Archive for February, 2013

What is Ash Wednesday?

February 18, 2013

Title: What is Ash Wednesday?

Text: Genesis 3:19, Matthew 23:24, Luke 3:10-14

Time: February 14th, 2013

 

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent on the traditional Christian church calendar.  Not all churches celebrate the Lenten season because not all churches follow the historical, traditional Christian church calendar. But many or even most churches do recognize Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. Here’s how the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer explains Lent: “The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.” By tradition, the pastor or minister invites the congregation “to observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance.” We might summarize the season of Lent as a time of rededication and renewal of our faith in Jesus Christ. But the strange thing about Lent is that today, because of the effects of our secular society, much or most of its meaning is lost. For example, it’s possible to attend an old-line, or as it’s sometimes also called, mainline church, for Ash Wednesday – almost all have some kind of special service, either a noon or during the evening. But what one frequently encounters at these services is anything but a penitential church service. Most of the time the pastor or minister actually apologizes for the somber or negative tone of Ash Wednesday. Some give excuses why today we don’t talk about sin as much, or why we don’t call for people to confess or repent like in the past. The season of Lent is then put in the context of personal self-improvement, by doing things like cutting back on eating sweets or excessive television viewing, or suggesting we eat healthier foods or try to give up smoking or drinking, and other such things. But these kinds of suggestions miss the whole point of Lent. Early Christians saw the reality of sin, how it separates us from experiencing God, how it grieves the heart of God, and how it needs to be dealt with in our lives. So what’s wrong with a lot of observances of Lent today? Much of what is done is largely irrelevant to the Christian faith. We can do better then this as Christians. Let me explain. (more…)

The Crisis in Education — Loss of Vision

February 18, 2013

Title: The Crisis in Education – The Loss of Vision

Text: Mark 12:30, Hosea 4:6

Time: February 11th, 2013

 

For a number of years now I’ve been thinking about the present state of education in our country, from the lower grades all the way up to college level and graduate school, and I think it’s appropriate to say that we’ve reached a crisis.  I’ve been trying to talk and explain to people that it’s as if the whole point and purpose for education has been lost, based on what I’ve observed. For example, a few years ago I stumbled upon the “mission statement” of a school district in Michigan, and it went something along the lines, “We exist to create a learning environment that will enable students to learn and become equipped to compete in the global economy. . . .” I’ve since read many other similar school districts’ mission statements that sound the same. But my initial reaction to this kind of mission was to say, “Why is educating school children put primarily in the context of economic competence?” These statements give the impression that the point and purpose of education is to enable students to get a good job, period. I thought to myself, “What a feeble mission statement, what a stunted purpose.” I still think that. And this is the crisis in education, as I see it, that we’ve lost a greater purpose or more profound point in educating our young when it all boils down to economics. Not that economics isn’t important; it is. But it isn’t or shouldn’t be the sole or main reason why we are educating our young. But from the way most people talk today, from educators to parents, it seems as if career, vocation or job is the main reason for being educated. Now the crisis today in education is that this kind of vision isn’t a big enough vision to sustain real learning in the long run. There must be something more profound or important in learning than simply job training. Education is more special than that. This has been my thinking for years, if not at least a decade now. Then, I recently read a book by the late New York University professor Neil Postman entitled, The End of Education, which basically argued the same thing I had been feeling for many years. Unless we recapture a greater purpose, a more profound vision, a greater inspiration for education, we’ll eventually see more and more of the problems we see today in schooling multiply. Where is the love of learning? Where is the search for truth? How many students today pursue learning primarily because they are seeking the right, true and good? Some do, not doubt, despite the emphasis on job training. The New Testament teaches us to “love the Lord they God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” Mark 12:30. Unless we capture something of this vision, our educational system will continue to decline. Let me ask and answer a few questions.  (more…)

Which God?

February 18, 2013

Title: Which God?

Text: John 1:1-2, 14; 4:22-24; Philippians 2:8, Romans 11:25-26

Time: February 8th, 2013

 

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the different ways people think about God. Some people think of God as non-existent; these are atheists. Some people think there are many gods; these are polytheists. And some people think of God as One; these are monotheists. I also noted that with the coming of Christianity, the pagan citizens of the Roman Empire were ready to embrace monotheism because of the failure of their “gods” to make sense anymore. They would have embraced Judaism except that it was a religion so tied to a particular people and culture that it presented problems for anyone thinking about converting to it – you’d have to practically renounce your own cultural identity and become  Jew and embrace a Jewish cultural identity. And that was extremely difficult. But with Jesus Christ and Christianity one could embrace monotheism without all the Jewish cultural baggage. So that’s what many pagans did within the Roman Empire. The Greco-Roman world was primed and ready for Christianity’s monotheism because the better Greek and Roman philosophers had already come to an essentially monotheistic conclusion. For example, Plato and Aristotle, the two greatest of Greek philosophers, taught a kind of monotheism, although highly abstract. Nevertheless, their philosophical metaphysical systems laid the groundwork for the Greco-Roman world to embrace the monotheism of Christianity after the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But someone might ask, “Why talk only about Christianity as a monotheistic religion? Why not talk about Judaism, and also Islam? These both teach the doctrine of one God also.” This question especially has importance today as we see the world of Islam striving to be the world leader in religious influence. While Judaism always has been and still is a religious influence, although not nearly as strong as Islam today. What are the differences between Christian, Jewish and Islamic thinking about God? Which is most correct? Or are they all basically the same in their understanding of God? Once we see the errors of atheism; once see realize that there must be a God, then we must decide whether God is many or one. But we’ve already analyzed polytheism, or the belief in many gods, and we’ve found that eventually, over time, the human mind begins to sift and sort the various and diverse ideas of the gods into more or less a hierarchical order, the greatest to the least. This is what the Greeks and the Romans eventually did. For example, for the Greeks, Zeus was looked upon as the lead god; for the Romans, Jupiter. Then, once a great god is acknowledged, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to begin to pray and worship primarily this great god. Eventually, this one god is seen as the God. We can see why the Greeks and Romans were ready for Christianity when it came along. That doesn’t mean that all polytheism goes this way, but it shows a natural progression. But once we arrive at One God we must step back and ask, “Which One God?” Because there are three major contenders today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (more…)

