What Christianity means to me

morning stars sang together

Feed The HungryI’ve been thinking a lot about what Christianity means in an increasingly non-Christian believing country. This 2019 Pew survey notes that “both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing losses of population share. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009.

“Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious ‘nones’ – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as ‘nothing in particular,’ up from 12% in 2009. Members of non-Christian religions also have grown modestly as a share of the adult population.”

You might find it odd for me to suggest that I think it’s a rather good thing. Purported faith when everyone else is just like you is comparatively easy, perhaps even theologically lazy.

I believe should always be considering how this passage in Matthew 25:37-40 applies to our lives.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Sing, sing a song

My friend and Bible Guys buddy Eric sent this out. It occurred to me that it’d be an appropriate post for Christmas.

God has prepared for Himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song. It is the song that the ‘morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’ at the creation of the world (Job 38:7).

It is the victory song of the children of Israel after passing through the Red Sea, the Magnificat of Mary after the annunciation, the song of Paul and Silas in the night of prison, the song of the singers on the sea of glass after their rescue, the “song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Rev. 15:3). It is the song of the heavenly fellowship.

―Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Wikipedia says: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship has been described as a modern classic.”

Merry Christmas.

Here’s My Heart: Matthew 14

who’s got the buttons?

walk on waterThe Friday Triennium features Matthew 14: Here’s My Heart. The story was specifically about verses 22-34. After the death of John the Baptist, and the feeding of the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples off on a boat while he dismissed the crowd.

This is the section where Jesus walks on the water, freaking out his chums until they recognize him. Peter walks on water too until he doubts. “Oh ye of little faith” has been considered a put down of Peter – hey, none of the others even tried! – but in fact, the message of the day is that, to quote Pete Townshend, a little is enough.

You do not need to believe in the miraculous nature of the story. The bottom line is that stepping out into stormy waters is a difficult thing to do. We try anyway.

One of the tasks of the Albany group plus our two Connecticut friends was for each of us to write a note, ostensibly positive, to each and every other person in our group. I was touched by the comments I got from our tribe.

The most fascinating phenomenon I witnessed during the week was the exchanging of pins/buttons. Almost everyone was trying to get buttons from other locales. Some had garnered a couple hundred. Think about how fascinated five-year-olds are with stickers and multiply it twentyfold.

Our folks got about 20 pins each, the I Love NY variety that our coordinator got from the state tourism department for free. We probably should have brought far more. O the other hand, they became a desired commodity.

The intergenerational group played a trust game; no leaning backward was necessary. One had to guess how many different types of pies, Presidents, books of the Old Testament and elements the next team cold name. The second-oldest guy in the room got the OT question and nailed it; he was, we later learned, a minister.

There were tables of various entities of the church, where one could pick up their literature. One was called U Kirk, which “provides professional support, empowerment and community for those engaged in campus ministry on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” It turns out that the woman at the table knew our pastors and even shared the first name of one of them.

Another involved becoming a Matthew 25 church. “Matthew 25:31–46 calls all of us to actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive and we wake up to new possibilities. Convicted by this passage, both the 222nd and 223rd General Assemblies (2016 and 2018) exhorted the PC(USA) to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor.” As it turned out, only three days earlier, the Session of my congregation at home had already agreed to join the effort.

Lots of the Purdue students were riding rented bicycles and scooters this week, and a few of the Presbyterians tried the scooters as well. If I had brought my helmet, I might have rented a bike myself.

Another great sermon, I believe involving a LEGO movie. It’s been a good time, but I’m ready to go home.

Doing your good deeds publicly?

When you give a gift to someone in need, don’t shout about it as the hypocrites do — blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!

HydrantsFBBack in mid-February, our local newspaper social media guru wrote: “A good deed loses some of its purity when it’s broadcasted by the ‘doer’ on social media.” I thought this was self-evidently true.

One person replied: “I’d like to think people do this to inspire others to follow suit. But the skeptic in me is pretty sure that they do this to satisfy their ego.” I have no idea about the motivation, but too often, it just feels unseemly.

Another: “If you want to pay it forward, just do it! If you are looking for praise for your complimentary cup of coffee , then you did it for the wrong reasons.” I’ll give that an AMEN.

And: “Bragging about a good deed is tacky. Class is when you do the right thing, not only when no one is looking but also when no one will thank or praise you.” YES.

And: “I know when I had someone do a random act of kindness for me, I was shocked and mentioned it on social media.” If the receiver mentions it, that is a whole ‘nother thing.

Of course, MY first reaction was to cite the Gospel of Matthew. I didn’t QUOTE it – this WAS Facebook – but I shall do so here, from chapter 6, verses 2 and 3:

When you give a gift to someone in need, don’t shout about it as the hypocrites do — blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I assure you, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone, don’t tell your left hand what your right hand is doing.

