It is time that we obliterate the false dichotomy between faith and works!
Martin Luther, at the dawn of the Reformation, coined the phrase, “Solo fides” – faith alone. The phrase sprang from his study of the book of Romans, in which he discovered that salvation is imputed upon a believer based on a response of faith, and not by any spiritual or moral action conducted on the part of the person.
At the same time, the Roman See was conducting a capital campaign in order to complete the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. One German monk, Johann Tetzel, had proven himself extremely proficient at raising funds through the sale of indulgences. These indulgences were the presumed superabundant leftover merits of prior saints, which the Roman Catholic Church had banked, and would make available to those who desired to reduce their time in purgatory. Tetzel, himself, advocated that “each time a coin in the chest would ring, a soul from purgatory would spring.” Innocent victims of this huckster would gather in crowds to purchase these indulgences for themselves and family who had passed.
Luther considered Tetzel’s selling off of God’s grace a complete distortion of Christian theology. The phrase “Sola fides” emphasized that there are no actions that we can accomplish that will enact salvation on our or other’s behalf. We were and are saved by faith, apart from any work to obtain it.
However, over time the concept of “Sola fides” morphed into a theological position that I believe Martin Luther would not have recognized. A strain of today’s “faith only” theology teaches that since we are saved by faith, and that faith is even a gift imputed by God, works are inconsequential. Faith has absolutely no association with a life of morality or service. Faith can devolve into nothing more than a momentary intellectual acknowledgement. If a person responds to God in faith, it does not matter what they do with the rest of their lives … they can live like hell because heaven is already guaranteed.
The idea that faith and works are, not only two separate manifestations, but two manifestations that have no relationship, connection, or association does not ring true with the words of Scripture.
James responds to such a theological position that seeks to validate faith by a simple statement and a wave of the hand … “I have faith. That solves it!” … by asking to see it! He further presents his argument by saying, “You show me your faith, and I will show you my faith by my actions.” He concludes his argument with the powerful axiom, “Faith without works is dead.”
James clearly thought that there was a decided connection between faith and works. Does that mean that James thought that he earned his salvation by his works? No. But he did believe that faith that did not support itself with actions was nothing more than a lifeless relic, if it was ever faith at all.
The most famous faith chapter in the Bible, Hebrews 11, supports James’ contention that faith is always accompanied by supporting actions. Often this chapter is looked at like a Biblical Hall of Fame, a series of heroic characters and the chronicle of their exploits. Anybody familiar with the chapter is aware of the repetition of the phrase, “By faith …” The phrase occurs 17 times in a 29 verse stretch. Sixteen times these phrases introduce statements of faith articulated by actions.
- By faith Abel … offered.
- By faith Noah … built.
- By faith Abraham … obeyed and went, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.
- By faith Moses’ parents … hid him.
- By faith Moses … refused, left, kept the Passover.
- By faith the people … passed through the Red Sea.
- By faith Rahab … welcomed.
Each one of these chronicles is faith put in action, faith lived out. According to the Hebrew writer, faith is only faith when it is put in action. Not a single one of the statements represents faith as an intellectual exercise, or a philosophical or theological acknowledgement. According to these statements, faith is at least as much a practical reality as it is a more a propositional statement. Every chronicle includes an activity that substantiates the presence of faith.
If you are a person of faith, you have a “by faith” statement. It may be as simple as one of mine, “By faith Steve, even though he possessed an overwhelming fear of speaking in public, became a herald of God’s message in the preaching/teaching ministry.”
Maybe your statement is “By faith …
- Forgave the sins that were committed against her by her family, and surrendered all of the resentments that accumulated over the years.
- Determined to shorten the hours he spent at work, realizing that his first ministry was to his family, and any amount of success would not balance failure at home.
- Told his friends, “I have made a decision that I am not going to talk like that anymore, and I would ask that you respect that.”
- Volunteered to help the older couple down the street with some needed home repairs, as an expression of God’s love.
- Moved the computer into a family access area, so he would have the accountability he needed to help relieve the temptation to feed his lust by frequenting pornographic sites.
- Reached out to her neighbor and invited her to church.
- Quit his job because it required him to make questionable moral calls.
- Gave a permanent home to a child without “a place to call home” and became their family.
The options are innumerable. If you spend a moment reflecting on it, you will probably find that you have more than one. Think through all of the life transformations that faith has brought into your life. Put a verb on them. Write them out. Celebrate that faith has been at work in your life.
