Monday, December 3, 2007

No room?

Why really was there “no room” in Bethlehem at the birth of Christ? If God so ruled the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, He surely could have seen to it that a room was available, one that rivaled the maternity ward of Mass General. And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family…but He wasn’t. When we experience hard times, we can recall that our Lord’s life was suffering and deprivation from start to finish. He was born in a filthy manger because He came to heal a filthy world. He came to people who had no room for Him. We’re forced at Christmas to determine whether we have room in our hearts and homes for Jesus.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The odds are against you

Massachusetts may soon approve casinos, to add to other forms of gambling already operating in the Commonwealth. Why do Christians believe gambling is a sin? What’s so wrong with games of chance? Isn’t gambling a harmless recreation? What’s so bad about spending a few dollars on some scratch tickets, betting on horses or spending the day at a casino?

First off, gamblers pick their own pockets. I firmly believe that if every high school student was required to take a course in statistics and probability, they’d realize just how the odds are against them. It’s an irresponsible risk. The lottery is a tax on people who failed math. For example, you’ve got a greater chance of having quadruplets or being struck by lighting, or being in a plane crash than winning the average state lottery. A family was driving by the Wonderland greyhound track and the young daughter asked what went on there. The father explained, “It’s a place where people go to race dogs.” The young girl said, “I bet the dogs always win.” It’s been noted that, “Horse sense is what keeps horses from betting on what people will do” (Oscar Wilde). The way to come away from a casino with a small fortune is to go there with a large one.

The gangster casinos of Los Vegas used to be dimly lit and sleazy; the new, corporate casinos have a theme-park atmosphere that masquerades as good clean fun, while overlooking the human misery of gamblers with grim faces who squander their hard-earned money. Casinos are a scavenger industry relying on the milking of existing wealth than on the manufacturing of anything productive.

But the statistical likelihood of losing is not why Christians deem gambling a vice. The core of gambling is the thrill of getting something you didn’t earn. People talk of “making a killing” which usually means they got more than they deserved. Gambling is taking from someone else. If we’re playing poker, I’m hoping to take your hard-earned money. Gambling feeds off the sin of greed and the love of money which is the root of all evil. Greed wants to have what someone else has earned. Gambling discourages honest labor, it violates thrift, and the principle of fair play with reward for effort. Money won in gambling comes from other players, including many who can’t afford to gamble. In any bet there is a fool and a thief. Proverbs 14:23 tells us, “In all labor there is profit, but idle talk leads only to poverty.” Profit should come through productive effort, not by chance.

Gambling squanders our God-given resources. I’ve heard people object, “I’ve got a right to throw away my money gambling.” The Bible is clear that our wealth is not our own. All that we have comes from God, and we’re responsible for how we use our wealth. This is God’s money we’re squandering, and other people’s money we’re coveting. If you enjoy games, there are plenty that don’t involve gambling.

Gamblers rely on luck, which is a non-Christian, pagan concept, making gambling a substitute religion and a kind of idolatry. “Luck” has no place in any Christian’s vocabulary. We are never “lucky”; we’re “blessed.” There’s a big difference. Luck is an impersonal force, whereas we trust in a very personal God who has a plan for our lives. There is no chance in Providence. In God we trust, not in luck.

Many people get addicted to gambling. When we think of addictions, we tend to think of substance abuse, but activities can also become addictive. People get addicted to gambling the same way they get hooked on drugs. Gamblers get a kind of “high”. Eventually they become enslaved. Signs of gambling addiction include: borrowing money or selling personal items to finance one’s habit, gambling to escape stress, gambling till one’s last dollar is gone, and gambling hurting one’s family, one’s job, one’s reputation. Also the suicide rate among gamblers is 150% higher than the general population.

I attended a church that condemned card-playing, and I confess I often played cards with my friends…but we never gambled. We played to win, but not to win money. We just enjoyed what was for us a harmless game. I know some Christians who can’t play solitaire without feeling guilty. When I was in high school I had the part of Professor Harold Hill in the musical The Music Man, who gets the townsfolk of River City all worked up over the pool hall: “You got trouble--with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!” Like cards, pool can be associated with gambling, but it can also be enjoyed apart from betting. Obviously some people will bet on anything.

When I was a child, my dad, an Army Warrant Officer, got orders for Germany. We sailed across the Atlantic on a military transport ship--not exactly a luxury liner, but there were certain amenities. One night we played bingo, and I came within one square of winning fifty dollars. Just when I thought for sure I’d win, with only one square left, someone yelled “Bingo!” I was crushed. Years later it dawned on me that the only worse thing that could’ve happened would have been to win. I got burned at an early age and never gambled again.

