Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the 6 week period of contemplation called Lent which leads up to Holy Week. It is supposed to be a time of introspection, prayer, self-discipline, and contemplation of all that God has done for us. Unfortunately today it has become either ignored or a time of giving up something without realizing the reason.

OK, why then give up something? It is to help us keep our focus on God. Every time we miss whatever we’ve given up, we think of God and what he gave up for us. Fasting is another word for “giving up” something. While it’s typically used with respect to food, you can fast from anything. God through the prophet described what a pleasing fast is to God (Isaiah 58:6-7, NRSV):

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

In this passage people are asked to fast from being unjust, oppressive, and selfish.

Fasting goes back to biblical times and is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. For example, one of the lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday is from the Book of Joel, and part of that reading says (Joel 1:14, NRSV):

Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD.

Fasting is often a part of confession and repentance, something that should be a part of a Lenten observance. We read in Joel 2:12-13 (NRSV):

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Fasting alone doesn’t accomplish much, but when it is part of a regimen of prayer, meditating of things of God, or seeking direction for your life, then fasting has more meaning. Even Jesus fasted, not because he had to repent, but it was a way he prepared for his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2, NRSV

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

Jesus’ fast strengthened him spiritually so that he was prepared for any temptations that came his way (and they did), was ready for his public ministry, and could face the trials that would come his way.

Sadly, today we often focus more on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday than on Lent itself. Mardi Gras is become a bacchanalia rather than a day of preparation for Lent. I guess it’s “one last fling” before the self-sacrifice of Lent. It goes back to the days when Roman Catholic observance of Lent involved many meatless days and more fasting than we see today. The aspect of meatless days is in the term Mardi Gras (“fat Tuesday” in French), meaning no more fat (meat) for 6 weeks. In many parts of the world, the pre-lenten celebration is called “carnival.” Carnival has its roots in the Latin carne vale, meaning “good-bye to meat.”

As happens with so many things today, the religious significance of Lent is forgotten and we focus more on Mardi Gras than on the self-discipline that should follow. I suggest that you take this time of Lent to grow closer to God and seek his plan for your life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

MTA Symptomatic of Nation’s Ills

I read a column in the Saturday, Feb. 13 edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal by John Rolfe. It was on the first page of section B and is also probably on the PJ website. You may want to read it. He made some points that I’d like to expand upon.

He said the financial problems of the New York MTA mirror the attitude of this country in general. Buy now, pay later. Take on more debt than you could possibly repay. Spend and tax (or raise prices).

We see this kind of mentality everywhere. For example:

People took out home mortgages that were impossible to repay, with banks making these loans with backing from Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae. This foolishness precipitated the near financial collapse of 2008-2009.

Consumer debt is ridiculously high, with credit card debt at a level that could jeopardize our financial system. I can see the possibility of massive defaults on consumer debt, which would precipitate another financial crisis. Consumers have run up this debt with abandon. I think some people don’t actually realize they have to pay this back to the credit card companies!

We see governments at all levels incapable of reducing spending. Outlays on pet projects and for special interests remain, so taxes go up 10-15%, adding extra burdens to people who haven’t seen a raise in years. How much can we take?

Similarly, school districts don’t know how to cut expenses either. They threaten to and actually do eliminate educational programs and lay off teachers, while keeping expensive sport and extra-curricular programs. Isn’t a school’s core mission to educate? Again, they raise school taxes rather than cut costs, and charge fees for these extra-curricular programs and sports.

Of course the MTA is the poster child for mismanagement, fraud, waste, and profligate spending. The above-cited article mentioned that two MTA mechanics made $200,000 a year in overtime in addition to their base salary! How could that be possible? I blame staff incompetence, lack of controls, poor oversight, and management that doesn’t care (but makes the big bucks plus perks).

Not only should we individuals clean up our act and act wisely, but we must demand better fiscal management by our governments at all levels and school districts. They can’t go on raising taxes like this. That why we’re having TEA (Taxed Enough Already) parties – people are fed up. Enough is enough!

