Showing posts from 2017

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly about "Thoughts & Prayers"

Why do we pray for people who experience hardship? There's talk within our broader society about whether we should send "thoughts and prayers" out for those who experience tragedy or who face a crisis. Is there anything wrong with offering to pray?
The reason for the backlash is that words frequently come across as empty. I've witnessed the tragedy of empty words. I've been with well-meaning Christians who visit the sick in the hospital or who try to comfort someone during a crisis. I'll most likely cringe if you utter these words, "If there's anything you need, let me know."
Why do I react negatively? I have to qualify that there are a handful of people I know in the world who can say that and be totally genuine about it. But for everyone else, you don't understand the potential price of what you're offering. You may mean well. But too often it's a cliché which confuses being nice with making yourself look good: "Let's do lun…

All Saints Day

November 1 is a day for remembering those who have died in the Lord. It may mean little to you if you don't have much involvement with Catholics, Anglicans and other high-church traditions. Yet for many believers around the world, this is a solemn occasion for decorating gravestones and reflecting upon loved ones.

Catholic terminology can lead some to believe that only a select few Christians get to be saints. The Bible teaches that all baptized individuals are now with God and therefore saints. The Roman Catholic Church in fact supports this vantage point.

No one knows exactly how or why churches started celebrating a day of remembrance for the dead. There are various references to such occasions starting in the 4th century. Pope Boniface IV gathered the bones of martyrs from the Roman catacombs and re-entombed them beneath the Pantheon. In so doing, he dedicated a time to remember all the saints. This was in May, not November. The practice as we know it on November 1 took root som…

Fresno's Killing Rampage: A Pastor's Response

A crazed gunman killed three people in downtown Fresno yesterday. Sadly, murder isn't a rare occurrence in Fresno or in most big cities across our nation. Tuesday's tragic killing made world news, however, both because there were multiple victims and because the shooter, an African-American man, was targeting white men.
Here are some important things to know and to remember about this tragedy:
1. Take time NOW to tell people how much you care. No one is ever 100% safe. I don't say this to make you cower in fear. Just realize the fragility of life. Kiss your spouse when you say goodbye. Hug your kids or your parents as much as you can. Don't leave conflicts unresolved for long. There just are no guarantees in life. Cherish the relationships you have, and let people know how much you appreciate them.
2. Hate-filled rhetoric springs forth in hate-filled actions. People who stir up trouble ought to face some consequence for filling people’s minds with hate. We've seen it…

Revelation's Message for the Present

Who is Revelation written for? Does it talk about the end times? How should we interpret it?

The Book of Revelation is without doubt one of the Bible's most difficult books. It is filled with apocalyptic material that confuses modern, Western readers. We don't speak in such symbolic language today.

To be fair, however, apocalyptic writings were confusing to ancient readers as well. Jewish apocalypticism was wildly popular starting in the mid-second century BC through the late first century AD. While the metaphorical depictions of apocalyptic preaching were not intended to be taken literally, that's exactly what people did. Rereading the ancient prophets like Isaiah, many Jews took the apocalyptic images literally and believed God wanted them to rebel against Rome. The disaster that followed with General Titus's pillaging of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple nearly caused the extermination of the Jewish people. Clearly, they had misinterpreted the apocalyptic …

Revelation's Message of Hope & Comfort

Out of the 66 books in the Christian Bible, none has been abused and misused more than the Book of Revelation. It seems to be such a hard book to understand. But this isn't a new problem.

Even Augustine of Hippo, writing in the early 5th century, had this to say about the Book of Revelation: "Now in this book called the Apocalypse there are, to be sure, many obscure statements, designed to exercise the mind" (from City of God). Not every ancient Christian believed this highly allegorical writing deserved a spot in the canonized list of authorized writings. But find its way into the Bible it did. And so we now turn our attention to it.

Revelation belongs in a genre of literature called apocalyptic writings. It's a strange world for us in Western society today. We find a few other examples of similar material in the Bible (Zech 9-14, Ezek 38-39, Isa 24-27 and the Book of Daniel), but this style of writing was especially common in the century or two leading up to Jesus.

