Thursday, January 26, 2012

Here Comes the Love Month

Okay, it’s Valentine’s Month. No, that’s not a misprint. What else happens in February? So let’s talk about love.

It’s great to feel “in love” with someone. Swept up with emotion at the thought of them. Dreams of their presence distracting you from work. It is a truly wonderful feeling that the Bible almost never addresses. Even when that kind of love does play into the biblical stories, it doesn’t always produce good results. More importantly, it is not the love the Bible tells us is at the core of God’s being and calls us to make the core of our lives.

That love is described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

This may seem like the standard “love” post — and maybe it is — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. This is a core truth of life. The truth will set you free. How you define “loaded” words in your life (for example, “love,” “forgive,” “peace,” “success,” “enemy”) will have a huge impact on the real course your life takes. Since the scriptures tell us that “love” is the greatest thing and identify it with the core of whom God is, let’s take the time to get it right. At the end of this article I will give you an important and practical suggestion on loving others.

Love, in the sense in which it defines the life of a Christian, is not a feeling. It is a decision about how to treat people. Look at the passage above. You will see that each and every word describing what “love” looks like is a matter of choice in your life.

I am not saying you will never feel impatient. I am saying that if you love someone you can choose not to be impatient with them even though it can be hard. I am not saying you will never feel envious of someone. I am saying that if you are going to be a person of love, you can reject that feeling when it comes over you and instead choose to be happy for the person for whatever precipitated your envy.

Love in the biblical sense is a practice. It is a decision about whom you want to be and how you want to act. Jesus said that we are even supposed to love our enemies. He never said to feel warmly affectionate toward them. He did say to give them a drink if they are thirsty.

Notice that love does not depend on the other person. It depends on you, on how you choose to treat people. Here’s what Jesus said about being kind to those who are kind to you: Big deal! Everyone does that.

So, why should you make the choice to love other people irrespective of how they are treating you? There are at least two good reasons:

First, love toward others is the appropriate response to God’s love toward us. The parable of the ungrateful steward depicts a man who, after being forgiven a crushing debt, went out and threatened another man over a tiny debt. When the original lender heard what had happened, he reinstated the huge debt and had the man thrown in jail until he repaid every penny.

God’s love for mankind is the core story running through the entire Bible. God loved the world so much he sent Jesus to be our Savior. In Jesus we are completely forgiven. God sees us as his children not his servants. In response, God expects us to treat others as he has treated us. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) This is not a grudging love. It comes from a heart that receives God’s amazing love and lives in humble gratitude. As we live in and absorb God’s love for us, the cleansed and redeemed soul says, “I have received so much love from God, how could I not love those around me?”

Second, loving others is the best thing for us. Consider the opposite of the words used in 1 Corinthians 13 and think about whether they indicate a happy and peaceful state of mind: Impatient. Unkind. Envious. Boastful. Arrogant. Rude. Selfish. Irritable. Resentful. Seriously, who would choose this anyway? Choosing love means choosing your own happiness and peace.

Here is the practical suggestion: become bilingual.

There is a concept called “love languages” that can help you in many ways, including demystifying some of your relationships. Have you ever thought you were being kind to someone only to have them get mad at you? Sometimes that’s because you are simply not speaking their language.

Dr. Gary Chapman describes five love languages: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Physical Touch (hugs, pats on the back, etc.), Quality Time, and Receiving Gifts. Each of us best receives love in our own love language. If you are an “acts of service” person, inside your head you might respond in your mind, “big deal, talk is cheap, show me how much you care” when someone gives you words of affirmation. Likewise a “words of affirmation” person will be less readily able to interpret acts of service (for example, making lunch or cleaning out the car) as evidence of love.

So, your job, as someone who has devoted themselves to a life of love, is two-fold.

First, learn other people’s love languages and show them love in their language. If their love language is acts of service but yours is quality time, show your love by doing an act of service rather than arranging for time together. It won’t feel quite right to you at first because it’s not your love language (“exactly how does making a sandwich show love?”), but it will begin to feel right as you receive responses indicating the other person received the love you want to communicate.

Second, be willing to receive love in a language other than your own. If your spouse’s love language is acts of service and she does something nice for you, be willing to hear her love language and understand that you were just shown love, even though your love language is not acts of service.

This is other-centered love in the image of God’s love. Picture a marriage, a family, a church, a community where people live out biblical love in awareness of other people’s love languages. This is a picture of the redeeming, renewing love of God in Christ Jesus infecting and transforming our lives. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

My Jesus Sits on Plastic Chairs (reblog from Donna Olmstead, 1/16/2012)

I finally found a church that works for me. It’s a Loosely Structured Lutheran called Journey of Life – ever after to be referred to as JOL. Some people wouldn’t consider it a church at all, because there’s not a pew, stained glass window or hymnal in sight. We gather in a grade school cafeteria, sit on molded plastic chairs and read the service from a large screen with computerized text.

Our organ is a violin, two guitars and a set of drums. Pastor John plays one of the guitars. Sometimes other people join in with flutes. The words to the hymns are on the screen, which is great until I sit behind a tall person. If we sang traditional hymns, that wouldn’t matter at all because I have 98 percent of them memorized. (Inevitable after going to church since I was an infant.)  Instead, we sing contemporary Christian music. That means there are one or two verses and you repeat the last line at least a dozen times. I like some of the songs, but it’s nice when occasionally we regress to “Rock of Age” and “Amazing Grace.” Then it doesn’t matter whom I’m sitting behind.

