldn't. Some people are just not in the right place to be able to listen to our worries and concerns. I was going through the most horrendous time of my life. I had a few friends who actually took the initiative to call me up and make sure I was OK.

The verses that we have been reading in Advent have had a similar vein:  the Lord is near. Advent:  the Expectation, the Waiting, the Longing for Closeness. God is near.

This is something I experienced through this Valley of Shadow. I wasn't walking it alone. I was there with God. God sent people to me who stood alongside me when all seemed hopeless.

I am not out of the Valley of Shadow, but just to know that I am not alone has been helpful. Then, maybe someday, I will also be able to finally rejoice in the Lord.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent - Waiting for Judgment

So a person should think about us this way - as servants of Christ and managers of God's secrets. In this kind of situation, what is expected of a manager is that they prove to be faithful. I couldn't care less if I'm judged by you or by any human court; I don't even judge myself. I'm not aware of anything against me, but that doesn't make me innocent, because the Lord is the one who judges me. So don't judge anything before the right time - wait until the Lord comes. He will bring things that are hidden in the dark to light, and he will make people's motivations public. Then there will be recognition for each person from God. - 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 (CEB)

Probably one of the most difficult things for me to overcome is my own self-esteem. I tend to have a very low one and it's difficult for me to look beyond it. So when people begin offering critiques, criticisms, or well-meaning advice, I try to view it with the spirit it was given. I don't always succeed.

In our Internet world, the fake anonymity that people seem to relish in makes comments even more harsh. Those comments from Christians seem especially harsh to me.

So when I read what Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth, I realize that this is something I wish to aspire to. I wish to realize that God is the one who judges me, not humans.

(Just a side note:  Judgment is not correction. If I have made an error in something I have done or said and someone shows me my error, this isn't a judgment. This is correction.)

I once had to answer for a statement that I had made online. The issue had to do with a discussion I was having with another person in my denomination regarding LGBT rights and marriage equality. I am in support of marriage equality for all people, regardless of their orientation. In my discussion with this other person, he had made the remark that the Bible is very clear on the subject of same-sex marriage. I responded to the other person that the Bible is rarely clear on many topics. It was only his interpretation of Scripture that was clear for him.

I was told by someone I used to respect that what I had written was heresy. I was shocked by that word. Heresy? What was it about that statement that was so heretical? Throughout Christian history we have debated, interpreted, and reinterpreted Scripture according to our own limited knowledge. However, I was told that I was a heretic. That floored me. It shocked me. I had never been called a heretic by someone in my own denomination.

I wasn't being corrected. I was being judged. I was told that I was being disloyal to The Salvation Army.

I do not equate having a differing opinion with being disloyal. That was something very difficult to listen to. However, my wife gave me some very sound advice. She told me that I should be who I was writing, not just in words, but in deeds. She was right.

What does this have to do with the Scripture in question and with Advent? Paul said, "I couldn't care less if I'm judged by you or by any human court; I don't even judge myself. I'm not aware of anything against me, but that doesn't make me innocent, because the Lord is the one who judges me."

For me in my situation, I believe I was being judged. However, I had to deal with the consequences of that judgment. That was a very bitter pill to swallow. Right now, I am dealing with a lot of bitterness, too, but I realize that this isn't good for me at all to dwell on. It is something that I am working on. I am grateful for my friends and relatives who have helped me through this time of bitterness.

So, what do we do when we are being judged? Right now, I wish I could say with as much confidence as Paul that I don't care, but to be honest, I do care. I do care about what people think about me and what they say. Unfortunately, that's not always healthy. If my self-esteem relies on what people think of me and I go around saying things that people might disagree with, it's going to be hard for me indeed!

What I do need is perspective. So although people could judge me by my actions and my words, the one judgment that does matter is the judgment by God. When the Advent of his Judgment comes, all will be brought to light. In that, I place my hands in a merciful God. I have no cause to fear.

The 8th doctrine of The Salvation Army states:  "We believe that we are justified by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and 'he that believeth hath the witness in himself.'"

How do I interpret that doctrine? I do not have to justify my salvation to anyone. I am justified by God. He has judged me. That is where I find my identity. That is where I find my acceptance. That is where I find my peace.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Coming of the Lord is Near. Are You Sure?