If you are having trouble putting together a list, it is not too late to begin. Start writing your list today. Decide on one thing that will change because of the faith that you claim, and by faith live it.
I remember as a child having presents wrapped in finely decorated gift wrap and finished off with ribbon and bows. Other presents were wrapped in old newspaper “funny pages”. Did the wrapping make the gift valuable or was it what was inside that determined the enjoyment I would receive from the gift?
In the urban context, in which I minister, there is a very real “culture of image.” People go to great lengths to show that they are somebody by the name brands that they wear, the car that they drive, etc. They have rejected the axiom, “Clothes don’t make the man,” and redefined that clothes are the most important ingredient for stating who you are.
But I have been to the homes of some of these people so concerned about image. More than a few times, I have seen the absence of furniture in the home of a man possessing several pairs of $200 shoes. On the outside, these characters look like they have it together. However, I have seen, more often than not, that their image betrays a shallowness of soul that does not even reach skin deep because it stops with their apparel.
Yet I still run into people that more than suggest that God is dishonored by people who do not “dress for success” in all of their ribbons and ties for worship. You would be led to believe that God has no sense of humor, and would not appreciate the “funny page” wrappings.
When Samuel was looking for God’s anointed king to replace the dishonored Saul, God had a message for him. As each son of Jesse was paraded past him, Samuel thought this one must be the one, only to have God say “Nah”. Finally, Samuel asked God, “What’s up?”, and God replied, “Man judges by outward appearance, but God judges the heart.” I’m not sure why Samuel needed to be reminded of this. Saul had all of the visible attributes of kingship. He was tall, well-built and handsome, but look at the outcome of his reign.
Jesus confronted the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees, for taking such care to finely manicure the external appearance, but lacking the same care on the internal. He compared them to dishes that have been washed on the outside, but had crusty eggs and cheese stuck to the eating surface and a curdled milk ring around the base of the glass, or even more telling, “whitewashed tombs … filled with dead men’s bones.”
Perhaps another way of expressing his thoughts would be to say that painting the barn doesn’t get rid of the manure inside.
Interestingly the only time in Scripture where “church clothes” are mentioned is when James criticizes the church for giving preferred seating to the wealthy who would come to church decked out in the latest designer togas, while relegating the “thrift store” clientele to standing room only status. But if that wasn’t good enough, they could always sit at the feet of the snappy dresser.
Doesn’t that expose the “dressing up for church shows God more respect” myth?
If I recall, Peter said something similar and suggestive of what I am getting at to the wives of 1 Peter 3. “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
Now, Peter is not telling women hang up the fashionable digs, and put away all the fashion accessories. His point is the inside matters much more than the outside. Truly dressing up is an internal matter, and not a manner of dress.
The wrapper does not always reflect what is on the inside. It only suggests what is in there. The packaging can be extremely misleading. We all have been surprised by what we got once we got past the outer packaging.
Just to make sure I am not misunderstood, I am not telling those who want to dress up for worship that they have to wear jeans and a t-shirt. I am not even telling them to put away the suits and dresses. If you want to dress up go right ahead. However, don’t take the value that you place on dress and ridicule those not inclined to dress up and judge they are disrespecting God.
Let me ask a few more clarifying questions: Does someone by dressing up make their worship more acceptable to God? Does someone dressing casual make their worship less pleasing to God? Can a person who is dressing up for church honor God in that? Does a person who doesn’t disrespect God by their casual attire?
I would answer “No” to all of the above questions except the third. Yet, I know of many people who would answer “Yes” to all four. That is the point I am making.
Why all this talk about “church clothes”? Does it really matter? Yes, because it is really not about our dress. It is about taking the care to dress up the inside, not just the outside. We should never settle for looking good over being good. It doesn’t matter if you look nice, if you are not nice. It is just wrong to think that being righteous is not as important as to look right.
Some people go to worship dressed with Sunday snazz taking as much care to prepare their heart for worship as they do to dress up the outside, but some are nothing more than Jesus’ white-washed tombs, prettied up outwardly, but spiritually lifeless. The same can be said of those who dress casually, or even those deemed to be dressed like bums, in their jeans and t-shirts.
So let’s not be guilty of judging one another on the basis of what we wear to worship. If you believe dressing up is important to your worship and expresses your respect for God, go ahead and get decked out. But do not require that others embrace the value you place on “church clothes.” As long as they dress with modesty (or even if they don’t), let them feel the acceptance from you that God would give to a heart expressing worship. God is more concerned with what is inside of the packaging.
