Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Cutting Budgets Has a Moral and Human Cost

ALL ACROSS AMERICA, IN WASHINGTON, D.C., STATE CAPITALS, COUNTY seats and city halls hard decisions are being discussed about how to cut government budgets.  This is no longer even a debate about “whether” to cut, and unfortunately, neither is the “what.”  It seems that all that’s left to decide is, “How deep to cut the human services budgets?”

Today (February 7, 2011), the governor of Florida announced his intention to cut the state’s budget by $4.6 billion, which includes $1.4 billion to pay for additional tax cuts for property owners and corporations.  And what will these cuts impact?  Public education is the big loser ($3.3 billion), along with services for the disabled and for children and family services ($352 million).  But he found a way to almost double the budget for his office to $638 million.

But, what was most disheartening was to hear the cheers from the 1,000 plus people who gathered in the Baptist church, often interrupting his speech with applause.  Cheers . . . not tears.

And Florida isn’t alone.  This is happening all across America – and while people gather to cheer the news of tax and spending cuts – tens of thousands of people . . . families, children, the old, the sick, the disabled, and many more . . . are facing a bleak future.  And while they shed tears of despair, fear and pain – we cheer.

I don’t write this to rant against these cuts – there are many sides to this debate with decisions that are difficult at best – but I do write to remind us what God, through His prophet, Isaiah, said He expects from His followers:

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?”                                           
Isaiah 58: 6 & 7 

“If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul . . .” 
Isaiah 58: 9 & 10

During his all too short life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about many injustices, including a society that creates, then ignores, the poor while building its own wealth so it can consume even more.

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.  On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act.  One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. 

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”                                 
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)

No – I don’t have any answers to this financial crisis faced by governments all across America.  But I do know that cutting essential services for food, childcare, healthcare, housing, and education should be felt by more than just those suffering from the cuts.  The pain is real, and we should share it, too.

When we share the pain of the hurting, we share the pain of God . . . and when we share this pain, and do something about it, God says

“Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’”  
Isaiah 58, vs. 8 & 9

“Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.” 
                                                                                                                    Isaiah 58, vs. 9

Let’s save the cheering for when “our light breaks forth like the morning.”  In the meantime, let’s “extend our souls,” and by doing so help “satisfy the afflicted souls.”


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Do This and Please ME (God)

DURING A SERMON one Sunday a few years ago, I opened my Bible to the middle, hoping to find Psalms.  I knew from hours of “Sword Drill” practiced on Sunday evenings while growing up in a Southern Baptist Church that it would be in the middle, but when the pages fell open I had turned to Isaiah, chapter 58.  I was close, but before I could flip the pages my eyes fell on these words in verse eight . . .

…the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

     God has my back?  Really?  MY rear guard!  What a thought, the glory of the Lord shall be my rear guard.  But how?  What was God saying through Isaiah?  What was God saying to me?
     I’m sure I had read that chapter before.  After all, I had won a pin for reading the Bible through years earlier—but why didn’t this phrase sound familiar, why didn’t this promise register with me? 
     I read on.  The chapter recounts God calling the people to account for false fasting.  In this context, “fasting” referred to a type of offering the people thought (or pretended) to be offering through the piety of their words.  God scolded them in verses 1-5 for “saying one thing but doing another.”  For instance, in verses 3-4 He says . . .

In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers.  Indeed you fast for strife and debate, and to strike with the fist of wickedness.

     But then God lets them know what kind of fast/offering He does expect.  Lives of service to others, but not just “any others” – lives of service to what Jesus would later call “the least of these” – those who are oppressed, hungry, naked, forgotten.
     And He doesn’t stop there, He promises to honor that kind of life of service. In this paraphrase of these promises, listen for the joy of the Lord in those who serve the most vulnerable in society . . .

And when I AM pleased, MY smile of pleasure will warm your face. 
And when I AM pleased, MY joy will heal the broken places in your soul. 
And when I AM pleased, I AM will have your back in any alley, valley or cave. 
And when I AM pleased, I AM will answer your calls for help
     you will know that “I AM is near.”

