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Archive for the ‘poverty’ Category

Once again, I had the opportunity to offer the sermon for the Sunday after Christmas, since our regular pastor is visiting his family in West Virginia.  So what follows is the essential make-up of what I spoke on, Sunday, December 28th.

There’s an old church joke you may have heard before, I’d like to share with you:

There was an economist who was reading 2 Peter 3:8-9 and was quite amazed by it and decided to ask God about it.

He prayed, “Lord, is it true that a thousand years are just like one minute to you?”

The Lord replied, “Yes.”

The economist said, “Well then a million dollars to us must be like one penny to you.”

The Lord replied again, “Well, yes.”

Thinking he had the perfect plan, the economist then asked, “Lord, can I have a penny?”

To which the Lord replied, “Absolutely.  Just give Me a minute.”

How often do we find ourselves in this economist’s position, praying for what we think we need and struggling when God’s response appears to be, “Wait”

The Gospel passage for this week that churches across the country are teaching from is Luke 2:21-40, often known as Simeon’s Song.  If you could turn in your Bibles to that passage, and if you don’t have a Bible with you, there are some under most of the chairs.  Luke is the third Gospel, in the New Testament.  Just a few days ago, we covered most of the first two chapters during Christmas Eve services…

Luke writes, “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.   When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29″Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
30For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

33The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”

This entire reading is about waiting.  Jesus waits a week to be circumcised, Mary waits 33 days from the circumcision to be purified and reenter the temple, according to the Levitical law.  Anna had been worshipping at the Temple for probably more than 60 years, waiting for something.  Simeon had been waiting for many years, for he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ.  Now, we don’t know how old he was at the time, although there is a traditional Eastern Orthodox story that would place his age at somewhere around 200+ years at the time he met the Holy Family at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Imagine waiting for almost two centuries for a promise to be fulfilled.  But not only that, it says that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel.

It’s probably not news to you that we as Americans, hate to wait.  We buy microwave dinners, TiVo our favorite shows to watch them commercial-free and logon to the Internet to get our news, rather than waiting for the paper or even the 6 o’clock news.  Yet, we just finished a time of waiting – the season of Advent, a time of waiting and anticipation of the birth of Jesus.  It may surprise you to learn this, but Advent isn’t just a time that commemorates the waiting for Jesus’s birth – it is also the time for anticipating and the celebration of waiting for His eventual return.

So even here in Florida, we’ve been looking forward to Christmas for at least 4 weeks.  Of course, the stores, in a desperate quest for more of our dollars, have been waiting for Christmas since Halloween.  Which just proves that they don’t watch their own sales figures – which show that the last two weekends prior to Christmas are the busiest shopping days of the year.  In fact, Black Friday traditionally ranks as the 8th busiest shopping day of the year, despite all the ads in the Thanksgiving papers.

The season of Christmas, which for the church started on Wednesday night and continues through the next couple of weeks, is about celebrating that the Lord has fulfilled his promise.  It’s reminding us that the waiting is worth it – the promise will be fulfilled in His time, and we will be even better for having waited for it.  I have often thought that when Jesus said in John 14 that he was going to prepare a place for us, he also meant that he was going to prepare us for that place.

Waiting is hard, but it is essential to the Christian walk, which is why some find it so hard to follow Christ, and others preach shortcuts to God’s blessings and peace.  In his book, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, Ben Peterson writes, “What God does in us while we wait is as important as what it is we are waiting for.”

So if we find ourselves waiting, we have to ask, what is God trying to teach me in this place, at the same time realizing that we may not divine the answer or even realize it in hindsight when the waiting we are doing has past.

The second thing this passage teaches is about Reconciliation.  The act of Mary’s being cleansed by the sacrifice is the act of reconciling her body to once again be able to worship God in the Temple.  The consecration of Jesus as the first born is part of God’s reconciliation for the sins of Cain and Adam, both “first” born.

In verse 25, it mentions that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel.  Seven hundred years prior to this instant, Isaiah had prophesied that one would come to reconcile not only the nation of Israel, but also the Gentiles – a portion of the prophecy many in the Temple at the time of Simeon discounted or disbelieved.  Yet Simeon proves he knows his Isaiah – part of his song directly references two passages in Isaiah,

“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, (Isaiah 42:6)

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

And now Simeon knows he can die in peace, dismissed from his service to God.  Even his death, when it comes, will be a sign of hope.

What’s more, the prophetess Anna also proclaims to all that were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, that the child was to fulfill that prophecy.  Unfortunately, I’m sure many of them misunderstood what form the redemption of Israel would take, just as they would 33 years later.