I mention these because I don’t believe God created us to live beyond our means, to have to pay oppressive taxes, or to be ripped off by the MTA. When materialism becomes our god and accumulation of stuff our main goal in life, we are pretty shallow. These will not fulfill or satisfy, plus it is idolatry. Jesus came so that we could have life, and have it abundantly. That doesn’t mean material abundance, but spiritual abundance, which truly satisfies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

With Kindness and Gentleness

I read something in one of my daily devotionals today about sharing the Gospel with others. It said that we are called to be bearers of truth, not enforcers of faith. I thought that was a good point because some Christians are disrespecting when trying to share their faith. You must be kind and gentle, respecting the person even if you don’t agree with his or her beliefs.

If you come across as obnoxious and a spiritual know-it-all, you have accomplished nothing except to alienate the person. Many people don’t understand why Christians share their faith with them – it is a foreign concept to many. However, we Christians are called by Jesus to do so, but we must do it properly. Remember, it is the Holy Spirit, not you, who will move a person.

Speaking of being a faith enforcer, I’ve seen Christians who are hostile to other Christians who don’t believe exactly the way they do. They feel their brand of Christianity is the only way – all others are seriously lacking. I think it is terrible when a person tries to “convert” a fellow believer to his particular kind of faith. People are at different stages of their faith walk and come from different traditions. Yet people practically come to blows over immersion vs. sprinkling, tongues, eschatology, baptism in the Spirit, and styles of worship.

What’s really important is this statement of faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Coming Out

Sometimes you get a diagnosis that doesn’t particularly please you. Often you have to live with it for a while before you can begin talking about it with others outside of your immediate circle. Until you have to come to fully accept the inevitable, you are “in the closet” with your disease. Eventually, however, you have to come out and share the news with others such as extended family, co-workers, friends, etc.

About two and a half years ago I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I didn’t tell anyone but my wife for most of that time. Why? I assume it was because I had to come to grips with this disability before I could be comfortable talking about it. I was also afraid that people would stare, looking for tremors and other signs of the disease.

The good news is that this disease came later in life, it’s still early stage, and the symptoms can be controlled with relatively small doses of medicine for now. Also it is affecting only one side of my body, and it’s not affecting my dominant side. It could be a lot worse.

This Sunday I “came out” to my congregation and shared my diagnosis. I feel better now, not because it was some deep, dark secret to be ashamed of, but because now I have many more people supporting me through prayer and emotional support. I should have revealed my malady sooner, but I just wasn’t ready.

I would appreciate your prayers, and also please support those who have a disease that isn’t going away, such as Parkinson’s, MS, spina bifida, Tourette’s, ALS, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and some forms of cancer, to name a few. Many of these diseases mean lifestyle changes, limitations, and other symptoms you’d rather not have to deal with. I now have a new appreciation regarding what people with disabilities have to live with. But I know with God’s help I, and other like me, will be able to cope. The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11b, 13: For I have learned to be content with whatever I have... I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (NRSV) Do you believe you can do all things thru him who strengthens you?

God, through the Apostle Paul also wrote in Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (NRSV) Do you have the peace that surpasses all understanding?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Two Inch Lego Gun

Below is a news item I want to comment on (from

A tiny toy led to big trouble for one fourth-grade New York City boy.

Patrick Timoney, a 9-year-old student at PS 52 in Staten Island, N.Y., was in the school cafeteria Tuesday playing with LEGOs when he was taken to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension. One of his toys was a LEGO policeman that holds a 2-inch plastic gun. The school has a no-tolerance policy when it comes to toy guns. “[The gun] was so little,” the boy told WNBC. “I wouldn’t really think that the principal would cause a lot of commotion just for a little gun.”

The boy’s mother, Laura Timoney, 44, was fuming over the issue. “You don’t traumatize a child who loved to go to school, who wanted to be early every day to school, you don’t make him cry, you don’t make him fill out statements,” she told WNBC, holding back tears. “You don’t do it.”