I am the Senior Minister in an urban congregation. We have members who dress very nicely from a retired VP from a multinational corporation in his suit and tie to a traditional “hat and dress” African-American woman. We, also, have members show up in jeans and t-shirts. Then we have the whole assortment in-between. Which of them respects God most? I haven’t given you enough information to answer that question because God is much more concerned with what is inside (the heart of the person) than how the gift is wrapped (their clothing).
God is not impressed by our wrapping. He is more concerned with what is on the inside.
I am somewhat on an expert at killing things … green things with roots and leaves. Give me a healthy plant and I will find someway to brown it and make its leaves fall off in a very short period of time. It may be too much water, too little water, too much light, too much shade, not enough soil nutrients, or an overdose of nitrogen, but I will inevitably find a way to suck the last greening of healthy vitality from any plant.
Our Christian faith is also a living thing, a thing that lives and breaths, grows and develops. It needs tended properly in order for it to experience proper growth. Too much or too little of certain things can spell disaster for our faith. And just like other living things faith can die.
How does one know if ones faith has taken its last breath and settled into a spiritual grave? James gives some insight with his statement, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith that is not producing either life transformation in the person holding it, or demonstrating itself in ministry to others — or both, actually — is at best on life support.
I have to wonder, how many people who profess their faith in Christ, attend church periodically, etc. are gasping through a Christian life that is at best on life support, or at worst seen faith flat-lined.
I would venture to say that most people have not committed homicide with their faith. Most did not detail a plan and with intentionality execute their faith. More often than not, we will struggle with faith-slaughter as we let our faith die through negligence.
How does one massacre their faith? I think Scripture gives us a few answers. Here is a starter list:
1) Don’t consume the life-sustaining Word of God through reading and study. Too may professed believers rely on being spoon fed a spiritual diet that they think should sustain them for an entire week.
I had a neighbor that I envied his lawn. He had thick grass that was full and green even in the dog-days of summer. I was blessed with thin grass with dirt patches that became a lush tan in the heat of the summer. His secret, while I just let my lawn go, he spent hours on weekends on his feeding and seeding. Every month from spring through fall he would take another pass of weed and feed, twice in March or April. While his lawn was getting all the nutrients it needed, mine was starving by mid-June.
Just recently one of our puppies was so sick that it wouldn’t eat for several days. By the second day, I was force feeding him several syringes of chicken broth. After 4-5 days, he was feeling better, and began to eat himself.
When the kids were little, I would take their little spoon (which were so small they had no business being called spoons) and feed them their mashed peas or creamed chicken. But as they continued to grow, they had to take up their own spoons and begin to feed themselves. They couldn’t rely on mom and dad to spoon feed them any more.
As believers, we can’t maintain a growing faith when we rely on the limited spooning of spiritual nourishment that preachers and teachers are able to fill us with. Without learning to feed ourselves through time in God’s Word, reading and studying, we can quickly find that we have starved our faith.
2) Don’t tap into the life-refreshing power of God in prayer. When our faith begins to feel the heat of the dog-days, we can quickly find our faith withering under the stress.
One summer, the city had torn up our corner for a sewer project. When finished they laid fresh sod down on that little piece of corner ground and left instruction to water it daily for 2-3 weeks. A week later, everyone in the Chapman family except for Timothy went on vacation. I left the instructions for Timothy to water the spot twice a day, early morning and after dark. That week proved to be a scorcher with several days seeing the mercury rise above 90 degrees. When we got home, the little piece of ground was a “crisp” brown. I asked Timothy why he didn’t water that patch, and his response was I did once when I saw it was getting dry.
While it would push some people’s limits, the average person could participate in an extended fast of 7-14 days without any medical complications. Some people can fast, as Jesus did, for 40 days. But the average person would be facing dire consequences if they went 3 days without water. While our bodies can adapt to the loss of nutrients over a period of time, it cannot adjust to the loss of fluids. First, you begin to feel sluggish and some muscle aches set in. Irritability sets in. Your blood pressure rises, and you begin to feel dizzy or your thoughts become muddled. Left unchecked death can visit quickly.
Just like our lawns become stressed as the summer moves into dry season, and our bodies shout at us when challenged with dehydration, so our souls can become parched when they are not watered with God’s power through prayer. As we become stressed by the worries, concerns, failures and threats that life throws at us, our faith can easily be pushed to the breaking point without seeking God’s strength to make it through those difficult times. As James put it, “you don’t have because you haven’t asked.” When faith begins to wane, we can quickly let it pass on by neglecting to ask God to shore it up.
