Saturday

Did Scrooge have a point?

I’ve been having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this season and because of this, I find that I can relate to old Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion in Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.”

I read the other day that cynicism stems from being hurt. Old Ebenezer was hurt throughout his early life and it made him cynical. He found his solace in money and in business; unfortunately, he used both to hurt many people. However, Scrooge changed when he found out that his life mattered and that God wanted to use him to help others.

For a long time, I’ve struggled with the pain of the church not being a safe place. During my childhood, it was safe and I loved it, but during my adult years I have found that church was not what I thought it once was.

The safety I felt during childhood created a bond that will never break, I’m sure. I will always seek to serve Christ through the church because I believe in its mission. Unfortunately, however, I believe that mission is in jeopardy here in the United States.

At the beginning of my master’s degree program on spiritual formation, I asked the question, “How can we make the church a safe place?” After much debate, no one in my cohort, including me, could not, or perhaps, dared not, answer that question even after two years of study.

Why is the church not a safe place? I believe this is because the church has failed to love. We are so anxious to get the message out that we fail to allow God to create a depth of character within us. At the root of that depth is love. Why do I think this? Because Jesus said that people would know that we are disciples by our love. Because of this deep, unconditional love for God, each other and for the world, people would either be attracted to us or afraid and I believe neither one is happening.

Some would say that the negative remarks against the church are because of fear, but I don’t agree. A lot of the remarks I hear and read are not full of fear, they are full of anger. People are angry at a church that doesn’t love, that looks down on people who believe differently (both inside and outside the church), that fails to love its own. This element of the church is making it difficult for those who are trying to follow Christ in love and for those who may want to follow Christ. Therefore, the church is not a safe place.

This is not a very chipper Christmas message, but it is something that needs to be said. Perhaps it will become a New Year’s resolution on the part of the church, that we will love each other and the world first. Before the world will hear our message, however, they will have to know that we are making a serious effort and this might take a while. This will only happen when we truly believe, like Scrooge, that our lives matter and that God wants to use us to help others.

God bless us, everyone.

Tuesday

Sacrifice echoes throughout eternity

In 2007, former Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said, “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover the most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together or perish alone.”

I like this statement because it is indeed true that both religion and freedom need each other to survive. Religion requires freedom so that it can grow and express itself freely. Freedom requires religion because religious beliefs provide a moral compass by which citizens guide their actions. Without that compass, a society will become lawless and ultimately crumble.

For freedom and religion to survive, our nation has had to fight numerous wars in the interest of democracy. Granted, our leaders have not always made wise decisions about which wars or conflicts to enter, but within those events brave men and women have fought, suffered, and too often died so that our society could enjoy freedom and the freedom to worship as we please.

For that reason, whether a religious group believes in fighting wars or not, it is important for us to recognize veterans because of their sacrifice — of time, of their own freedom to live the way they wanted, of their health and, yes, of their lives. Their sacrifice echoes Christ’s sacrifice, and the martyrdom of the saints, across the generations.

Recently, I watched the movie “Gladiator.” In the beginning of the movie, Russell Crowe plays the part of Maximus, a Roman general who is about to lay waste to rebelling Germanic tribes. Before going into battle, Maximus tells his soldiers “If you find yourself alone riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you are already dead!” Maximus also tells his soldiers “… what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Christ did not consider his equality with God something to exploit, so he died for everyone (Phillipians 2: 6, NRSV). The apostle Paul considered himself already dead (Galatians 3:20, NIV). Paul was willing to do anything for Christ because he had died to his selfish desires. This is a common theme throughout humanity’s conflicts, either physical or spiritual. Matthew Settle, playing Lieutenant Ronald Spiers in “Band of Brothers”, told a young trooper, “… the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead”. Veterans who fight for their country die to themselves as well. No one can successfully go into the heat of battle, or to war, without already dying to selfishness. What they have done and are doing for us will echo throughout eternity.

Are people worthless?

I once heard a preacher talk for two hours straight about how worthless he was and about how worthless everyone in the congregation was without Christ. He also said that he – and we – were not worth Christ’s sacrifice. By the end of the sermon I was asking myself if it was true. Does God see us as worthless? Does my worth drastically improve the moment I accept Christ?

I then began thinking about the parables of Jesus, particularly those of the Lost Coin and the Pearl of Great Price. These parables depict people who are going to great lengths to search for something. In the church we often interpret the parables of the lost coin and the pearl of great price as how we, as humans, should respond to the Kingdom of God. I think these are good interpretations.

However, what if we were to look at these parables as how God responds to us? If we were a valuable lost coin, God would ransack the house looking for us. If we were an extremely valuable pearl that God found he would literally sell everything he owned to buy us and to make sure that we were safe from others who wanted to buy us. In reality, God did this. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8, NIV). Does that sound like we human beings — either believers or pre-believers — are worthless?

A few years ago my denomination revised its hymn book. In that revision, one hymn that had the line “for such a worm as I,” was changed to “for sinners such as I.” As a traditionalist I was upset about this at first. I like the original form of songs, but when I began to think about the change, I realized that the denomination had a point.

A worm is defined as an unfortunate or unhappy person; a despicable or contemptible person. It is true that we can be these things as sinners, but are all sinners like this? No. Some people who don’t know God do good things and some are even happy. If we are honest, all of us, believers and pre-believers alike, must admit that we have issues. This is because we were born in a fallen world under the curse of sin. I hardly think that this condemns the human race to a state of worthlessness. If we were, God would have wiped us off the planet eons ago rather than sending his only son to die for us.

The church would do well to take a more positive view of humanity. Yes, human beings have definite problems. We can even be despicable; some are evil. However, most of us spend our weeks getting beaten down. No one wants to go to church and hear that they are worthless. The church should be saying that although everyone is a sinner, Jesus died for us at just the right time even before we believed in him. The preacher that started this thought process was dead wrong. Jesus obviously not only thought we had worth, he thought that we were worth dying for.

A 'non-religious' Christmas

On a recent Christmas shopping trip, an interesting thing happened. I was making my purchase and before leaving I said “Have a Merry Christmas” to the friendly clerk.

“Thank you!” she said enthusiastically. This happened more than once that day. In almost every store in which we shopped, the clerks did not wish us a Merry Christmas, but joyfully received our good tidings.

For years, the common greeting “Merry Christmas” has been scorned for its religious overtones and this year the adjective “non-religious” seems to have been attached to the Christmas season.

For example, in the New York Times there is an article describing how the White House’s current social director told former social directors that the Obamas would not be using the traditional creche in the East Room. The reason? The Obamas wanted to celebrate a non-religious holiday this year. The article said that there was an audible gasp from the audience. To keep a long story short, the creche is in its traditional location once again.

In the Los Angeles Times there was an article about humanists groups launching a $40,000 ad campaign that says “No God? No Problem.” Smiling people — some wearing Santa hats — adorned the brightly colored ad. There is even a Web site so that other humanists will know that they’re not alone.

Christmas without God. This is an unattractive yet interesting concept to someone who has spent most of her life in church. How can you have a “non-religious” holiday that is based on one of the most significant religious events in human history? I don’t, however, feel threatened by the concept. After all, we live in a pluralistic society in which everyone is supposed to respect each other.

The problem is we don’t.

How many times have we heard about Christian groups who are “outraged” over, say, an ad, a movie or a book? There is name calling, vandalism and rage all in the name of Christ. Christian groups even attack stores that don’t say “Merry Christmas.”

On the other side of the coin, some groups want to erase Christianity from our culture. The Obamas didn’t want to celebrate a “religious” holiday because they wanted to be “inclusive.” How does that fit? We exclude one group — a group that has great significance to our history — while including all the others? That doesn’t make sense.

According to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, approximately 78 percent of the population considers themselves “Christian.” Only 4.7 percent categorize themselves under “other religions” and 16.1 percent consider themselves “unaffiliated.” If such a large percentage of the population aligns themselves with a certain way of thinking and living, why are their fellow Americans attempting to shove them aside? That is definitely not what the founding fathers had in mind constitutionally speaking, and everyone – Christians, non-Christians, atheists, and even Presidents – really must keep that in mind.

So this Christmas season, I still intend to bid others a “Merry Christmas.” If someone chooses not to wish me the same, I’ll respect that, but I hope that they respect me as well. If someone chooses to celebrate the season without God, that’s their prerogative. However, I agree with what Rabbi Elliot Dorff told the Los Angeles Times: “They are depriving themselves of some really rich resources for moral insight.” Merry Christmas, everyone!

