Monday, September 20, 2010

Follow-up to "Character Matters"

by My Anonymous Friend

Last week I received more emails in response to last Sunday's writing on character issues than any I have received previously. I find this very interesting. … One person shared an interesting story confirming my comments about people in ministry expecting or demanding preferential treatment. This person told how a musical group insisted on traveling first class by aircraft and insisted on certain kinds of food to be delivered to their luxury hotel rooms. So sad to read these kinds of stories.

All week I have been thinking about why this email appeared to generate more interest than others I have written. My conclusion is that you long for authenticity and genuine humility as much as I do. Since my writings each week are read by people in various continents of the world, I very rarely ever write about political issues that may be of interest to me but not to those in other parts of the world. However, the matter of character most certainly applies in this realm of our society as well. I find that I tend to let the words of politicians go "in and out of my ear." I realize I am "painting with a broad brush" and that there are of course sincere, committed, public servants who stand on principle and core values. I know such people as well and I am grateful for them. But, others campaign and say one thing. Once elected, they often demonstrate something entirely different. I pay little attention to what they say. I can confess to you that when I hear some politicians on TV, I either switch stations or hit the "mute" button. I try to pay a lot of attention to what they do however. That shows me what they really believe regardless of what they might say. I have heard people say over the years that they would rather see a sermon lived than to hear one. I think this is the same principle but in the church context not in the political arena.

All this supports perfectly the concept that Jesus expressed when He said that people would know we are Christians by our love! Once a man said to me, "I am not religious, but if I ever decided to be, I would join......! (certain cult). They at least take care of people." I was saddened to hear him mention a cultic group. Why did he not say that about the church or group with which I identify? Maybe he saw us fighting and squabbling too much and about peripherals no less. I wonder?

I have long liked the thoughts recorded in 1 Corinthians 8:1. Paul writes that knowledge makes arrogant but love builds up. I am ashamed when I think of welcoming cultists into my home at times and then trying to argue them into my way of seeing things. I doubt whether they saw much of a Christ-like spirit in me. I also doubt seriously that they were drawn to explore the truths of Christianity because of my persuasive arguments. Once after a cultist expounded to me all the things that the Bible teaches in its original languages, I handed my Greek New Testament to him and asked him to show me from that text what he was talking about. Of course he did not know the Greek alphabet much less any of its vocabulary. All I probably did was embarrass him in front of people he was mentoring in his beliefs. I felt like a proud peacock with my "superior" knowledge, but in truth I was a stupid Pharisee for doing what I did. I never do that anymore but instead try to have some literature of my own to give them in exchange for what they wish to give me. Rarely do they accept it but that is their choice. I receive what they have to give me and thank them for making the effort. I then hope for an opportunity to also tell them just a bit more about who Jesus really is, for example.

So, I am glad that many of us think the same way here. Let us pray that we will live our lives in such a way that people may be drawn to God and seek to glorify Him.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Character Matters

by My Anonymous Friend

A few days ago I met with a pastor friend for whose church I have done some work this year. He comes from a very different tradition. In a number of ways his political views are much more liberal than mine. Theologically we are fairly close although our church tradition, polity, and so on, are very different. It has been a fascinating journey for me to develop a friendship with this person. Two days ago my wife and I were invited to join my friend and his wife for a concert. It was a wonderful evening and a good step in the formation of a new friendship for us as couples.

This pastor has endured some unfair treatment from a segment of his church parish. They have slandered him and said very troubling things about him. His reactions have reminded me of what Scripture says about Jesus....."when He was reviled, He reviled not again!" My friend has been very gracious and has been careful not to speak ill of his detractors. When we drove into the church parking lot for the concert, I happened to notice that his car was parked in the very last parking place the farthest away from the church. They were expecting a large crowd and he was thinking of others. This in itself is not a particularly important matter but it is an indication of what sort of man he is. I was touched by this simple expression of charity and concern for others. I have seen the opposite as well where clergy have insisted they have a special parking spot reserved for them as near to the doors of the church as possible.

So why do I mention all this?