In just a few days, we’ll be celebrating a new year.  2008, for good or bad, will be over and 2009 will begin.  The new year is often a time of change, a time when people have their hopes raised and the future seems somehow brighter, regardless of what may actually happen.  And this year, for many seems like an even bigger and brighter new beginning.

Just three weeks from now, we will be inaugurating a brand new president.  President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of change, that, whether you agree with him or not, resonated with a large portion of the American population.  A population tired of housing slumps, foreclosures, bankruptcies, economic bail-outs and rising unemployment rates.

Obama promises to eliminate all of those worries in a sweeping, expensive ‘New Deal’ style package that could be the most dramatic start to a presidency since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office.  Barack Obama is promising a redemption of the United States, a return to its greatness.  Will Obama truly bring about a change like many hope?  I don’t know, although if history is any reflection, then the answer is probably no.

But regardless of the success of our new president, we have to ask ourselves, where does our hope lie?  Does it lie in politicians and presidents?  Does it lie in money or possessions?  Does it lie in relationships – families, friendships?

Humans have a tendency to look in the wrong places to find their answers – or to forget what sustained them when they had no answers.

When God led the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership, he set them free from a life of slavery, building temples to other people’s gods.  He brought them, eventually, to the Promised Land – or at least their descendants.  Yet, just a few generations later, in an eerie reflection of their slavery in Egypt, Solomon, the son of David, is using slave labor to build the Temple of the Lord, among other things.  After the dedication of the Temple, God comes again to Solomon to warn him what will happen if the Israelites forget their deliverer and turn to serve other gods.  Solomon promises to obey, but halfway through his reign, he has gotten comfortable, disobedient and forgets who gave him the power he wields, prompting God to punish his descendants and once again tear the Israelites from their home, this time culminating with the destruction of the temple, losing the Ark of the Covenant, and more.

In his latest book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Rob Bell points out,

“That’s always the danger, isn’t it?  That we’ll be broken, our empires will collapse, we’ll cry out for help, and when that help comes, when we get back on our feet, when there’s money in our account again, and things are back to how they were, the danger is, once we get it back – whatever ‘it’ is – we’ll forget what just happened.”

We’ll forget that Jesus is the one who saves us, who gives us hope, even in the darkest times, even in the deepest recessions.  I don’t have any figures to back this up, but it looks like church attendance is up across the nation over the past few months.  Not just Christmas Eve, but every Sunday, as people search for answers to the problems in their lives.  The question is, once they have some answers, once they are back on their feet, once their investments start performing again, will they continue to serve God, or will they forget where their hope came from in light of their new-found blessings?  And are we any better?

Our church body, small as it may seem, sponsored two families for Thanksgiving and two more families for Christmas.  In this time of struggling economy, we looked at our blessings, even the small ones, and chose to give, in some cases sacrificially, some of that back to members of our community that were struggling even more than we were.

The challenge is, when things turn around – when we do see better days – and we will see better days – history has taught us that – the United States still holds 90% of the world’s wealth, not to mention other benefits that the rest of the world can’t even imagine – when the waiting is over and the promise comes true, will we still be focused on the One who gives us hope?  Will we remember who He is and what He has called us to do?  Or will we be more like the Israelites, turning our back on the One who saved us and sustained us.

My prayer for you is that you patiently and prayerfully endure the waiting, while seeking to learn and grow, so that when the promise is fulfilled, you remember He who gave you all things, even the very ability to work and earn money.  Reconciliation that leads to hope.  Amen.

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This past weekend I attended a Stewardship training conference for the Lutheran churches in the Florida-Bahamas Synod.  I am the worship leader and stewardship chair for my church, Family of God in Cape Coral, FL, and I went with my pastor and another member of the church to this 1 day conference, hoping to learn something.  Sadly, all I really learned was how far out of step many in the church are.

The day began with prayer – always a good thing – then Pastor Rita, the pastor that serves as the Bishop’s right hand, er, person, did a demonstration of how stewardship works.  If you’ve been around business a while, you’ve probably seen this particular object lesson before – I believe Stephen Covey was the first to use it many years ago.

Pastor Rita pulled out a glass food storage jar and asked folks what kind of minor bills they had to pay – electric, cable, entertainment, food, etc… Then she filled a good portion of the jar with unpopped popcorn.  Turning to larger expenses, she placed pieces of fruit in the jar to indicate our mortgage, car payments, insurances, and finally, with a large grapefruit, our offerings to God.  Of course, the grapefruit stuck out considerably and the point was made – put first things first.  Which was good, and I agree – I always remind people that your tithe is specifically mentioned as coming from your First Fruits.  In fact, back when I was struggling with money, but still wanted to make Christ a priority, I forced myself into a physical discipline to reflect the spiritual discipline.  At the time, I was using a modified version of the envelope system and I forced myself, when I cashed my paycheck, to immediately take out the 10% I wanted to give back to God, so that I was reinforcing, in my mind if no where else, the First Fruits concept.

