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Posts Tagged ‘possessions’

Life Notes

The Rat Race

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and (rats) consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor (rats) consume and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21

With apologies to self-respecting rats everywhere, we humans often refer to life – particularly our work lives – as a rat race. I suspect the term is intended to represent a large group of self-absorbed, desperate beings doing whatever they can to survive, often at the expense of each other. I imagine a group of starving rats fighting over meager scraps of garbage on the subway tracks of New York City. Many of us spend the majority of our waking hours trying to get ahead in life, in whatever way we define ahead. Unfortunately, for too many of us, getting ahead in life means getting more stuff than our friends and neighbors – a battle we can never win. Lily Tomlin is credited with saying, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

A cancer of discontent eats at us from the inside. The stuff of the earth – cars, nice homes, guitars, clothes, flowerbeds – is tantalizing. Someone at work upgrades to the latest iPhone, and we believe we must upgrade ours, too. Someone else shows pictures of their tropical vacation, and we charge our way to a similar trip. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is one way we express this obsession with laying claim to as much of the earth as our desperate attempts allow. We focus on what we lack, instead of the abundance we already have. One problem with comparing ourselves to others is that the comparison is not with one other person or family, but a conglomerate of persons and families. Typically, it will appear we are significantly lacking, when compared to the combined abundance of many.

Jesus warns us, in the Gospel of Matthew, against storing up treasures of the earth – those things that can be stolen or that wear out over time. Our hearts reside with what we treasure. When our hearts are invested in that which does not last, our hearts will be broken over and over again. Like a cancer spreading within, we simply cannot out-buy our desire for more stuff. Learning to be content with what we have requires a significant change of heart and mind. We can be happy with another’s nice, new car without feeling the need to buy one for ourselves. When we believe we will be happy with one more possession, we fall into the trap of consumerism – that happiness and things are directly related. The truth is that more stuff never brings more than transitory happiness. True and lasting happiness is a product of gratitude and contentment.

Come home to church this Sunday. Leave the rats and join the saints (and the sinners)!

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The Fingerprint of God

But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this! In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.  Job 12:7-10

The Old Testament book of Job begins with a conversation between God and the devil. They are observing Job, a prosperous man who, according to God, would remain faithful through any difficulty. The devil claims that if Job were stripped of his family and possessions, his faith would soon leave him. God agrees to put Job to the test. All of Job’s children, his crops and animals, his health, and all of his wealth are taken from him – all with the approval of God. Interestingly, Job’s faith does not waiver, but he does get extremely angry with God. In the passage above, Job claims that all of creation knows who caused his calamity because God’s fingerprints were all over it. Much of the book consists of discourses between a livid, desperate Job and his friends, and between Job and God.

In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes:

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure; the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair; the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring; these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings. If we refuse to hold them in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain, we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.

Job’s reactions are interesting to me, as he falls into deep despair. He is in agonizing physical and emotional pain and begs for relief, but he never loses faith. His misfortune occurs over an extended period, with calamity piled upon calamity, each as bad as or worse than the previous one, yet he continues to believe God is in control. I fear I would abandon my faith in God under a fraction of the weight of Job’s condition.

We seem to have evolved a belief that only what we perceive as good is of God. The bad in our lives comes from something or someone else – an evil power, greedy humans, or the presence of sin. It seems to me if God is in control of anything in our lives, God must be in control of everything in our lives. That God sometimes intervenes in the apparent course of our lives is clear to me. How, when, and for what purposes God choses to intervene is a mystery. It seems arrogant on my part to assume God only intervenes in ways I will consider good. Who am I to judge what is good in God’s eyes? For me, at least, every challenging event in my life has led to an unexpected blessing. Even the animals, plants, birds, and fish declare God’s fingerprint on all of creation. Perhaps we are the ones most challenged to see it.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find God’s fingerprint on your life.

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A Disturbing Intruder

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

A gift of grace is something positive received that is not earned or deserved. I often consider God’s grace to be like something nice I do for another who cannot respond in kind. Certainly, there are aspects of God’s grace that fall into that category, such as salvation. There are, however, gifts and graces from God that may not be so free. In his devotional, Seize the Day, Dr. Charles Ringma writes: “Grace always calls us to a response. God’s action toward us is never meant to leave us as we are, but is a challenge to move us forward. Grace is thus never a convenient gift, but a disturbing intruder.” 

I love the life God has granted me. I am comfortable and relatively secure, certainly more so than most others in this world. I am not motivated to change my life, even for the better, if it means risking my comfort and security. While I give God the glory for my many blessings, is that enough? The writer of James says, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” In other words, people of faith cannot retain their blessings by hoarding them. I am reminded of the lyrics of an old folk song: “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more!” Gifts of grace are meant to change us and move us forward. When we commit to making the lives of others better, our own lives also improve because our gifts multiply by being shared.

