Back at the first of June we obtained one, female German Shepherd puppy. Needless to say, our summer has been busy, but limited. Puppies are a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. One of the things I’ve noticed about her is that she doesn’t care to be outside in the heat of day. Summers in Iowa are not renown for intense heat and humidity, but we have had several days of 100 degree heat indexes. On those days she immediately seeks shade when outdoors.
Shade is something that makes summer what it is. It is a place where we find rest from the heat of the noonday sun. There are times when we have to be in the sun, but its nice to have some shade available.
There isn’t really much about shade in the Bible, but recently I’ve been thinking of the story of the Exodus. When God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he provided his presence and guidance through the form of a cloud. The fleeing children simply had to keep an eye on the cloud to know the path to the land of promise. Interestingly enough, the same thing that provide them with guidance also provided them comfort, for those who followed the cloud walked in its shade.
The same thing is true today. Following God provides some marvelous benefits, including his comfort. The more closely we walk with God, the more we sense his comfort. The Psalmist understood this principle far before I did. Psalm 121:5-8 says, “The Lord watches over you–the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm–he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forever more.”
So next time you see a park bench under a shade tree, remember that the Lord is your spiritual shade, provide rest and refreshment from the noonday sun.
Barna Research has released it’s latest report, focused on the top 50 most generous cities in America. I am not surprised to find Des Moines/Ames ranks number seven on the list. The report shares two interesting insights from their findings.
First, four of the top five cities have a larger “downscale” population than an “upscale” population. Downscale is defined as those with a gross income of less than $20,000 per year who do not hold a college degree. Upscale is define as those with a gross income in excess of $75,000 who hold a college degree. This affirms what data has claimed for some time: wealth does not have a direct impact on generosity.
The second observation is that the majority of donations among the top 50 communities are directed toward churches and religious institutions. This insight is interesting to me given the general feeling that churches are continuing to cleave along the lines of the haves and have nots.
If you would like to read the full report or see the top 50 list in its entirety, you can find it at www.barna.org.
For the past five weeks I’ve been teaching on the Fruit of the Spirit, found in Galatians 5:22-23. There are a variety of opinions on how the Holy Spirit develops this fruit in our lives. I’ve settled on the concept that the Fruit of the Spirit develops in progression.
For example, the first one in the list is love. That fruit is the baseline for all that follows. We begin by developing the fruit of love, and when that is in place, we then have access to the fruit of joy. Love plus joy yields peace, and upon those three we can then move toward patience. Once I have a handle on patience, I can then demonstrate kindness, followed by goodness, and so forth.
To understand it in reverse, you’ll never find a kind person who is not loving, or a person at peace who doesn’t have a measure of joy.
Because fruit is singular, we need to embrace the whole, not just the individual virtues listed by Paul. My grocery store has a salad bar that includes a large assortment of fresh fruit. I’m interested in the berries and the pineapple, but will always pass on fruit like kiwi. The Fruit of the Spirit doesn’t work that way. We can’t pick and choose joy and peace to the exclusion of patience and faithfulness. We begin with love and add to it one by one until we arrive at the final trait, self control.
If you want to evaluate your Christian maturity, don’t assess your gifts. Don’t bother to measure your ministry involvement. If you want to evaluate your maturity inspect your fruit! Tomorrow I’m beginning a new sermon series from Galatians 5:22-23, on The Fruit of the Spirit. I hope to share some thoughts throughout this series here on my blog!
Here’s the poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that I recently shared at the Memorial Service of a member of our congregation. It’s titled, “Two Kinds of People.”
“There are two kinds of people on earth today,
Two kinds of people no more I say.
Not the good or the bad, for it’s well understood,
The good are half bad, the bad are half good.
Not the happy or sad, for in the swift-flying years,
Bring each man his laughter, each man his tears.
Not the rich or the poor, for to count a man’s wealth,
You must know the state of his conscience and health.
Not the humble and proud, for in life’s busy span,
Who puts on vain airs is not counted a man.
No! the two kinds of people on earth I mean,
Are the people who lift, the people who lean.
Wherever you go you’ll find the world’s masses
Are ever divided into these two classes.
And, strangely enough, you will find, too, I mean,
There is only one lifter to twenty who lean.
In which class are you? Are you easing the load
Of the overtaxed lifters who toiled down the road?
