Ritual or Rote?

seagulls-008“Tradition” is a dirty word in some circles, but for others, it is practically sacred. Some eye anything repeated with suspicion while others fear the new and different. I recently heard a story that demonstrates the beauty of meaningful tradition.

Every Friday afternoon an older man would carry a bucket of shrimp to a particular spot on a pier in Florida. The shrimp weren’t for eating or fishing or for crabbing; they had a different purpose. As soon as he arrived in his spot, the sea gulls would take notice and swarm him. He fed the shrimp to the gulls, one at a time, until his bucket was empty. Then he returned home.

What was the purpose behind this strange ritual?

The man was Air Force Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. In World War II, he and 7 comrades were flying a B-17 across the Pacific to deliver a message to General MacArthur when the plane went down into the ocean. These eight men had to survive on a tiny life raft. When their emergency rations were exhausted, the men knew their situation was bleak.

After a period of prayer followed by a nap, Rickenbacker awoke to a sea gull landing on his head. He knew that if he could catch the gull, they could survive. He reacted quickly, caught the gull, and the men now had meat and fishing supplies that sustained them until help arrived.

When the war was over, Rickenbacker made a tradition of going to the beach to feed the gulls as his way of saying, “Thank you, God.”

Tradition, when infused with meaning, purpose, and feeling, is a beautiful thing. Tradition divorced from its meaning is an empty shell of a thing. If our worship is infused with meaning and passion, it can be a beautiful ritual. If it is mindlessly offered and repeated, it will become a worn-out rote.

Harder, But Better

jeff-bezosJeff Bezos was an exceptionally bright young man. Even in grade school, he became a leader of his peers in the program for gifted and talented children. He has used his abilities well. You most likely know of him as the founder of Amazon.com. He is one of America’s wealthiest tech giants, but the lessons he has learned as a genius and entrepreneur are insignificant to one that he learned from his grandparents.

Young Bezos had to learn that there is more to life than being bright. When he was only ten, his grandparents took him on a road trip. From the backseat of their car, he heard an anti-smoking public service announcement. Bezos took the data he heard on the radio and did some mental math, before proudly announcing to his grandmother that her smoking habit was likely to cause her to die nine years prematurely.

You probably aren’t surprised to know that she didn’t take this pronouncement very well, but Jeff was caught off-guard. He didn’t understand her reaction. What he said was true. He His grandfather pulled the car over and escorted him away as his grandmother continued to cry. Bezos wasn’t sure what would happen next—a lecture, a spanking, a disagreement—but he never forgot what happened next. He said, “My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, ‘Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.’”

It’s not that hard to be right. Clever isn’t that difficult, either, but kindness, that takes work.

Maybe we need to learn the lesson that young Jeff Bezos learned. Maybe we need to do the hard thing. Maybe we need to do the better thing.

What is baptism?

Baptism-2011Have you ever thought about all the things that happen when a person is baptized?

Baptism is a killing. The “old man” of sin and shame is killed and buried with Jesus (Romans 6:4).

Baptism is a birthday. A person is “born again” not of flesh and blood, but of the Spirit of God to walk in a new kind of life (John 3:5-8, Romans 6:4).

Baptism is an imitation. A person who is baptized is doing what Jesus did (Matthew 3:13-17).

Baptism is a change. It a part of the process we call repentance which is a change in thinking and living (Acts 2:38).

Baptism is a bath. Ananias told Paul to quit waiting, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16)

Baptism is gift. When a person is baptized, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s personal presence and power in life (Acts 2:38).

Baptism is a celebration. When someone repents, the angels rejoice (Luke 15:7).

Baptism is clothing. Paul told the Galatians, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

Baptism is a unification. Everyone who is baptized is baptized into the body of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13).

Baptism is the birth of a new Christian, the saving moment when a conscience is made clean (1 Peter 3:21).

If you never have been baptized into Jesus, you’re missing something incredible. Don’t put it off any longer.

Five Ways to Help the Burns Church

1.10.BestWayHelpChurch_458597731Sometimes when people hear about some of the good things going on at Burns, they ask, “How can I help?” There probably are a million ways—but here are five that almost anyone can do.

ONE: Show up. It sounds simple—because it is—but simply being here when we meet helps more than you know. You matter. Your voice improves the singing. Your question improves a Bible class. Your hug improves our hospitality. Your presence adds energy to the room.

TWO: Refuse gossip. I know that none of you reading this would ever repeat gossip, but there’s more you can do to stop it. If someone starts to tell you something that you don’t really need to know about, politely stop the conversation. If you refuse to listen, it will help stop the damaging effects of gossip in the church.