Questions and Answers About Prayer 1

February 18, 2013

Title: Questions and Answers About Prayer 1

Text: Luke 11:1

Time: February 7th, 2013

 

I’m going to get really practical today, and teach about prayer. We all know that we should pray because we’ve been taught in Sunday School as little kids and on Sunday morning in church as adults to pray. But for some reason, it goes against our natural inclination to actually pray; thus making it difficult to establish ourselves in the regular daily activity or discipline of prayer.  Of course, it doesn’t help that we live in an increasingly secular, materialistic society. We aren’t given any encouragement from our environment to pray. Instead, we are encouraged to just the opposite of prayer – that is, secular society encourages us not to pray but instead to trust our instincts and “go with our gut” on everything. Now that hasn’t always been the case, but it is now. There once was a time here in the United States, around a hundred years ago or earlier, that society in general encouraged prayer, especially during the special times that occurred once in a while in our country called “revival.” At those times you wouldn’t need to go to church in order to be encouraged to pray – you’d be encouraged simply by living in the local community, because nearly everyone was thinking along spiritual lines. Of course, not everyone even a hundred years ago was so positive towards prayer. Along with a general Christian consensus in our country during most of its history was another belief or philosophy, not nearly as popular but still influential, that discouraged prayer and encouraged only rational thought. It was called Enlightenment thinking. Today in America, this philosophy is also popular, in fact, it’s second only to consulting one’s subjective intuition as the chief means most Americans make decisions and run their lives. Prayer, sadly today, is far down the list as a method of handling life. There’s no doubt that we need another great revival in this country to bring people back to God, and back to prayer. But even among Christians, even among those who know they should turn to prayer in life, few do. Why is that? Isn’t it because prayer is a little difficult – or a lot difficult at times? It’s different from any other type of communication we participate in. It’s essentially talking to a spirit, God, who is invisible and doesn’t give us immediate feedback. It involves talking, by faith, and assuming, also by faith, that God has heard and is acting or reacting with some form of response. But even though prayer is difficult, it’s not impossible; in fact, it’s possible to develop our ability to pray. That’s what I’d like to explain this morning, that is, how to develop our prayer life to the point that prayer isn’t a bother, but instead it’s a joy, something we look forward to. Instead of saying, “I should pray, but I don’t want to,” we’ll say, “I want to pray, and so I will pray.” We’ll take Luke 11:1 as our verse, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” (more…)

Isn’t Universal Government Health Care a Good Thing?

February 18, 2013

Title: Isn’t Government Universal Health Care A Good Thing?

Text: Luke 14:28-32, 40

Time: February 5th, 2013

 

There has been a great debate over the last few years in the United States over whether we Americans should have some kind of universal government health care.  Most countries in western Europe already have some form of government-run health care, so for many people overseas the question is curious and strange. Even for many people in our own country, the question is a no-brainer. They ask the question, “Isn’t universal health care a good thing? Why wouldn’t we want it here in the United States?” To oppose it seems cold-hearted to many people; to question it is uncaring and unloving according to those who favor it. But while never questioning the great benefits universal health care would bring to many millions of people, others question whether it is a good idea for America right now because they haven’t seen or heard of a good plan to bring it about. Well, for better or for worse, it’s coming to America, and soon, because the President’s health care plan – or as it’s also called, Obamacare – is starting this year and in a few years will be fully implemented. The Supreme Court ruled last year that it doesn’t necessarily violate the Constitution. So as far as universal government health care coming to the United States; it’s coming and quickly. Barring some huge economic or national catastrophe, or some mass movement on the part of a majority of citizens to oppose it, it can’t be stopped. But whether it comes to be or not, I’d like to address the question that people ask from time to time – “Isn’t government universal health care a good thing?” I want to explain that it isn’t as simple as asking whether universal health care is a good or beneficial thing. That’s just one part of the equation. Another question, apart from the benefits of universal health coverage is, “What will be the cost of universal coverage and is it worth the costs?” And I’m not just talking about the financial cost, but also the social, moral and spiritual cost of government-run health care. In the business world there’s a process called a “cost-benefit analysis,” which means that before a decision is made, the cost versus the benefits of something must be weighed and evaluated. Only after these two factors are considered, the cost and the benefits, can a wise and prudent decision be made. This is what has to be done in respect to government-run universal health care. It isn’t enough to simply think about the benefits of a universal health plan, nor is it enough to only consider the cost of such a plan. Both must be weighed and considered together before a wise decision can be made. In another context, Jesus told his disciples to count the count of discipleship before they signed up to follow him – “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will be he not sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish,’” Luke 14:28-30. That is sound advice whether in respect to any decision-making. Let’s apply it to the question of universal government health care.  (more…)

What About God?