3) Don’t develop a life-changing relationship with God. When we place our faith in what we “do” instead of who has already “done” we can burnout our faith.
Imagine a farmer tending the soil. He has turned it. Fertilized it. Spread the proper herbicide. Regularly, during the season, he is back in the field cultivating the rows, spraying more fertilizer, checking moisture, running the irrigation, etc. What do you think his harvest will be like? It will be pretty scarce because he failed to do the planting.
Millions of people in America are gradually killing themselves due to overworking long hours in stress filled jobs. They work. They work. And they work with the idea that some day they will be able to slow down and enjoy the life of ease they have created for themselves. Some of them never get there, their hearts give out long before that anticipated rest arrived.
Many church-goers act as if Christianity is a religious set of activities added to their lives. They go to church, they pray at meals, they live a relatively moral life, and they read their Bibles. They may be very busy with spiritual activity, but it has all left them exhausted, and they are discouraged by the fruitlessness of all their efforts. Long before their time has past their spiritual heart gives out on the things of God.
What they have missed is that Christianity is more about a relationship with God that changes everything about life than about doing things for God. In their busyness, faith dies because it was placed in their accomplishments, instead of the Almighty.
4) Don’t exemplify the life–giving love of God. Make Christianity into a consumer good instead of a life of love to be freely given away.
The scientific studies that show plants that are treated affectionately respond with increased growth have always intrigued me. The studies say that plants that are treated with soft-tone conversation, peaceful music or gentle touch flourish much more than those that do not receive such treatment.
Many Christians see faith growth through the lens of plant growth. Provide for me. Touch me. Speak to me. Give me. Give me. Give me. Faith becomes a consumer good. As long as I have what I need I will be spiritually satisfied.
But we kill our faith when we make ourselves the plant instead of the life-giving gardener.
A study by Karl Menninger in the 70’s showed that we are unlike plants at this point. His ground breaking study showed that the best treatment for patients with clinical depression was to get them engaged in serving others. They were not healed as effectively through therapy that encouraged them to find their own fulfillment, but found greater fulfillment when used as a channel of fulfillment for others.
John, in 1 John, indicates that when we fail to love others we are guilty of murder. And the love he defines is not a feeling, but tangible actions that exhibit life-giving love. In looking at the larger context of 1 John you can also say that we are guilty of our own spiritual suicide when we fail to exhibit the love of God through loving one another.
Longing to kill your faith, just live a self-centered and self-serving life. Forget about the needs of others. Make life all about you.
5) Don’t protect from life-draining spiritual distractions. When you dive too deeply into this world and forget that there is more than this world.
Now, you may not be like me. You may have a green-thumb. Plants may blossom and bloom in your presence. Tending your garden may even be one of the joys of your life.
However, although God created humankind from the dust of the ground, and someday when our bodies have worn out we will return to the dust from which we were formed, he didn’t create us to live our lives in the dirt. We wouldn’t be alive very long if we were to make ourselves at home with the garden plants – burying ourselves in the dirt with the hopes of sprouting forth. Oxygen supplies run low with a face full of dirt.
But many Christians believe that they can make themselves at home in this world, and easily cross back and forth between life in this world and life in God’s kingdom. Physically I am exiled to this world, as the song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Jesus prayed that his disciples would be in the world, but not of it. Demas left his ministry with Paul because “he loved this world.” 1 Peter says that we are strangers and aliens in this land.
When we make ourselves too much at home in this world, our love for God will be replaced by a love for our possessions, our jobs, our families, our homes, our cars, or any number of other pleasures confined to this life. Your spiritual life will be drained by all of the distraction and pursuits of this world leaving no room for the refreshing love of God.
Don’t force your faith to flat-line. Give it everything it needs to live and grow.
Do you want to change the world? You might be thinking, “Of course I do but I’m just a pretty ordinary person. Most days I can hardly manage to change my printer cartridge, much less the world.”
I understand, but consider this: Two millennia ago a group of believers in Jesus Christ, led by twelve men, armed with little more than the message of the gospel, turned the world completely upside down. This was a relatively small group of believers who began meeting in an obscure upstairs room. They lacked almost every advantage we enjoy today. They didn’t have mass media, computer and satellite technology, or stadium rallies.
The story of Christmas is the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; Emmanuel, God with us. The Creator of the universe stepped onto the human stage, and shared in the lives of the creatures he created.