I suppose I could sing the old hymns if I attended a traditional Lutheran church. The kind where you look out over a sea of gray hair, but one of the things I like about JOL is the mix of ages from newborn to me. And I’m getting used to the casualness. There are as many jeans as there are slacks, and dresses and suits are close to nonexistent. I used to think that dressing up for church showed respect, but now I’m pretty sure that God just wants us to show up on Sunday. Pantyhose optional.

Some people probably show up to find out what kind of snacks there’ll be on the table with the Keurig coffee maker. The one-cup kind that always makes me smile when I remember a church we used to attend in Michigan. There was an old woman named Lydia who took command of the kitchen and insisted on making the coffee each Sunday. (Lutherans pretty much live on coffee.) Lydia made terrible coffee. So weak it almost wasn’t brown. But Lutherans aren’t confrontational except for that one little incident with the Ninety Five Theses, a door and some nails. So we just drank the coffee and smiled. The coffee at that church probably improved immensely when Lydia went up to the Big Kitchen in the Sky.

One of the things I like about JOL is Pastor John’s announcements that visitors shouldn’t feel obliged to give an offering and that anyone can take communion if they believe that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. He also explains how communion is offered (he handles the bread end of it and there are cups from which you sip or dip.) That’s one of things that always causes me a little anxiety when we travel and visit other churches. Everyone seems to have a different way of giving communion, so I watch closely before my turn comes around. (One of the side effects of emphysema is stressing out over things that should be nonconsequential.)

Another thing I really like at JOL is that Pastor John isn’t a preacher. He’s a teacher. The kind that you used to wish taught more than one subject when you were in college. His sermons give you something to think about when you leave church. And that something isn’t about burning in hell or having to do good deeds to be saved. Right now we’re on a series of psalms. And I have the feeling that we’ll never look at them in the same way once he gets done with them.

Anyway, despite the plastic chairs and the music that can get a little repetitious at times, I feel as though JOL and I are a good fit. And that’s comforting after going for years feeling as though I was just an outside observer.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fresh Starts and New Beginnings

Ah, New Year’s Day… that arbitrary turn of the calendar that gives us hope for the future. This year things will be different. This year I will lose some weight. This year I will get my finances in order. This year I will really make progress in straightening out some things in my life.

Here are two questions to think about as we dip our toes in 2012:
1) What do you want to change in your life this year?
2) Why did you wait?

I don’t mean to be snarky with question 2. There are legitimate reasons to use New Year’s Day as a potential turning point. We need periodic, intentional points of reflection in our lives. Holidays such as New Year’s Day in the U.S. offer wide cultural support for pausing to think about our lives and consider turning point decisions.
One of the counselors interviewed in “The Art of Marriage” (the monthly marriage study that is currently underway) said that the cross of Christ offers, “fresh starts and new beginnings.” That sounds like New Year’s Day. But the Bible tells us that every moment offers a fresh start and a new beginning.

One day while Jesus was teaching, some religious leaders flung a woman at his feet saying that she was caught in the very act of adultery. They reminded Jesus that according to the law of Moses she should be stoned to death then asked what they should do. (Uh... Where was the man? How did they catch her in the act? This time I do mean to be snarky!) The scriptures tell us that Jesus bent down and drew in the dirt. Then he said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one the accusing crowd dispersed, starting with the older people. Jesus looked up and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers?” She said, “They have all left.” Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.” (Luke 8:2-11)
Talk about fresh starts and new beginnings! This is Jesus’ way. He does not gloss over the wrongs. He calls sin, “sin.” Then he offers the forgiveness that only he can offer, sending us on our way free of our past guilt. The freedom from guilt is meant to free us to live the high life of love rather than be dragged down by our past.

On the cross, Jesus bore the punishment of our sin. We are free from guilt and shame. “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says to each of us. Now as we go our way, we are free to live out our lives with peace, courage, even joy in the face of an unknown future, in the face of unloving people around us, in the face of all the things that neither reflect nor support a life of faith, hope and love.

In Christ, every moment can be a fresh start and a new beginning!

Paul writes about his own spiritual journey, a journey that includes things in his past that he regrets. He displays the attitude of those who trust Jesus’ words, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 3:13–14 (ESV)

New Year’s Day can certainly function as a time for reflection on your life and a decision to move forward. But please don’t let New Year’s Day be the only point of reflection in your life or your once yearly time when you decide to move forward. Every day in your journey through life is a day in which God can bring new things into your life. New growth. New peace. New adventures. Fresh starts and new beginnings.

Here is something you might adopt to help you move into a life that is a fresh start and new beginning every moment. Each night as you lie down at end the day, repeat Jesus’ words, “Neither do I condemn you.” Follow them with a brief prayer of thankfulness. Each morning when you rise, remind yourself of Paul’s words, “One thing I do, forgetting what is behind, I press forward toward the prize for which Christ has called me heavenward.” Then have a moment of prayer listing the things you expect to encounter that day and entrusting them to Jesus.

Every moment of realization, every new thought, every encounter with scripture or another human being can be a fresh start and a new beginning. Even right now as you are reading this!

Happy New Moment!
Pastor John