Certainly, we have the free will to determine the purposes for which we will share what we are given. Indeed, we have a responsibility to pass along our gifts in intentional and responsible ways. But our gifts are to be used for purposes beyond our own selfish desires. In that respect, as Dr. Ringma writes, gifts of grace may not be such a convenient gift after all, but a “disturbing intruder.”  They are like doors inviting us out of our comforts and into new experiences in community with others. Acknowledging and being thankful for our gifts of grace is important, not because we hope to be loved more (which is not possible), but so that love and grace can flow through us to others. Like a faucet that must be left open for water to flow, grace is made new by flowing through us. Our cup remains full, even as the waters of love and life flow to others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Accept the invitation of this disturbing intruder.

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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.

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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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Doubting God’s Generosity

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Exodus 20:17

The dictionary on my phone defines covet as “to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others.” Clearly, the last of the Ten Commandments addresses the importance of controlling our desires. There is an important distinction to make, however, between controlling and eliminating desire. Desire is a good and Godly force that animates our lives, and the commandment does not call for the elimination of our reasonable longings. Desire for a legacy drives us to excel in our profession, or to marry and have children. Aspiring to a better life provides the motivation to do whatever is required to get from where we are to where we want to be. Our desire for an improved future is a good thing, unless that desire leads us to try to improve our future at someone else’s expense. Our longing crosses the line into covetousness when we want a specific something that belongs to our neighbor. Similar to the commandments against stealing and committing adultery, the prohibition against coveting has to do with respecting that which belongs to another.

There is another aspect to covetousness, however, which is an issue of faith. When we covet something belonging to another, we indirectly express our dissatisfaction with what we have. In the context of the gifts, talents, and relationships given by God, when we covet the gifts, talents, and relationships of others, we cast doubt on God’s generosity. Coveting and contentment do not co-exist. To covet is to be selfish to an extreme that is not likely to end well.

The Ten Commandments have set a foundation for our worship life, as well as our life in community with others, for thousands of years. The first four commandments guide our relationship with God by warning not to have other gods before our God, not to worship idols, not to misuse the name of God, and to keep the Sabbath day holy. The remaining commandments guide our relationships with others: we are to honor our parents, not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not lie, and not covet. Taken together, the Ten Commandments form a timeless set of rules for living, as relevant today as when first written.

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Life Worship Notes

“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13

Do Not Kill

The notes in my Bible state the key word in this sixth of the Ten Commandments translates appropriately as either murder or kill. A quick survey of popular Bible translations shows a slight preference for murder over kill, but both are used. While killing is the taking of another life, murder is the unlawful taking of another life. By earthly law, most killing in war is lawful killing. However, is it appropriate to interpret biblical directives in the context of human definitions of right and wrong? Is it human or divine law that determines when the taking of another life is permissible?

I confess to being a conflicted pacifist. I want to believe killing others is not an effective solution to what ails us. Even in war, the soldiers killing and being killed do not begin, sustain, or end the war. The initiators and controllers of the conflict usually stay safely away from danger. Please understand: the past and present risks taken, and the sacrifices made by military personnel, humble me. I appreciate their selfless dedication and service; and I understand I am able sit at my desk and pontificate because of their willingness to lay down their lives for mine. In spite of my professed pacifism, I imagine scenarios where another person threatens my family. I have no problem visualizing doing whatever is necessary to protect those I love, up to and including killing the person doing the threatening. Is that personal situation significantly different from killing for one’s country? Does this commandment prohibit us from protecting others with all options available? How does Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek inform the discussion?

I turned 18 as the Vietnam War was winding down. When I registered for the military draft, one question asked if I had moral or religious objections to killing others. I thought of this commandment and checked, “Yes.” Subsequently, I received Conscientious Objector status, an interesting designation. Had I been drafted and sent to war, I probably would have served without objection. However, I did not understand how else to reconcile my Christian beliefs with the question about killing. In my mind, I played out a scenario where I had my rifle pointed at an enemy soldier, who was pointing a rifle at me—would I shoot? In John 15:13, Jesus says there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. Ultimately, it was not laying down my life that conflicted me, but the taking of the life of another. Is it permissible to kill a person if that act will save others? Certainly, that is one justification for war. The Jewish authorities justified the killing of Jesus as necessary to preserve the way of life for the entire Jewish community. It would be helpful if this commandment contained clarifying commentary. As written, some of us will struggle mightily with its application. In truth, I believe that struggle is exactly what God intends.

Come home to church this Sunday. Join the ranks of the faithfully conflicted.

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