Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Minor Prophets, Major Message: Malachi (audio)

What happens when God's people forget that God is holy, and He expects His people to be holy?

This was the problem that the prophet Malachi, in the last of the minor prophets (as well as the final book of the Old Testament), deals with. Sin had hardened the hearts of God's people, and the priests that served in His temple. The sacrifices made were substandard. The tears shed on the altar were fake. Even their personal lives showed a lack of understanding God and His ways. All this adds up to robbing our God of what's due Him.

To fail to see that God is holy, and righteous, and that He calls His people to reflect His character, means that we make a mockery of our Lord. God created us to be a reflection of Himself. But sin tarnishes that image.

Only those who repent of sin and give God what is due Him will be spared. For His messenger is coming, proclaiming the One who will bring about righteousness and holiness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Occam's Razor and the Church

"Occam's Razor" fascinates me. Simply put (which is in many ways an oversimplification), when multiple explanations are given to explain something, the simplest of those explanations should be considered the correct explanation. The fewer variables to deal with, the more likely that it right.

Yet, it is not perfect.

The Geocentric Theory explained the movements of stars, planets, the moon, and the sun as they were observed in the sky over the earth, and it was indisputable science fact. That was until it was disputed. But it met the criteria for the Razor: it was simple, straightforward, and took into account all the observable data from our position. Yet, new evidence was observed and published by Galileo, which led to giving credibility to the Heliocentric Theory.

Occam's Razor is not a proof of something being right or wrong. It's a heuristic device that seeks simplicity over complexity. If new information is added to an existing theory, it could mean that the simplest explanation is not correct. That new information has to be evaluated though, but will it be given a fair treatment? Who will do the evaluation? Can that person (or persons) be trusted?

Because God cannot be observed by the senses, physicists and other scientists will often say that Evolution is the simplest explanation for the universe's (and by extension our) existence. Those who believe though that there is a design and a predictable pattern to things will say there must be a Creator, and therefore view that as the simplest explanation. Both of these camps start with assumptions about the set of evidence they are presented with, and base their evaluations of that evidence through their assumptions.

I believe this shows that while the idea sounds good, Occam's Razor is limited to our own subjective experience. And for those who may cling to one theory or another about anything, it might assume that we have come to the limit of our knowledge about that thing we believe. 300 years ago the cure for all sorts of disease was leeches. 150 years ago surgeons were skeptical of Dr. Joseph Lister's practice of sterilizing his surgeon tools before operating, or cleaning wounds. If our own history teaches us anything, it might be that we have not yet reached the limit of knowledge.

That isn't to say though that the desire for simplicity, and making things less complicated, isn't right. I simply believe that Occam's Razor, instead of being used to try to figure out the past or evaluate information, should be used instead to give us groundwork for the future.

Here's what I mean. The gospel message is not complicated whatsoever. God created us in His image. He created us good and gave us some simple instructions to follow. We did our own thing instead and in doing so, we sinned. That desire to sin was passed down. But God wanted to have a relationship with us, so He sent His Son, Jesus, who was not stained by sin, to redeem us from the power of sin. When His sacrifice is applied to our lives we are freed from sin and live lives holy and pleasing to Him. That's the gospel in the simplest terms I can think of.

What has the church done though, and for this I am thinking specifically of the holiness movement? We've made holiness a barrier by which one must be "cleaned up" before they can have the hope of salvation. We have replaced love with programs. We have replaced grace with legalism. Worship is thought of in terms of big sound, big lights, and video production that used to only come from MTV.

Is there anything wrong with programs? Or big lights, big sound, good video production? Not necessarily, if by their presence they aren't complicating and confusing the message of the Gospel. But when those things replace the simplicity of the gospel message rather than effectively communicate it, then we have problems.

Nobody uses The Pony Express anymore. And nobody uses the Telegraph anymore. People aren't really using traditional landlines either. Who knows if in 50 years we'll even be using cellphones! Though each of these things is more complicated in many respects than what they replaced, the simple takeaway here is that there is a desire to communicate that looks for faster and more efficient means of communication. So while a cellphone is infinitely more complicated than a telegraph line, the desire and ability to communicate has not changed. There's the simplicity.