Therefore, brothers and sisters, you must be patient as you wait for the coming of the Lord. Consider the farmer who waits patiently for the coming of rain in the fall and spring, looking forward to the precious fruit of the earth. You also must wait patiently, strengthening your resolve, because the coming of the Lord is near. -- James 5:7-8 (CEB)

There was another failed rebellion. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Sacrifices could not longer be offered there. The followers of Jesus were expecting his imminent return . . . and nothing. He has not come back yet. This is the background of the Epistle of James when he wrote this letter. In many ways, this still applies to us today.

Why hasn't Christ come back already? What's going on here? Where is he?

This is the Season of Advent. This Sunday is the Second Sunday of Advent. We celebrate that Christ has come and we await for his coming again, but he hasn't shown up. Is this perhaps a lie? Is this giving us a false sense of hope?

All throughout Christianity's 2000+ history, there are times when people insist that Christ would be coming again. People assumed he would come back again when the Temple was destroyed . . . when the year 1000 came . . . during World War I . . . during World War II . . . in 1988 . . . in 2000 . . . in 2011. Where is Christ and why does he tarry?

I don't know. I'm not certain if any of us can give an answer that can satisfy that question. I also believe that assigning dates to his return is not wise.

And James implores us to be patient. (For those wondering, in the agriculture world of the Middle East, the rains and planting season come in the Fall (October) and are harvested in the Spring, which is why James talks about the rains coming at that particular time.) James tells us that the coming of the Lord is near.

Near must be a relative term for James.

One could lose heart at this waiting. However, I believe that this is perhaps the wrong thing to do. Is Christ coming again? As a Salvationist, I believe "in the immortality of the soul; in the resurrection of the body; in the general judgment at the end of the world; in the eternal happiness of the righteous; and in the endless punishment of the wicked."

Just how that looks to me is perhaps different from how you perceive it. In fact, some have accused me of not believing in a literal Hell. (I'll save that for another post.)

However, I believe we are going about this the wrong way. Are we waiting for Christ to come again? Yes. What does that waiting look like?

I can tell you what it does not look like. It does not look like giving up. When people look at the state of the world:  the suffering, global climate change, environmental catastrophes, the poverty, wars, etc., people sometimes throw up their hands and just say, "It's the sign of the times." "The world is going to Hell. What should I do?" "Lord, come soon. I can't take it anymore."

These attitudes are wrong. Instead, we need to be doing our part to ease the suffering of this world. Yes, things are bad. Yes, humanity is suffering. We should do something about it. We are called by Christ himself to go into this world and make it a better place, teaching others to follow him and loving others as Christ has loved us.

It's hard being patient, but we shouldn't focus on the Coming of the Lord. Instead, we should do our part as his followers here on Earth. We should serve others as we serve God.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Where is God in the Midst of This Tragedy?

Tragedy is upon us on a daily basis. I do not understand it all.

Today we have the shootings in San Bernardino. A few days ago, we had the killings at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.


Sandy Hook.

Virginia Tech.

The list could go on and on. It will go on and on. I don't see an end in sight at all for this.

Whenever tragedy strikes like this, one of the first questions we tend to ask is:

Why God?

Why did God allow for this tragedy to happen? Do we really want to know the answer to that question? Are we prepared to delve into this topic? Are we willing to come to a conclusion when we wrestle with this subject?

When we explore this question, we might come to several conclusions:

  1. God doesn't really exist in the first place. No loving Creator would allow such tragedy to happen at all. We are responsible for this calamity ourselves.
  2. God does exist, but God doesn't care about what happens to us.
  3. God does exist. God cares about what has happened, but is incapable of helping us out.
  4. God is helping us out already, but not in the way we imagined it because God has placed us here to solve our problems and has already given us the tools to solve the issue.
I am certain that there are other answers that we could come up with.

At one point in my life, I had come to the conclusion that we were asking the wrong questions. If I knew why a tragedy happened, would that bring me any satisfaction or peace? Thinking about it logically, my answer was (and is), "no."

