Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Give Thanks (with a Grateful Heart) – Part 2

I’m exploring the issue of being thankful in light of what the Bible tells us. I’m hoping that by doing so, Thanksgiving Day this year might be a little more meaningful for you and your family. This is the second of two posts on the topic of thankfulness.

IV. Your Life Is an Offering

Although most people are not working in full time ministry, they can still live out their faith in their everyday lives. We, if we are people of faith, should make our lives an offering to the Lord.

1. Show Thanks by Serving God

How do we do that? We make our lives an offering by serving God out of gratitude for all that God has done for us. We should also do it out of love for God. Because we want to know, love, and serve God, we join the church at some point in our life.

When we join Christ’s community of grateful believers in the United Methodist Church, we make certain commitments by answering in the affirmative to these questions:
As a member of Christ’s universal Church, will you be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church, and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries?
As a member of this congregation, will you faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?

Let’s look briefly at each of these because they are the key components of the Christian life:

a. Prayers

“Your Prayers” means you’ll support the work of the church by praying for the church every day. It also means we’ll pray for each other – that’s why we have the prayer time in the service – so we know how to pray during the week. Praying for each other during the week keeps us spiritually connected to each other and to God.

b. Presence

“Your Presence” means you’ll regularly attend worship, joining the community of believers as we have been commanded to do. No only is God worthy of your regular attendance at worship, but you will be blessed as well.

c. Gifts

“Your Gifts” refers to supporting the work of the church financially by your regular offerings. Offerings are given as a sign of our appreciation for God’s provision by giving back to God some of what he has entrusted to us. Giving is a spiritual discipline just as much as prayer, worship, Bible study, and serving in various ministries.

d. Service

“Your Service” refers to participating in the ministries of the church. We need to have various ministries and people participating in them, so that the church becomes a vibrant community of faith.

e. Witness

“Your Witness” refers to telling others about Jesus and inviting them to church if they don’t currently have one. In a broader sense, your witness also means you live your life in such a manner as to bring glory to God in all that you do. People should see your life and think, “I want what she has.”

I encourage you to prayerfully look at each aspect of your commitment: your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. Regarding your gifts, the best way to do that is to look at your giving as a percent of your income.

2. Look at Percent of Income

If your giving is one or two percent of your income, that’s not showing much gratitude to God. If you are giving five or so percent, that’s not bad but falls short of the biblical standard. Hopefully you are working your way up to 10%, which is what the Bible says is the preferred percentage. If you think 10% is a lot, think of what you pay in taxes: federal, state, and social security taxes amount to something over 30% of your income. Want to reduce those taxes? Your offerings are tax deductible if you itemize.

a. God’s Provision of Transportation

As you increase your percentage giving each year, you’ll notice that you are being more and more blessed by God. For example, as Sue and I increased our percent giving over the years, we saw God’s blessings in a number of ways.

One way was God’s provision of cars to us, which was important because I used to put on about 30,000 miles per year with my daily commute. God is so generous that once we even got a free car! When Sue’s Aunt Doris decided to give up driving, she gave Sue her car with only 8,000 miles on it. Not only was the car free, but Sue drove it for many years, and it is still on the road with its new owner.

One day in 1989 I noticed a blue Pontiac Grand Am parked on the front lawn of a house with a “For Sale” sign on it. After seeing that car still there after a week or two, and knowing that my car would need to be replaced soon, I stopped in. I believe God directed me to this guy, who became my source of four reasonably-priced cars over a 10 yr period. Buying these used cars in a private deal saved us a lot of money.

When I bought my last car from him, the red Grand Prix I had up until 2 years ago, he showed me what he had just bought as his next car. It was a bright red Corvette. He said, “Here’s your next car!” I said, “I don’t think so.” So the moral of the story is: increase your giving and watch how God will bless you – perhaps in unexpected ways.

V. Conclusion

I think the bottom line is that Christianity isn’t a religion, but a relationship. It isn’t an add-on to your life, but it is a way of life. Christianity is counter-cultural in that we no longer have the world’s priorities but we have God’s priorities. As transformed people we have the mind of Christ, was we read in Philippians 2:3-5:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. NRSV

If you are living that way, I hope this is an encouragement to you – that you are living as God wants you to live. Then you also know that because you are generous and are thankful to God, you are constantly refreshed with God’s joy. Hopefully you will continue to live a life pleasing to God, serving his church through your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. May our lives be a sweet-smelling offering to the Lord.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remembering JFK

Today is Nov. 22, and this date calls to mind Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin. I vividly remember most of the events of those days, starting with the news the President had been shot, and concluding with the funeral early the following week. No matter what your politics, it was a dark day for this country. Five years later we had more assassinations: Jack’s brother Robert F. Kennedy, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More dark days, and I think the many terrible events of 1968 and following set this country on a path that led to more discontent and mistrust of authority, especially of governmental authority.