A while back I expressed my convictions about gambling at a Bible study I conduct at the Senior Center. I mentioned how I received some scratch tickets as a gift and because I’m opposed to gambling, I threw them away. Someone in the classed asked, “Pastor Bob, where did you throw them?”

I think the secular world regards Christians as Puritanical, in the worst sense of the word. They see us as people who wouldn’t think of committing recreation; they think we’re against all pleasure. They’ve got it all wrong. There are many leisure activities that help us recharge our batteries. All work and no play is a recipe for burn-out. I’m not against all forms of entertainment, but we need to choose wisely how we use our free time. We need to find recreation that builds us up not tears us down. I’m grateful I took up kayaking; I get so much out of paddling down a river. How do you utilize your free time? Let’s see our material resources as gifts from God and let’s trust Him to use our assets wisely, for our good and for His glory and praise.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Explaining Christ & salvation to children

Children can respond to the Good News but need it to be explained with simple language. They don’t understand the religious terminology adults use, and if their acceptance is based on a superficial grasp of doctrine, or fear of punishment, or desire for reward, or peer pressure, or to please a parent or teacher, they may feel the need to receive Christ repeatedly.

Children need to understand 5 things:

What sin is…choosing to do wrong
Who Jesus is…God’s Son, who loves us
We don’t have to earn/deserve His love
Jesus died to take our punishment
When we trust Jesus we become His children forever

God wants to forgive all who want forgiveness. He promises that all who believe in Jesus are part of God’s family and will have everlasting life in Heaven. Explain that God loves us and wants us to be part of His family forever; that means when we die, we will go to be with God, and while we’re alive, He helps us every day.

Object lessons are popular but young children think concretely and symbolism is often abstract to them. It is better to tell Bible stories and relate them to life. For example:

Jesus talking with Nicodemus, John 3
Jesus talking with the woman at the well, John 4
Paul and Silas telling a jailer about Jesus, Acts 16

Ask them to tell in their own words what they think the stories mean. Ask if they understand why Jesus died, what a person needs to do to become a Christian, what it means to believe.

When quoting Scripture to children, use a modern translation appropriate for the age group, such as the NIrV (New International Readers Version) or NLT (New Living Translation). Find out if the child has a modern language Bible, or preferably a Children’s Study Bible, such as the NIrV Adventure Bible for Young Readers. Be sure the children know what the Bible is—God’s teaching for us.

A few good verses to use:

I John 1:9, “If we tell our sins to God, he is faithful and true; He will forgive us and take our sins away.”
I Peter 3:18, “Jesus suffered and died for sins once and for all time. He did what is right died for those who don't do right. He died to bring you to God. His body was put to death. But the Holy Spirit brought him back to life.”
Romans 3:23, “Everyone has sinned. No one measures up to God's glory.”
John 3:16, “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not be lost, but have eternal life.”

-You may want to assign these as memory verses.

We become Christians by asking Jesus in prayer. Praying means telling Jesus that we’re sorry for our sin and want His forgiveness.

How do we know if we’re really God’s children? The Bible promises that God will never let go of us, that He will always love us…

John 10:27-28, “My sheep listen to My voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them life that last forever, and they will never be punished. No one can steal them out of My hand.”

But salvation is more than a decision…it is a new life, a journey of living for Jesus

Ask how will being a child of God will make us different at home and school? What will happen when we do something wrong?

*A possible prayer children can pray:
“Jesus, I know You love me so much You died on the cross for all the things I’ve done wrong. Please forgive me. Come into my heart; I want You to be my friend and teacher. Help me to follow and become like You. Thank You for making me part of Your family forever. Amen.”

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Light Bulbs

How many Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
One, since his/her hand is in the air anyway.

How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
None. God has predestined when the lights will be on.

How many liberals does it take to change a light bulb?
Ten, as they need to conduct a debate as to whether or not the light bulb exists.

How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?
None. They use candles instead.

How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
Ten--one to change the bulb, and nine to share the experience.

How many military Chaplains does it take to change a light bulb?
The Chaplain tells his Enlisted assistant, who calls the base Engineers.

How many Christian Science practitioners does it take to change a light bulb?
None. Light bulbs are an illusion and do not exist.

How many Evangelicals does it take to change a light bulb?
Evangelicals do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and hope the light bulb will decide to change itself.

How many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb?
Every one available votes on it, then authorizes the Trustees to change it.

How many Atheists does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but they are still in darkness.