Yet, when Jesus robed himself in human flesh, his experience was more than knowing hunger, feeling sleepy, or having indigestion. His walk in our shoes wasn’t just stroll through the mundane episodes of our lives. And it definitely was not simply God parading in human form.
Perhaps one of the most significant ways the reality of Christ sharing our humanity was in his exposure to temptation. While we may tend to minimize Jesus’ battle with temptation, the writer of Hebrews gives us a very revealing look at it by saying Jesus “was tempted in every way, just as we are …” Now think about that for a moment. Jesus knows first hand our struggle with temptation.
- Are you ever tempted to indulge your physical needs to the neglect of your spiritual needs?
- Do you experience pressure to compromise your moral or ethical standards for a short-cut in fulfilling your life goals?
- Does the promise of material possessions or monetary gain have any power to alter your decisions?
- Do you battle with stepping across some ethical line to find popularity, acceptance or love?
Secondly, “just as we are” indicates the similarity in manner of our temptation. James 1 says that we are tempted when we are enticed by our own evil desires. It is the enticement of temptation that makes it a devil to deal with. But sometimes we make temptation too easy on Jesus because we make it something he easily, thoughtless brushes aside with a dismissive wave of his hand. But this texts suggests, there had to be some attraction, some allure, to Jesus or it wasn’t temptation.
Further, when Jesus was tempted, he had the capacity to sin. When I was young, I was taught Jesus couldn’t sin because he was God, and “God can’t sin”. But if Jesus could not have sinned, then he was not tempted “just as we are.” In our struggle with temptation, sin is a very real possibility. If Jesus was tempted in every way just like us the capacity to sin had to be a reality. The difference was not in the potential result of sin, but in the actual result of sinlessness. Empathy with the sinner in his trial does not depend on the shared experience of sin, but on the strength of the temptation to sin which only the sinless know in its full intensity.
It is nice to hear that God has not left us alone to battle our temptations or that he understands our struggle … but that is not the best news. The best news is that since Jesus walked through our struggle with temptation and remained sinless, he is able to provide mercy and grace to us when we fall to temptation. When temptation gets the best of us, God gives us the best of his grace because of Christ. Jesus helps us when tempted by sometimes giving us the victory to defeat it, and other times by gracing us when it defeats us.
So this Christmas, as you stroll through the holiday season, remember the one who walked in your shoes. Recall that since he shared your battle with temptation, he is always there ready to help, ready to extend his grace. Then thank him for not leaving you alone.
All across FACEBOOK people are tracking us through the 30-days of Thanksgiving during the month of November. The items for which they are thankful include the predictable spouses, children, jobs, homes, etc., and some not so predictable a battle with cancer, a forced relocation and a number of other circumstances of which we could easily understand not being thankful. But I have resisted writing these lists.
Now, before you get me wrong … let me clarify … I do not have a problem with people sharing things for which they are thankful. I believe that such a list can be a nice testimony declaring the trustworthiness of God’s provision. So do not take me to say, “I don’t do thanksgiving.”
Just think: thanklessness is near epidemic in our society. It seems that the more we have been blessed with the less we have to be thankful for because we have come to presume privilege … that which we possess we deserve. As this thanklessness expands there is no thank-you granted to those who hold the door, say a kind word, or give a gift, because they should … they owe it to us.
We definitely need to reorient our thinking to include giving thanks … to God, but also to others as well.
So what am I saying? It is about putting the emphasis on the right syllable. It is not, “I don’t do thanksgiving,” but “I don’t do thanksgiving in November.”
There has been a national reservation for Thanksgiving even since our first President, George Washington, was asked by Congress to proclaim such a day dedicated to “publick thanksgiving” following his first inauguration. That first Thanksgiving was November 26 of 1789. Over the next 70 years, a day of Thanksgiving was celebrated annually on unpredictable dates in the fall, usually in November. Abraham Lincoln codified the month with the official proclamation that cemented one day of November and Thanksgiving together in his proclamation that the last Thursday of November was Thanksgiving. Then Congress officially changed the Thanksgiving Day commemoration to the fourth Thursday of November in 1941.
So what is my problem with November? I don’t have one. Great things happen in November. My birthday is in November. I started dating my wife in November (but she wasn’t my wife at the time). College basketball season gets rolling in November. Election Day is in November (okay that my be a reason to not give thanks).
Here is my point: Thanksgiving should not be restricted to one day or even one month a year. Paul instructs us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Thanksgiving should constantly be expressed. It should ooze from our lives and flow from our lips, not according to the calendar, but according to the graciousness of God.