Unfortunately, tragedy has stuck me once again this year. Unbidden and unwelcome I yelled out to God, "Why?!" Looking at this, I was surprised at myself. I knew that I wouldn't be satisfied with the answer, but why was I asking it anyway?

Perhaps there is something primal in asking God, "Why?" I don't know.

When I look at the conclusions I had drawn, I get nervous exploring them. The reason I'm nervous exploring them is because they struggle with my own faith. They struggle with the foundations of my belief system.

If I were to assume that #1 were correct, that God doesn't exist anymore, that would indeed collapse my own worldview. However, it would be imprudent of me not to dismiss #1 outright. It is a legitimate answer and I have many friends and relatives who have come to that conclusion. Sometimes they have come to it joyfully with feelings of relief. Other times they come to that conclusion with great sadness, as if they have lost a loved one. I can imagine that many Christians are actually very scared to wrestle with the idea that God might not exist.

I know that there are many people who dismiss atheists as being amoral, but I have found this to be quite untrue and actually a bigoted view. I am a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist). They are all atheists and present a very moral view to our world.

If I were to assume that #2 were correct, that God exists but doesn't care, then this would collapse my whole understanding of the nature of God. Since I do believe that God's very nature is love and that God calls us to love, it would be wrong of me to assume that God doesn't care. If God doesn't care, then the Bible's message, indeed the Gospel message is a lie. If this were the case, many might stop worshiping God in the first place. Why would anyone want to follow a deity who didn't care about the tragedy that happens in our lives?

But what if God does care? Then why do these tragedies still happen? Could it be that God is powerless to do anything about it? If that is so, my conclusion with be #3. That would be a scary thing indeed! I would be basically worshiping an impotent God. I might as well be an atheist.

So, right now, I am left with conclusion #4:  God does exist. God cares about these tragedies that are happening, but God has already given us the tools with which to combat these tragedies. There's a nice little meme that has been floating around for some time. I haven't been able to find the source of it or who said it originally, but it goes like this:

What's actually ironic is that no matter what conclusion we come up with (either #1, #2, #3, or #4), our responsibility is still the same. We can and do already have the means and the wherewithal to do something about the tragedies in our world. As a Christian, I believe God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in our endeavors to make this world a better place.

We are all called right now to do something about these terrible tragedies. Governor Chris Murphy of Connecticut said it perhaps the best:

May we now be moved to action to stop the evil in this world. May we be moved to pity at the lives lost. May our prayers to God lead us into action as we combat the evil in our land.

Monday, November 30, 2015


My post on the First Sunday in Advent had some really good comments. However, I also got some constructive criticism. Guess what? It wasn't from people who were mad at me. It wasn't from people who thought that what I wrote was terrible and flat out wrong. Instead, it was well-thought out critique of what I had written.

You know what? They were right.

One friend asked me how was he supposed to love the person who abused children. How could he love those who harm people? What does that look like? Wouldn't that cause more harm than good?

He's right. It would cause more harm than good. I apologize if I came across that way, implying that forgiving people means allowing them back into their lives. It doesn't.

In regards to loving and forgiving, I once received a check list of what forgiving is not. I apologize in advance because I don't know the source.

Forgiveness is not:
  • "Giving in" to the offender
  • Simply saying to someone, "I forgive you."
  • Forgetting
  • Getting along with the offender
  • Reconciliation
Forgiveness is for my benefit, not the offender's. Forgiveness can help me deal with the situation better than harboring hate. If I hold onto the hate, it will poison me.

Another friend of mine brought up the story of Jesus traveling with his disciples and they were going to stay in a Samaritan village, but because they were Jewish and on their way to Jerusalem, the Samaritans refused to let them. James and John wanted to have fire come down from heaven to wipe out the village, but Jesus simply said that they should move on.

My friend said that sometimes we just need to move on.

Can we call this love? I think we can. If you personally cannot, that's OK, too.

Those stories I told were true in my last post. I will never have any more contact with the man who attacked me. He is in prison and has a no-contact order should he ever be released. Others can deal with him now. He is not my responsibility.

Maybe that's part of it? Sometimes we need to know our own limitations and protect ourselves and our loved ones. To love others can encompass this as well. We should not harm ourselves or others in expressing love.