     Like many, we learned about serving others from the lives of our parents.  We watched them “do unto others” with no expectation of return.  We watched them sacrifice time and money for the poor.  We watched them stand up for the oppressed during the civil rights movement in the turbulent 50’s and 60’s—not an easy thing to do in Central Florida for a white man and his wife, especially a prominent businessman and community and church leader.  But, they did it in spite of threats to our safety, the business, and their reputation. 
     So why did Isaiah 58 impact me so?  I think it “hit me” that this type of service wasn’t something that Christians did when they got around to it, or that we did on Sunday mornings when the missionary told a story of need and we made a love offering contribution.  No, what “hit me” was that serving others, especially “the least of these” was not “one of” the expectations God has for our lives, it is “the main thing” He wants His kingdom here on earth (me, you, us) to do.

Let's Just Imagine

LET'S JUST IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT what might happen in our family, community, nation, and world if all believers helped usher in the Kingdom of God on earth!
     When more people embrace their role in the Kingdom of God here on earth, their minds, eyes, ears, hands, feet and voice will be used to reflect their faith.
     They will use their eyes to look for needs that are unmet, and to watch over those in positions of authority. 

     They will use their ears to listen for the cries of those in pain, and to hear and address the comments that demean those in need. 

     They will use their mind to think of ways to get involved, and to question for themselves what God would have them do for Him.
     They will use their hands to do what is needed, remembering that it is through their hands that Jesus touches the “least of these.” 

     They will use their feet to go where needed – overseas, across the street or into the voting booth – to bring the Kingdom of God to those in need.

     They will use their voice to speak up and out for those without voice, and to hold those with power accountable to remember “the least of these” when making decisions. 

Wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a nation like that!?!

Why Will the Poor Always Be With Us?

THIS PHRASE, SAID BY JESUS and recorded in Matthew 26:11, John 12:8 and Mark 14:7, is too often used to deflect our involvement in serving the poor.  Even though research doesn’t justify this interpretation, just the other day I heard a believer say, “Jesus said there will always be poor so we can’t do anything about it.

     Why would Jesus say this?  Did He want to condemn the poor to eternal poverty?  NO! Even a casual reading of the Bible reveals how close God holds the poor to His heart.  He cares for them.  He commands us to care for them.  He rewards those who do care for them, and His justice will prevail for those who cause the poverty and who ignore those in need.

     Maybe a better way to ask Jesus’ question is, “Maybe the poor are here to serve us, the non-poor?” Let’s explore that idea. What can the poor do for us?

Maybe the poor are always with us to remind us of the blessing of where, when and to whom we were born.  While not everyone was born into a situation of non-poverty, millions in America have been born into crushing poverty with no hope for a change in their life’s arc without some form of help.  And while it is true that most Americans go to bed overfed and overweight, there are still millions who go to bed hungry.  The best way to avoid poverty in America is to be born well.

Maybe the poor are always with us to give us the opportunity to serve them in their need.  Jesus said He came to serve and He set the example for His followers to serve others; and in so doing we become like Him.  The poor need help, and we are God’s plan to deliver that help. While I believe that God can command it and the poor will be rich, I also know that God has provided resources, mostly through the human story, to satisfy the needs of all who live, wherever they live.

Maybe the poor are always with us because serving others, especially the “least of these” always blesses the giver.  There is a difference between a “gift” and a “bribe.”  A gift is something given, or done for another, without ANY expectation of return.  A bribe is something given to influence the conduct of another.  If we expect recognition or reward for giving a gift it ceases to be a gift – it becomes a bribe.  So it is with serving others.  If we seek thanks, recognition or reward for helping others we are not serving as Jesus commands; and the poor usually cannot return the favor other than to say “thank you.”  But serving others in a genuine giving attitude does have its own reward.  It just feels good to do the right thing.  The experience of truly giving to others blesses the giver with a joy not found in other ways.  True giving, is a way to glimpse and reflect God’s own heart.

