Ponzi Schemes and Justice

Human beings have an innate desire for justice. When we’ve been slighted, we are so quick to shout, “That’s not fair!” We want someone to make it right.

I read in the news that 67 people were convicted last year for running Ponzi-schemes. These crooks—the ones who got caught—stole more than $2.3 in 2016 alone.

Here’s the trivia contest: what was the average prison sentence for the crooks who stole over $100 million? 14 years. Does that sound just to you? They spent an average of 21 days in prison for each $1 million stolen. What do you think?

Now consider this: the average federal prison sentence for robbery is almost 10 years. The average amount stolen? $2,898. If you do the math, that’s the equivalent of 1,211,160 days in prison for each $1 million stolen. Robbers are sentenced 57,000 times more harshly than Ponzi schemers.

I know I’m comparing apples and oranges. I know that federal robbery crimes tend to be violent crimes. If someone steals from you in person, we throw the book them. If they steal on the computer, we slap them on the wrist. It’s also worth remembering that Ponzi schemers tend to be very wealthy and connected while your garden-variety robber isn’t.

We humans aren’t very good at justice. Even when we try, we let some guilty escape and some innocents suffer. Don’t be deceived: God is perfectly just. He is the judge who is never outmaneuvered, the prosecutor who is never foiled by a crafty defense, and the jury who is never biased.

Isaiah tells us, “I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” (Isaiah 61:8)

Virtues Deadly to Deadly Vices

Christians for generations have spoken of seven deadly sins. The list is adapted from Proverbs 6:16-19 and modified to describe seven sins that seem to be especially potent. Though we can’t consider any sin “safe,” these seem particularly powerful in the record of scripture.

Every sin denies some truth from God, especially these seven. Have you ever spent time to think about what the virtue denied by each of these sins could be?

Vice Virtue
Pride Humility
Greed Generosity
Envy Love
Anger Kindness
Lust Self control
Gluttony Temperance and faith
Sloth Zeal

While we would do well to identify these sins and run from them, it is also effective to identify these virtues and pursue them, because these vice and virtues will not co-exist for any length of time. So when you feel yourself tempted towards envy, focus your energy on love. When your anger gets out of line, plan acts of kindness and say kind words. In so doing, we will find our lives defined by the pursuit of righteousness rather than the fear of wickedness.

It’s just so hard to be a Christian…

It’s sure hard to be a Christian in 2017. Our culture doesn’t share our values and our lives are so busy, it’s hard to fit the Lord into our schedules.

It was hard to be a Christian in 1914. A war to end all wars brought new kinds of misery and suffering on humanity never before imagined. More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in the 19 that preceded it.

It was hard to be a Christian in 1862. Brothers in Christ in blue were shooting at brothers in Christ in gray. The issues of government, slavery, and politics tore the church in two.

It was hard to be a Christian in the early 1600s. If your understanding of the Bible didn’t match the king of England’s, it might cost you your life.

It was hard to be a Christian in 1517. Corrupt church governments sold indulgences, trafficked in ancient relics, and were morally bankrupt.

It was hard to be a Christian before 1455. Prior to Gutenberg’s movable type printing press, almost nobody had access to a copy of the Bible.

It was hard to be a Christian in 1320. The church was so polluted that Dante Alighieri wrote a story of a trip through hell, and he dedicated several entire “circles” of torment to the prevailing church leaders.

It was hard to be a Christian in the late 600s and early 700s. Mohammed’s followers were spreading Islam at an unimaginable rate.

It was hard to be a Christian prior to 311 when Constantine’s Edict of Toleration was passed, legalizing Christianity and recognizing it as a legitimate religion exempted from persecution.

It was hard to be a Christian before the end of the first century, when the New Testament was completed and widely distributed.

It was hard to be a Christian in AD 50, when the Jewish establishment tried to delegitimize belief in Jesus, the Judaizing party tried to neuter the gospel, and the Roman government and culture delighted in polytheism, pedophilia, and temple prostitution.

Five Things I Like About the Burns Church…

It’s really easy for us to focus on things that need improvement, but it’s also really important to think about good. So here’s my top five list of things that I’m especially grateful about our church family. What would be on yours?

We take faith seriously. Ourselves? Not so much. Our faith is serious and important, but Burns does a good job of not taking ourselves too seriously. We can laugh at our mistakes. We’re willing to try and fail. We recognize that God is God – and we are not. I’ve always like Proverbs 17:22: “A merry heart does good, like medicine!”

We respond generously to needs. I can’t think of a time in our history that our church hasn’t come through to meet a need. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). We have so many who give so much that nobody ever knows about. I’m really grateful for the anonymous acts of blessing that happen every week here. I suspect that 90% of our benevolence aid doesn’t show in the budget because so many people take care of so many things out of their own pockets as soon as a need arises.