Christmas traditions

Why are some traditions repeated year after year at Christmas? Here are some reasons behind the traditions that have been held dear for centuries:

Origin: Mention of celebrating the birth of Christ did not appear in church literature until 200 C.E. and there are two theories as to why Dec. 25 was chosen, according to “Biblical Archaeology Review.” The most noted reason is that the date was borrowed as a substitute for pagan celebrations taking place during that time of the year (this was suggested in the 12th century). The second is that Dec. 25 is nine months after March 25, which is the Feast of the Annunciation, or the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. The second reasoning seems to have existed in the 200s.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: the period between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6 (Epiphany).

Nativity set: St. Francis of Assisi created the first living Nativity in 1223 because he wanted to enact the birth of Christ “in all of its impoverished glory” (www.livingcatholicism.com). Before this, mangers bedecked in jewels and gold were set out in churches to represent the king who laid there. Living Nativity enactments continue to this day and there are many different types of sets available for purchase. Many people display the entire set throughout the season, but others try to be more realistic by adding certain characters on certain dates (for example, they place Baby Jesus in the manger on Christmas day and add the wise men around Epiphany).

Santa Claus: The legend of Santa Claus is derived from the beneficent character of Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna, who lived in the 4th century A.D, in what is now modern Turkey. Bishop Nicholas used to give gifts to poor children to encourage them. Bishop Nicholas was later named a saint and became the patron saint of children and seafarers (www.historyofchristmas.net)

Wreath: Hanging a wreath at Christmas is also a century’s old tradition. “Most wreathes are circular, and the circle has long been symbolic of the unbroken span of eternity, as well as the circular nature of life itself. Used in mid December at the time of the Winter Solstice, the circle symbolizes the certainty that the endless cycle of seasons will once again bring the return of light,” Elisabeth Ginsburg wrote on www.naturehills.com. Both the Romans and the Germans used this tradition in their homes and early Christians adopted it as a symbol of life and eternity.

Trees: Since ancient times, people have been using greenery to brighten their homes during winter to remind them that spring was coming and to stave off evil spirits and sickness. In 19th century Germany, devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes as a symbol of hope and faith. It is also said that Protestant Reformer Martin Luther first used candles on his Christmas tree after taking inspiration on a starlit evening. Christmas trees became popular in America after German-born Prince Albert, Queen Victoria of England and their family posed before a Christmas tree for a newspaper sketch. Because Queen Victoria was so popular, fashion conscious East Coast observers brought the concept to America (www.history.com).

Holly: According to allthingschristmas.com, legend has it that holly plants sprang up from the earth wherever Christ stepped. “The pointed leaves were said to represent the crown of thorns Christ wore while on the cross and the red berries symbolized the blood he shed,” the Web site said.

Stockings: “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care …” Clement Clarke Moore wrote in his famous poem “The Night Before Christmas.” But why? This story comes from ancient times when the generous St. Nicholas heard the plight of three young women whose mother had died and their father could not afford a dowry so that they could get married. The young women, who did all of their own chores, used to hang their stockings by the fire to dry. One night, while the family was sleeping, Saint Nicholas placed a bag of gold into each one, thus giving the father enough money to afford a marriage for each daughter. Since then, children have been hanging Christmas stockings “in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there” (www.allthingschristmas.com).

Mistletoe: Mistletoe has always been revered because it had no roots and stayed green all winter. Ancient cultures believed that mistletoe had “magical healing powers and used it as an antidote for poison, infertility and to ward off evil spirits” (www.allthingschristmas.com). The Romans saw the plant as a symbol of peace and Scandanavians associated the plant with Frigga, their goddess of love. “Those who kissed under the mistletoe had the promise of happiness and good luck in the following year” (www.allthingschristmas.com).

Candy Canes: This sweet treat has been around since the 17th century, despite what anyone tells you about a candy maker from Indiana who wanted to create a candy that symbolized his faith. It’s a nice story, but that’s all it is. Folks from Europe began decorating their Christmas trees with cookies and candy confections, including straight white sugary sticks called candy canes. The red stripes were not added until the 20th century. The one religious connection may be found in a legend that says that candy canes were shaped into crooks to represent the shepherds. These crooks were passed out to children during the living nativity scene at the request of the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany so that they would be quiet (www.allthingschristmas.com and www.snopes.com).

“Xmas”: Should Christians be alarmed when the term “Xmas” is used? Absolutely not. The letter X represents the Greek letter “chi,” which is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. The symbol is similar to the letter “X” in the modern Roman alphabet. “The usage is nearly as old as Christianity itself,” according to Snopes.com.

Monday

Americans deserve better from the press

“As journalism goes, so does democracy.” So says Bill Moyers, president of the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy and the host of Bill Moyers’ Journal on PBS. Nothing could be more true, especially after looking at recent news reports about ties between the corporate world and major media outlets.

In my lifetime, I have seen the demise of an objective media. Around the time I was born, Washington Post reporters like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were uncovering the Watergate Scandal and Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times wrote about the top secret U.S. bombing campaign of Cambodia — a campaign about which President Richard Nixon brazenly lied to the American people. Where is this kind of journalism today?

For the most part, journalists these days, for whatever reason, write for editors and publishers who cater to political agendas, political parties, what group becomes most angry, to moral agendas and to whoever has the most money. Reporters will take at face value almost any statement from politicians, and do little if any follow-up as to the truth of those statements.

Recently, we’ve seen in the news that corporate America has invested in the media. For example, GE has been tied in with MSNBC, and ACORN, so-called community reform advocates, is financially tied to “The Advance Group,” a media relations organization with hooks into what we now call “the mainstream media,” or “MSM.” ACORN also received $800,000 from the Obama campaign, has been embroiled in charges of voter registration fraud, and is currently involved in a spectacular scandal wherein some staffers have been giving advice on how to smuggle in underage girls for work in government-mortgaged houses of prostitution. Fox News and bloggers are covering this. Where are the other major media outlets?

In my short time as a reporter, I have seen many newspapers, including our own, endorse candidates and take positions on amendments and ballot issues.

With this kind of activity taking place how can a free press in the Jeffersonian tradition write objectively? How can the press keep public officials and corporations accountable when it is in bed with its subjects?

The media needs to wake up. Newspapers all around the country are failing, they say, because of the Internet. This is true, but I believe that they are also failing because they refuse to print the truth. Bloggers on the Internet have done the job that the media at large has failed to do: expose corruption at its core.

In 1733, a Colonial printer, John Peter Zenger, said, “The loss of liberty in general would soon follow the suppression of the liberty of the press; for it is an essential branch of liberty, so perhaps it is the best preservative of the whole.” This statement was written long before the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were conceived. If our forefathers understood this, why don’t we?

This quandry is not entirely the fault of the media. It is also the fault of the American people who have tolerated “press candy” for far too long. As a country, we have let the media shape our thinking through excessive viewing of mindless shows and news reports. We have let the media do our thinking for us rather than delving into the writings of the nation’s founders and learning to think for ourselves. Because of this, we have failed to keep the media accountable. During the August town hall meetings, we saw demonstrations and protests against the government’s arrogant effort to ram a frightfully expensive, and ill-thought health care bill down our throats without taking the time for debate and reasoned discussion. The American people have been called derrogative names because we dared to question these politicians. The press, the mainstream media, should have been doing the questioning, and should have called these politicians to account for behaving so poorly.

The media is failing us. We are Americans. We deserve a press that lives up to the ideas the Founders framed in that First Amendment to our Constitution. We deserve better than what we are getting.


Make me a blessing

As I sit down to write my commentary this week, I have no idea what to write. Sometimes that happens, especially when I have a lot on my mind or when I have put all of my energy into a particular commentary like last weeks.

Sometimes there are periods of non creative flow. I've experienced that this summer. In fact, last Monday was the first time I arrived at the office with an idea for a story rather than having to sift through my email or talk to someone.

Like anything, a clear mind comes and goes. There are some days when there is not a care in the world and the creative process and everything else just seems to flow. On other days there is not enough money (or coffee) in the world to get the juices going.

Our spiritual life can be like that too. One day every thing's great. We seem to have a direct line to heaven when we pray, our heart sings and all is well. Other days prayer does not come easily and we feel listless. The only prayer we can get out is "What have I done wrong?" or "Where are you God?" and the response is stony silence.

Throughout my Christian experience, I've learned that when I have those listless days, I may not have necessarily done anything wrong, nor am I harboring sin. It may be that I don't feel well or that I am experiencing some type of subconscious dilemma. During those times I try to be honest with myself and with God about how I feel and ask God to help me stay encouraged as we work through the problem.

I pray that I have the wisdom to recognize this form of discouragement in others. There have been many times when I have been blessed by someone who just listened or said something kind. I pray, like the old song that God will help me to bless others.

Here are the words to the song. I hope that it is your prayer too.

Make Me a Blessing
Ira B. Wilson, 1909

Out in the highways and byways of life,

many are weary and sad;

Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife,

making the sorrowing glad.