Maybe the poor are always with us so we can gain perspective on our own economic condition.  The more I feel sorry for my own economic situation, the more I need to see the poor.  For instance, I have $25 in cash in my wallet which is more money than 50% of the world’s population will see in two weeks.  If I wrote a check for $1,000 that would be more money than 2.7 billion people have for a whole year.  God’s perspective sees all people as the same, sinner and righteous, poor and rich, sick and healthy – all are created in His image and He loves them all alike.  And while the resources aren’t evenly distributed around His world, the human spirit of creativity, intellect and compassion are; and He expects us to use what He has given us to usher in the kingdom of God here on earth.

Maybe the poor are always with us to allow us to practice sharing the love of Christ. It’s easy to love those closest to us – our family & friends – but it’s another thing when it comes to loving the hard-to-love.  Maybe that’s why Jesus also said, “Love your enemies,” to challenge us to increase our ability and capacity for loving, and for seeing people the way He sees them?  Jesus also reminded us in His story about the sheep and goats that it is frighteningly easy to miss seeing those in need.  An old sports adage says, “Practice makes perfect,” but it really doesn’t.  “Perfect practice makes perfect.”  So maybe we are to lean on Jesus’ perfection as we practice sharing His love outside our comfort zone.  After all, Jesus left His comfort zone to show us God’s love and to set an example for His followers as His workers ushering in His kingdom.

     Even though the poor may always be with us, we don’t have to like it.  We aren’t asked to accept the status quo of poverty – that’s not what Jesus meant.  We are asked to do something about it – that’s also what He said.

     A favorite poem of mine by Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," closes with words that remind me of what Jesus meant when He talked about the poor:

     But I have promises to keep,
          And miles to go before I sleep,
                    And miles to go before I sleep.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Eight Observations

There are eight foundational observations that reflect where the traditional denominational church is; and they form the basis for developing an effective strategy for transforming the church toward full gospel engagement.  (Remember, by “church” I am referring to the “traditional, denominational, local church in America.”)

(1)   The “Church in America” has become the “Americanized Church” putting individual prosperity, “me first” lifestyle, and “you’re on your own” morality ahead of serving others.

(2)   Members are encouraged to “come to the church” to experience Christianity and give their money instead of “going through the church” to serve the world.

(3)   The church’s primary focus is inward – on buildings, staff, raising money, and providing entertainment – leaving very little energy and interest in serving others outside the church.

(4)   Most churches only measure membership and money, not serving others.

(5)   The vast majority of church members are not actively and regularly engaged in the life of the church.

(6)   Most pastor leaders feel they can’t, or shouldn’t, change the “salvation only” emphasis within their congregation.

(7)   Too many members believe that serving others is someone else’s responsibility, and for those that aren’t served, it’s their own fault or God has chosen to ignore their plight.

(8)   Non-denominational churches are growing rapidly in number of churches and actively engaged participants, because their core beliefs include serving others.

We Are Sorry, Lord

As church leaders embark on the path of full gospel engagement it is important that they lead the congregation through appropriate repentance for the roles individuals, staff and congregants have played in ignoring God’s commands to care for the poor, oppressed and brokenhearted. 

This is not an easy thing to do, saying “I’m sorry,” especially if there is no perception of wrongdoing. But if we believe the Bible has always said, “Serve others,” and we have not matched our actions to God’s command, then we have sinned against Him, haven't we? 

Κύριε ελέησον (Kyrie eleison: Lord have mercy) should be our cry – for our disobedience, for painting with our lives a picture of Christ that is not true, for the thousands who have suffered in life while we ignored them, for the souls that have rejected Christ because of how we made Him look, for the prayers and worship that have fallen short of God’s ears because of the barrier of our sin, for believing that God does not care about those in need, and for raising generation after generation in “our image” and not in God’s.

Until we acknowledge our sin in this area, and apologize to God and those we have harmed by our sin, the movement toward full gospel engagement will be missing the fullness of God’s power in our lives.

And once we’ve acknowledged our sin and repented of it – then we should think no more of it.  We are forgiven and that sin, in the past, is now forever forgotten by God and so it should be by us.