We are more committed to scripture than we are tradition. Tradition isn’t a dirty word. The tradition of the apostles is our guide (2 Thessalonians 2:15), but we try not to be held captive to human traditions (Colossians 2:8). We should honor and celebrate our past, serve God in the present, and anticipate the future he gives us. Burns is not home to many sacred cows, and that makes ministry easier.

We prioritize. Not every issue or question is on the same level. Paul called the life and work of Jesus “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15). I’m glad to try to keep the main things the main things. I’m also grateful that we don’t ignore the other things, too.

We love. In the time I’ve been at Burns, I’ve witnessed (and received) more acts of love than I can describe. We try to speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We recognize that without love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). In particular, I’ve noticed how quick Burns is to love a person. We don’t put people on probation until we get to know them. We try to show love from day one.

I know that we don’t do all those things perfectly. I know that we have flaws and things we need to improve on, but this list could have been even longer—but it’s already having trouble fitting in the bulletin. This week, will you look for things that you love about our church family and thank God for them?

A challenge to my preaching friends – what’s on the list for your church?

We don’t do it like they did…

One of the most-frequently recommended practices of modern Christianity was virtually impossible until 500 years ago. Do you know what I’m talking about? The private reading of scripture. No doubt, for the entire history of Christianity, we have encouraged the public reading of scripture, but the average Christian had neither the education nor the means to afford his own Bible.

Even when Gutenberg introduced his revolutionary movable-type printing press that drove the cost of printing down, his Bible cost the equivalent of three year’s wages for an educated man. Did you know that only one of his Bibles was sold to an individual rather than a school, church, or organization?

I can’t prove these numbers, but I suspect that that less than 1% of Bible reading in the first 15 centuries of Christian history happened alone or in private. In contrast, I suspect that 95% or more of Bible reading in our century is done privately and individually.

It isn’t my goal to discourage you from reading scripture alone. Not at all! What a blessing we have in our access to the Word. Here’s my challenge for you: read like the early Christians did! Don’t only read alone. Read to someone. Read with someone. Be read to by someone.

Did you know scripture even commands this?

  • Joshua 1:8 “This Book of Law shall not depart from your mouth…
  • 1 Timothy 4:13 “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”
  • Revelation 1:3 “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it…”
  • Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

By all means, keep reading your Bible alone, but let’s try doing what our brothers and sisters have done, and read the Bible with a friend. It might just change the world!

Money from a Nigerian Prince

Have you ever gotten an email from a Nigerian prince who needs help getting his money to an account in the United States? If you’ll supply him with your bank account information, he’ll transfer you millions, and you can keep a cut for helping him out?

If you haven’t gotten that email, have you ever gotten a phone call from Microsoft explaining that your computer is filled with viruses and that, for a low fee, they can clean it for you right then and there on the phone? But if you wait, the price will go up!

Has the IRS ever called to let you know that you owe them back taxes and penalties, and if you don’t pay up immediately, the police are already on their way to your door?

If you’ve gotten these messages, I hope you know to hang up the phone as fast as possible. They’re all common scams designed to fleece you out of your money and even your identity. There are so many fraudsters out there, it’s hard to trust anyone.

Unfortunately, the devil is a scammer who works in the spiritual realm, too. He is the father of lies (John 8:44). John warned Christians, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but teste the spirits to see whether they are from god, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Paul told the Thessalonians, “test everything; hold fast what is good.” The Corinthians were told to “weigh what is said” when prophets spoke (1 Corinthians 14:29).

Not every phone call or email off your get is legitimate; so it is with the spiritual. Not every sermon is true. Not every preacher is genuine. Not every church is healthy. Not every hunch is divine guidance. We need to be people “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

If God Isn’t Forgetful…

God is Spirit. He isn’t limited by space and time and the rules of the physical universe like we are, so for our finite minds to comprehend his infinite nature, God uses metaphors and pictures to help explain himself.

For example, God is not a biological male, yet he refers to himself exclusively with masculine words and ideas like “Father.” He doesn’t use that language to tell us that he has XY-chromosomes or particular anatomy, but to reveal something about his nature and action. Sometimes when we read scripture we forget that God is not just like us.

Many times the Bible says that God remembered something. God remembered Noah in the ark (Genesis 8:1), barren Rachel in her distress (Genesis 30:22), and the groaning of enslaved Israel (Exodus 2:24), among others.

An all-perfect, all-powerful, and all-knowing God clearly doesn’t have a memory problem. He isn’t forgetful. So when God says, “I remembered my servant” it does not mean, “I nearly forgot him, but fortunately, I had a post-it note handy.” So what does it mean?

Remembering for God is not the opposite of forgetting. Research the times when God remembers and you’ll see a trend emerge. When God remembers someone, he is thinking of them in a special way. They may feel like they have been forgotten, but God is about to demonstrate his love for them in his acts of deliverance for them. When God remembers a person, he favors a person.