Refrain


Make me a blessing, make me a blessing,

Out of my life may Jesus shine;

Make me a blessing,
O Savior, I pray,

Make me a blessing to someone today.

Verse 2

Tell the sweet story of Christ and his love;

Tell of his pow'r to forgive:

Others will trust him if only you prove

true ev'ry moment you live.

Verse 3

Give as 'twas given to you in your need;

Love as the Master loved you;

Be to the helpless a helper indeed;

Unto your mission be true.

Tuesday

Something on which to depend

I was riding my bike on the country roads surrounding Swink last week when I noticed that the sunflowers were drooping. Other signs of fall were also present: burlap bags of onions standing in the field; empty cornfields where tall stalks of corn had swayed in the breeze as recently as the day before; stacks of pumpkins gaining their orange glow as the sun finally peeked over the horizon and touched the rotund squashes with its rays; the slight chill in the air.

All of these signs of fall are refreshing after the long summer. True, I will miss the fresh garden produce, the warm days and the kids being out of school, but fall brings a whole new set of delights. School has started, the holiday season approaches, the leaves will turn brilliant shades of orange, burgundy, yellow and red before they blow to the ground. There is butternut squash, candied apples, candy corn and hot apple cider. We can also unfold the heavy blankets and pull sweaters out of storage. People decorate with smiling scarecrows, golden bales of hay, pumpkins and brightly colored mums.

When my boys were small, I used to rake a huge pile of leaves under the slide in our backyard. I enjoyed hearing their squeals and laughter as they dove into that pile and disappeared under the crunchy leaves before bursting out and scattering them everywhere. As a child, I remember looking forward to fall because I loved to stomp on the crunchy leaves in the gutter as I walked to and from school.

Some people do not appreciate fall because they know that winter is coming and that's all right. We all have seasons that we prefer. However, some people do not adapt to change well in any circumstance--weather, careers, family.

A pastor's wife once told me that "the tide goes in and the tide goes out." In other words, nothing lasts forever. Nothing except God's word, that is. During this time of the year, Isaiah 40: 8 comes to mind: "The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever" (NRSV). No matter what changes are occurring in your life, rest in the fact that God has always been there, is here now and will always be with you. You can depend on that, because it will always be true.

Wednesday

"Hope for a new day"

At Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Calif., a large wooden cross was erected on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It is close to the entrance, so everyone who enters sees that cross as they drive onto the campus.

One year, my dad took a picture of that cross at sunset and it is hanging in my house. He called the photograph "Hope for a New Day." Not only does it remind me of my college days, it also reminds me of the hope I have in Jesus.

This Friday is the eighth anniversary of that harrowing day when 19 hijackers took control of four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania (that airplane was meant for the White House, but the passengers thwarted terrorist efforts). Approximately 3,000 people died in the attacks and over 6,000 were injured.

That was an awful day. I remember listening to Dan Rather on the radio describing what was happening in New York City when suddenly he said that the second trade tower was falling. The announcer fell silent and listeners could hear the deep rumble and then the roar of a once giant building imploding.

Afterward, I remember some rescue workers erecting a cross in the rubble. The makeshift cross was made of steel cross beams that had come from one of the towers. It was an emotional scene; yet, it spoke volumes about the people involved in the rescue and clean up efforts. Erecting that cross meant that those people still had hope, no matter how small, in the midst of tragedy. They also had hope for the people still buried underneath the rubble--that they were in a better place, that they had arisen to a new day.

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" Because of what that cross represents, we have hope for a new day. No matter what life throws at us we can still trust in the God who cares for us--the God who sent his son to die, to cleanse us of our sins, to salve our spiritual hurts, to bring us a new covenant and a new commandment, so that we could have hope for a new day.

Friday

Community

"Community" is a big topic these days. I wrote an article on it last week and on Sunday my pastor preached about it. I've also received emails about it.

Rarely do I write on the subject two weeks in a row, but I'm still thinking about this one. After last week's article, someone asked me what "community" is. It was a good question.

So, what is "community" in the biblical sense? In Acts we read about how the disciples of Jesus shared everything they had with one another so that no one was in need. Older versions say that they had all things in common. They had fellowship.

Now I can do fellowship. In many churches fellowship means food--good food. Many church people excel in making good food.

Somehow, though, I don't think that this is what the biblical writers had in mind. Of course sharing food (and recipes)d is part of community because that is what humans do; however, this phrase, according to Strong's Concordance, comes from a "primary preposition denoting union." Another word that may be more familiar to us that describes this is "companionship."

In companionship there is closeness or camaraderie. People like being together and there is a sense of being family. I think I sensed this the other day when my church grilled burgers at Music at the Junction. There were several of us there and we all got along. We had a common purpose--to raise funds and to be part of the City of La Junta as well as our church--and our group did a great job working together (a couple of us actually started grooving to the beat, but that's for another commentary). All of us really enjoyed ourselves.

Isn't that what the church is supposed to be doing? Working together for a common purpose? The purpose of the church is to tell others about Christ and to help disciples grow. In helping each other grow, we are supposed to build that familial sense, that camaraderie of brotherhood (and sisterhood) in Christ. We are to help each other and also be available to the community outside our four walls (this is a topic for another commentary as well. Many people tend to equate the "church" with the building rather than thinking of it as an abstract entity of people as described in scripture.). That sense of community comes when we all get along working together for that same purpose.

When I grow up ...

(originally published as a commentary for the local newspaper)

When I grow up, I want to be a queen. No, not just any queen like Elizabeth or Victoria, but a queen like the ladies who were contestants at the 2009 Arkansas Valley Fair Silver King and Queen contest, an event I recently covered for the paper.

Each woman displayed traits to which I aspire. So, in honor of them, I want to share them.

Cora Cassaras, 82 sang a song in Spanish for everyone. She did a beautiful job. May I always have courage to display the gifts with which God has blessed me.

Clara Chamberlin, 95, a fellow Nazarene, joyfully showed the audience what exercises she and other residents of her care facility tackle every morning. May I always use the strength with which God has blessed me to do what I can, when I can and whereever I can.

Mildred Clauson, 95, wished that she could give a donation to the La Junta Presbyterian youth group instead of wishing for something for herself. This wish was fulfilled through a collection taken by the audience at the contest. I pray that God will strenghthen me to think of the needs of others before I think of myself.

Maxine Freemyer, 97, gives hugs daily to everyone she meets. May I be blessed with her ability to show compassion and love toward anyone.

Floraida Manchego, 87, learned how to dance even though she was stricken with polio as a child. May God grant me the tenacity to do things beyond my own ability with joy.

Ruth Sanders, 82, is proud to say that she delivered the first baby born in Rocky Ford in 1962. May I always be proud of and love my children no matter where life takes them.

Roberta Tolbey, 89, makes rosaries for the church and for the poor. In her lifetime she has made 70,000!. May I always care about the spiritual lives of others and enable them to worship God effectively.

Only one of these women won the contest, but they are all queens in my book. "A (woman) of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies ..." Proverbs 31: 1 (NIV).

Going back to school

(Originally published as a commentary in the local newspaper)

It's that time of year again. Registration is over and now everyone is waiting for Monday, Aug. 24--the first day of school.

I remember those days. I used to get so nervous, especially when I entered a new school in which I didn't know anyone.

Most kids around here are going to the school they have attended since kindergarten, but what I write is for them too. It's for everyone attending school, especially teenagers. As one who has lived 22 years past high school and 18 years past my undergraduate years (yikes), here is some advice (Don't worry, no one's parents suggested this!).

Study hard (2 Timothy 2:15): This is your last chance at free education before college or vocational school. Don't blow it off. Even if you never plan to go to college, earning a high school diploma will put you one step ahead of those who don't have one. Believe me, in every career or job, being able to read and write adequately are a must. Learn it now while you can, while it's still easy.

Be wise (Proverbs 7: 1-27): Just because you are young and think that you are indestructible, don't use your junior high and high school years to experiment with drugs, start smoking, or see how many conquests you can make among the young men and ladies. Remember, you have a future. Having a baby, messing around and getting a disease or scrambling your brains on some drug will affect you for the rest of your life.Ê As one who has known people affected by lung cancer, I can't stress enough how harmful smoking is. Think about this stuff before you regret making foolish decisions.

Stay in shape (I Corinthians 9: 24 -26): Do this on a physical, spiritual and emotional level. All of these levels go along with being wise. Making poor decisions will affect you physically, spiritually and emotionally. Also, don't give up exercise just because you hate P.E. You will be thankful for it later (especially when you can outrun one of your own kids!).

Be content (Philippians 4: 11-13): Life is exciting right now. That's great, be excited and look forward to the new privileges and responsibilities that lie ahead, but don't forget to be grateful right now.