Today we are facing discontent, as we see from the Occupy movement. College campuses are erupting in demonstrations as well, and the middle class is feeling the financial crunch. Moreover, it seems the poor are getting poorer, and college kids graduate with huge debts to repay. The failure of the so-called “Super Committee” to come to an agreement regarding reducing the federal deficit brings out even more discontent and mistrust of government. Essentially what we have is a non-functioning Congress, that even as a crisis approaches can’t compromise. Haven’t they heard the saying, “Politics is the art of compromise?”

What should our politicians do?

-Close tax loopholes for individuals and corporations so there is a little more fairness while not penalizing people for being successful (as other countries often do).

-Eliminate costly weapons systems that are of questionable value in this post-Cold War era, and focus on the basic weapons needed for today’s conflicts.

-Eliminate subsidies or tax breaks for special interests, whether they be companies, the arts, or other non-essential things.

-Government at all levels should narrow its focus to what government does best or what are government’s main functions: education, police, fire, roads, infrastructure, defense, consumer protection, etc. Just as the European countries will have to reduce their “womb to tomb” social benefits, our government will have to stop subsidizing or paying for non-essential things, beneficial as they may seem.

As people of faith, we must pray for our country daily. I fear for the future of the United States given the mess we’re in and the even bigger mess coming down the pike. Discontent can lead to ugly riots, crime, and even anarchy. Just look at what’s happening overseas in such places as Egypt, Greece, etc. We, of course, must put our faith in God, not in government, but we should pray that God will direct our representatives and senators to make the tough decisions for the good of the nation.

And by the way, we should stop trying to eliminate God from our society, and remember that the holiday coming up is called “Christmas”, not “Holiday.” How do we expect God to bless this country when God isn’t even a part of our life, except as an expletive? So choose this day whom you will trust, God or government.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Give Thanks (with a Grateful Heart) – Part 1

I. Introduction

Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a day set aside for us to think of our many blessings and be thankful. Although the meaning of the holiday may seem obvious, Thanksgiving Day can raise a question or two for some people: One question is, why should I give thanks when things aren’t going particularly well? “What have I got to be thankful for these days?” Another question might be, to whom are we supposed to give thanks?

I’d like to explore this issue of being thankful in light of what the Bible tells us. I’m hoping that by doing so, Thanksgiving Day this year might be a little more meaningful for you and your family. This is the first of two posts on the subject of being thankful.

II. Why Give Thanks?

Let’s look at the first question, “Why should I give thanks? What have I got to be thankful for these days?” You might be asking that question:
-if you have lost your job or think you are about to lose it;
-if you have lost a loved one or someone you care about is very sick;
-if you have health, family, or other problems that are wearing you down;
-if you have an incurable disease or some kind of chronic condition; or
-if you are worried about the future because of the bad economy.

So why should we give thanks when there are so many things that aren’t going well, or the future is questionable?

1. Give Thanks in All Circumstances

One reason we should give thanks, even when we may not feel like it, is because the Bible says we should (in 1 Thessalonians 5:15b-18):
Always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. NRSV

This was written by the Apostle Paul, who, as you see in the Book of Acts, didn’t exactly have an easy life.

2. Learn to Be Content

The second reason we should be able to give thanks is because we have learned to be content despite problems, something easier said than done. We can’t do that in our own strength, so God helps us to do so as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11-13:
For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. NRSV

Similarly, we read in Hebrews 13:5-6a about being content and trusting God to get us through any difficulties we might be facing:
Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [God] has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. NRSV

It’s difficult to be content when the future seems to be so uncertain, yet trusting in God’s provision will ease our worries and give us confidence. Jesus gave us this wise advice about our priorities and worrying (in Matthew 6:33-34):
“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.” NRSV

3. It Could Be Worse

Another reason we should be thankful despite our fears and worries is that compared with most of the rest of the world, we’re doing pretty well. Many parts of the world have inadequate drinking water, a very limited diet, the constant threat of attack, terrible diseases, and oppressive governments. Even Europe is going through a period of severe financial distress. On a personal level, we aren’t doing so badly when compared to others we know or hear about, such as those:
-Suffering from a serious illness;
-Suffering from severe injuries;
-Suffering with the recent loss of a loved one;
-Dealing with difficult family or relational issues; or
-Having significant financial issues.