As we reflect and remember this Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember how God remembers us. Perhaps we can begin to remember him—and others—in a similar way.

Spiritual Spring Cleaning

Spring has sprung! It’s time to clean out the closets and get rid of that stuff you haven’t used in years. You keep holding on to because you think this year is going to be different…but it’s time to take it to the Help Center! There’s something therapeutic about getting rid of the accumulated junk that piles up.

While you’re cleaning out the garage or the closet, think about some of the “junk” that needs cleaning out of our hearts. The Bible warns us about these things that can slowly accumulate. Take a spiritual inventory and resolve to get rid of…

Crooked and devious speech. (Proverbs 4:24) Replace these with words that build up! (Colossians 4:6)

Violence and oppression. The prophet Ezekiel said to replace them with justice and righteousness (Ezekiel 45:9).

Bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and slander need to go, according to Ephesians 4:31. Our hearts are much healthier when filled with grace, mercy, and love.

Let go of fear. God didn’t give us that spirit, but a spirit of love, power, and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7).

Sweep away “filthiness” and fill our hearts with the power of scripture (James 1:21).

Clean out the things that are enslaving you and slowing you down. Hebrews says that without this stuff, we can run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Paul told the Ephesians to put off the old self and all the stuff that used to define us, and live fully empowered in the new life of Jesus (Ephesians 4:17-24).

Spiritual Growth for Busy People

Hand writing So Many Things in To Do List with red marker isolated on white.

We live in busy times. The average American works 47 hours per week, driving 26 minutes each direction to and from work. School and sports are sponges that absorb every free second in our children’s lives. When we play, we play hard and constantly find ourselves running short on time. Since time is a finite resource, we never will be able to do everything we want to do. Retired people tell me all the time that they’re busier than they ever were before.

Here are a few ideas for spiritual development for busy people. I’d love to hear what you’ve added:

  1. Use lunch for the kingdom. When you take your lunch break, be intentional about using that time to serve God. If you usually eat by yourself, choose a day to eat with non-believers. If it’s medically feasible, give up a lunch break for fasting and prayer.
  2. Redeem your commute. Download a free audio Bible app and dedicate a portion of your commuting time to hearing the words of scripture. Does hearing the news really bring you closer to God? Doubtful. You won’t even miss it! Find a Christian podcast, audiobook, or sermon series that will teach you while you drive.
  3. Think about one of your chores at home or work that is mindless. Make that time a special time in prayer for something specific.
  4. Gospel interruptions. We are slaves of the urgent. The phone ringing interrupts our thinking—even when it’s a telemarketer. Why not plan a gospel interruption? When you plan your calendar on paper or electronically, set reminders that will pop up memory verses or a principle you’ve been praying on.
  5. Signs, signs, everywhere. Place visible reminder signs in front of you in strategic places that you’ll see throughout the day. Swap them occasionally when you begin to ignore them. A Bible verse on your rearview mirror might calm your commute. Using a Bible verse for a computer password might help you think before you send that email.
  6. Make Bible study easy. When clothes are piled on the elliptical, there’s no chance you’ll use it. Make sure that your “spiritual tools” are easy to access and visible. Give them a special home other than the floorboard of your car. Plan to succeed.
  7. Learn to say “no.” I’m almost certainly a hypocrite for writing these words, but that doesn’t make them any less true. Every time I say “yes” to something, I am saying “no” to something else. Be willing to say “no” to some good things so that you’ll make time for the best things.

What would you add to this list?

The World’s Worst Bank Robbers

Have you seen the Geico commercial about lousy bank robbers? The robbers bolt out and run to the side of the road where you would expect to find the getaway car running, but there’s no car! Once they get outside, one of the robbers pulls out his phone and uses Uber to summon a car. As the bank’s alarm is sounding and police sirens get louder, the robbers just stand there counting down the minutes until their car arrives. I hate to spoil the ending for you, but as the commercial ends, the police arrive and the bank robbers are certain to get arrested.

The commercial is funny because the robbers are so bad at their job. They evidently failed to plan for the last and most significant part of the robbery: the getaway!

Their story is a lot like a story Jesus told in Luke 12:13-21. Instead of a bank robber, it focused on a farmer who had made a lot of money. He did a lot of things right. He was successful in planning for the near term and had a great return on his investment. He was so focused on the next stage of his investment that he ignored the final and most important stage. Jesus ended that story by saying, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God.” When we forget the eternal, we are the foolish bank robbers made over.

James used the same image in James 4:13-17. He warns us not to forget that life is just a vapor that appears for a while and disappears. We must not forget to plan for God’s will—not just ours.

If you want to avoid being the world’s worst bank robber, you need to think about what happens at the end. Don’t forget to plan for the most important part of life.