The Church needs to adapt to the times without sacrificing the simplicity of the gospel. To make the means by which the message is communicated the message itself is wrong, but to bury our heads in the sand and cling to what's old out of some misguided sense of authenticity is just as wrong.

Perhaps Occam's Razor can be used to shave away the complicated mess the church has sometimes found itself in, and return to a simple message communicated through even our means today.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Importance of Character

It would be difficult to tell by this election that character matters for anything. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have tremendous character flaws, too many for me to even cite here. It's hard to find anyone that would say they are voting for one or the other based on their ability to lead. The more likely reason is that voting for one is not voting for the other, because the other is a terrifying thought to them.

Maybe it's just me, but that isn't enough to justify a vote for either candidate. As an American citizen I may have the right to vote, but neither of them has earned the right to have my vote. For me, character matters.

Due to some very good conversations I have been having recently, I took the opportunity to look back into history, and in particular the Presidents. I have been reading a book that I'll simply refer to as Founding Rivals (its title is pretty long). The character of George Washington is touched on throughout, but the thing about him that stood out to me was that when the Congress convened to correct the problems of the Articles of Confederation, he came out of his well earned retirement to lend credibility to the proceedings that would give us our Constitution and Bill of Rights. His desire may have been to settle into a peaceful existence and be removed from public life, but he set that aside as he recognized his country needed him once more.

Few Presidents have ever had such extraordinary circumstances they had to deal with, so in a way it's difficult, if unfair, to compare any other President to our first under the Constitution. Despite that, there are a few that I believe showed some real character, putting the good of the people they had been entrusted to serve above their own good.

One that comes immediately to mind (maybe because I have been studying his Presidency recently) was that of Gerald Ford. By all accounts his political aspirations never reached beyond Speaker of the House. It was said that he never stated publicly or privately that he wanted to be the President. Maybe he had seen the perils with Lyndon Johnson's Presidency, despite passing landmark civil rights bills. Certainly the office had not recovered much integrity with Spiro Agnew (vice President under Nixon) resigning his office, and the Watergate scandal that would see Nixon resign a year later.

Under Amendment 25, Ford was selected and confirmed in both houses of Congress at the Vice President, largely because he was honest, trustworthy, and straightforward. When Nixon resigned, he became the first person to become President under the Constitution to have not been on the ticket, and remains the only one up till this time.

With high inflation, an energy crisis, getting out of an unpopular war, and public confidence in the nation's highest office eroded, he faced a daunting task, saying "I am acutely aware that you have not elected me as your President by your ballots, and so I ask you to confirm me as your President with your prayers. And I hope that such prayers will also be the first of many."

A month later he made perhaps the most unpopular decision of his Presidency: the pardoning of Richard Nixon. Though derided at the time, it has come to be seen as the right, even courageous move given the state the nation was in. It was a move that likely cost him re-election.

Though plagued with problems during his less than 3 years in office, he managed to restore the confidence of the American public in the nation's highest office, worked toward equality in pay for men and women, and may have contributed to some of Ronald Reagan's successes.

What I admire about Ford is he cared deeply about doing the right thing for the right reasons, regardless of what people, pundits, politicians, advisers, would say otherwise. Though his Presidency was neither an outright disaster nor a resounding success, his may have been the most important (in my opinion) in the last 50 years.

As Christians, we are called to reflect the character of Christ. A story is conveyed in the gospels about how Jesus simply wanted to get away from the crowds that were following Him. John the Baptist had been killed, and He needed time alone with the Father. He saw however the need of the people, and was moved with compassion. They were hurting, they needed the truth of God conveyed to them, their leaders had betrayed them and used the Law to burden them.

It's become too easy for leaders, even Christian ones, to use their influence in ways that downplay the importance of character. It is clear in scripture though that to God, character matters. Being made in the image of God, and redeemed by the blood of Christ, we have a responsibility to bear His image to a world that needs to understand just how important character is. It's not about popularity, or being so enamored with power and influence that ends will justify means. It's doing what the Holy Spirit leads us to do regardless of what others say.