THREE: Gossip! Not in the bad way. Tell a friend what’s happening here. Did you know that 82% of unchurched people say they are at least somewhat likely to attend worship if invited? Stats from 2010 say that over half of Dickson county is religiously “unaffiliated.” The number is higher if you count those who are inactive at their church. Invite a friend to an activity, class, or worship at church. They’re more likely to come than you’d expect.

FOUR: Give. Your consistent giving makes the work of the church possible. Consider using your bank’s free automatic payment feature to automate your giving if you’re forgetful. Giving blesses the giver and the recipient.

FIVE: Prioritize. I’ve never met a person who has as much time or money as they’d like. You demonstrate your priorities by how you allocate those precious resources. If you prioritize the kingdom of God (in the words of Jesus, “seek first the kingdom”), you will help other people see that God’s family is more than a nice add-on to your life; it is where we found life.

The Parade of Nations

Twenty-two time Olympic medalist swimmer Michael Phelps carries the Stars & Stripes to lead Team USA into Maracana Stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 5. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs

Twenty-two time Olympic medalist swimmer Michael Phelps carries the Stars & Stripes to lead Team USA into Maracana Stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Aug. 5. U.S. Army photo by Tim Hipps, IMCOM Public Affairs

The Olympic opening ceremonies concludes with a beautiful ritual: the parade of nations. Athletes follow a flag-bearer into the stadium dressed to reflect their culture. You can feel the energy in the scene through your television. In a world that is more polarized and factious than ever before, it almost feels like a miracle to watch people from over one hundred countries coming together in unity for two weeks. When we watch, we feel hope.

Revelation 7 paints a similar scene. John said, “After this, I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10)

John’s parade of nations is not celebrating the beginning of a new series of Olympic games. They are celebrating the coronation of the king of God and the beginning of an era where no sin or death will ever be seen again.

The parade of nations in Rio gives me hope, but the parade of nations in Revelation excites me even more. The one I see on TV reminds me that the one in heaven is yet to come—and it’s going to be even better!

Holy, Holy, Holy

holyholyholyIf you ask most people, love is God’s number one attribute. I won’t argue with passages like 1 John 4:8 that say “God is love,” but we shouldn’t forget some of the other qualities that scripture attributes to God.

For example, did you know that the idea of “holy” appears 900 times in your Bible? Many commentators say that holiness is the most frequently described attribute of God. Holiness is important to God’s people, too. Hebrews says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14)

Almost every time that a human gets some glimpse of God, the attribute of God that overpowers them isn’t his goodness or even his grace—it is his holiness. When we see God’s holiness, our unholiness is revealed in stark and painful contrast. When Isaiah peeked into the throne room of God, he witnessed the seraphim crying, “Holy, holy, holy”–the same thing John saw in Revelation 4, by the way—and it nearly broke him. He said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:1-5).

Why, then, does “holy” rarely make the top of our lists of God’s attributes?

Perhaps we haven’t understood the beauty of the word “holy.” Maybe some “holier-than-thou” types have caused us to think less of holiness than we could. Maybe our own unholiness doesn’t like to be confronted with the perfect holiness of God.

Whatever the reason—it would do us well to look into this attribute of God, one that he specifically commands us to imitate. God himself said, “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Leviticus 20:26). That’s what we’ll be doing for the next several weeks in our worship assembly. I hope you’ll come, ready to be challenged by the holy God of scripture!

Oh be careful little lips…

wordsThe tongue has incredible power. When James wrote about it, he said that the tongue is the spark that ignites a forest fire or the rudder that steers a large ship. He said that humans can subdue and control everything—except the tongue (James 3:1-12).

We don’t often realize the deadly power lurking behind our words.

In a relationship, a harsh word can be devastating and cause nearly indescribable heartache.

In a doctor’s office or pharmacy, a misplaced word becomes a medical error that maims or kills instead of heals.

In society, an untrue word repeated over and over again can become the basis of belief and action that launches out into all sorts of wickedness.

In a church, words of gossip can divide and totally obstruct the work of God.

In an office, words of complaint and negativity can sap productivity and make everyone miserable along the way.

In the military, secret words repeated in front of the enemy cause defeat with loss of life.

Words are more powerful now than they have ever been. Today they can spread to the whole world with nothing more than a click of a button. We don’t often think about the responsibility that comes with the “forward” button on our emails, but these words are just as important as the words that we say or write.

Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23).

The Root of the Violence Problem

Stop-the-ViolenceViolence leads the news every night as we’re told of another shooting or attack. The talking heads ponder over the motives. Everyone asks the same question, “How can we keep this from happening again?”