But I noticed something odd when Pastor Rita reversed the process.  She first added the grapefruit (tithes), then the mortgage fruit, the car payments fruit (a lime), then the insurances, then poured the popcorn over, leaving, about 1-1/2 inches of empty space at the top.  “And that,” she declared, “is the best example I’ve ever seen of how steawardship works.”  Well, this immediately bothered me and I got distracted trying to figure out why.  Then it hit me – here we were, at a church function, surrounded by a few dozen pastors, and NO ONE had mentioned Kingdom Finances.

You see, Pastor Rita’s example was fine – in fact it was a great explanation for the Pareto Principle, espoused by John Maxwell.  However, other than the admonition to put our commitment to God first, it really didn’t illustrate at all the Kingdom Economic principles.  After much thought, I determined what I think is the best way she could have continued the existing example, but bring God into it more:

Place the jar inside a 2″ deep baking pan.  Then take a pitcher of water and pour it over the entire container, filling up the remaining space within the jar and spilling out over into the pan.  You see, when you place God first in your finances, He responds to that – because He wants to, because He loves us – by filing us up to overflowing – providing not only for our needs, but blessing us with an abundance so that we may bless others.  Later in the seminar, during a question and answer session, I brought that up.  I asked, “I know we’re struggling in many churches just to get people to tithe (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is ahead of the ballgame – 2.5% of their members tithe as opposed to the national average in all churches, 1.9%), but why are we not even discussing offerings – those gifts that go above the tithe?”

His response was sadly typical.  While he agreed with me that the tithe should be a floor, not a ceiling, he kind of danced around the fact that there was more of a fear mentality in the Lutheran church than one of looking to bless others – despite Martin Luther‘s personal stance on this issue.

Just to finish off, at the conclusion of the seminar, wherein they handed out materials to all of the attendees that they told us to use in our churches, I noticed that absolutely nothing had been said about teaching the children stewardship.  Maybe it’s just because we are in Florida, often joked about as “God’s waiting room,” but I thought it odd that we were not encouraged to teach our children stewardship, tithing and giving.  When I inquired, I was told that I could request materials via e-mail from the speaker and he would be happy to send them to me, yet no mention was made of this to the larger group.  Which wouldn’t be as big a deal if they hadn’t interrupted our discussion just a few minutes before to explain how to handle snowbirds & part-time residents.  Apparently, they are more important to this church than raising up their children (as few as they are) in the proper Christian beliefs and faith.

On a somewhat related, but different note, an interesting thing has been happening in my area of Southwest Florida recently.  A few short weeks ago, one of our officers at the Fort Myers Police Department was shot in the line of duty.  While I had only met Andy once, I have known his wife and her family for the better part of 25 years.  As part of the community coming together, a number of officers from all of our local police agencies volunteered to stand outside of various shopping centers and Wal-Marts, collecting donations for the family, who has three very young children.  The donations collected (and still being collected in some instances) amounted to well over $100,000.

Recently, some folks have expressed some confusion over why this family was singled out and received such a huge outpouring of community support.  Now, as a friend of the family and former law enforcement officer, I have my own strongly held personal opinions about why the Widman family should be blessed in this way (not to mention Andy took the job to raise money so he and Susanna could go overseas as missionaries), but the detractors raise an interesting point – one they seem willing to back up.  And in that I support them.  They rightly ask, “Where is all of the money for other widows, where is the community support,”  and they are making a lot of noise about starting a fund for those other widows, to which I respond, ABSOLUTELY.  And while you’re at it, let’s take care of the orphans as well.  I’m pretty sure that’s in the Bible…

Dueteronomy 10:17-18 “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”

In fact, the book of Deuteronomy is replete with admonitions to leave behind a portion of your crops, for the fatherless and the widowed.  Twice in that book alone, the writer mentions that you should, “bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

You may recall my article last year, “Why Social Security, Welfare & Medicare Don’t Work – And Never Will,” where I talked about how the church and its people have abdicated their responsibility to care for the least of these to various government programs.  While the almost universal response I got from the people who read the article can be summed up in, “Well, that’s a nice thought, but it’ll never work,” its nice to see that some others – even those without a faith foundation to fall back on – are embracing the same principles.  Now why can’t we get the church involved?