February 18, 2013

Title: What About God?

Text: Psalm 14:1, Genesis 31:19, Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 45:5

Time: January 31st, 2013

It occurred to me the other day that one of the problems facing the citizens of the Western World, one of the reasons for so many problems in society today, is that we’ve nearly lost any real understanding of God. Not that people don’t believe in God today; they do. It’s just that while they say they believe in God, they act as if he doesn’t exist.  Why this “practical atheism” as the normal way of life for most people today in our secular, modern Western culture? It’s because we only superficially understood what we mean when we use the word “God.” So then it occurred further to me that I should go back over some pretty basic stuff – why we believe in One God. Now again, most people in the United States and Europe and other Western nations will affirm belief in one God, but again, they will go on acting as if they didn’t believe in God. They will say or claim to believe in the God of Christianity, but they turn right around and think and live their lives as if there were no God. So then what is the problem? It’s as if they are trained to say they believe in God, but in reality they don’t really believe in God at all. Or maybe they believe in the abstract concept of God, in some philosophical or theoretical sense, say, like scientists believe in “black holes” in space or “parallel universes” or some such speculations. The fact is, God is not very close to most people today in the West. He isn’t very close in people’s thinking, nor is he close in their actual experience of life in the modern world. While people continue to affirm belief in God, he isn’t a present reality to them in their everyday world. Again, we might ask why this is the case. I believe it has a lot to do with our understanding of God – or better yet, our lack of understanding of God. Is there really one God? Or is there really no God. Or maybe, there are many gods as primitive peoples used to believe. Which is it? Actually, it isn’t just primitive people who believe in many gods. For example, in India today, under the religion of Hinduism, millions and millions of people believe in many gods. But it isn’t just exotic religions of the East. Here in the West, the cultic semi-Christian group the Mormons, also believe in many gods. In fact, they believe that God started out as man and progressed to become God. They also believe that others have progressed to the level of God, and that it’s possible for people today to progress to the level of God. So then, according to Mormonism, there are many gods who rule over many planets. This is nothing less than polytheism – or the belief in many gods. No wonder Christians have correctly labeled Mormonism as a dangerous non-Christian cult. It’s actually a different polytheistic religion that patterns itself after Christianity. But this just shows that belief in many gods is still alive and well today. So which is it — Atheism, polytheism or monotheism? Let’s explore further. (more…)

Pray For the Boy Scouts

February 4, 2013

Title: Pray For The Boy Scouts

Text: Luke 17:1-3

Time: February 4th, 2013

 

A couple of weeks ago I submitted this article for publication in the local newspaper here in Jamestown, New York:

 

Boy Scouts Bullied By Gay Activists

“The Boy Scouts of America choose to uphold traditional Christian moral values and they are facing criticism for doing so. A local scoutmaster refuses to award an openly gay teen scout the Eagle Award and is being bullied by gay activists to do so in violation of scouting regulations. Now why can’t gay activists just leave the Boy Scouts alone? Why must everyone think like they do? Because it’s really not just about civil rights, it’s about forcing everyone to accept the gay agenda and lifestyle. Gay marriage was never really all about gay people living and loving one another. It was really about forcing everyone into accepting their new and perverted definition of marriage. It was always about transforming society into their twisted values. The gay rights movement won’t be satisfied until everyone not only accepts their immoral lifestyle, but also affirms it. But this is exactly why the Boy Scouts and other private and religious groups shouldn’t give into these gay activist bullies. We shouldn’t be forced to affirm false values we don’t hold. For example, the Boy Scouts have repeatedly stated that homosexuality is incompatible with their definition of character building for boys; this is their conviction. Should they be forced to contradict their moral convictions to satisfy the political values of gay activists? No! Neither should churches be bullied by these same activists to affirm values that contradict the basic moral teachings of Christianity and the Bible. Isn’t it ironic that the same gay activists that will cry out against bullying in one context are engaged in the very same practice only in a different context? Let’s let the Boy Scouts be the Boy Scouts. Gay rights activists have overstepped their boundaries on this issue.”

 

It’s a sad thing to see one’s entire culture going down the drain; it’s really bad to see the effects it has on children and youth. I don’t think the facilitators of our cultural moral decline realize the devastating consequences they are perpetrating on younger members of society. The New Testament warns those who would lead children and youth astray — “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves,’” Luke 17:1-3. That’s a warning to everyone in all situations, but particularly those who are deliberately leading young people, like for example Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, into sin. (more…)