Perhaps that's a defining attribute of love. If our actions (or inaction) causes hurt or pain to ourselves or others, it is not love.

As I said before, I don't have all the answers, but I want to explore my questions. I am grateful to my friends who took the time to write me and call me and tell me how I was in error.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Love One Another? Are you kidding me?

Romans 13:8-14 (CEB)

Don't be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don't commit adultery, don't murder, don't steal, don't desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word:  You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn't do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let's get rid of the actions that belong to darkness and put on the weapons of light. Let's behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don't plan to indulge your selfish desires.

We are now at the First Sunday in Advent. Advent has had a special place in my heart. I am reminded how when I was in Germany, we would often sing the song, which translates as "Fling Wide the Door." We would turn off all the lights and light candles as we sang this song.

I'm sure all of my friends in Germany are singing this song, especially on this First Sunday in Advent. The suggested text from the Lectionary gives me pause. This seems strange to me. Intellectually I can relate to this. I know that the highest command is to love and that the entire Scripture can be summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor. An adage of mine is this:

"Love God. Love others. The rest is just theology."

In my mind I agree with this 100%. When I put it into action, this becomes more difficult.

In 1997 as part of my Master of Arts degree, I needed to do a practicum overseas. I was studying missions and part of this was to do a practicum for 6 months in a foreign country. Since I could speak German, I was sent to Germany, specifically to Hamburg. The Salvation Army had a Missions Team, which main avenue of service was in St. Pauli, the poorest district of Hamburg with a high immigrant population and the notorious Red Light District.

I had never seen anything like that before. Prostitution is legal in Germany. Most businesses in St. Pauli seemed to either be something sex-related, a bar, or something else to lure in the tourists. This is an exaggeration, of course, but that's how it appeared to my eyes.

My first Saturday in Hamburg was to do a prayer walk. I was not up to the task. We walked in pairs and my companion, Tobias, tried to help me out. First, I was in a state of severe culture shock. Second, although I could speak German, praying in German was a totally different thing. Tobias told me that I could pray in English if I wanted to.

Then I realized what my problem was. I was disgusted. I looked at the humanity of people coming in and out of the bars, strip joints, sex shops, etc. There was even a street that you could not walk down unless you were over 18 years old. We had to pass through a line of prostitutes to get back to The Salvation Army.

So I prayed to God, "God, you have commanded us to love everyone. Does this mean the prostitute? Does this mean these lecherous men going into the strip bars?"

In 1999 while I was a cadet (seminary student) at The Salvation Army's College for Officer Training, I was sent for my summer assignment (practicum) to Albania and Kosova during the war. I helped out in several refugee camps. The main one that I helped out in was on the Adriatic near a small village, called Hamallaj. Just for clarification:  Albanians, especially those in Kosova, are majority Muslim. Serbians are majority Christian. The Serbs were trying to expel all Albanians out of Kosova. It was perhaps ironic that The Salvation Army, a Christian organization, was helping Muslims out who were being exterminated and persecuted by Christians.

One day, we received about 200 men who were dropped off at the Albanian border by the Serbians. We discovered that these men were from Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosova. They had all been in prison, mostly because they were of fighting age. They came to us in a condition I had not yet seen. They were in an obvious state of shock. They were pale, as if they hadn't seen the sun in weeks. They were unshaven.

One of the things that sometimes perplexed my translators was that I liked to talk to the refugees, to get to know them. I learned a little bit of Albanian, but not enough to speak fluently with them. So, through my interpreter, I asked where the men were from and what they had experienced. I almost regretted asking. The men told me horror stories.

One man told me how he was taken outside of the prison and chained to a post. Serbian children were brought in to see him, the Albanian, and to beat him. The children were encouraged by the guards to beat the Kosovars up. To learn hate.

Another man told me how he was forced to watch his 14-year old sister be raped by Serbian soldiers. Afterwards, since she was a Muslim, the Serbian cut the figure of a cross into her breasts. My interpreter had a very difficult time translating this. I had a very difficult time listening.

The men cried. I was in shock.