Or are you a leaner who lets others bear,
Your portion of worry and labor and care?”
Here’s to a great day of living as a lifter!
“In his Pulitzer Prize winning book on leadership, James McGregor Burns offers advice to those faced with this dilemma: “No matter how strong the yearning for unanimity…(leaders) must settle for far less than universal affection… They must accept conflict. They must be willing an able to be unloved. The recognition that they will not be universally loved despite their best efforts may trouble leaders initially; however, once they come to accept that truth, it can be quite liberating.”
–from Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work, by Richard DuFour and Rebecca DuFour
Each of us have experienced the pain that comes into our hearts when someone we love passes from this life. We are too familiar with the experience of mourning: black clothes and black cars; hushed voices that whisper in solemn tones; flowers whose brilliant colors are drained as we view them through an endless flow of tears. It is hard to let go and hard to say goodbye.
The school bus drives down the street but no longer stops in front of the house.
Rush hour traffic dwindles into twilight, yet no car arrives in the driveway.
Busy feet rush through the back door, yet there is no kiss of welcome.
And worst of all, there’s an empty place at the table.
Death brings questions. We should not be surprised that there were questions raised surrounding the death of Jesus. Three such questions were offered at the dawn of the first Easter.
The first question was “Who will roll away the stone?” (Mark 16:3)
In rural areas of the country, many country folk have a simple tradition. One the calendar its called Memorial Day. But for an older, more agrarian culture its called Decoration Day. It’s a time when people got to modest cemeteries and place flowers on the headstones of friends and family. Those marble monuments, tombstones we call them, stand on bright green grass, freshly awakened from winter’s sleep. To the right, there is a stone that marks the separation of a husband and wife. To the left, a stone that marks the separation of a parent and child. Across the well measured row stands another that marks the separation of a friend who took the time to share the joys and sorrows of life.
When the body of Jesus was taken down, it was laid in a borrowed tomb. A stone was rolled across the entrance, symbolizing the separation of our Savior from his family and followers. As the women prepared to make their way to the garden tomb, they were well aware that a stone of separation would block the way. “Who will roll away the stone,” they asked?
And it’s a fair question for us even today. Who will roll away the stone, and end this great enemy of life? Is there anyone who can roll away the stone?
The second question offered was “Why seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:6)
Imagine that! The body of Jesus was missing! He had told them he would rise again, yet in their grief they are not thinking of the promises of God. They’re thinking of their present problem. A graveyard seems like an illogical place to look for life. It is a place representing the mortality of our lives. But if you pause and think for a moment, isn’t that exactly what so many are doing today?
Some seek meaning in life through relationships or in other people. Some seek purpose from obtaining a promotion or a position of prominence. Others seek life by obtaining possessions or acquiring enough wealth to secure their futures. For others still, life is best found through pleasure or some new experience.
Trying to find the meaning and purpose of life among these things is like seeking the living among the dead. It’s like sticking a plug into a dead outlet. It looks good, but there is no power. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. The problem is, they never were intended to deliver what we hope they will. We find ourselves bored and disappointed when they don’t deliver, and then it’s on to the next thing.
The final question was “Why are you weeping?” (John 20:11-13)
It’s interesting that this question was not asked on Friday.
On Good Friday, Jesus was
On Friday, it appeared as though all was lost. On Friday, there was bad news. There was suffering, death, sorrow and fear. Friday was the day for tears.
But the good news of Easter is that Jesus only needed the tomb for the weekend!
On the first day of the week, the one who laid his life down willingly took it back up again and rose victorious over sin, death and the grave! Jesus died our death so we could live his life forevermore!
Who will roll away the stone? God rolled away the stone, not so that Jesus could get out, but that the world could see in. That stone of separation was moved so that we would come to understand that our earthly separations are not final. They’re only temporary.
But what about the other questions? Are you seeking life among things that were never designed to deliver it? It’s always easier to see it in someone else that in ourselves.
Why are you weeping? We may weep in this life, but we do not weep as those who have no hope.
I recently received my copy of the National Congregations Study due to my participation in the process. The NCS was directed by Mark Chaves, Professor of Sociology, Religious Studies, and Divinity at Duke University. The study gathered information from 3,185 congregations from across the religious spectrum. What follows are some of the important results from the research.
