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Life Notes

Love Endures All Things

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The 15th characteristic of love, as described by Paul, is that love endures. Love is persistent and determined. It does not give up easily. When we think of endurance, we often think of sports and the extended and extensive training required to achieve at high levels. Sports are not a bad metaphor for loving relationships. When we commit to love another – whether in marriage, friendship, or other committed relationships – we commit to being with and for them over the long-term. We agree to support and accompany them in good times, in bad times, in boring times, and in all times in between. We vow to love them when they treat us well, when they treat us poorly, when they act in ways we wish they would not, as well as when they treat us as if we were the only other person in their life.

That we remain committed to another does not mean we simply weather the difficult times, however. It also means we work to shape a relationship from those difficult times into something rare and beautiful. Enduring for endurance’s sake is self-imposed torture – there needs to be a higher purpose for our endurance, a purpose like love. I am told that wine made from grapes whose vines grow in poor, rocky soil and that endure challenging weather conditions have a depth and body that other wines lack. Some of the most beautiful things on earth require time, time necessarily requires endurance, and the difficult times often make the results more beautiful. The rings of trees record the relative ease or difficulty of their individual years. A weathered face reflects a life lived in the elements. Friendships we maintain for many years have a level of comfort and acceptance that simply cannot fully develop otherwise.

This is not to suggest that all relationships should be endured. Abusive, unhealthy, one-sided relationships should be terminated, not withstood. An abusive relationship is not a loving relationship. Where there is a foundation of mutual fondness, respect, and benevolence, however, endurance will take a relationship to levels not otherwise possible. There is a saying in sports, “No pain, no gain,” which suggests we must endure difficult practicing and training in order to reap the benefits of athletic achievement. The same can be said for loving relationships – the benefits come from a wide diversity of experiences with the other, not by only accepting the good and rejecting the not-so-good.

Let us make 2016 the year of love, as love was meant to be.

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Giving Thanks by Giving 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17

This past Sunday, I sat through two equally disturbing sermons given by the pastors of my church. The sermons were not troubling because of weak delivery of the messages, however. The sermons got under my skin because they revealed aspects of my being that I prefer not to acknowledge. The theme was judgment, as described by Jesus near the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew. In verses 31 to 45, Jesus describes the identification process by which those who enter eternal life will be separated from those who will enter eternal punishment. The factor distinguishing one group from the other is how they treat and care for the least privileged in society.

At least by biblical standards, I am a selfish person and a stingy passer-along of my blessings. I have been known to pat myself on the back for being a good person, which is to say I do not commit a lot of sins overtly. Sins of commission – those sins directly committed – are not where I fall so short by Judeo-Christian standards. Sins of omission – the good I am capable of doing, but fail to do – well, that is an entirely different matter.

Like many of you reading this Life Note, I will sit down at a table overflowing with an abundance of wonderful food today, and in the presence of family and friends, I will eat myself into a long, luxurious, Thanksgiving nap. Meanwhile, Pastor Tom told us that about 13 people in the world die of starvation every minute. Later today, I will consume more food in one meal than some people eat in a month. And in the time it takes me to eat my way to desert, another 400 or so of my neighbors will starve to death.

My purpose is not to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving with an extra helping of guilt-casserole, however. The point is to remember the critical needs around us, even in this country, and even in our town. Yes, it is appropriate to celebrate and be thankful for the rich blessings we have been given. Is it sufficient, however, to simply give thanks, eat ourselves silly, and then go to sleep? Maybe this year we will commit to doing something more to show our gratitude, perhaps by sharing from our abundance for others who lack. Pick up an extra turkey and give it to a food kitchen. Help prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Visit a nursing home. Donate. Most of us have so much more food, clothing, money, time, and other resources than we need. There are many places where our excess is accepted and passed along to those less fortunate. That is giving thanks by giving away. This year, all year, let us not forget the giving part of Thanksgiving.

Enjoy a blessed Thanksgiving; and then give to a world that needs your leftovers.

Finding Grace tag

 

Contemplating Grace - Verti Logo

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The Trouble with Church 

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead.” Revelation 3:1

I have issues with the church – not only the church I am a member of, but other individual churches, as well as with the church as a whole. Granted, if the church is the body of Christ on earth, it has a high standard to attain. Regardless, I find how far and how often the church falls short of its reason for existence troubling. Some churches have charismatic preachers, with congregations who attend more to be entertained by the delivery of the sermon than to be enlightened by the content of the message. Churches are always asking for money, but many churches divert so much money to facilities and staff they have little left over for missions. Some churches are not welcoming of newcomers, and others offer few opportunities for individuals to become a part of small groups for study and fellowship. I know of churches that routinely allow their children and youth to be loud and disrespectful. Like more than a few other charities, some churches seem to focus more on their own survival than on their stated purpose for existing.