Maybe there’s another question we need to ask first. Why do people hurt other people? Most people aren’t sadists. They don’t enjoy causing each other pain. So why does it happen?

Hate causes violence. If you’re worth less than me, you’re scum, and you don’t matter, then it’s easy for me to treat you with physical contempt. Hate causes us to squash people like little more than bugs.

Anger causes violence. If I feel like I’ve been mistreated, I can rationalize violence as a sort of revenge. When we lose our tempers, situations escalate out of control.

Fear causes violence. If I am scared, I tend to react strongly to defend myself against the perceived threat. Sometimes we are afraid of people who look different. Sometimes we are afraid because we are carrying guilt.

Hopelessness causes violence. If I don’t see any way out of a situation, why not be violent? If my options are to starve or steal, why not steal? When our options are limited, we’re more likely to choose bad options.

Mental illness causes violence. If I am unable to think rationally, I will act irrationally. Irrational behavior is dangerous.

What causes violence? The brokenness of humanity. Do you want to know how to stop violence? Wise laws and policies can make a dent—but the only real, lasting change comes when we are transformed into the image of Jesus.

His perfect love casts out our fear.

His peace that passes understanding diffuses our anger.

His universal love pours water on the coals of our hate.

His hope promises a future.

He grace redeems our broken minds and hearts.

If you yearn for peace in our land, and for justice to roll like the waters, and for the lion to lie down with the lamb, then the answer is not in Clinton or Trump or anybody whose name is on a ballot. The answer always has been and always will be Jesus. We can’t force other people into his arms, but we can run to him ourselves. When people see what we have, they’ll want it, too.

Telemachus

telemachusTelemachus was a monk who lived in a small monastic community near the end of the fourth century. He had a peaceful life of Bible study, prayer, and gardening for the cloister. His peaceful life was interrupted by the sense that God wanted him to move from the country to the distant city of Rome. Telemachus didn’t want to move. He loved his simple life, but he believed it was what God wanted, and so he left.

When he arrived at Rome, he found everything he feared. Political corruption, pleasure gone amuck, wild and godless living abounded. He followed the crowds into the Coliseum.

He was shocked when he saw the gladiators stand and salute the emperor, saying, “We who are about to die salute you!”  It turned his stomach to see crowds watching men slaughter each other for pleasure.

Telemachus had enough. He climbed a wall and shouted out, “In the name of Christ stop this! Stop this now!” but nobody listened. The gore continued.

Finally he jumped down into the arena and approached the gladiators, yelling, “In the name of Christ, stop this! Stop it!” Generally, they ignored him, pushing him out of the way, but the crowd grew agitated that this little monk dared to interfere with the sport. Someone in the crowd shouted “Run him through! Kill him!” and the rest of the crowd joined in.

A gladiator listened to the crowds and struck Telemachus with a mortal wound. Telemachus fell to his knees, and with his last breaths, gasped, “In the name of Christ…stop this!”

Then something strange happened. The soldiers and spectators stopped, watching this monk die. His death wasn’t like the deaths that entertained them moments ago. It was different. There was no roar for the victor. Silence overtook the arena. Then one onlooker walked away. Then another. And another, until the spectators deserted the Coliseum, never to return. Tradition says that the death of the little country monk brought an end to the spectacle of organized murder for entertainment.

There is much to admire and learn from the life and death of Telemachus. What principles of scripture does he remind you of?

More than a Feeling

loveverbLove is more than a feeling. It is a choice, a pursuit, a decision, an action, a lifestyle. When we reduce love to something as fleeting as an emotion, we tear out the support that allows it to weather the storms of life. Here’s a short lesson on Christian love from a helpful book about the purpose of marriage by Gary Thomas called Sacred Marriage.

“Christian love, on the other hand, must be chased after, aspired to, and practiced. The popular culture completely misunderstands this principle.

One of the cruelest and most self-condemning remarks I’ve ever heard is the one that men often use when they leave their wives for another woman: “The truth is, I’ve never loved you.”

This is meant to be an attack on the wife — saying, in effect, “The truth is, I’ve never found you lovable.”

But put in a Christian context, it’s a confession of the man’s utter failure to be a Christian. If he hasn’t loved his wife, it is not his wife’s fault, but his. Jesus calls us to love even the unlovable — even our enemies! — so a man who says “I’ve never loved you” is a man who is saying essentially this: “I’ve never acted like a Christian.”

Thomas calls us on the carpet for our tendency to blame others for our failing at the simplest commands of Christianity. Love isn’t optional. It’s more than a feeling.

So even when you don’t feel like it, love anyway. When the other person doesn’t deserve it, love anyway. When you’re tired and cranky and you’ve had a bad day, love anyway.