Maybe that’s just too much Jesus for them.  Maybe we should review the words of the great reformer, Martin Luther:

“There is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status. They are all of the spiritual estate, all are truly priests, bishops, and popes. But they do not all have the same work to do.” – Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520)

Now get out there and change the world.

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I’ve always been very vocal about how ridiculous the bankruptcy laws are here in the United States.  Now, stuck in the middle of this nonsense myself, I see even more how poorly things are done.  What’s the solution?  I don’t know, but something needs to change.

You see, I didn’t file for bankruptcy myself.  Sadly, after 4 years, my wife walked out on me and then a couple weeks later told me she was going to file for bankruptcy.  Under much duress (The divorce was her idea – I had hoped since we had started having problems back in December of 2007 that we could still reconcile), I hired a lawyer to prepare divorce papers to protect myself from her bankruptcy. 

An interesting aside – proof enough that things are out of control in this country – remember when you had one attorney and he or she handled everything from lawsuits to criminal offenses?  Well, at least they could handle all matters civil or criminal.  Not any more.  Now we have tax lawyers, divorce lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, personal injury lawyers… There is a separate lawyer (and law firm, unless you’re blessed to be able to afford a $10,000 retainer) and a separate retainer for each and everything you might imagine.

So, I hire this divorce attorney.  She prepares the paperwork.  I have a copy sent to my soon-to-be ex-wife.  On the advice of her bankruptcy attorney (who has never dealt with a divorce case), she refuses to sign the paperwork, instead filing for bankruptcy while begging me for more time to decide what to do.

Now, suddenly, I am stuck in this mess – she takes NO responsibility for any debts – including the house, rental property and unimproved lot that we own.  In the meantime, she takes government subsidized Section 8 rents acquired from the Fort Myers Housing Authority and uses it to pay her lawyer.  Now, the bank that holds the note on the rental property wants the money they haven’t been paid since February of 2008, they’re ready to foreclose, and are planning to hold me responsible for any deficiency between how much they can sell the house for and how much we owe.  They won’t hold her responsible.  Why?  Because she filed for bankruptcy.

So here I am, I am trying to do the right thing – trying to pay my creditors what I owe, but because I am being an upstanding citizen, I am going to get screwed.  Not to mention, if I had been given the rent money that was received from the tenants, I could have paid the mortgage every month and not be facing a default.

What’s more, when I found out she wouldn’t give me the rent and I would be unable to pay the mortgage, I contacted the Mortgage Holder, CitiCorp Trust Bank (now CitiMiortgage), to ask them if they would consider deed-in-lieu of foreclosure.  I was told that they could do nothing until the bankruptcy was settled.  But then they filed to be released from the bankruptcy, got it granted and proceeded with the foreclosure. 

Meanwhile, I’ve now had to hire my own bankruptcy attorney – even though I’m not filing for bankruptcy – to look out for my interests.  A guy who is fighting hard, but is losing against the system – because I didn’t file for bankruptcy.

What is wrong with this country when people who choose to pay their creditors are treated with less consideration than people who are basically telling the government and their creditors “screw you”?  Not only are we screwed by having to pay higher interest rates and taxes and fees to offset the losses from the folks who do file for bankruptcy, we are seen as second-class citizens by the court system.  Granted, I shouldn’t have gotten into debt, and I am trying to get out, but hello!  Shouldn’t hard working people who do their part be given the same consideration as people filing for bankruptcy, accepting welfare and/or getting other government handouts?

And the “new” bankruptcy system is a joke.  I went to the first creditor’s meeting – hoping I could talk to some of my creditors and reaffirm my interest in repaying the debts.  In a room filled with about 20 bankruptcy filers, there was ONE CREDITOR– A private citizen who was listed as a minor debtor – my father.  In fact, the trustee’s representative is so used to not having any creditors that there isn’t a sign-in sheet, guidelines or anything to tell creditors how to behave.  My soon-to-be ex-wife’s lawyer, when confronted by my father with the fact that he hadn’t properly noted her maiden name or business name on the paperwork, replied, “it’s inconsequential – it has no bearing on the debts.”  Except that at least TWO of those debts were IN her maiden name.  Luckily, the trustee agreed.  Upon hearing the transcript, he rejected her bankruptcy payment plan and made her refile.

So here I am.  About to be foreclosed on, broke, still in debt, trying to do the right thing.  What does the government suggest??  WHY DON’T YOU FILE FOR BANKRUPTCY?

Sorry, I can’t do that.  Psalm 37:21 makes it clear that bankruptcy isn’t an option for those who believe: “The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously.”

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