Yes, I have serious issues with today’s church. I have concluded that the trouble with the church – both individually and collectively – is that it does not always serve as I believe it should. I want my church to be informative, engaging, and spiritually enlightening. I want to hear sermons that confirm my understanding of God and the world, and I want to hear the types of music I most enjoy – and I want the songs done well. I have passed along a number of great ideas to the pastor and others, only a handful of which have ever been implemented. I want to be involved in my church, but on my own terms; so I want to help with activities that are fun and that fit my schedule and that are done with people I enjoy. The trouble with church is just that: me, and what I want.

Obviously, the church does not exist solely for my purposes, so I should expect there will be times it leaves me feeling irritated, unappreciated, and even angry. Church often frustrates my desires – which is exactly the point! The church does not exist for me, except to draw me closer to God. The church is a community of believers seeking to do God’s will in community. If my life were perfectly in tune with the will of God, there would be no personal need for church or spiritual disciplines. Therefore, there is tension between what I want, what I need, and what the church provides and requires of me.

My wife and I were married in the church. Many of our closest friends are members of our church. It is our church family that reaches out to us in our times of greatest need with help and support. It is in church we have said our final goodbyes to loved ones. Our church sheltered and nourished our children. The church is not about me, but about us. I guess the trouble with church is not about the church at all, it is the trouble with me…

Come home to church this Sunday. Without you, it is only ch rch.

Finding Grace tag

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 Poor Stewardship

Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Ezekiel 34:2a-4

I have found myself in positions of stewardship since 6th grade, when I was the Chief Crossing Guard for my school. My responsibility was to assign a trained crossing guard to each intersection around the school before and after classes. In the days before paid, adult crossing guards, the 6th grade class shepherded the younger children safely across the streets. Being appointed the Chief crossing guard was an honor of sorts, I suppose, but it seemed a lot of responsibility at the time.

A shepherd stewards the sheep in his or her care – leading them to food and water, keeping them safe from predators, healing their wounds, and reuniting them with the flock when they wander away. Near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter that those who love him (Jesus) will feed his sheep. Good stewards take their responsibility seriously, understanding it to be a holy calling. There are numerous examples of solid, sacrificial stewards in our history: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale to name a few. They used the power, authority, gifts, and talents available to them for a higher purpose – lifting others up – and not allowing the allure of personal gain to deflect them from their calling.

The writer of the book of Ezekiel proclaimed God’s judgment on the poor stewards of his day, calling them shepherds who used their sheep for personal gain. These were harsh words directed at the behavior of the unethical “shepherds.” Although I know there are excellent and faithful stewards in our world today, it seems the poor stewards – the ones who steal from their charges – are more likely to be glorified. News stories abound about greed in the C-Suites and Boardrooms of corporations. Many people consider an honest politician to be an oxymoron. Ministers and Elders of churches too often treat themselves as being among the needy in their care. Is this type of behavior the norm today? I do not believe it is. My point, however, is that the examples of stewardship we are most likely to find in the news are examples of poor stewardship. God calls us to be faithful stewards, using the resources available to us for the care of those in need. As in Ezekiel’s day, we are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and lead the strays back into the family.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find a flock to join…or a flock to tend.

 

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Obedient Service

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? Romans 6:16

Faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Slavery has a long and horrendous shadow. Although legalized slavery ended in the United States 150 years ago, traces of its oppression linger. Even today, we know of entire groups of people enslaved to others. Slavery is about property and property rights. When someone is a slave, another person owns him or her, as one owns a piece of property. Presumably, the owner of property can do whatever the owner wants with his or her possession, without regard to the impact on the possession itself. A slave’s sole purpose is obedience to the master.

One of the recurring realities referenced in Scripture has to do with slaves and their masters. Some interpret these references to imply that God approves of slavery. I do not believe that is the case. Slavery was, and continues to be, a reality. That slaves and masters are referenced in the Bible is no more affirming than the references to kings and tyrants – they were common elements of the landscape of the times.

Slavery is evil when one is enslaved to another of the same nature, particularly when the master does not have the best interest of the servant at heart. In a sense, employees are slaves to their bosses, in that they are expected to be obedient to the mandates of the boss. The fact that an employee can walk away from an oppressive employer, however, makes that relationship significantly different. The concept of slavery takes on a completely different nature when one willingly becomes a slave to a superior being, such as becoming a slave to God. Paul tells the Romans that we are slaves to whomever we obey.

Jesus was a slave to God, obedient even to death on a cross. Although that act of service brought new life to us, the act itself was one of obedience to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologist of the last century, wrote that true faith requires acts of service because faith calls us to obedience to God, and God calls us to acts of service. A vibrant faith leads us to willingly enslave ourselves to God. Service is not something we do for the less fortunate because they are less fortunate, but something we do out of obedience to our master. In the words of Bob Dylan, “You gotta serve somebody.” The foundational questions are: Who is your master? and Whom do you serve?