It seems to me that the only time of year that the necessity of giving thanks to God for the waves of blessings that we find ourselves swimming in every day occurs to us is just before we put ourselves into a turkey-induced tryptophan coma.
I don’t do thanksgiving in November because 30-days is an insufficient amount of time to catalogue the things for which God deserves my thanks. I want God to wake me to the beauty of His blessings throughout the year, and to have a heart that wells up with gratitude to such a great God.
I don’t want to restrict that to a day, or even a month. Maybe we could try a year of thanksgiving … or a lifetime would even be better.
If every Christian has received spiritual gifts to be utilized for the spiritual growth and development of the Body of Christ, why do we still have an 80/20 problem? You know 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. That leaves the last 80% of the people to complete the remaining 20% of the ministry, if it gets done at all. Too few are attempting to accomplish too much, while too many contribute too little.
The crisis in the church is that we have cultivated far too many “pew potatoes” … people who see their spiritual obligation as attending church on Sunday morning and throwing a few dollars in the offering plate. Pew Potatoes turn the church into a consumer enterprise … something that is about members manipulating other members to give them what they want.
A pew potato in the Body of Christ might be compared with a Mr. Potato Head that has been stripped of all of its parts . Here you do not have body parts in competition for attention and supremacy. There are no eyes. No ears. No mouth, arms, or nose. Because no pieces are in place, the body is incomplete, unfinished — deficient.
I remember as a child having a Mr. Potato Head. Over time most of the parts somehow were misplaced. All that remained were the right arm and a left ear. Mr. Potato Head was of no use. In the trash he went.
Imagine the Body of Christ with only a single arm and an ear. Since few of the parts of the Body of Christ are functioning properly, the Body suffers. Those who need some one to speak God’s truth into their lives, only hear the whisper of the wind. Those need a nose to sniff out the Truth, end up falling for the Lie. Those who need a listening ear, find that they are only half heard. Those needing hands to lift them up and dust them off are left lying in the dirt. Those who need feet shod with the readiness to share the gospel will never get a chance to respond to God’s grace.
It is the retelling of one of Jesus’ toughest stories about the separation of the sheep and the goats. Jesus shares with his disciples that judgment will fall on those who neglect their ministry by failing to feed him, give him a drink, clothe him, comfort him, house him, heal him, or visit him because they failed to do it for his Body.
The point here is very simple … if you are not engaged in ministry, you are failing to live the life of a disciple. God finds no contentment in your entering the doorway of worship, when you refuse to walk the pathway of service. God is not glorified by those who pronounce his praise, but fail to exhibit his love.
Stop wasting your unused gifts, talents, knowledge, experience and abilities. Use them for the sake of the Kingdom. Do not let them waste away so that you hear those dreaded words, “Depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” For I was hungry and you didn’t give me a sandwich; I was thirsty and you didn’t offer a drink; I was a stranger and you didn’t get to know me; I was poorly dressed and you mocked my taste in clothes; I was locked away and you threw away the key.
And we will say, “Lord, when did we not care for you? When did we treat you so badly?”
And the Lord of the universe will respond, “Every time that someone in the Body had need of the ministry that I divinely shaped you to fulfill was placed in your path, but you turned away.”
Yet when Mr. Potato Head is put together, and all the parts are in place, we hear the hoped for word of welcome, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” because you displayed how my Body is to function as every part does its work.
After years of falling murder numbers, the FBI announced in mid-September that Chicago was the murder capital of the USA with a homicide rate 27% higher than New York City, and 49% higher than LA. This happened during a summer of intense gang battles that often found victims, not in opposing gang members, but innocent victims sitting in their living rooms or standing on street corners. The end of summer was marred by an 18 day period in September in which Chicago’s 21 murders accounted for more than the annual total of 8 states.
Even living in Chicago, in the recent past, it has been easy to shrug off the murder numbers. Those lives were being taken in Englewood, Roseland or the Austin neighborhoods, far from my stomping grounds. But this year, gun fire has been ringing out in my neighborhood. One September shooting was a student I coached in basketball last year, who was shot in the back only a block from my home.
To add to the situation in Chicago, 70% of all homicides go unsolved within the city. Imagine the confidence of a would be assailant knowing that chances are better than 2 in 3 that he or she would get by with murder.
But before you start talking about murderers gone mad — are you one who can really talk? Don’t be too quick to let yourself off the hook. Just because you have not been in the back of a sedan spraying bullets randomly into a crowd don’t assume that you aren’t trying to get by with murder. The jump in murder rates like Chicago has experienced the last two years is a microcosm of a wide-spread devaluing of human life.