We must stand for truth, and there is no greater truth than that which is in God. His Spirit must guide us, and we must obediently follow. The result will be seen in our character and conduct, and the world will know that, in Christ, there is a difference. They won't see greatness in the ones we're running for our nation's highest office. But they will see it in us if we let the character of Christ define our character.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Minor Prophets, Major Message: Haggai (audio)

"Consider your ways." This simple message was likely what really got the attention of Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah appointed by Darius, King of the Medo-Persian empire, as well as Joshua the High Priest. The words were spoken by the prophet Haggai, on the occasion that while they had been back in Judah for awhile, the Temple was in a state of disrepair. Meanwhile the people were living in completed homes, yet their circumstances otherwise were not so good.

"Consider your ways" is the prophet's way of saying "Get your priorities in order." The rulers and the people listened.

In the sermon below, the emphasis is on priorities and the nature of holiness. Consider your own ways as you listen to it.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

If You're Getting Steamed Up, Try Being Poured Out

There's the old nursery rhyme that I'm sure we've all sung and done the motions to:

I'm a little teapot, short and stout
Here is my handle, here is my spout
When I get all steamed up hear me shout
"Tip me over and pour me out."

The concept is simple: you fill a teapot full of water, you set it on a heat source, the water molecules get all excited because they're being heated, the temperature inside the teapot rises until it reaches the boiling point, and then the steam that's released through the spout creates a "whistling" sound that lets everyone in earshot know that the water is boiling.
At this point though you're faced with a choice: do you pour out the boiling hot water and use it for the purpose that the water was initially poured into it? Or do you simply remove the teapot from the heat source and let the contents cool off?

As a pastor I have dealt with many "teapots" that love to whistle. Something is causing the temperature of what's inside them to rise and come to a boiling point. Once that boiling point is reached they'll let everyone willing to listen know that they're steamed. The choice is then theirs as to what they're going to do about it.

Just like a teapot though, we can't fill ourselves. Instead we must be filled by an outside source. So perhaps the first couple things to figure out is who is going to be filling us, and what are we going to be filled with?

Scripture informs us that we are made to be filled with the presence of God. Acts 1:8 makes it clear that the Holy Spirit, sent from God, gives believers the power to be Jesus' witnesses in all the world. Then in Acts 2 we see the beginnings of believers being filled and doing what Jesus taught and showed them. When you read further in Acts, you read about daily collections of provisions so that needs could be met, and healing taking place for those who were ill. In other words, the Spirit getting stirred up in the life of the believer compels us to "whistle" about those things which aren't right in the world. But whistling isn't enough.

A teapot also can't pour its contents out on its own. It must be moved by an outside force. For the Christian, this means our lives must be in submission to the Lord, and the Spirit in us must be poured out by our Savior wherever and however He sees fit, to fulfill His purpose.

The book of Acts, chapter 8 beginning in verse 4, we read about the other possibility. A man by the name of Simon saw the power of the Holy Spirit and those being moved by God, and he wanted that power too. He was described as being a magician in and around Samaria, but he saw what real power looked like among his brethren, the Bible says he believed and worked alongside Philip.

What happened next though exposed him. Simon witnessed the apostles Peter and John travel to Samaria, lay hands on the people, and be filled with the Holy Spirit. As someone who enjoyed power to influence and manipulate others, he was intrigued by this power and offered the apostles money so that he too could have it. But instead he was rebuked by Peter, who told him he needed to repent. Rather than repent though, Simon requested that Peter pray that calamity not befall him. Tradition would go on to state that "Simon Magus" would establish a gnostic sect of Christianity that opposed the teaching of the Apostles, and that Simon himself attempted to establish himself as the "Power of God." His name was also lent to "Simony", a term that means those who purchase ecclesiastical offices.

While Simon was said to believe in what Philip preached, and was baptized, like the other Samaritans he was not yet filled with the Holy Spirit. Much of the power he knew and craved remained a strong part of his life. When confronted with the power of the Holy Spirit and how it was freely bestowed, he desired that power for himself and was willing to pay for it, as was a common practice among magicians. The things that stirred him were his own desire for power and influence. His refusal to repent showed his heart was hard.