How many Brethren does it take to change a light bulb?

The Care of Souls

People occasionally ask me, “When do you take a day off?” Others think that ministers only work on Sundays. Often things come up on the day I’d normally take off, which means somehow coming up with some creative, alternative times to break away from the duties of pastoral care. Lately I’ve been taking a few hours here and there to go kayaking in nearby rivers and lakes, but not for much longer with the cold weather coming. A pastor is never “off-duty.”

Pastoral care is task-oriented, which means one can always find more to do. With every creative idea, there’s some work involved to implement it. Emergencies arise, and lots of meetings. Then there’s the matter of sermon preparation. Clergy don’t improvise; we take seriously the preparation of messages, which helps keep our professional edge. Whenever I moved while serving as a military chaplain, the packers were always amazed at my professional library. They’d always ask, “How many books do you have, and do you read them?” They weren’t too thrilled to box them up, but they’re the tools of the trade. I’m thankful there are nearby seminary libraries in the area, but I wasn’t always so blessed.

Pastoral care has been described as being a “wounded healer.” Our own woundedness enables us to care for the hurts of others. We comfort with the same comfort we’ve received, and the compassion we’ve developed over dealing with our own pain. Before you can dry another’s tears, you have to learn to weep. And while clergy can’t identify with everyone’s issues, pain is universal and unique. We all experience it, and we do so in our own way. So while I would never say, “I know how you feel,” I do know what it means to hurt. And I know that God cares. We have the choice in our pain to become bitter or compassionate. Pain is inevitable; misery is optional.

Whenever someone meets a minister, they view that individual through the lens of their own experience and perception. It may be a positive or negative one. High profile clergy who’ve had moral failure don’t make the average pastor’s life easier. But I believe if someone acts contrary to the teachings of their religion, we blame them, not their religion. Unfortunately the actions of some can make us all look bad. An Army Corps of Engineers major was introduced to me and said with an edge to his voice, “Oh, you’re a chaplain? I can tell you about some chaplains I’ve known.” I answered, “Yes sir, and when you’re done I can tell you about some Engineers I’ve known.” He got the point. We take people as they are, as we meet them, and try not to pre-judge based on what others may have done.

Someone said to me once, “I’d hate having your job, listening to people’s problems all day long.” He was a CPA, and I told him I wouldn’t want his job either. Fortunately God has made us with diverse gifts. Most clergy have to be general practitioners. We may not do every task well, but we have to handle a lot of matters: counseling, preaching, mentoring, teaching, praying, administering the sacraments/ordinances (also baptisms, weddings, funerals), administrative matters, visitation, discipleship, worship, and maintaining professional development. We also do what’s been called “ministry of presence”, being accessible, visible in the community whenever possible. Most of us are computer-savvy, applying ministry in a technological age. I recently attended a theological update at Gordon-Conwell seminary, and nearly every minister pulled out a PDA.

Maybe you might call your minister up and ask if you can stop by for a cup of coffee, or invite your pastor to your home. Your pastor wants to get to know you better; we’re here for you. When life hurts, we want to offer consolation. When you have questions, we want to walk with you to help you find answers.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

the Voice of God

In a 1950 movie The Next Voice You’ll Hear (staring James Whitmore and Nancy Reagan), one ordinary day without any warning, on every radio in the world, people hear the following: "This is God. I'll be with you for the next few days." More messages come; some people react positively, others negatively. There’s no profound theology in the movie, but it raises a wish we’ve all had, for God to speak audibly to us. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only hear His voice? I told a fellow regular at a coffee shop I was checking my email and he said, “Doesn’t God talk to you directly?”

Does God speak today? Many people figure they’re on their own, or they surrender to a kind of fatalism, “What will be, will be.” Or they plot out their own path somehow. But we’re not left floundering without guidance. We can know the will of God for our lives. He has a calling for each one of us. A buddy of mine calls himself an “ordained plumber.” Some people claim that God has literally spoken to them in an audible voice, as He spoke to the prophets of old. I wonder about some of these people, especially the faith-healers you see on TV. It seems the “message” is always about money. Yet some reputable Christian leaders also have claimed to hear an actual voice.

What if we, like Moses, encountered our own burning bush? That is certainly possible, but we’d have to proceed cautiously and evaluate the content of such communication. It doesn’t appear to be God’s standard means of speaking today. Some people claim God has “told” them something in order to elevate their own credibility. Others say they have a sense of what to do, an impression or leading, a kind of discernment that doesn’t seem to come from their own awareness.