Remember God (Ecclesiastes 12:1): I have never heard anyone say that they wished that they had not remembered God in their youth. It's usually the opposite. Remembering God means following God and this will lead to a better life. There are many times during my high school years when I wished that I had followed God more closely. That's why I'm writing this to you.

We here at Blogger central wish all students a safe and happy school year. You students are our future, make it count!

Wednesday

The abundant life: Vacation has spiritual benefits

In college, I had a psychology professor who said that he made one major change in his life every seven years. In this way he provided his own "Sabbath rest." At first I thought that this concept was a little radical, but now I am convinced that he was right.

The benefits of rest as a deterrent to stress have been proven medically, but in our fast paced society we often scorn rest as laziness.

The good news is that rest is a spiritual principle. The concept of taking a Sabbath is not new. In Genesis, we read that God the Creator took a "day" of rest after working for "six days." But how does one get rest like Scripture says we should? What my professor did is unrealistic and out of God's will for a lot of us, so we must all find someway to get rest.

It is noteworthy to mention that rest is different from sleep. Although sleep is very important in fighting stress- and fatigue-caused anxiety, rest is actually time spent awake refreshing oneself.

Personally, I have found that to be healthy mentally, spiritually and physically, I need several types of rest. I should have daily rest, weekly rest and yearly rest.

Daily rest is short. Every night before I go to sleep, I read one or two chapters from the Bible. Afterward, I try to pray and listen. I am not always successful. On nights when my mind is cluttered, I either need to write in my journal or talk. Without this daily practice, I find myself getting stressed out.

For weekly rest, I go to church and spend the day with family. For a real Sabbath rest, worship is essential. Activity should not revolve around regular work, if possible. With different working schedules, however, others may rest on another day. That's fine. The point is that a rest should be taken every week.

A yearly rest is paramount. Even if one can not get away, taking a week of vacation to clear the mind is downright spiritual. By vacation I mean doing activities that help you relax--even if that means sitting on your porch drinking tea, watching the world go by.

By separating ourselves from the normal routine, we realize that most of what we worry about isn't essential. Our problems become more manageable. Through rest we reconnect with the world around us and see beauty in small things. It is through rest that we are able to approach our working lives with creative energy and experience more of that abundant life.

The act of balance

Throughout my life I can say that I have learned at least one life lesson from each minister or youth pastor that I have had. One youth pastor used to tell me that there had to be balance in life.

At the time I did not realize how valuable that lesson was, but as I look at the Church, I think about what Pastor Juan used to say and wonder why his words haven't spread very far.

Sadly, the church lacks balance. Politically, we tend to be either Republican, Democrat or completely inactive. Some feel that Christians should embrace 'liberation theology' and use the church to stand for the oppressed and neglected. Theologically, we are either Catholic or Protestant. Protestants are either Calvinists or Arminians; pentecostal or conservative. We either study the Bible in depth or we accept what our preachers say without question. Some say that the King James is the only version. Christians either believe in a literal six day creation or believe in the evolutionary process. Some Christians either want to sing all hymns in church or all praise choruses.

And God help the brother or sister who disagrees.

There are literally a multitude of issues about which Christians do not agree. But where is the balance? Why is it so difficult to open our minds to another point of view?

Balance is essentially a form of love. When we truly love our neighbors we can coexist and still maintain our identities without feeling threatened. Who should we love? God, and our neighbor as we love ourselves. The balance is wrapped up in the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

So, for example, if your political views differ from mine, I can respect you even though we may never agree. We may argue furiously, but in the end we are still friends. Why? Because we love and respect each other.

Scripture says to love our enemies. We may find it ridiculous to consider fellow Christians our enemies, but how do we usually feel when someone disagrees with us? Threatened. And when I am threatened I am defensive, therefore, you become my enemy and I will defend myself. Do you see my point?

We in the church need to stop viewing others as the enemy and move toward that love about which Jesus spoke. In this way we will have balance, a much more effective witness and a better relationship with God.

Thursday

Keeping mindful of 'the big picture'

I love the Fourth of July. Not only do I enjoy picnics and fireworks, I enjoy the meaning behind the holiday. It makes me feel good to be an American, a country where I can be free to worship and express my opinion openly.

I am also proud because of my heritage. Sometime during the 1600s, my family left England and traveled across the "pond" to the shores of the New World. They braved the rigors of that world and took an active part in shaping our country.

Four of my ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence and sacrificed tremendously for doing so. My family is proud of that. During the Civil War one of my relatives was decorated for alerting the Northern army about nearby Confederate troops. We're proud of that too, even though we are a little embarrassed that our relative was trying to go AWOL at the time.

I think that my desire to write and share my opinion stems from that tradition. My dad would say that I "come by it honestly." He also said that my personality is such that I would probably have fought in the Revolution alongside my relatives. I believe he is right. I just hope that I would not have gone AWOL!

Consider this: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Hebrews 12: 1-3).

Keeping our eyes on "the big picture" rather than concentrating on the little things that cause temporary discomfort or angst is what helps us succeed in self-sacrifice. Jesus did it and so did our ancestors. Whenever we feel the pinch of sacrifice, we should keep our mind on our predecessors. That's what the Fourth of July is all about.

Wednesday

Where is the balance?

By Recovering Fundie and Catlover

Throughout my life in church I can say that I have learned at least one life lesson from each minister or youth minister that I have had. Pastor Juan, one of our youth pastors back in California used to tell us that there had to balance in life.

At the time I did not realize how valuable that lesson was. And now, as I look at the Church, I think about what Pastor Juan used to say and wonder why his lesson didn't spread further than my youth group.

Because, sadly, the church lacks balance. Even politics has become a division. The Republicans seem to have made getting into heaven part of a political agenda. The Democrats are considered by many to be against the church. Yet others in the church believe that Christians should never, absolutely not, become political activists. Theological divisions split the church: we are Catholic or Protestant and never the twain shall meet. Protestants are Calvinists or Arminians; pentecostal or conservative; evangelical or non-denominational 'new life'. If we study the bible exegetically others in the church say we border on heresy, for there is naught but the King James version that is the literal Word of God, seemingly handed down by God to Adam and Eve fresh from the Zondervan presses. Other Christians see evolution as an example of God's on-going work. Even music splits the church with some wanting all traditional hymns and others all "Jesus is my boyfriend" type praise choruses. Then there is the major issue of the color of the carpet in the sanctuary ...

I could go on. There is literally a multitude of issues on which Christians do not agree. But where is the balance? Where is the compassion that we should have for one another? Why is it so difficult to open our minds to another point of view, even if we don't agree with it? Isn't the point to be open to people, to other Christians? How can we grow if there is no give and take, no discussion, no contemplation freshened by other perspectives?

This is part of what is killing the church, by driving people from the church and by failing to present a challenging theological environment. Do you see your church life as 'comfort food' for the soul, or do you see it as a challenge, moving you to an expanded, closer relationship with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit?

Thursday

God blesses a righteous man

“Hallelujah. Happy is the man who fears the Lord, who is ardently devoted to His commandments,” Psalm 112: 1, (Jewish Study Bible).

In my commentary before Mother’s Day, I paraphrased Proverbs 31: 10-31. While studying that Scripture, I came across commentary that said that the counterpart for the woman in Proverbs was found Psalm 112, the description of a righteous man.

We often hear about the traits of the wonder woman of Proverbs, but how often do we hear about the super man written about in Psalm 112?

According to Psalm 112, a righteous man loves God’s commandments, he fears, or lives reverently before, the Lord; he is compassionate and gracious; he is generous and lends freely; he conducts his affairs with justice; he is never shaken; he has no fear of bad news because he trusts in the Lord; his heart is steadfast, or prepared, firm and/or established. The righteous man gives to the poor.

Because of his righteousness, the man’s children will be mighty and blessed; he will have wealth and riches; he will be remembered forever; he will have dignity and it will be well known. The righteous man will also see the defeat of his enemies.

At first glance, the verses might lead us to think that happiness is linked to material items and self-fulfillment. That, however, is not the case. Throughout Scripture, true happiness is linked to a right relationship with God. Wealth and riches do not necessarily mean financial blessings. Wealth and riches are a state of mind that is shaped by a right relationship with God, the one who fulfills all of our desires and fills our spiritual emptiness.

Following God’s values and purposes leads to stabilization in life, the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary said. A stabilized life can lead to financial prosperity, but not always. In any event, with any such increased prosperity, the righteous man remembers those who are less fortunate by giving generously. It is out of his gratefulness to God that he gives to his neighbor.

It is interesting to note that when you get down to basics the same standards are also placed on women in Proverbs 31 as well, “a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.” According to this Scripture, a man who fears the Lord shall also be praised. God is equal in all his requirements.

For further study, parallel Psalm 112 with Psalm 1, 2 and 111.