It matters what we are filled with.

There are people in the church who may have a level of belief, maybe they've even been baptized, but when they "whistle" because they've been stirred up and they're heated, the substance they've been filled with becomes evident.

Some will pour out anger, or bitterness. They will speak against others in the church, maybe even all the way up to the leaders and pastor. They'll try to stir others up. Nothing short of gaining their way will ever be right. And unless they repent they will never be satisfied.

Others may simply withdraw from what's causing them to heat up. Apathy and withdrawal never does any good though. The religious establishment of the first century was oppressive, far from what God intended it to be. Jesus though engaged the world around Him and brought the presence of God to the people's circumstances. He saw there was a lot wrong, but He didn't sit back and remove Himself. Withdrawing from the church and the people, even if they are in the wrong, is not what the Spirit inside us compels us to do, or what submission to the authority of God allows us to do.

Looking beyond some of the issues that bring disputes inside the church, what about the things that go on in the world? Injustice, poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, homelessness, and many others? Do these stir the Spirit in us? Are we simply going to "whistle" when these get to a certain point? Or are we "teapots" willing to be poured out and used as God intended us to be?

Who knew that a simple nursery rhyme could provide an object lesson.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Minor Prophets, Major Message: Zephaniah (audio)

We are in interesting times, but if we think the Bible has nothing to say to the times we're living in, we'd be very wrong.

The messages of the minor prophets have shown that to be true, and Zephaniah is no exception. Unlike many of the other prophets, he was quite connected to the royal family in Jerusalem. He was the great grandson of Hezekiah and relative of the current king, Josiah. Both of those kings had done some very good things, but they both made some big mistakes as well. Though they introduced religious reform and tore down the high places where pagan gods were worshiped, they both also demonstrated some pride of their own and God made His displeasure with them known.

The book of Zephaniah makes it clear that those who are prideful, arrogant, and boastful have the most to dread when it comes to the day of the Lord. This can mean the rulers of the land, the priests, even the merchants, the ones who hold the most influence over a nation. This can also mean other nations who despise the people of God and boast of their own abilities. Those whom God spares when His judgment is poured out are those who, in humility, follow through with His commands and are obedient. In a time when our politics runs on the arrogance and boasts of its candidates, and Church leaders flock to them despite that, this is a message that we need to hear. Politics can't save us, only humble submission to the will of the Lord can.

The sermon from this past Sunday is just below. Take a listen, share, and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What's Your Identity?

This past Sunday, a young man who grew up in the Dansville Free Methodist Church and spent a semester of his college education in Uganda, spoke to the congregation at DFMC about the experiences he had and what he learned from his time there.

Of course there was the culture shock, but not in a way that he expected, as he said he stayed in places with indoor plumbing, electricity, and television. All too often we see the pictures of extreme poverty and people who don't have enough food to eat. While that may have been one of the most surprising things he had to deal with, it was when he talked about the week he spent in Rwanda that I was surprised.

A little over 20 years ago, the Hutus and the Tutsis, tribes within Rwanda, were involved in one of the largest genocides to ever take place on the African continent. I was ten years old at the time and I don't remember too much about it, but what I learned was that just prior to the genocide it was common that they would live, inter-marry, and even worship together. He went into one church that has since been marked as a memorial (several other churches have been so marked as well) where they claimed to worship the very same God. That did not stop the violence though.

For some people it may seem that to worship God (or god, gods, goddesses, a force, etc) there must be violence. Devotion to their beliefs entails a willingness to commit unspeakable, unfathomable acts. Sadly, even if the intentions were initially good, people of the church have waged all-out war, turned to terrorism for political goals, and even tried to forcibly maintain their own ideas of orthodox belief. Protestants though were not exempt from these acts either.