"God, I'm supposed to love these Serbians? I'm supposed to love these Christians who kill in your name? Rape in your name?"

I slowly realized that hate was becoming an issue for me.


I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I offered to drive him home. I told him about the mistake he made. All of the sudden a switch flipped in him and he began to yell at me, "I'm going to fucking kill you! I'm going to beat you up!"

I got so scared that I dialed 9-1-1. As I talked to the operator and told him where I was, the other man told me to hang up the phone or he would beat me up. My eyes were wildly straining, trying to find a way out. I tried to walk to my car. He blocked my exit. He kept on telling me to hang up the phone. The 9-1-1 dispatcher told me that the police were almost there, but I wasn't certain if it would be soon enough.

The man grabbed me by my neck with his left arm and began to choke me. I could do nothing but scream. My glasses were bent. Somehow, I don't know how this thought came into my head, but the words of Christ entered into my head, "If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well" (Matthew 5:39 CEB). I didn't strike back. I tried to get loose, but there was no way I could.

Suddenly the man let go of my neck. I could breathe again. As I rubbed my neck, I stared dumbfounded as he calmly knelt on the ground with his fingers interlaced behind his neck and waited for the police to come arrest him.

God, are you kidding me? Are you seriously kidding me? I am supposed to love that man?! How? Why? What is gained by that?

When I was in Hamburg, Germany, I felt that God told me, "You can love the prostitute. You can love the people in St. Pauli when you first love Me." I remembered the highest command. The ultimate command. The law, the instruction that summarizes the whole Bible:  "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5 CEB). I also realized that I was no better than any of the people who were in St. Pauli. I was no better than the prostitutes. I was no better than the men who went into the bars.

When I returned from Albania and Kosova and was able to process what I experienced, I realized that I was beginning to hate Serbians. This was illogical. Not all Serbians killed Kosovars.

Then it happened to me. Someone hurt me. Someone attacked me. God tells me to love him.

I am having a hard time loving him. It is very hard, probably the hardest thing I am doing right now. Why should I?

Allow me to flesh this out for a moment.

Albanians have a tradition of blood revenge. If someone murders another person, that person's family can kill someone in the murderer's family and it would be viewed as justice. Unfortunately, that justice ends up being a never-ending cycle of violence. There is a 500 year history of animosity between Serbs and Albanians. Until one side stops and begins to love, it will continue.

When I love God first, I am able to love others. I am able to see people as the creation of God. We have all messed up. We have hurt each other. We have killed each other, but it needs to stop. We need to love.

This is perhaps the most difficult command in all of the Bible to fulfill. It is easier to strike back. It is easier to hate. It is easier to stew with thoughts of revenge. If, however, I decide to love, will that change anything?

At the very least, but perhaps most importantly, it will change me. Isn't that what is most important? What if we all decided to love instead of hate or seek revenge? I need to decide to love others. It is not a feeling in this case. It is an action. I choose to see my fellow humans as God sees us.

I choose to love.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Lamp Oil and Poutine

I am continuing my series of going through the Lectionary. For those of you who are wondering about where I get my texts, you can visit this German-language site here.

Matthew 25:1-13 (CEB)

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn't bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, "Look, the groom! Come out to meet him."

Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, "Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out."

But the wise bridesmaids replied, "No, because if we share with you, there won't be enough for our lamps and yours. We have a better idea. You go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves." But while they were gone to buy oil, the groom came. Those who were ready went with him into the wedding. Then the door was shut.

Later the other bridesmaids came and said, "Lord, lord, open the door for us."

But he replied, "I tell you the truth, I don't know you."

Therefore, Keep alert, because you don't know the day or the hour.

Wedding ceremonies around the world are different. At weddings in Germany, the bride and the groom sit down in front of the officiant while he/she gives a homily. Also, there is no traditional "maid of honor" and "best man." They are simply "witnesses." A friend of mine, who was a bride, had a man as her witness.

I had a friend in Albania who told me that when his parents got married, his father went to his wife's village where they celebrated there for a week. Then afterwards they went to his village, where there was also a week-long celebration.