Packin' a piece in church




A recent article from christianpost.com reported on a Kentucky church that is celebrating Second Amendment rights by encouraging "responsible hand gun owners" to openly wear their unloaded sidearm in a secure holster to an "Open Carry Celebration." People were asked to bring a friend and a can of food. There was a drawing for a free handgun.

The church has received a lot of flak, so to speak. People are asking whether or not Second Amendment rights are synonymous with following Christ.

Some say that Jesus condemns guns. Others remember Jesus telling his disciples to carry a sword. Some say that Jesus condemned the use of guns by telling Peter to put his sword away during his arrest.

In context, the situation in which Christ told Peter to put away his sword meant "Put that away or you'll get killed!" Also, by fighting the soldiers, the disciples were going against God’s plan.

One person who commented on the christianpost.com story said that he carries a gun to keep peace. Members of the New Life Congregation in Colorado Springs are probably grateful that certain members were "packin' a piece" the day two gunmen decided to shoot up their congregation.

Jesus told his disciples to carry swords in order to protect themselves, so it seems probable that if Jesus lived on earth today he might tell his followers to carry guns for the same reason. One commentary argues that from reading Scripture we do not know if the disciples ever carried weapons, however, this may be because it was a common practice.

"Blessed are the peace makers," Jesus said. For Christians, whether that means packin' a piece or not, being a pacifist or an advocate of just war is up to one's conscience as he or she is guided by the Holy Spirit. Because of the time period in which Scripture was written, the fact that people carried weapons was probably assumed. Scripture speaks against murder and violence, not self-defense.

It was in this light that the framers of the Constitution insisted on the Second Amendment—self-defense.

In the U.S. the decision to carry is synonymous with spirituality because carriers should have a proper view of life and humanity. If we choose to carry, we should do so responsibly with the intention of keeping the peace. Neither side should condemn the other. Carrying a gun does not tell the world whether I am a Christian or not, it’s how I use the gun that matters.

Tuesday

What's up at First Naz

All events are at the church, 10th and Topeka, unless otherwise noted.

Women of Hope ministry is offering a six week bible study led by Pastor Brian. The study addresses women in the bible, as well as examination of some of the scriptures regarding women that are often misinterpreted. The series is held at the home of Holly Lewis, 302 Vista Drive, Swink, Monday evenings at 7:00 PM.

The Women of Hope ministry is sponsoring a Rummage and Bake sale on Saturday, June 20. Proceeds go to the Ladies' Winter Gala fund. Bake sale items can be delivered on Friday between 9:00 AM and 12:00 PM, or Saturday morning before 7:30.

Men's basketball is every Thursday evening at 7:00 PM, in the church gym. You do not have to be a member of the church to play. Everyone is welcome.

Northwest Nazarene University's "Covenant" will be performing in concert June 22 at 7:00 PM. This is a free event and the public is invited. There will be a teen fellowship with eats and games following the concert.

Thursday

Judging: Some advice from Matthew Henry

"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" Matthew 7: 1, 2 (NIV).

"Don't judge me" is a common phrase nowadays. It is most often said when one person voices displeasure with or disagrees with the action of another. Seems you can't say anything anymore without someone complaining about being judged. In our society, judging is considered an insolent or impudent act worthy of censure and exclusion.

A long time ago, Jesus told his followers not to judge, but what did he mean? Did he mean that we were not supposed to develop opinions about right and wrong? That we weren't to determine that which is best for us and for those about whom we care?

Not forming an opinion goes directly against the context of Scripture. Forming an opinion is also called discernment. Having discernment helps us judge what is best. If we were not supposed to judge between right and wrong, we would be in a terrible mess. So how am I supposed to approach those with whom I disagree over lifestyle choices?

Matthew Henry, the Puritan preacher who wrote a commentary originally published in 1706, has some good thoughts on this subject. I'll paraphrase them because his language is a little antiquated.

Henry said first that we should only judge our own acts and intentions. We should not take this authority over others because we are supposed to be subject to one another. We must not speak evil of or despise anyone; we must not pass a judgment that results from jealousy, an "ill nature," or a "spirit of revenge."

We must not judge people because of one act, or because of the way they treat us, because (I love this) "in our own cause we are apt to be partial."

Henry also said that judging someone's intentions puts us on God's throne, a place where we definitely do not belong.

So what are we to do? Henry said, "Counsel him, and help him, but do not judge him." To do this, we have to let God kill the pride in our heart. Thinking that we are better than someone else causes us to judge. This is judgment based on sinful pridefulness rather than sensible or rational evaluation of a given fact pattern, and it is this kind of judgmentalism to which I believe Jesus referred. It is that pride that will cause us to fall and fall hard. We should work hard not to allow that pride to rise within us.

Economic downturn? God still takes care of us

For the last year or so, the news has been buzzing about the economic downturn and about how terrible everyone has it financially.

Granted there are people suffering because of the greed of CEOs and the ineptitude of the government bureaucracy, but when this crisis is compared to the Great Depression, I get a little steamed. Only my grandparent's generation truly understands the Great Depression--the lines for food, the 24 percent unemployment rates, cardboard shoes and only having a bowl of ketchup or sliced loaves of bread spread with lard, instead of butter, to eat for dinner.

While some are at this point financially, or are nearing it, it isn't that way for most of us -- and hopefully, they won't get there. Economists are beginning to confirm what was predicted last fall: we are past the worst of it on the broad national scale unless government meddling makes it worse.

In the midst of this crisis churches in general seem to be holding steady on a financial level. A study released by Leadership Network in April 2009 found that "while all churches are closely monitoring their finances, and the situation is worsening for some, in general most churches are cautious but holding steady--and churches that are growing are doing well economically."

According to the survey, churches are still not doing as badly as the economy. A survey of 1,000 randomly chosen Protestant churches, conducted by LifeWay Research, found that the average church saw offerings grow four percent in 2008 and that in January and February 2009, pastors report giving ahead of budget. They are also finding that there are more requests for help from people outside the congregation and that there is a greater excitement about the opportunities to minister to the needy.

Since there are also more requests from people inside the congregation for help, churches are stepping up their efforts in ministry. Instead of holding tight to their pocket books, they are using the recession as a basis for practical ministry. Many churches are offering financial classes, groups or seminars; pastors are preaching sermons on finances and generosity; there are annual stewardship drives; churches are making financial/generosity pamphlets available; they are making volunteer budget/debt counselors available and they are offering increased online/electronic giving opportunities.

Other churches are offering job fairs; symposiums on home foreclosure, accessing unemployment benefits and other public benefits; they are offering classes on starting businesses, practical job search skills, career coaching, first time home buyers classes; financial counseling and are offering food pantries.

This is great. In fact, it goes right along with what John Wesley, the famous English preacher of the 17th century who was responsible for starting the Methodist movement, said, "Without social holiness, there is no holiness." It is because of this saying that when it comes to sharing my faith, I tend to lean toward social action. Nothing shows people that God cares better than meeting a heartfelt need.

However, like Wesley, I do not lean toward this approach entirely.

As a young college student majoring in Sociology and wanting to save the world, I found through my courses and internships that people will not really do well until they have learned to trust God. In my personal life, as I have struggled financially and in other ways, I too have learned that I will not really do well unless I trust God.

Trusting in God and knowing that you are following his will brings a certain peace that trouble cannot take away. Oh sure, there are times when I give in to worry or fear, but the Lord is faithful to bring me back to that center, where peace abides--where he abides.

If we are to minister to the whole person, we must not forget this element as we provide for physical needs. We do not want to be pushy; we want Christ's love to exude from our pores. In this way, we will find that God will meet the needs of people and of our own as well.

Monday

Spiritually mature? Who can tell?

The Barna Group recently ran a survey asking Christians to define spiritual maturity. Their findings say that no one--churchgoers and pastors alike--can really define spiritual maturity. In fact, most churchgoers equate maturity with following rules and don't know what their churches expect from them in terms of spiritual maturity.

Perhaps they don't know because many churches are not prepared to teach or encourage real spiritual growth. Much of the activity we see in churches today tends to center more on validating the status quo rather than probing, challenging "conventional wisdom" and growing spiritually.

Churchgoers defined spiritual maturity as having a relationship with Jesus, practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study, living according to the Bible, being obedient, being involved in church and having concern for others.

According to the study, even pastors struggled with defining spiritual maturity and articulated maturity in relation to what activities people did rather than by their attitudes.

I find all of these explanations of maturity inadequate. Anyone can have a relationship with Jesus, God has made it that way. However, there is a growth process involved. Anyone can practice spiritual disciplines and live according to the Bible--would that be regarded as obedient? But we do not live by every rule in the Bible. If we did, we would be stoning those committing adultery and dragging sassy adolescents into court and having them killed. How can we relate Scripture to our postmodern world when the majority of Christians do not truly investigate what it means? Most are satisfied with commentators who agree with their opinions (if they read commentaries), or are satisfied with what they've known for decades.