As I get older I believe more and more that character is what is most important in a person. I have seen many things over the years and find myself now less and less impressed with persons who are eloquent, flamboyant leaders, prolific authors, in demand speakers at conferences and seminars, and so on. I believe our society honors the wrong things at times. We measure the greatness or value of persons by the size of their parish if they are members of the clergy, by the number of employees, or the annual earnings if they are in business, or by the size of their homes or by the number and type of cars they own. I am less and less interested in these sorts of things. I have found that sometimes these sorts of people are narcissistic, self centered, ungrateful, demanding, and difficult to deal with. I recall a visiting musician/speaker, well known in our area, who was determined to tell me, the pastor of the church where he had been invited to preach, how the service would be conducted. I also recall a well known conference speaker refusing to ride in a certain car to the airport because he really thought he should have a limousine at his service. I was shocked when I observed this personally.

I want to be with people who truly are committed to serving others. I want to be with people who have learned to yield their rights instead of demanding that their rights be granted to them. I sometimes wonder just how God will deal with rewards in heaven. I am guessing some of us might be surprised. Those who were greatly revered and honored here on earth may possibly not be so regarded in heaven. Those who served without notoriety and fame here on earth may perhaps be greatly honored in heaven. I really do not know how all this will work, but I do know that God values faithfulness. In the parable of the talents, the "2-talent" man and the "5-talent" man both received precisely the same kind of affirmation and commendation from the master. Only the man who did nothing with his "talent" received a rebuke. So that is a clue to me.

What do you think? I want to live out my years as a faithful person. I want to be gracious and generous in dealing with people. I hope they see a little of Jesus in me when they observe me. I wish that for you too.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Labor Day

by My Anonymous Friend

In North America and in several other countries around the world, the first Monday of September is set aside as a holiday to recognize the contributions made to society by labor. Its origins were in the labor movement near the end of the 19th century, which advocated 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, and 8 hours for recreation. It was initially celebrated with parades and speeches to remind citizens that workers represent the backbone of society. For many today this long weekend marks the end of summer, the beginning of school, and the beginning of collegiate athletic activities for the school year.

There is a labor story of sorts in the Gospels which I find quite intriguing. I wish to share it with you today. Jesus told the story in Matthew 20 This is the story:

A number of laborers were hired to work in a vineyard. These workers were hired at different times of the day. The first group commenced their work "early in the morning"..... perhaps 6 or 7 AM. They agreed to the terms of payment and went to work. At 9 AM a second group was hired. Around noon and again at 3 PM new groups of laborers were deployed to work in the vineyard. Finally at around 5 PM the last group of workers was hired and sent to work. This group only worked for an hour when the foreman called all the workers together and began to pay them their wages. What a surprise awaited the early morning group!! To their chagrin they noticed that the 5 PM workers were paid exactly the same wage for the one hour they had worked as the early morning group was paid for the 12 hours or so that they worked. This seemed like a gross unfairness... the very kind of injustice that the Labor Day holiday sought to address in more modern times! After all, the first group worked through the heat of the day and for many more hours than the last group. It just did not seem fair and the first group let their unhappiness be known. After all, it is hard to accept that someone could get for almost nothing, what they worked so hard for, the entire day long.

The owner of the vineyard presented his arguments:

1. A deal is a deal. Group #1 agreed to work for a certain wage. So why are they complaining?

2. A land owner can make whatever deals he wishes. It is his prereogative.

Here are some lessons I see in this parable.

The grace of God is generous and even reckless. God's generosity knows no bounds and does not respect people.

Those who believe that performance is the basis for God's system will not appreciate the grace of God. This is a very subtle but very basic principle.

Surely the 5 PM workers did not utter a complaint. I suppose they hurried to their local bank to cash their checks. I am sure they did not enter into long discussions with the early morning group. They did not ask what others were paid. When we receive mercy we do not care who else gets it, too. If we are bothered by the 5 PM salaries, then we are likely a person who is depending on something other than God's mercy to make us acceptable to God.

I meet people sometimes who actually dislike God's grace although they would rarely say so. They do not like when sinners are extended grace. They may say something like, "I have served God all my life, I have been part of a church for years and held every office in it. I deserve more than someone who comes off the street, has perhaps lived a wicked life and now is regarded by God with the same degree of favor as I am!" But this is how "unfair" the grace of God is! We do not like this much. It seems unfair. It is,..... if we base our acceptance by God on performance. But if we do not, then we clap our hands with delight and fall on our knees with gratitude.

What group of workers are you in?