Think about those Pilgrims who had the first Thanksgiving, and what they had gone through. They lost many of their own during a very tough winter, yet the surviving Pilgrims still gave thanks for what they did have.

III. Whom Should We Thank?

The second question might be, “Whom are we supposed to thank?

1. Original Thanksgiving Distorted

I think most children today are told in school that the Pilgrims threw a party as a way of thanking the local Indians for helping them survive. Without a doubt the Indians were invited to the Thanksgiving dinner in appreciation for their help. But the reason for the dinner was to thank God for his provision. While Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, people of faith should not lose sight of whom we should be thanking.

2. God Is Our Source

You might ask, “Why should I thank God? I work hard to earn a living.” We thank God because God is our ultimate provider. We may work hard to earn a living, but it is God who gave us that job. A farmer may plant the seeds, but it is God who provides the sun and rain so the crops can grow.

God may not give us everything we want, but God is with us and will take care of us. We will still go through some tough times, but God helps us through them.

More on the topic of giving thanks in a future post.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Penn State Scandal

It’s a shame that Joe Paterno’s career had to end so disgracefully. When the story broke about this sex scandal involving young boys, I immediately thought of the Catholic Church’s problems with priests sexually abusing young boys. What makes these things so bad is not only the crime itself, preying on innocent children, but the cover-up by those who should have known better. Because of the sinful nature of humankind, we have to realize that organizations can’t police themselves and can’t be counted on to root out the bad elements.

We have high medical malpractice insurance because the medical profession couldn’t police itself, and people needlessly died or had their lives ruined by incompetent doctors.

We had the terrible situation with the pedophile priests because even the church couldn’t police itself, but continued to pass these predators on to another parish and a fresh new batch of victims.

We have incompetent practitioners in many different fields because they can’t police themselves, or union rules make it nearly impossible to eliminate them (such as teachers).

I think the mentality is often one or both of the following within professions:

(1) People are hesitant to punish or remove incompetent practitioners or those doing bad things, thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.” They identify too closely with them because they are one of them.

(2) It’s all about protecting the institution, whether it’s Penn State or the Catholic Church. Sometimes it’s protecting your buddies, such as the wall of silence with the police or failure to report crimes in the military.

Sadly, people don’t think of the victims:
-Children who are scarred for life by sexual abuse;
-Children who aren’t getting a quality education because incompetent teachers can’t be removed thanks to the union;
-Patients who die or are harmed by incompetent doctors and surgeons like the one recently fired from a practice in Poughkeepsie recently.

Because of the sin nature of the human race, we need to have laws, regulations, and outside agencies watching over companies, institutions, or professions. Left to our own devices with little or no oversight, we’ll do it wrong much of the time.

Let’s keep the victims of abuse in our prayers, and let none of us hesitate to tell authorities if we find out that a child is being abused.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Government Responsibility

In an earlier post I wrote about the lack of corporate responsibility to many of its constituents, such as customers, their employees, etc. The government “of the people, by the people and for the people” has become the government of the special interests, by incompetent politicians, and for the party. Nowhere do “the people” fit into governmental priorities these days. The politicians are answerable to, and should be working on behalf of those whom they represent. Instead, their priorities are elsewhere: the party, special interests, and ideology.

They throw crumbs to their home districts or states through earmarks, which are often a colossal waste of money (think bridge to nowhere). Their districts and states would be much better off if these politicians just did their job and forgot about wasteful earmarks.

Sadly, congress and statehouses are so divided ideologically that they’ve lost the ability to compromise. The main goal of politicians these days is to work towards achieving or maintaining a majority position for their party so they can stay in power. Yet what’s the point of being in power if you accomplish nothing?

Government was established by God for the good of people: keeping order, defending against enemies, etc. The Founding Fathers of this country established a government that was supposed to be limited in power, that guaranteed certain rights to the citizens, and that worked on behalf of the people. We’ve lost that vision and must get it back so that “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Vietnam Memories

I recently saw the Vietnam-era movie “Full Metal Jacket” on TV, and it brought back memories of my basic training experience. Although the training in FMJ was Marine boot camp at Parris Island, it was almost identical to my Army experience at Fort Dix, NJ. I went through basic at the same time as portrayed in the movie, which was 1967-1968 timeframe. By the way, a young Vincent D’onofrio (Law and Order) is a key player in the first part of the movie.