Then the conversation went into a slightly different direction, about digging out fire hydrants, a function, no doubt of a then-recent fire on a Friday night, where the firefighters were hampered by a hydrant being buried in the snow. By Sunday, local fire departments, both paid and volunteers were liberating the hydrants.

I noted: “Saturday, my daughter and I liberated TWO fire hydrants on our block, NOT in front of our property. She said, kiddingly (I think), ‘We should get a citation from the city.’ My thinking was that the deed was the reward, and would not have otherwise mentioned it at all but for this conversation.”

This is a long way of asking: do you note in social media when you do a good deed? Is it for promoting oneself or to inspire others to do likewise? The above example notwithstanding, I almost never note my good deeds, because it doesn’t feel right. For me.

Loving with your whole heart is not easy

‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

This is the Advent devotional I wrote for the FOCUS churches this year. It had to be based on a particular Scripture lesson (Matthew 22:34-46), be of a certain length, and end with a prayer. For your convenience, I’ve followed the piece with the Scripture.

In the Scripture lesson, Jesus is being tested theologically. The religious leadership of the day is constantly trying to trip Him up, asking a bunch of questions. What IS the greatest commandment? To love God, and likewise, to love each other.

We are often tested trying to follow these dictates. Sure we may see ourselves as “good” and “nice” people. Maybe we go to church, quote Scripture. Do we REALLY love God with all our heart, mind, and soul? I think God knows that a mysterious and disembodied deity may be sometimes difficult to comprehend.

Fortunately, Jesus has equated loving each other with loving God. How are we doing with that presumably easier task? Yes, you may love your friends and family. What of that seemingly unlovable coot in the office, or that obnoxious teenager – love them too! How do we find a way to do THAT?

We follow the example of Jesus’ loving-kindness. We show patience and generosity. In what we do to the least of God’s people, we show our love to God.

In many ways, that is what the FOCUS ministries are designed to do. It’s not merely feeding people, which is a good and right thing to do. It is showing love. The peculiar thing about giving love is that one often gets as much in return as one expends.

Dear Lord,
May we share the love that we have received so that, by our words and actions, God’s love can reach those in need of that love.
***
Matthew 22:
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Whose Son Is the Messiah?

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

“The son of David,” they replied.

43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’

45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
**
You ever taken a writing assignment, know what you’re going to write, then NOT write it, then end up knocking off something under the gun? I’m afraid that’s PRECISELY what happened here. Wish I had written it right away. Ah, well, lesson learned (or probably not…).

God bless the talents

“to fulfill Matthew 25:34-40 of the New Testament by providing nutritional food to the hungry, clean water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, affordable shelter to the homeless, medical care to the ill, and humanitarian supplies to prisoners. “

Ever have one of those eureka moments when you realize that one piece of information you have is related to another piece? Then it’s OBVIOUS when it had not been.

My wife’s reading this book about education, and there is a reference to the Matthew effect, basically this: “Early success in acquiring reading skills usually leads to later successes in reading as the learner grows, while failing to learn to read before the third or fourth year of schooling may be indicative of lifelong problems in learning new skills.” (This suggests that services such as Head Start are vitally important.)

It was the naming, though, that brought me up short. It is dubbed for a verse in the New Testament, Matthew 25:29 -“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him, that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” This is described in my wife’s reading as a very un-Sermon on the Mount type sentiment, that Sermon also being found in the book of Matthew.

The verse in question is at the end of Jesus’ parable about the talents, where three guys get 10, 5, and 1 piece of money, and the first two double its value by investing, while the third one buries his. He is chastised by the moneylender in the story. You can read several interpretations of the text here. The sentiment is echoed in Matthew 13:12, the explanation of the sower of seeds parable, which observes that “for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Context, though, everything, which is why one oughtn’t to mine Scripture for single verses.

Interestingly, the story of the talents takes place just before that cool stuff that inspired Matthew 25: Ministries, “to fulfill Matthew 25:34-40 of the New Testament by providing nutritional food to the hungry, clean water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, affordable shelter to the homeless, medical care to the ill, and humanitarian supplies to prisoners. Additionally, Matthew 25: Ministries is committed to fulfilling Matthew 25:40 by educating the public on the conditions and needs of the ‘least of these’ and by providing resources for action.” This is the Jesus narrative that makes sense to me.

But that’s not what the revelation was. It’s that the parables of the talents and/or the sower, which I’ve read several times each, is the basis for the lyrics of the song God Bless the Child, which I’ve heard many times:

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade

Here are recordings by Billie Holiday, the co-writer with Arthur Herzog, Jr.
Billie Holiday, an earlier (original?) version
Blood, Sweat and Tears, from the second, hit, album, and the first with David Clayton-Thomas on lead vocal