Pat Timoney, the boy’s father and a retired police officer, was also upset, saying that he’s dealt with people who use imitation weapons as a way to threaten others and commit crimes, and that this situation is different, considering the pinky-size gun in question. (© 2010 MSNBC Interactive)

I know that being a teacher and school administrator aren’t easy jobs, and there are various rules and policies you need to follow. But a little judgment and discretion are in order. To traumatize a fourth grader for bringing a tiny plastic toy gun to school is ridiculous. It reminds me of the school that had a second grader arrested for sexual harassment because he kissed a little girl on the cheek. What nonsense! That kid is probably still in therapy.

When you are the principal of a school, you are in a leadership position. You are supposed to USE YOUR HEAD! You have to remember you have multiple constituents: the kids, the parents, the staff, the school board and the community in general. In my opinion this principal let down the kids, the parents, and the community. The teacher who brought the kid to the principal should be disciplined because he or she used terrible judgment (or maybe no judgment). To avoid this whole mess, that teacher could have leaned over and quietly said to the boy something like this:

“Pat, could you please put that toy gun in your pocket until you go home? You see, we really don’t like toy guns of any size in the school. Thanks.”

But no, this unthinking and uncaring teacher brought shame to that school and put the principal in a difficult position. It’s a shame that some people are so legalistic and unthinking that they lack grace and discretion. Whenever you’re put in a difficult position, say a quick prayer for guidance, consider the ramifications of each of the various options, and then do what you believe to be the right thing. I’m not saying to ignore rules and policies, but I am saying you should apply them appropriately. Don’t be an unthinking and uncaring robot like that teacher.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Misguided Missionaries – Part 2

Below is some additional information that has come out regarding the leader of the missionary group who tried to transport Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic (from

PORT-AU-PRINCE - The leader of a group of American missionaries charged Thursday with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti faces legal troubles in her home state of Idaho as well.

Laura Silsby, 40, is the subject of several lawsuits accusing her and her Boise-based company,, of failing to pay her employees. She also has a history of failing to pay debts, and the $358,000 house at which she founded her nonprofit religious group, New Life Children's Refuge, was foreclosed upon in December, according to a report in her hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman.

The Boise newspaper said Silsby has been named in at least eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims. (© 2010 MSNBC Interactive)

It appears this is a very misguided woman and is certainly not following biblical principles in her dealings. If you are going to “do good” you should do it properly, honestly, and legally, so as to bring glory to God, not shame. Since people tend to paint with a very broad brush, some will assume all Christian workers and missionaries are suspect. This woman has done damage to the cause of Christ and should be ashamed.

Of course I can’t judge why she has such a bad track record. It may be total incompetence, it may be mental illness, or it may be a sense that the end justifies the means no matter who gets hurt. I don’t know, but please pray for and support those who are laboring tirelessly to help the impoverished, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed around the world.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Misguided Missionaries

One of the purposes of this blog is to comment on news items, trying to put them into perspective. A news item I want to comment on is the story of a group of missionaries who tried to transport some Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. They were stopped at the border because they didn’t have the proper documentation, and ended up in a Haitian jail accused of child trafficking.

So what happened? I don’t know if anybody knows for sure, but apparently those missionaries were trying to rescue these kids and place them in an orphanage in the DR. But why didn’t they have the proper documentation? Several possibilities come to mind:

They may have just been ignorant of the process, which is fairly involved. If they didn’t have anybody with them who knows the language, then they were essentially helpless. Moral: know what you’re doing, get somebody who knows the system to help you, know the language.

They may have been tricked by a scam artist who claimed to be helping them get the necessary paperwork but wasn’t. Same moral as above.

They may have been naïve and assumed they could take these kids across the border, especially since it was still on the island of Hispaniola. Same moral as above.

The other possibility is that they may have been overly zealous to help these kids, and they didn’t use common sense and good judgment. They may have felt the end justifies the means. We as Christians are to obey civil authorities, and civil disobedience should be only against unfair, dangerous, or oppressive laws (Nazi persecution of the Jews comes to mind). If a Christian is to do something, it must be done legally, correctly, and in a way that brings glory to God, not shame.

I can’t judge what happened in this case, so I’ll keep an open mind until all the facts have been presented. But hopefully the foregoing discussion will help you in your efforts to do the right thing.