In Kosova, while I worked with returning refugees in 1999, we lived with a newlywed couple. It seemed a bit awkward, but they were gracious hosts. After a month, the bride went to live with her parents for a week. She told us this was to show her gratitude to her family for raising her. At the end of the week she would bake them a cake and then move in with her husband forever.

So we have a different wedding ceremony here which Jesus is telling. There is a bridegroom who was "late in coming." The Greek implies that it was of his own choosing, not because he was prevented from doing so. He chose to tarry. As in last week's passage, this one divides the bridesmaids into foolish and wise people. Those who were wise had their lamps with them and extra oil for the night. The foolish ones didn't have enough. When the big moment arrived, the foolish bridesmaids had to go (at midnight, no less!) to wake up some merchants to sell them some oil for their lamps. By the time they arrived back to the festivities, they were shut out.

My first reaction to looking at this was to wonder why the wise bridesmaids couldn't have shared their oil with the foolish ones. It seems a bit heartless, but then I realized that this parable has to do with faith. Sometimes we can go through life and go through the motions of following Christ. We do all the right things. We attend Church. We go to meetings, but we have no faith. We have no oil for our lamps. When the darkness comes, we try to rely on the faith of others. This doesn't work. We need our own faith.

That's a hard thing to do. I'll be the first to admit that my faith has often been lacking. I am going through the motions. It's not that I have doubts. Doubts have not killed my faith. My sense of security killed my faith. (Sorry, Calvinist friends.)

I was secure in my identity. I was an officer. I was an upstanding member of the community. Then all of the sudden it was taken away from me. My home, my family, my officership, and my sense of identity was gone. I was not allowed to contact anyone at the corps (church). I was not allowed to wear my uniform. I was not allowed to go to the office. I was cut off from everyone.

And I had very little oil in my lamp.

Luckily, God was supplying me with some oil because I realized that I was dreadfully low. God sent me friends and family to my side to help me out when I thought I was all alone.

There was my friend, Jim, who dropped everything he was doing to drive up to visit me for 3 days. There was my friend, Jason, who listened to me cry while I told him of my broken heart. There was my sister and brother-in-law, who took me to Canada just to eat poutine and to get away from the whole situation. For my Yankee friends, this is poutine. It is fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy:

The oil in my lamp was nearly depleted, but God made certain that I would have a fresh supply. Apparently French-Canadian cuisine was very helpful in this regards. Yes, it was very good. Yes, I was very full. Yes, I would eat it again.

Others were there for me in big and small ways.

For me, then, the oil for my lamp was the relationships I had with other people.

This is probably not the most orthodox way of looking at this scripture passage. The traditional view is to always be prepared for the return of Christ.

For me, though, I realize that the oil of my lamp is the Church which came to me, surrounded me, and supported me when I felt all was lost. The Church is made up of those who love God by loving others. They have been called out. My own Church is quite unconventional. My Church is made up of conservative friends (my polar opposite), family members, and those who identify as being part of the "Nones." My Church is made up of those who question their religious upbringing, but who still love and support others. My Church is made up of my LGBT friends who took time to call me up and make certain that I wasn't hurting by myself.

I love my Church. They gave me oil for my lamp.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Violence Begets Violence

Like many people, I have been trying to make sense of the violence that we have been confronted with over the past week in Paris, Lebanon, Iraq, indeed over the entire world. I am at a loss. I do not know how to address many of these things. I feel sorry for our world leaders who are trying to make wise decisions in this area. They deserve our prayers and good thoughts now more than ever.

Unfortunately, I see very little of that in some people's conversations.

Several United States governors have blocked the admission of Syrian refugees to their states. What was the response of my fellow Christians?

"Smart governor."
"Michigan is home to Dearborn - better known as Dearbornestan because of the huge Islamic population."
"Yes, they should go to an Arab country - not here."

These refugees are fleeing the very terrorists who struck their homeland. They have no place to go to and we shut the doors on them. As I write this, I am reminded of another similar event. Beginning in 1940, the United States restricted the amount of Jewish refugees to the United States for "national security reasons." How many lives could the United States have saved if we opened our borders to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

It is just as the Kohelet (the writer of Ecclesiastes) stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

"Whatever has happened - that's what will happen again; whatever has occurred - that's what will occur again. There's nothing new under the sun."