Seven Vices & Virtues: Wrath & Patience

"Do not let the sun go down on your anger" (Eph 4:26b).
Ah, silly Paul. He clearly didn't understand life in our world today. There are so many things to be angry about! Politics are a mess. Racial tensions have flared up again. Immigration. Terrorism. Guns. Flag protests. And I haven't even gotten to taxes, road rage, or the fact that the Kardashians keep turning up everywhere. There's so much to be angry about!
It's one thing to recognize the presence of anger. It's another to normalize it. I remember the story of an American preacher who went to a Caribbean island. He preached that if wives caused their husbands to become angry—perhaps by not adequately preparing food or failing to meet other such "standard expectations"—then the husband was within his right to divorce his wife. That's a strange twist on anger! Blaming others for your anger isn't kosher.
So what's the deal with anger? Why is wrath one of the Seven Deadly Sins? The …

Seven Vices & Virtues: Sloth and Diligence

Think of Gilligan's Island as a parable based on the Seven Deadly Sins. Many folks think the creators based the series on these classical vices. (Here's one example.) A three-hour cruise turned into a seeming eternity. They were hopelessly marooned on a deserted island. 
One of the most common story lines across the show's 99 episodes is a potential rescue. And in almost every case, one character unwittingly or incompetently destroys any hope of leaving the island. It's Gilligan, the figure who most readily represents this week's vice: sloth.
Many in our contemporary world equate sloth with laziness. But the ancient vice of sloth, as brought to us via John Cassian from the desert fathers, comes from the Greek work acedia. This word is best translated as apathy or avoidance. This is what Cassian wrote about a theoretical monk faced with the danger of sloth (acedia): "He must also contend on both sides against this most wicked spirit of acedia in such a way as nei…

Seven Vices & Virtues: Greed and Charity

Greed makes the world go 'round. Or is love what's supposed to make the world go 'round?
Regardless, Western capitalism is built on the premise of managed greed. The desire to want more pushes people to excel and acquire more. Without this drive to consume, the economies of market-driven nations would grind to a halt.
The basic premise behind the vice of greed is that people tend to want more than they need. But it's not just about wanting something. Thomas Aquinas wrote that greed "is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them. . . It is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man [scorns] things eternal for the sake of temporal things."

His definition reveals the two main problems with greed—and helps us see what greed is NOT. First, greed is something that harms your neighbors. Having broadband internet when your neighbor only has DSL is not a sin of gree…

Seven Vices & Virtues: Gluttony and Temperance

Gluttony and temperance are polar opposites. Gluttony represents overindulgence. Temperance symbolizes an ability to exercise self-control. As simple as these definitions are, however, both words are a bit exotic and relatively unknown to contemporary audiences.

What familiarity there is for these terms calls to mind particular images. For gluttony, one almost certainly pictures a character like Friar Tuck from the Robin Hood saga. The jolly good Friar never had a shortage of ale, and his round belly was always ready for a feast. This love of food and drink makes him an obvious symbol of gluttony.

Temperance is a relatively unknown word for many younger people. It likely reminds older folks of temperance movements that sought to ban or limit alcohol. The American Temperance Society was a major force in the US with tens of thousands of members pledging to abstain from alcohol. Various temperance movements across the world have stood in opposition to Western tolerance of excessive drin…

Seven Vices and Seven Virtues (intro)

This Sunday, January 8, I’m starting a new series of lessons on vices and virtues. Dating back to the fourth century, much of the Christian world has grouped all sins into several major categories. In their efforts to become perfect, the desert fathers were the ones who created eight groupings of sins. John Cassian brought their work out of the desert and into the major centers of Western civilization. Pope Gregory 1 then reorganized the list about 590 AD. He created the well-known and widely-accepted catalog known as the “Seven Deadly Sins.” Thomas Aquinas, Geoffrey Chaucer and many other major teachers, writers and leaders have used these lists as sufficient representations of all the sins that afflict humankind. My sermons will work off this list.

The listing of “major sins” is nothing new. It goes back to the Bible. The wise teacher listed 7 “abominations” in Proverbs 6:16-19. Paul’s writings include several vice lists including 15 “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21. We fi…