I would contend though that it isn't a belief in God that brings about violence. Christ Himself taught that the greatest command is love for God and love for our neighbors, whom He defined as the rest of humanity. I would say though that when we view our identity in the labels we give ourselves rather than in who we are in Christ, that's where the trouble is.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I was aware (though I didn't quite understand) that the label "American" equaled "good", and "Soviet" equaled "bad." By extension, everything "American" was good, everything "Soviet" was bad. Pretty simple and straightforward, not difficult to grasp even in my young mind.

I get that the political state of the world was in perpetual fear of nuclear annihilation because the USA and the USSR had nuclear missiles that could wipe each other out several times over (wouldn't once be enough?). The USA had church leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson influencing politics and putting out a belief that God must be on the side of America. And the "Commies" had no God, or god, or gods, they believed in. So they ultimately must be defeated. In order to defeat them and make the world a safe place, there must be a strong military.

As I grew older and more aware, I learned of more labels. Though we were all American, if you were a "Republican American" you believed more in God than a "Democrat" American, and you wrapped the flag around the Bible. If you were a "Democrat" American you might have a passing belief in God but you were more concerned about social issues and making the government the answer to everything.

There were more labels though. I was raised in Wesleyan Holiness churches (Wesleyan and Nazarene). Then, once I attended a Christian school in a Baptist church, I learned that I was an "Arminian" (I hadn't heard that term up to that point) and they were "Calvinist." I learned that "Arminian" was a derogatory term in Baptist and other "Reformed" circles for a variety of reasons.

But the labels didn't end there. As I graduated from high school and began formulating my own views, I learned about immigration. Immigrants may have been called "Mexican", but often I heard references to "they" or "them." I could go on and on, but I won't. I believe the point has been made.

As I read through scripture though, I read that the God the Bible describes isn't as concerned about labels as we seem to be. Yes, there are different nationalities and tribes, but God doesn't stereotype or hold them to those labels. He seems to be a God that is more concerned about His people demonstrating to the rest of the world His goodness, and they in turn seeking after Him. He was the God who sent warning to Nineveh so that they may be spared. Jesus began falling out of favor when He spoke of the compassion God showed other nations throughout history. The Apostle Peter was surprised that the Holy Spirit could be poured out on Roman imperialists, and the Apostle Paul went intentionally to the Gentiles.

Among Jesus' disciples was the aforementioned Peter, who was what we might consider a Jewish nationalist. There was also Matthew, who was Jewish by birth, but employed as a Roman tax collector, and someone whom Peter would probably have had brutal arguments and fights with.

In addition, both before and after Jesus' death and resurrection, He was asked if the time was coming when the kingdom was going to be restored, meaning Israel, and Roman rule would be overthrown. Jesus however turned their attention to other matters. When He spoke of the Kingdom of God, He wasn't referring to a re-establishment of an earthly kingdom, but the citizenship that all who have faith in Him and submitted their lives to Him have. It is also this Kingdom that scripture says we are to seek first.

What this tells me is that God is less concerned about promoting Republicans over Democrats, or even vilifying them as the enemy; He's less concerned about promoting America over and above the rest of the world; He's less concerned about keeping people in neat little boxes with our labels. He seems to be concerned about breaking the power of sin and death in our lives, and restoring that image of Himself He created us in through what Christ has done.

When we meet Christ face to face, He's not going to ask us "Were you a good American who always voted Republican in order to get conservative federal judges in place? Even if that Republican wasn't moral?"

It seems to me God wants His Church, His Kingdom, His people, to reflect Him in every imaginable aspect. When there is injustice in the world, He calls His Kingdom to speak His justice. Where there is unrest, we need to speak His peace. Where there is apathy, we must speak His love. The prophet Micah spells it out explicitly for us: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.

When we care more about our political parties, our national identity, our ethnic identity, our sexual identity, and we care less about the people God commands us to be, we won't be the people God commands us to be. Don't get me wrong, these distinctions do exist, and they are important. It isn't my intention to dismiss them. But they aren't as important as who we are in Christ, for He is the One we as His people must represent above each of these. Otherwise, we aren't a people made in the image of God, but a people trying to make a god in our own image.

Who knows what evil could have been prevented had the people of God made that their most important and foremost identity?