How do we proceed in life? How do we make wise decisions? God guides us through His word, through impressing us inwardly, and outwardly, through circumstance and the advice of people we trust. One caution about impressions--they need to be tested by Scripture. God won’t lead us to do something the Bible disapproves. And of circumstance--we have to be careful about “open doors” to be sure others we trust agree this we’re on a wise course of action. And of advisors--we need to be sure those we listen to are godly people with a Christian worldview. We discover wisdom as we become students of Scripture. We’re equipped for life. We know right from wrong and we know what God expects of us.

Sometimes God's voice seems obvious, and at other times cloaked in mystery. Understanding God’s will doesn’t mean we’ll be able to grasp His purpose completely. Much of life remains hidden, forcing us to trust in God, Who loves us and has reasons for the challenges we face. We rest in His providence. Sometimes His will is obvious, and at other times we’re faced with being patient in our journey of faith.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Mother Theresa's struggles

This past week private letters from Mother Theresa were published, troubling letters that reveal a woman who struggled with the silence of God.
All of us at one time or another have struggled with the silence of God. We all have dry seasons, dark days, times when life simply hurts and God seems distant. If this has been your experience, it doesn’t mean you have no faith or have lost your faith…it means that you are facing inner turmoil. We’re waiting for God to act, and we cry out like the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?” Then when life takes a nasty turn, we wonder if God has lost interest in us, or if He is remote, uninvolved. We feel abandoned, but in truth God is near.
Mother Theresa felt anguish, yet she remained faithful. Closeness to God is not about feelings; it’s about obedience. She kept doing what she believed God had called her to do, even though she felt little joy. God has called us to be faithful and obedient, but He has not guaranteed that we’ll necessarily be happy all the time.
God does not accept us on the basis of our feelings but on the basis of our faith (which is a gift). He promises to heal our souls. He is present, even when it seems like He is absent. To expect a life of unbroken happiness all the time is an unrealistic view of Christianity. With faith will follow suffering, struggle, persecution, even doubt. Those who know sorrow are closest to the heart of Jesus, the wounded Healer. The One who struggled in dark Gethsemane walks with us in the valley of the shadow.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Walking in step

"The LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the path of the wicked leads to destruction,” Psalm 1:6

Many years ago when the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a wilderness, two men set out on foot to reach a mining camp in the dead of winter. After walking some distance, it began to snow heavily, and the path was covered. They kept going, and with a sigh of relief they came upon footprints showing that they must be near their destination. Fortunately a Native American approached and told them they were walking in what he called the “death track”; they’d been walking in a circle.

God watches over the path of the godly, but the ungodly--those who distance themselves from God--have placed themselves outside of the reach of divine guidance and protection. The deeds of the righteous will have eternal significance, because living for God is their aim in life. Their deeds are carved in stone, while the achievements of the wicked are written in the sand. “Just one life, twill soon be past; only what’s done for God will last.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why people leave church

1. Their church doesn’t “meet their needs”. What were they expecting? Answers to all of life’s mysteries? A simple formula for a life free of pain? Entertainment?

2. They’ve gotten out of the habit, maybe even lazy, a lack of discipline and priorities. How God feels about this is maybe worth consideration.

3. Someone in the church angered or disappointed them—so who do they punish? Themselves! It’s like deciding to stop eating.

4. They don’t agree with what their church is teaching. Hopefully their church has been clear about communicating its positions. Is it a major issue or something we can agree to disagree on?

5. Competing activities—sports, shopping, brunch, sleeping-in, and that extra-big Sunday newspaper. It’s a matter of priorities. If work is the reason, employers ought to make some accommodation.

6. Some men think only women and children need church; they don’t have the guts to encounter God themselves.

7. They think they don’t need church, yet church can well be the most valuable resource of their lives.

8. They had a bad experience. I tell people I had a bad experience at a restaurant and now I don’t eat out anymore! My point: find another church if you can’t resolve your problem.

9. They just don’t care. I suppose some people are apathetic, which is often the outcome of a comfortable life which lulls and deceives people into thinking they don’t need God. Do they demand proof God exists? No—they’re not interested.

10. Lack of faith. If you’re an unbeliever, church probably makes little sense. But give it a chance and be open to what you might receive.

Ultimately, people who stay away from church fail to realize that God deserves our praise, and that church has a lot to offer.

When I pass my little church, I stop in for a visit, so when I die and go up there the Lord won’t ask, “Who is it?”

Pastor Bob's thoughts

Welcome to my blog! I hope to post articles and sermons and thoughts here, and hopefully some photos. I'm new to blogging, so bear with me as I learn my way.