Anyone can be involved in the church, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are spiritually mature. Ask anyone who's been kicked out of a pew by an old "saint" who had claimed that pew long before the church was built, if everyone is spiritually mature. What about the fighting and bickering that goes on amongst congregation members? Does that reflect spiritual maturity? What about those who criticize the pastor either behind his or her back or to his or her face? Is that spiritually mature?

Having concern for others isn't adequate either. Atheists have genuine concerns for other people too.

So what makes one spiritually mature? I'm not sure. It's one of those things that you know if you see it and you definitely know if you don't see it. Most Christians are growing and one Christian's growth differs from another. Within ourselves, we may excel in one area and then completely blow it in the next. Some Christians are content to go to church on Sundays, yet do not listen to the Holy Spirit. Some hide their lack of obedience well, so defining, or more accurately, labeling someone as spiritually mature can prove difficult.

Nonetheless, I have found that the most mature Christians I know are those who show evidence of the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control) more often than not. As Henri Nouwen said, they also exhibit attributes from the Beatitudes. Spiritually mature people are obedient to the Holy Spirit, even if it means changing some habit or some undesirable aspect about themselves. Love permeates their lives.

A good indication of spiritual maturity is in Proverbs 24: 16: " ... for though (righteous people) fall seven times, they will rise again; but the wicked are overthrown by calamity (NRSV)." The righteous are resilient despite circumstances and always come back to God after they fail. I believe that this resiliency comes from a deep love for God and a desire to please him. Returning, staying faithful, love--in my book that's the mark of a spiritually mature believer.

What do you think? To respond, e-mail me at ljtdchurchnews@gmail.com, or bring in or mail a signed written response to the Tribune-Democrat. Our address is, PO Box 500, La Junta, CO 81050.

Thursday

Book Review


Jesus, the Final Days brings light to resurrection

Even though Easter is past, reading about the resurrection never gets old. In the book Jesus, the Final Days, written by Craig A. Evans and N. T. Wright and edited by Troy A. Miller, Miller has edited talks given by Evans and Wright on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

These talks are centered around historical and archaeological evidence supporting the biblical accounts found in the Gospels. They also dispel several theories that seek to dismiss the resurrection as a fable.

Though probably not for educated biblical scholars with doctorates, Jesus, the Final Days would be a great resource for pastors, Sunday school teachers and those who want an in depth background study of the resurrection accounts found in the four Gospels.

For instance, Evans, who is a Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament, director of the graduate program at Acadia Divinity College in Canada and the author of other books, describes ancient burial practices employed during the time of Christ, both for criminals and non-criminals. He writes about Passover pardons, and explores Pilate's thinking regarding the pardon of Jesus and Barabbas. What was more politically expedient? What would keep the peace? Wright writes compellingly on the authenticity of each Gospel, even though the accounts differ.

Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, has written over 40 books including extensive writings on the resurrection. Wright, who's writing style reminds one of C. S. Lewis (but easier to understand), presents the origin of Christian thinking on the resurrection. Was it from pagan sources, as some claim? Or was Christian thinking based in Jewish thought?

Wright also explores the credibility of ancient accounts. Did the ancients have as much knowledge as moderns claim to possess in this enlightened age?

Jesus, the Final Days is a great book to read during the year, rather than during the rush of the Lent and the Easter season. Pick up a copy today and keep the resurrection close to your heart all year long!

Getting a genuine makeover

Anyone who did not attend the Spring Makeover: Inside and Out retreat at the La Junta Church of the Nazarene last weekend missed a great event.

I usually do not like retreats and really have to psych myself up to go. As a person who has grown up in the church, I have had more than my share of guilt dumped upon my shoulders by well meaning people. I can look back at some retreats after which a good counseling session would have been welcome.

But this retreat was different. Not only did we have a great time in all of the workshops making body scrubs, meal plans and purses out of jeans, but the speaker was outstanding. Dr. Gay Hubbard spoke with warmth and humility. She encouraged us to keep going and to take care of ourselves because it greatly affects our spiritual lives. I wish I could tell you all of what she said, but you'll have to read it in her new book coming out later this year.

One thing she did say that I will--without guilt--incorporate into this commentary is this: The key to a good makeover, she said, is in allowing Christ to shine through us as he continues to do his work in our hearts. Christ is the one who has had the ultimate makeover. On the third day he rose from the grave with a glorified body. However, instead of getting rid of his scars, he chose to keep them.

Wow. He chose to keep his scars. In our world that is so enamored of outward beauty, the Maker of the universe and Creator of humanity chose to keep his scars. These scars must continually remind him of his suffering, but they also speak volumes about his victory. Without the resurrection, Christ's death would have been just like any other crucifixion and our faith would be in vain. Thank God it isn't!

Because of Christ's resurrection, we can hope for two things. The first is eternal life. C.S. Lewis said, "There are better things ahead than any we leave behind." That is true for both the afterlife and the life we are now living. So the second hope is that once we accept Christ, everything we are heading toward is certainly better than what we have left behind in this life. In this life we will still have troubles, sickness and heartache, but Christ stands beside us. This makes all the difference as we deal with life's tribulations.

Because of Christ, then, we can also look forward to life beyond the grave. In First Corinthians Paul quoted Isaiah and Hosea when he wrote, "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

That victory comes now and in the future--what a makeover!

Nice Words Make a Difference

Well, I finally saw "Fireproof" and I have to say that it was a terrific movie. I've never seen Kirk Cameron play someone who behaved meanly, but that's beside the point. It is a memorable movie with a great message and I would suggest giving it to the married couples on your Christmas list.

The one scene that stood out for me in the movie has been tickling my brain for a couple of weeks. I need to write about it because this is something that all of us do. Even if you haven't seen the movie you will know what I am talking about.

Do you remember the scene after Kirk Cameron tells the flirtatious doctor to stay away from his wife and a nurse is standing outside the doctor's office listening to everything? Do you remember what she did? She went right back to the nurse's station and told everybody what had happened, but when Kirk Cameron's estranged wife came up and wanted to know what they were talking about she went silent. "It's none of my business," the gossip told another nurse later.

This nurse was quick to spread news about someone to other people, but she was not willing to tell the news to the person who really mattered. If this nurse had told the wife, the movie might have been a lot shorter because the wife might have gone back to her husband.

Gossip, whether it is good news or bad news, is not right. The old adage "If you can't say something nice, don't say it at all," is good rule of thumb when talking about other people--actually talking about other people is not the best thing to do. Psychologists say that talking about other people is not a very intelligent form of conversation. Another rule of thumb might be that if you can't say something to someone directly then don't tell it to anyone else. I am not talking about seeking advice from a trusted friend about a situation, or about releasing a burden to a trusted friend. I am talking about gossip. There is a difference.

Proverbs 12:25 is sage advice when talking to other people. It says: "An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up."

We'll never know if Kirk Cameron's wife would have been encouraged by what her husband did because the nurse didn't tell her. Have you had this happen to you? Do you know someone who is going through a tough situation and needs an encouraging word? It doesn't matter if the person is in the wrong or right. When people do wrong a lot of times they just need to know that they can have another chance. Encouraging words do not need to validate an act; they are meant to give value or return it to a person.

People need encouraging words whether they are going through a difficult time or not. This does not mean that we have to be less than genuine or be sickeningly sweet. We just need to be honest and speak up if someone does something that we like or admire. It's good for them and it's good for us.

Spring is full of miracles

The older I get, the more I love spring. Spring means new life after a long winter. When I was young I didn't like spring because it reminded me that summer was coming and I am not a fan of really hot weather.

Now, I enjoy spring. Seeing the world come back to life is amazing.

The family and I were out the other day for a bike ride on Road CC west of Swink. It was getting close to sunset and there were billowy clouds to the south. Toward the west we could see the Southern Mountains. As the sun continued to go down a light haze rested over fields that were just beginning to sprout new growth.

It was a lovely evening. The birds were chirping. The breeze blew gently and it was warm enough to wear a light jacket. All of us enjoyed getting out in the fresh air.

One of my favorite things about spring is sitting in my bay window right now: seedlings. We're going to plant a garden this year so we are growing some of our own plants. I love to watch the little seedlings stretch out of the dirt, some still clinging to the hull of the seed that brought them life.

I witnessed this miracle for the first time in Michigan. We had a large garden and I enjoyed watching the plants grow and develop. The fact that one small seed could produce hundreds of green beans, melons, tomatoes or peppers is still amazing to me.

One small seed, planted in the ground quietly dies and is gloriously transformed into something bigger, better and beneficial to humanity.

In Romans 1 Paul writes, "Ever since the creation of the world (God's) invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."