When I lived in Germany, it was during the attacks on 11 September 2001 and then afterwards through the terrible aftermath of the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars. I remember the outpouring of sympathy from all quarters. Friends in Germany called me up to express their condolences to me, even though none of my friends or relatives were in the affected areas. German politicians stated dramatically, "Heute sind wir alle Amerikaner." ("Today we are all Americans.") Many Germans had a strong affinity for Americans, especially after President John F. Kennedy famously said to them, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

The camaraderie was short-lived. The United States and NATO invaded Afghanistan. Many Germans could understand that. That was where al-Qaeda was. The Taliban weren't giving them up. The we invaded Iraq. Hardly any Germans could understand that. The soldiers (members) of my corps (church) asked me if I supported the invasion because they certainly did not.

I must sadly report that at the time I did support the invasion of Iraq. I thought we were justified and that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction. I was wrong. My government lied to me.

Then I began to suspect that my whole position on war and fighting was wrong. When is it ever right to fight? When is it ever right to attack? When is war ever justified? As a follower of Jesus, the answer for me is:  Never.

We were attacked by al-Qaeda. We retaliated. We killed more people than died in the attacks on 11 September.

France was attacked by ISIS. France retaliated. How many will die because of these attacks? How many innocent will perish?

Violence begets violence.

It does not make any sense to stop people from fighting by fighting against them.

Paul said in Romans 12:17, "Don't pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good."

We need to encourage our leaders everywhere in this. Instead of seeking vengeance, why don't we seek out love?

For those of you who are worried about so many refugees coming into your borders, I would say this to you:  We have been negligent in spreading the love of Jesus to the entire world. So I believe God is using this opportunity to bring the world to us. Take advantage of this opportunity to spread the love of God.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Kingdom of Heaven

Probably one of the things I will miss the most as an officer in The Salvation Army (pastor) is preaching. I enjoyed crafting a sermon, preparing it, and speaking before a crowd. It was my chance to share what I felt God wanted me to share. There is no reason why I cannot still do this in my blog. So I have decided to do just that. I always preached from the Lectionary. Now, I never used the Revised Common Lectionary, which runs a 3-year cycle. Instead I followed the Lectionary I used in Germany, which runs on a 6-year cycle. It always forced me to preach from texts I normally wouldn't. Interestingly enough, this week's text comes from one of my favorite Scripture passages, Matthew 25:

Jesus speaks:

““Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left. “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ "Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life."”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:31-46‬ ‭CEB‬‬

What an amazing vision this is!

First of all, I love how the Common English Bible renders the normal translation of "Son of Man." The CEB translates this as "Human One." I love this because it emphasizes Christ's humanity. At the same time, there will come a moment of judgment. When will this happen? I'm not sure.

I do know that throughout Matthew Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven being at hand. In other words, it was imminent. It is getting ready to be here now, not later, and Jesus was talking about this 2000 years ago. I believe that sometimes we confuse the Kingdom of Heaven with the heavens or the afterlife. We begin to think about the afterlife:  what happens after death, eternity. It is all well and good to be thinking about these things; however, Jesus focused on the present. When he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven, he described it in ways that people understood:  helping your neighbor, going after the lost, etc. These are things that are happening or should be happening now. The Kingdom of Heaven is the responsibility of all of us to bring into reality now.

I am not certain that this judgment is at the End Times or at the Last of Days. I believe we are being judged whenever we refuse to help those we could and should help.

One of the most powerful images I have ever seen is a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz, called "Homeless Jesus." It depicts a shrouded figure on a park bench. One can only tell that it's Jesus due to the nail-pierced feet sticking out of the robe. I visited such a statue in Grand Haven, Michigan. I have a small version of this statue in my room.

Many people have been offended and disturbed by this image. I'm glad they are. We should be disturbed by this image. It is Jesus telling us that we have been ignoring him when we ignore our neighbor.