Although my basic training took place over 40 years ago, I can still remember much of it vividly. I still have the occasional dream about it.

The second part of the movie portrays some of the Marine unit’s experiences in Vietnam. Interestingly, this week the History Channel is running a series on that war called “Vietnam in HD”. Watching both of these reminded me of how terrible and mismanaged that conflict was. Fortunately, I was not sent to Vietnam, so the remembrances of that war are more from war stories I heard from guys who had been there, news reports of the time, and movies. Unfortunately, our politicians haven’t learned the lessons of Vietnam and continue to engage us in wars in places where we shouldn’t be (such as Iraq).

War should be an absolutely last resort. Not only are people killed and wounded, but many are emotionally scarred. Moreover, we have an economy that is not in good shape, and a huge federal deficit. We simply can’t afford to fight a war right now.

As Veteran’s Day approaches in the U.S. (on 11/11/11 this year), let us remember those who served and continue to serve. Let us also remember not only their sacrifices but also the sacrifices of their families. Pray for all of them, and pray that our troops will soon be able to leave Afghanistan. Pray for peace, and pray that the forces of evil in this world, which seek to oppress or attack others, will be restrained by the powerful hand of God. We look forward to that Day of the Lord when swords will be beaten into plowshares.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Changes in the Mass

There was a recent article in the Poughkeepsie Journal concerning some changes in the English language version of the Roman Catholic liturgy for the Mass (worship service). For the tradition-bound Roman Catholic Church, this is major, since change doesn’t come easily.

The last major change resulted from Vatican II in the 1960s when the Mass moved from mostly Latin to the language of the people. At that time, some lamented the loss of the Latin Mass as if that were the sacred language of Jesus and the prophets (Jesus spoke Aramaic, the prophets spoke Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek). In my opinion, moving to the language of the people was a tremendous step towards making the Mass more “user-friendly” and meaningful to the people.

While traditions are nice, they can’t become dominating. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for placing their traditions ahead of the Law of Moses in Mark 7:8: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” (NIV) Some Christians have followed in the footsteps of the Pharisees, becoming hypocritical, legalistic, and placing too much emphasis on tradition. Speaking of himself, Jesus said in John 8:36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (NIV) Yet Christians put themselves into bondage to traditions and rules when we are supposed to be free from all that. In addition, traditions can become a god to us if we place too much emphasis on them.

While the wording of the new liturgy could be better, I applaud the Catholic Church for attempting to make the Mass a more meaningful spiritual experience for the congregation. Now if we could only get them to sing more.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Corporate Responsibility

One of the themes of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration and its offspring demonstrations around the nation is “Corporate Greed”. There are also complaints about the unfairness and abuses of the capitalistic system. Can we do better than the capitalistic system?

As of now, capitalism is the best economic system devised by man. However, it has its risks, so that’s why we have laws and regulations. A totally unregulated economy will result in abuses. Despite our system of laws and regulations, “corporate greed” has resulted in all kinds of problems, including our current economic crisis. On the other hand, the economy can’t be over-regulated or it won’t work as efficiently. What we need are more enlightened and socially responsible corporations and labor unions.

What does an “enlightened” corporation look like? Right now, corporations are all about maximizing profits, paying their top executives very well, increasing market share, and striving to prevent more regulations from being enacted. An “enlightened” corporation realizes it has multiple constituents and many responsibilities that it must take into consideration and serve. So it must balance these priorities effectively. Who or what are these constituents?

Shareholders: at the heart of the capitalist system is investments made in a business by investors, which can be pension funds, mutual funds, individuals, unions, etc. For the capitalist system to succeed, there must be a fair return on investment. One way to improve return on investment is to not pay top executives outrageous salaries, bonuses, and granting overly generous stock options.

Employees: the employees must be given a fair wage, must be provided with competitive benefits, and must be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect. The employees must, of course, give a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage, not demand wages that are out of line with the industry, not go on strike, and follow company policy.

Customers: without customers, a business will quickly fail. Customers must be provided with safe, good quality, and innovative products that deliver what the company’s salespeople promise.

The Nation: the corporation has responsibilities to the city and country in which it is located, and these include no polluting, no exporting jobs overseas, payment of taxes, following regulations and laws, and generally being a good citizen.

An “enlightened” corporation, following these guidelines, would minimize “corporate greed” and make a positive contribution to society. Employees would feel secure and have more loyalty to the company.

You can’t legislate this, but hopefully companies will see the error of their ways and become more enlightened. Let’s pray it happens soon.