When I witness the miracle of the seed, I think of this verse because what happened to the seed happened to Jesus, who died and then was placed in a tomb. Three days later he rose again into something glorious, new and better--a new covenant, a new life for those who believe, a definite benefit to humankind.

There are other lessons to learn from the garden and from nature, so perhaps I will write about those later. This lesson, however, is one of my favorites. New life, resurrection, is why we celebrate Easter. That's why we live in hope throughout the long winter and welcome spring.

Tuesday

April is a busy month

The card companies are missing out if they are not in tune with all of the religious celebrations going on this month.

As I was going over the world religion calendar, I was amazed by all of the activity that the month of April holds. There is the Theravadin New Year, Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Independence Day, the birthday of a monkey god in the Hindu religion and a commemoration of the 12-day period in which Baha'u'llah of the Baha'i religion declared that he was God's messenger.

In Christian circles, this is the month of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and, of course, Easter. Easter is the most important celebration in the Christian faith.

As one who grew up in a Protestant denomination, Easter, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas all meant celebration for me and my family. These days were also celebrated at church. Later on there was more emphasis was placed on Maundy Thursday and family communion became an important part of that day.

Because of my background, I am continually intrigued by all of the different celebrations that people of other Christian traditions celebrate on any given Sunday. To a Protestant whose church does not follow the liturgical calendar, Sunday is a day for church. To our Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world who follow liturgy, most Sundays celebrate some aspect of the life of Jesus or are a day to celebrate the life of someone who followed Jesus.

In the April calendar we see that Eastern Orthodox Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Mary and Martha's brother on "Lazarus Saturday" on the eve of Orthodox Easter. Other Christians will celebrate St. George's Day Thursday, April 23. St. George was a calvaryman who died a martyr's death at the hand of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He is associated with a knight overcoming a dragon--a symbol of victory in Christianity over paganism.

But why does this matter?

As I grow in my faith and study various Christian practices, I see that it is important for people of faith to remember that from which they came. It's all about community.

Days of remembrance are important in establishing community because those stories and experiences link us to Scripture and to fellow believers of the past. It reminds us that we are part of a big picture. When we spend time focusing on different people and events, we gain a better perspective on our own lives. We learn to cultivate traits such as courage, patience, compassion and self-control.

For example, spending time reflecting on the life of Mother Teresa might move me toward a more in-depth prayer life. Reflecting on the resurrection of Lazarus shows me that Jesus can handle any situation at any time and in every way. Thinking about the martyrdom of St. James the Great on April 30 may spur me fearlessly on toward greater works.

Celebrating different events and people, quite frankly, keeps church from becoming a dull, weekly obligation.

Common experiences also link Christians to one another. The other day I was at the Presbyterian Church Variety Show/Youth Fund raiser called "Structured Chaos." At the end of the program everyone joined in singing "Amazing Grace." When the group reached the last verse that sense of community washed over me:

When we've been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun. We've no less days to sing God's praise then when we first begun.

This common bond expressed in song between at least two, maybe even several, different denominations that were represented at the event, reminded me that we are all living the Christian life together and that someday we will be in heaven worshipping God together. Whatever petty differences there are should be laid aside as we reflect on what beliefs and traditions are common among us.

Monday

Hurting? Find comfort at "The Shack"


In a world where unexplained tragedy occurs, William Paul Young's novel "The Shack" may serve as a source of comfort. The New York Times Bestseller tells the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips, whose little daughter Missy has been abducted and brutally murdered.

In the aftermath, "Mack" questions the goodness of God and in his anger and depression begins to wonder why he should follow God.

Then, on a wintery day, Mack receives a note from God in his mailbox inviting him to meet God at the shack where Missy was killed. Mack accepts the invitation and heads back to the dreaded place not knowing what to expect. What he finds there changes him completely.

"The Shack" has been in print since 2007 and has received mixed reviews. Some readers hate it, others love it. Most of the hatred seems to be based on how the author depicts the Trinity, which goes beyond the conventional view that God is a male. Young's depiction is not modern feminist theology, however, his view echoes Scripture and what Christian writer Henri Nouwen wrote in "The Return of the Prodigal Son," that "God is both Father and Mother to us."

The question then becomes, are conventional views of the Trinity correct? Who really understands the Trinity anyway? "The Shack" definitely gives thoughtful material on the matter.


The book also addresses the question of how God communicates with people. Is God's revelation limited to Scripture? Does God still speak to his children they way he spoke to people in the Bible? "The Shack" provides hope that God has not stopped speaking; in fact, it sparks the imagination as to how God does speak to us.

Overall, "The Shack" makes God look good. The writer emphasizes several times that Jesus came in flesh. The book does not degrade the Bible in any way. "The Shack" provokes thoughtful response on the questions that people have been asking since the dawn of time: What is the nature of God? Does God speak to humanity? It also addresses the greatest question of all: Does God care for me?

Young's easy style of writing makes the book a fast read, but don't read it too fast. You'll miss out on the depth of the story.

You can find "The Shack" at The Shack

Thursday

Two Commentaries

Today, my husband Mike and I published two complementary commentaries on the religion page of the La Junta Tribune-Democrat. We thought that they might be of interest to Yahbut's readers...

The Moral Incoherance of the Obama Administration
by Mike Steeves

First, I confess that the "moral incoherence" thing is lifted from columnist Michael Gerson's recent article in the Washington Post. Gerson notes that there is "one common thread" running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: "the coercion of those who disagree with it." Gerson's article is about the manner in which the Obama administration runs roughshod over human life, relegating it to the status of what is politically convenient. Gerson notes, "It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting "politics out of science" translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation. ‘Choice’ becomes a demand on doctors and nurses to violate their deepest beliefs or face discrimination."

Obama has nominated Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. She will implement the government's policies on human embryonic stem cell research - you know, where we take "leftovers" and poke 'em and strip them of cells for research, killing them in the process. Sebelius, a practicing Catholic, maintains that "my Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred."

Pro-choice extremists House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Biden are Catholics who assert the sanctity of life while defending government-sanctioned abortion. Sebelius has been rebuked by her archbishop for this. Pelosi earned a figurative backhand from the Pope during her visit to the Vatican. Gerson writes, "this appointment seems designed to provide religious cover. It also smacks of religious humiliation - like asking a rabbi to serve the pork roast or an atheist to bless the meal."

Then we have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Prior to September 2007 Clinton was at best ambivalent about "torture" of terrorist suspects held in military facilities. Then she did a flip-flop, coming out against it. At that point neither she nor then candidate Obama had signed that American Freedom Campaign petition requesting all presidential candidates oppose torture. Obama said of Clinton, "There are folks who will shift positions and policies on all kinds of things depending on which way the wind is blowing."

Clinton's lack of a moral compass is nowhere more evident than her even more recent "flip-flop" on human rights. Long a highly vocal opponent of Chinese human rights violations, Clinton said during her recent visit to the Far East: "But our pressing on those issues can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Amnesty International expressed shock and extreme disappointment over that comment. A Washington Post's editorial was more pointed: "Hillary Rodham Clinton undercuts the State Department's own human rights reporting," in direct reference to Clinton's gushing over Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

The State Department reported on Feb. 25, "the [Egyptian] government's respect for human rights remained poor during 2008” and “serious abuses continued in many areas." It cited torture by security forces and a decline in freedom of the press, association and religion. Clinton responded with "We issue these reports on every country. We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement." The Washington Post fired back with "Ms. Clinton's words will be treasured by al-Qaeda recruiters and anti-American propagandists throughout the Middle East. She appears oblivious to how offensive such statements are to the millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak's oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up."

These are odd behaviors for some of the most senior members of the political party that ranted and raved against President Bush over Guantanamo and the so-called "torture" of terrorist suspects. Some truths are apparently not all that self-evident.


Religious beliefs provide moral compass in political mire
by Alicia Gossman-Steeves

Do religion and politics mix? Coming from a Wesleyan holiness background, my first answer is an unequivocal "yes." However, the answer is not that simple.

As an American I recognize that the founding fathers fought hard to keep religion out of politics, or government, and vice versa. Memories of extensive religious persecution in the Old Country was fresh in their minds and they did not want to repeat it in the fledgling country that they were trying to create. I'm glad they did this. How would you like to be tortured or have your head mounted on a pike just because the President happened to be Protestant or Catholic, Jewish or Muslim and you did not share his or her religious views?

There is a group in our society that fervently believes that the founding fathers were all God fearing Christians whose intent was to "found a Christian nation." A simple review of their writings shows this is not true. In fact one of our most brilliant founders, Thomas Paine, often called The Father of the American Revolution because of his authorship of Common Sense, was at once a believer in God yet a disbeliever in Christianity. Others of our founders may have feared God in a reverent way, but what they feared most were people using God to promote their own agenda and persecuting others in the process. They feared religion taking over government and government taking over religion.