Nearly 50 years ago, the March 1964 murder of Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese created an outcry in America. This 28 year-old woman was returning to her home in Queens from her work as a manager at a local bar. On her way into her apartment building, she was stabbed in the back twice. At that point, Kitty screamed out, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Lights came on in the nearby building, and a man leaned out of the window and yelled, “Leave the girl alone.” And the assailant fled. But he would return twice more, over a total of 35 minutes, before he would take her life. Reports would later report that 38 people had witnessed the murder, but no one bothered to help.
Who was guilty of this young woman’s murder? Was it the hooded assailant who lingered in the alley between the parking lot and the apartment entrance? Yes, he was guilty. But guilt also extends to the large group of people who heard her screams, yet chose to remain uninvolved. If any had gone to her aid between attacks, perhaps her life could have been saved.
Living in the city I see too often the closing of ranks, and the tight lips of community members refusing to turn in the culprit. And the innocents continue to fall because of the negligence of those who refuse to intervene.
It is at moments like this that we begin to wrestle with the full weight of 1 John 3:15, 17-18. John begins by telling his readers, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” At this point a lot of Christians will smugly respond, “I’m not guilty. I haven’t hated my brother.” But don’t think you can get by with murder!
As we continue to read, we discover that John doesn’t define hate in the way that we expect. There isn’t even a hint of strong negative feelings. What he describes as murderous hate is simply turning your back, walking away, failing to get involved “… If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” Answer: “It can’t!”
Have you ever turned your back on a brother or sister in need, not just an assault victim crying in the street, but a family whose principle earner had lost their job and the utilities were being cut-off or the children were not being well-fed? (Living in Chicago, where begging is something of a cottage industry, I am not asking about responding to every “cup holder”) Have you refused to dig deep to help someone who had fallen behind in their mortgage, because they were trying to get the bill collectors off their back for unanticipated medical bills? Knowing that someone couldn’t make it to church because they couldn’t afford the gas, have you failed to facilitate their spiritual need by sending them a $10 note in the mail? If you have, according to John, you’re guilty of murder.
Negligence of your personal ministry is just as great a wrong as sinful disobedience.
Now let’s move beyond money to other places murder by apathy can be deadly. What about the emotionally wounded? The depressed? The discouraged? The fearful? The lonely? Have you passed by those who are broken and defeated, abandoned and abused, ignoring their plight, giving them the message that you don’t care because you let them suffer in silence? When you do, remember you’re guilty of murder, and the crime you commit could even be less humane than a bullet in the back. Your crime leaves them in lonely, grinding misery that slowly crushes the life out of them. Don’t think you can get by with murder!
“Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”
In an effort to shed some higher salaries, some organizations have pushed hard on the mandatory retirement age. People who have poured their life into their job are having their years of experience discarded in a move to clear the books of salary. The Chicago Public Schools is offering special incentives to teachers who retire early, so they can hire new teachers at 50% of these veteran teacher’s pay. These longtime employees are thought of as overhead that needs to be trimmed rather than veterans who have honed their craft.
It is ironic that in a country that is greying the elderly are being pushed to the fringes. It all adds up to a culture that devalues the contribution of the aged.
And that devaluation has even infected the church. I remember when I was serving as a Youth Minister being told that you need young people, 20-somethings, as the leaders for a successful Youth Ministry. What essentially was being taught was that old people are outdated, out-of-touch, and irrelevant. Youth Ministry was for the young, the vibrant, the fun, not the crotchety, the decrepit and old. Old people should be retired. Young people need someone closer to their age which they can relate to, not some gray-haired old lady or balding old man.
So as the elderly have been pushed to the sidelines of ministry they have accepted that there is a mandatory retirement age in ministry. The common statement I have heard repeated in ministry is, “I’ve done my time. It is time for the younger people to start pulling their weight.” Done my time – sounds like looking at ministry involvement as a sentence to be served, rather than a opportunity to render service.
But the sadder news is that as seniors checkout of useful engagement their physical health and emotional well-being suffer greatly.
But that is not how Scripture looks at ministry. There is not mandatory retirement age for ministry. Scripture sees those “golden years” as a prime time for ministry. It is then that those who have years of ministry experience put it all to work in training the younger generation to take their place. Paul instructs Titus to teach the older women so “they can teach the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (2:4-5).
