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.