Come home to church this Sunday.

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Committed Love

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:12-13

There is a popular fable about a chicken and a pig. It goes like this:  A chicken wants to open a restaurant with a pig. The pig asks what they would serve, and the chicken says, “Ham and eggs, of course.” The pig replies, “No thanks. You might be involved, but I would be committed.” The story is a light-hearted illustration of the difference between involvement and commitment. The chicken’s involvement requires giving up the eggs it lays. The pig’s commitment requires giving its life to provide the ham.

Some employers classify their employees as those who are compliant and those who are committed. Compliant people are those who do what is expected or asked of them, but little more. They seldom take work home, nor will they willingly work extra hours or stray outside of their job descriptions. They are dependable, but not particularly loyal to or passionate about their work. Committed employees, on the other hand, are on fire for their profession and organization. They constantly think of new ways to excel at what they do in order to further the mission of the company. They work extra hours, often without being asked, and readily fill in wherever needed. They are loyal and zealous.

The difference between involvement and commitment is of sacrificial proportion. Both are important and require a measure of sacrifice, but differ in the degree of sacrifice offered. The first sentence in passage from John reminds me of the chicken. To love another requires a sacrifice – giving up something of value to us to serve someone else. A loving sacrifice could be donating one’s time to serve at a soup kitchen. The second sentence from John makes me think of the pig – giving up one’s life in service to another. Of course, giving up one’s life could mean dying for a cause, as a soldier might do for his or her country. It can also mean dedicating one’s life to a cause, as in the case of Mother Teresa. Either way, committed persons give up significant rights to the course of their own lives in order to serve a higher purpose. It is easy for me to list a number of areas where I am involved. It is much more difficult, however, to show where I am truly committed. In the fable of the Chicken and the Pig, both animals provide necessary resources for ham and eggs. What the chicken provides, however, is available in an ongoing way that does not require the chicken’s life. The pig, on the other hand, can only provide its contribution to breakfast one time. John’s passage tells us there is need for both involved and committed Christians in the service of Christ.

Come home to church this Sunday. Be involved, or be committed – but be there.

Greg Hildenbrand

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Note to parents: This Life Note contains a frank discussion of sexual topics that may not be appropriate for young children. Please review first, and then use your discretion.

Sex, Lust, and Adultery

“You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus 20:14

The seventh of the Ten Commandments is short and to the point: You shall not commit adultery. A dictionary definition of adultery is “voluntary sexual relations between a married person and somebody other than his or her spouse.” There are several key elements to adultery. First, it is voluntary—adulterers make a choice. Second, it involves sexual relations. Finally, adultery involves at least one married person and someone other than his or her spouse. Jesus, however, expands the definition of adultery. In Matthew 5:28 he says, “…everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Presumably, the same applies for women. Jesus raises the behavioral standard much, much higher. Adultery is no longer just a physical act, but also a mental one. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus provides additional and difficult commentary on adultery. In Matthew 19:9 Jesus says, “…whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.” Between the dictionary and Jesus, adultery can include a broad host of common maladies like gawking, premarital sex, extramarital sex, pornography, masturbation, and divorce, to name a few.

Sexual attraction, by design, is a powerful force. Like other powerful forces, sex enhances our lives dramatically when enjoyed appropriately. Electricity, heat, and physical strength are also powerful forces that enhance our lives when used appropriately. However, electricity electrocutes, heat burns, and physical strength bruises when used inappropriately. Sex becomes an incubator for sin when used carelessly, sometimes resulting in physical, psychological, or emotional damage. Sin is that which separates us from others and from God. Because sin is harmful to others and ourselves, we strive to eliminate or minimize its presence in our lives.

Sexual freedom allows us to enjoy the amazing gift of sex in all its fullness. All freedoms are subject to abuse, however, and sexual freedom is especially ripe for abuse, as in the case of adultery. Adultery is an act of conscious betrayal—to one’s spouse, to family and friends, to one’s self, and to God. As Christians, we must respond very carefully in the face of adultery. Our responsibility as a faith community is not to cast judgment, but to surround struggling people with love and respect. Unfortunately, some use passages like the ones from Matthew as a hammer to pound guilt into an already troubled soul. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. To judge others by unyielding standards is, at the very least, a violation of Jesus’ command for us to love one another. Consider Jesus’ reaction to the woman at the well in John 4:1-42; or the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8:1-11. Jesus met sinners where they were and helped them to a better place. We are to do the same. When faced with the pain of another, our response should offer the type of mercy offered us in response to our own sin. No sin is unforgivable, and no broken life is beyond repair. Jesus came to meet us in our sin and carry us through it, not to shun us because of it. Adultery may separate us from God, but God is always ready to welcome us back.

Come home to church this Sunday.

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