I think of a woman in the Roseland community of Chicago who upon retirement opened a Christian daycare and afterschool program to serve the underprivileged children in one of Chicago’s most infamous neighborhoods. This ministry has developed a national reputation as a model for sharing Christ with urban youth.
I think of an Elder at my current ministry who upon retirement essentially took over the ministry of calling on those in the hospital and nursing homes. He has led that ministry, encouraging others involvement, for the past 13 years (he replaced another retiree who did the same “unpaid” staff position for numerous years).
I think of all of the young men and young women who desperately need someone who has fought through their fights, and lasted through their struggles, who can pour their years of wisdom into their lives. There is a senior couple I know who do that with other couples, being an example for them of a Biblically fashioned marriage.
I think of two other retirees that spends two to sometimes 10 hours per week fiddling around the church building … cleaning closets, checking boilers, contracting with repairmen, etc. If it wasn’t for the hours that these two put in during any given week, the load of caring for a 50 year-old building could quickly grow beyond our ability to manage.
Rather than retirement being a time of checking out of ministry. It could very well be a time when our seniors find the opportunity to do the ministry that their hearts have always desired. When their daily schedule has been freed of appointments, meetings, and paperwork, their life could be opened to make a profound impact for the Kingdom of God.
And their are so many other places that older folks could serve in ministry: hosting and/or leading a small group Bible study in their home for neighbors and friends; teaching a younger person the ropes in the areas where they have ministered; mentoring a young adult in living the Christian life by sharing their spiritual journey and the lessons they have learned along the way; volunteering in the nursery; serving as a “surrogate grandparent” for a student in the youth program; helping with office tasks, such as copying and folding; volunteering as a reading tutor at the local public school; cooking up meals or treats for families in the neighborhood or guest at the church; or even putting the tools of their years of vocational ministry to use in ministry by starting a After-School tutoring program, teaching a computer class in Microsoft Office, or helping people to set-up a home budget plan. The options for senior engagement are only limited by the narrowness of their vision.
Are you a gift-giver? Let me confess that I’m not really. Sometimes, I am left scrambling to recall any vague hint that Laira or the kids gave me of something they wished to receive. I usually end up doing well with gifts for Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays for my family, but it is a mind-racking journey. However, sometimes I have really choked. Gift-giving is not my calling in life.
I have known a few of these people, though. People who show the uncanny ability to search for and find the gift that is just right for the receiver. It is like they have been listening in on personal conversations (or had a clandestine spy operating in deep cover) to discover the secret gift wish of the receiver. When the gift is opened, you can plan on hearing the receiver ask, “How did you know?”
What gift would leave your children with those words on their lips? What is the greatest gift you could give them? I believe that today’s parents are usually more like me, fumbling through parenting attempting to give their child a gift that will please them, but finding too often that they have failed miserably.
Sometimes we have to work such long, hard hours in order to buy-off our children through a growing number of extravagant gifts; the latest game systems, large screen TVs, the next gen of smart phone, motorized transportation from electric scooters to a “brand new car.”
It is not like we have given our children a stinker of a gift. It cost a bundle. They gladly received it, and put it right to work. But within months, weeks, or even days, the new present has become passe.
Why is that? Have we spoiled our kids by showering them with things? Quite possibly! Is it because our kids are so phenomenally materialistic? Could be! Have we eroded the concept of value by giving them whatever their hearts desire? Maybe, but probably not.
Maybe we have failed to give our kids what their hearts desire, and as a replacement we have given them what we can (or even can’t) afford … but that is just money. So a child quickly becomes conditioned to accept the bribe to replace what they really desire … until their hearts lose the desire for what they really need.
Here is the best gift giving idea I can give you for your children … and the good news is that it usually does not cost you a dime … but it costs something much more precious. Give your children the gift of your time.
As parents, we have so filled our schedule (and the schedules of our children) that we have become estranged to these people living within our homes. They want your time. They long for your attention. Their hearts cry out for any sign that they really mean more to you than all of the other pursuits in which you invest your time.
So put away your phone. Put down the remote control. Call off your appointment at the gym (or take your child with you), and spend some time with your kids.
Read them a story. Talk about the movie they saw over the weekend. Work alongside one another to do something for someone else. Don’t send them off to do their homework. Set down with them and offer your help. Take the time to cook their favorite meal, and have them help you do the cooking. Play games as a family.
But let me warn you: because we have worked so hard to condition our kids to accept the neglect in our time, they may resist spending time together to begin. But as they move into adulthood, you will find that you have given them a treasured gift that impacted them positively long past when the warranty on the latest electronic gadget has expired.