1. The number of congregations claiming no denominational affiliation increased from 18% in 1998 to 24% in 2012.
2. White mainline congregations, and the people in those congregations, are older than the congregations and people of other religious traditions.
3. Most congregations are small but most people are in large congregations. The average congregation is getting smaller, but the average church goer attends a larger congregation.
4. People in smaller congregations give more money to their churches than do people in larger congregations.
5. Worship services have become more informal and expressive.
6. 10% of church goers worship in a multi-site congregation.
7. American solo or senior pastoral leaders are more ethnically diverse and older, but not more female than they were in 1998.
8.Food assistance is by far the most common kind of social service actively pursued by congregations, with more than half listing food assistance among their four most important social service programs.
9. 13% of all congregations are led by a volunteer solo or senior pastor.
10. Women could, in principle, serve as a senior or solo pastoral leaders in 58% of American congregations. However, only 11% of those same congregations have a woman serving as a solo or senior pastor.
What do you think? Any surprises?
For years I had thought of compassion as a feeling or attitude toward someone who was in a difficult if not reversible situation. As I observed the person’s plight, I could easily be moved to feel something sympathetic. If you were to ask me if I thought I was a compassionate person, without hesitation I would have said, “Of course.”
As I have matured through the years I have learned that compassion is a word that calls us to act, not just feel. This is clearly exemplified in Jesus’ healing of the leper in Matthew 8:1-4.
Lepers in Jesus’ day were societal and spiritual outcasts. Because they were regarded as contagious, Levitical law required them to tear their clothes, cover their mouths, and declare themselves “unclean” to any non afflicted person who may be near. They were required to abandon family and friends and live in colonies outside of the community. Because they were ceremonially unclean they were forbidden to participate in worship or attend synagogue. The Bible doesn’t say how long this particular leper had been sick. One wonders how many birthday parties or little league baseball games he had missed.
In his desperation he approached Jesus for help. Jesus’ response chronicles what true compassion looks like. First, Jesus touched the untouchable. Verse 8:3 states that Jesus “reached out his hand and touched the man.” Who knows how long it had been since he had been touched by anyone? Then, Jesus worked to resolve the present problem by alleviating his suffering through healing his disease. One would think that would have been sufficient. But Jesus took one more step. He recaptured his future potential by restoring him to society and faith. He instructed the cleansed man to show himself to the priest in order to be declared clean.
I’m sure Jesus felt sympathy and care for the leper. More than that he behaved compassionately. In order for us to live compassionately we have to begin with Jesus’ example. We have to be willing to touch the untouchable, resolve the present problems by alleviating suffering, and help recapture their future potential. That is a workable strategy on any scale.
Yesterday I posted three observations about the Magi’s visit to the Christ child that reminded me of Jesus’ mission and subsequently our mission on Earth. But there’s a fourth reality in the story. This is the part we seldom discuss. It’s a good news/bad news reality. Because the gospel is good news, I’ll begin with the bad.
Darkness will always work to oppose light (Matthew 2:16-18).
In an unanticipated turn of events, Herod becomes enraged that he has been deceived, resulting in his murder of all male children under the age of two in the region in order to eliminate the potential threat of a rival king. It was an evil act of brutality. He didn’t want light, so he sought to extinguish it.
Here’s the bad news. The “spirit of Herod” will always be at work in our world to oppose light. It’s a unilateral reality that dates back to the beginning of time.
From Cain and Abel, to Daniel in the Lion’s Den, to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, to Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other, to The Apostles in the book of Acts, to the year 2016.
Anytime a person or a congregation begins to have Great Commission conversations, Satan will take notice and flex his muscles. Anytime we have a renewed commitment to reaching our community and serving our world, all hell, literally, will break loose. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we can be affirmed that we are being guided on the right path! I believe Satan could care less about much of what goes on in today’s American Church. But when the Church begins to discuss mission and vision and start having Great Commission conversations, that church can plan on a counter attack. His attacks are a sign that we are pursuing worthy goals.
So what are we to do with this fourth reality? We can shrink from it, opting for quiet co-existence in the world, or we can work in the midst of satanic oppression and shine the light by centering people on Christ.
Who are you lighting the way to life and centering on Christ in 2016?
Who do you know living in darkness that needs help finding the way to life?
“You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:14-16, NLT).