As long as government, people, religion and politics exist this fear will be rational. There is nothing wrong with zeal, the apostle Paul said, as long as the purpose is good. The zeal people feel about certain agendas should never leak into government and government should not regulate certain practices. The purpose of government is to govern, or to administer the law. The role of government is not to dictate. Faith should not dictate either.

Where religious belief comes in, and where my unequivocal "yes" falls, is when faith is used as a moral compass to guide decision making and is not forced on anyone else (Notice I said "forced." There is nothing wrong with reasonable discussion.). This is where I see many of America's political leaders failing miserably on both sides.

What we need is a return to values on which the majority of people can agree. Following the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were not bad ideas for our society to follow. Incidentally, several religions incorporate these values as well and many people in our society try to incorporate these values even though they do not claim to follow Christ or Judaism. These age old values can be a moral compass, one which our society can lean upon so that everyone can live in harmony, freedom, and justice. Government should come in when people do not follow that law. Cannot people of faith lead this charge? I believe they can and should.

Tuesday

Nothing is Wrong with a Little Mystery

I enjoy good murder mysteries or intense "who done it" plots, but I don't like riddles. In philosophy I enjoy friendly debate over ethical issues and the writings of some of the major philosophers, but questions about the existence of chairs and other inanimate objects are a little too abstract for my taste.

I do not always enjoy the process of discovery like my children do when presented with a riddle. I like solid answers; they enjoy the mystery and the process of discovery.

Endless debates over issues show us that we do not have all of the answers. That's okay, a little mystery never hurt anyone.

I'm not alone in this view. French physicist and philosopher of science Bernard d'Espagnat, who recently won the Templeton Prize for religion (with a nominal purse of 1 million pounds or $1.42 million U.S.), said that "mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being." His work acknowledges that science cannot fully explain "the nature of being," according to the Associated Press.

This does not mean that science should be thrown out. d'Espagnat emphasized that, if anything, science can tell us what the nature of being is not.

The French scientist is also known for his work during the 1960s through 1980s on the development of quantum physics--another mystery I do not understand. Because of his work, d'Espagnat has surmised that the human mind "is capable of perceiving deeper realities." He is "convinced that those among our contemporaries who believe in a spiritual dimension of existence and live up to it are, when all is said, fully right."

That's very interesting. From what little I do understand, quantum physics is the study of what is going on at a sub-atomic level. According to scientists, what goes on in the sub-atomic world is very different than what goes on at our level. It would seem from his study in this area of physics, d'Espagnat understands that what we can see is very different than what we cannot see. He understands that there are different realities out there. That might help explain why I've always thought that the spiritual world is in another dimension that exists right alongside ours.

The spiritual dimension continuously crosses over into our world, we just can't see it. However, I am not thinking of Casper the Ghost flitting about, or the X-Files, or the simply "paranormal," whatever that is. I am looking at, or for, something much more than that.

Those who are a part of the spiritual dimension can see what goes on in our dimension. Perhaps this is why the writer of Hebrews can write about "a great cloud of witnesses." Maybe this is why we can believe in an invisible God and why we "feel" evidence of his spirit surrounding us at certain times.

Another interesting quote came from Physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) who said, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it."

Indeed. We can also say anyone who is not shocked by the mystery of God has not begun to seek. But just because we don't understand, does not mean that we cannot enjoy both the mystery and the process of discovery. Hmm ... I think I'll ask my kids what riddles they know.

Thursday

Why stay in church?

The percentage of people who claim to have no religion has grown from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2009, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Yet surveys also show that the majority of Americans do believe in either God, or a "universal spirit", or a "higher power."

From these findings, it seems like religion has taken a serious hit. My question is this: Do people still believe in God yet do not believe it is necessary to attend church?

According to the survey, about 12 percent of Americans believe in a higher power but not a personal God. About 1.2 percent, since 1990, have become part of non-mainstream religious movements such as Wicca, Scientology and Santeria.

The Washington Post published an article in June, 2008 citing a poll that said 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a "universal spirit."

Compared to the survey, it seems that even God has taken at least a seven percent hit since I do not know how many of the 92 percent from the Post article believe in God or in a "universal spirit."

Since I am a religion writer, trends in religion are interesting to me. I write about them because I hope that they will help area churches gain some perspective for their ministries. From my position, it is easy to analyze the numbers and try to guess why they are increasing or decreasing, but I can only speak about my own experience in the church.

When I was growing up, I had friends who did not attend church regularly even though they believed in God. I, on the other hand, was taught that if someone believed in God they went to church. I did not understand at the time that my friend's family was experiencing angst over what went on inside the church--gossip, hypocrisy, and other sinful behaviors. When this family's feelings subsided, they returned to church. They left again when they saw that nothing had changed. I would not understand this until years later when I started experiencing the same things.

Fast forward many years later and you will find a woman struggling to find a reason to stay in church. Oh, I believed in God. I loved God and still do, but I was struggling with feelings of betrayal, anger and loneliness. I think that the only reason I stayed in the church was because I knew that my children needed it. They were not experiencing the same things and had no idea that I was having these feelings.

So then we must ask why I felt that my children needed it. Can't we still believe in God without going to church? Yes, but it goes deeper than that.

Over the last two years, I have been studying spiritual formation and a huge part of proper formation has to do with the importance of community. We need each other. Like Proverbs says, "Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other," (27: 17, CEV). In other words, we are supposed to be friends to one another in the body of Christ. We are supposed to think with each other and figure out what the Scripture means together. We are supposed keep each other on the straight and narrow. We are supposed to care for each other and work through, or around, our ideological differences.

Is that happening in the church for everyone? I fear that it is not. Why else would people leave? Once someone has experienced true love in the body of Christ they will find no equal--they will not want to leave.

Look at it this way. If I, one who has been in church since the age of two and who knows the language of believers, can experience alienation, what are others feeling who have not been in the church and do not know the language of believers? Why stay when you do not feel accepted?

My theory on this is that no one can change the church from the outside. It's like two siblings picking on each other. This is tolerable for both of them, but if someone from the outside picks on one of the siblings, watch out.

Only brothers and sisters in Christ can truly point out what's wrong in the church and we need each other to make the church what it should be, what Christ meant it to be. If some through gossip or other sinful behavior defy the church's efforts to be unified, then they should be prayed for, confronted in the spirit of love and sometimes asked to leave. This business of not wanting to confront those who are not Christlike hurts the Church deeply.

Often this unwillingness is linked to finances; the church's largest donors can sometimes be the worst offenders. Sometimes these "spiritual wolves" may not have financial power, but they are politically or socially powerful because they have mastered the art of manipulation as a result of their own brokenness. These types are very destructive to not only the church as an organization but also to the church in a larger sense, as the Body of Christ; the Church Universal. Could allowing these behaviors to continue in the church be the reason the unchurched are increasing in number? After prayerful consideration, if the Spirit leads, I believe that it would be better to let these people leave rather than let these spiritual wolves feed upon the sheep of the church.

Monday

Because of God, we hope

As we are being told in the news, and by reading the newspapers, doom and despair are everywhere. Truthfully, I have heard that so much lately that my mind is becoming numb.

That is until I read a commentary by another religion writer in another newspaper. Basically, the jist of what this writer was saying is that we have no hope. The only thing we can cling to is the fact that this season, too, shall pass. He even claimed that religion offered nothing and dismissed the claim that God was in charge. He said that it was all so depressing.

Frankly, his article depressed me even more than anything the news has had to say.

What are we to do if hope in God is misplaced by hope that a season will pass? We can take courage in the fact that seasons will pass, but what if they don't? What if the discouraging situation we are facing continues for the rest of our lives?

We have to hope in something that is more solid than earthly friendships, the love of family, acts of kindness, heroism and our own integrity. The only thing I know to be more solid than any of these is God. In this, I believe that religion offers us something, because religion is a quest to find God. Where better to find God than in the midst of crisis?

What I find discouraging during this time is the fact that so-called lawmakers and government appointees can get away with evading their taxes and whatever else they are doing. The present administration is full of them. If we as ordinary citizens tried that, we would be audited and perhaps thrown in jail. Instead of owing an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah, as some preachers are fond of saying, we may one day owe an apology to Al Capone and all of the mafia types who have been jailed because they evaded their taxes.

It is the sinfulness and hypocrisy of humankind that discourages me more than anything. Here we are, made in the image of God, and we live like the devil instead.

But then, there is God. I believe that he is watching and, because of the way he has set the world up, people who do wrong will suffer consequences--either in this life or in the life to come. It's not that I wait for this with a spirit of maliciousness, thinking that I have nothing to fear. I just hope that one day God will make things right--and he will.

Of course, we do not have to wait. "Hope and change" are not based on empty political rhetoric. We can change because of God's love. Because of that, there is reason for hope.