Often today I hear of people complaining about their neighbor. They complain about the immigrant. They complain about the homeless. They complain about those who think and act differently than they do. A Salvation Army soldier in Australia, named Anthony Castle, once made a powerful statement. Australia has also been dealing with immigration issues, especially those arriving on boats. The boats are diverted to other island nations where they are imprisoned until their application for asylum is reviewed and often rejected. A friend of mine turned his words into a powerful meme:

The Kingdom of Heaven is not something that happens when we die and experience the afterlife. The Kingdom of Heaven is our responsibility to bring to this world. Look at who the Human One was talking to:  those who should have known; those who already acknowledge Jesus as Lord. When we fail to serve those who are in need, no matter who they are, we fail our Lord.

My biggest challenge for me now is to answer the question myself. How am I helping my neighbor out? What am I doing? When I was an officer, I could sit behind the comfort that I was always doing what Matthew 25 asks of me to do. Now that I am no longer an officer, I am on the lookout for ways to show God's love to everyone. It is a challenge I hope that we will all accept.

As I prepared this blog earlier during the week, there was no way that I could have realized the tragedy that was to strike in Paris. However, despite these attacks, I am convinced that following Christ's commands to serve others is even more important in the light of such horrible evil. It is normal for us to want to act out in vengeance. It is more difficult for us to act out in love, especially when we have been wronged.

I do not mean that acting out in love means putting ourselves in danger. I mean that when we are wronged, we do not strike back. Instead, as far as we are able to, we should end the cycle of hate. People will be blaming all sorts of other people for this tragedy:  governments, refugees, policies, weapons, the lack of weapons, etc. Instead of blaming, why don't we show love and compassion?

Just by being kind to others, not matter who they are, is the best way to show God's love. When we serve others, when we put the needs of others first before our own needs, we bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A New Beginning

My life has been in an upheaval. There's no denying that. I won't delve too much into my personal life because, well, it's personal. However, things have happened that, for better or for worse, have had a profound impact on my life.

First:  I am no longer an officer in The Salvation Army. This was a point in my life that I thought I would never experience. I had felt God's call in my life to be an officer ever since I was 10 years old. I went to university and seminary just to study in areas which I felt would be the best asset for me to serve God. I felt God calling me to serve him overseas. I followed that calling. I served in Albania, Kosova, and Germany.

This has now come to a close. This chapter in my life is now over.

I have many questions and few answers. However, I have discovered many things.

- Friends and colleagues, who I thought would support me, were silent and never asked me what was wrong or if they could help.

- I discovered friends in the most unlikely of places. People, with whom I have had major differences of opinion, were some of the first to come to my side and help me.

- I honestly believed I could not live a life that was somehow not bound in my calling. Yet here I am:  living, breathing, and going from one day to the next.

It was this past Friday that I finally received word that I was terminated as an officer in The Salvation Army, with no hope of ever returning to that life of service. As I read the words in the email, informing me of the final decision, my mobile phone rang. It was from the job opportunity I had investigated, letting me know that they were continuing with me as their potential candidate.

It was as if God were telling me, "Your life is not over. Your life is more than being an officer in The Salvation Army. You have been looking for your identity in your calling. Find your identity in Me."

Where is this journey leading me? I honestly do not know. I no longer have the answers. I have doubts every day, but, as Anne Lamott has been quoted, "The opposite of faith is not doubt. It's certainty."

Do I have regrets in my officership? Absolutely. However, one thing I do not regret was discovering who I am in Christ and discovering that His love is bigger than my own. The latitude of His love is wider than my own. His love encompasses more than my own love does.

My last blog was under the moniker, The Progressive Salvationist. For some odd reason, that become a huge problem in my denomination. People rallied to these ideas, but they also despised some of the views I wanted to discuss. I felt as if I did not have the freedom to talk about what I wanted to talk about. I did not have the freedom to question. I was even told that I was a heretic by someone I used to respect.

When my good friend and I were forming a Facebook group, one of the names I toyed with was "The Latitudinarian." It was a synonym for liberal and progressive. In the end, we decided against it, but now I've returned to it. This name has grown on me. I also enjoy it because it is not bound by one particular denomination, especially my own.

Am I a Progressive Christian? Yes, I am. However, my love for God means also that my love should extend to all of humanity. It doesn't matter if we're poor, rich, conservative, liberal, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jew. God's love extends to all. I need to learn to do the same.