Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Content in any and every situation?

We are holding our regular, quarterly church business meeting this evening. Earlier I was looking over the financial statement that will be presented tonight and thanked God for some really good news. We are halfway through the 2010-11 church year and our General Fund contributions are up by a little over 20%. For the second quarter, General Fund donations were up 20.49% and, for the first six months of the church year, they were up 20.37%. That's just jaw-dropping.

Actually, our General fund contributions had begun to increase in the 2009-10 church year, but not by 20%. Prior to about halfway through the 2009-10 church year we had a string of quarters in which General Fund donations kept going down. The recession took it's toll on church giving for a while. Looking at financial statements prior to a business meeting was, frankly, kind of depressing when contributions were down.

But, for more than a year, we have seen significant improvement in church finances. So, earlier today, I was looking at the numbers and I was thanking God when God spoke to me. Oh, God didn't speak to me out loud, because God knows I'm a Baptist and so I wouldn't be able to handle that. But I sensed that God said to me, "Did you have less reason to be thankful when contributions were down?"

Oh, but God didn't stop there. On the heels of the word above whispered in my soul, I remembered this passage:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4:11-12, TNIV)

Have I really learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance? Have you? Do the followers of Christ have fewer reasons to be thankful in lean times? Is the wholeness that is ours in Christ diminished in a recession? In churches, should we thank God less when the financial statement is weak (according to our definition) than when it is strong?

Can we learn to be content (content!) in any and every situation?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"... in any manner whatever ..."

I suppose Monday was a pretty busy news day, but the Supreme Court yesterday handed down a disturbing and somewhat unnoticed ruling. In a 5-4 decision, the High Court ruled against an Establishment Clause challenge to an Arizona tax credit program, holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. The tax credit applies to donations to organizations that provide scholarships to students who attend private schools, including private religious schools.

This ruling is distressing on several fronts. First of all, the Court did not consider the substance of the suit, which is ultimately about government aid to religious institutions. I know what a thorny area this is, especially when it comes to private religious schools. But if the issue is to be decided by what the founders of this country had in mind with the language of the First Amendment, then there seems to be little room for debate.

One year after it approved the Bill of Rights, the same congress took up a matter connected to the census. In the discussion, James Madison explained why the census must not include a question of what citizens do for a living. He noted that it would be wrong for the government to list religious professionals because “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel” (emphasis mine). No one argued with Madison’s reasoning.

Note this sweeping interpretation of the First Amendment by the very founders who adopted it. Because it is “proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion,” the government could not even ask people what they do for a living because the question might be posed to a religious professional. The prohibited government action of asking people what they do for a living is a far smaller government involvement in religion than offering tax credits for religious schools.

Even more disturbing is the High Court’s ruling that the plaintiffs lacked the standing to sue. The suit was brought by taxpayers who claimed their rights under the Establishment Clause were violated by the Arizona law. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said, “The court’s opinion offers a road map — more truly, just a one-step instruction — to any government that wishes to insulate its financing of religious activity from legal challenge.” Kagan goes on to list numerous powerful and troubling examples of the can of worms opened by this decision that you can read here. But Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty General Counsel K. Hollyn Hollman sums up the problem nicely when she notes that this ruling “denies citizens the right to fight for strong protections against a governmental establishment of religion.”

Finally, this ruling is disturbing because Jesus’ rejection of the temptation to use the power of government to accomplish his mission argues strongly for a separateness between church and state. He died not with the sword of government in his hand, but with the spear of government in his side. Christ’s followers do well to be leery of government efforts to be involved in religion "in any manner whatever."

Friday, April 1, 2011

Getting Charlie of the toilet

"Christ ... is at the right hand of God ... interceding for us." (Romans 8:34, TNIV)

"... the Spirit ... intercedes for us ..." (Romans 8:26, TNIV)

"I have food to eat that you know nothing about." (John 4:32, TNIV)

I had an experience last night that I won't describe to protect the confidentiality of others involved. But it reminded me of a similar experience of several years ago. In both instances I had got a chance to help someone.

Some years back I got a call at about 11:30 at night. A close friend of Charlie (not his real name) was at his house helping to take care of him. Charlie is dead now. He died several months after the night that I received this call. He was a church member and he was in very poor health. Charlie was on the toilet and he was so weak that he couldn't get up, I was told. I said that I was on my way. As I went to my car, I called Mike (not his real name), another church member and a deacon. Charlie was a very big man--over 300 pounds. I knew that I wouldn't be able to get him off the toilet by myself.

At Charlie's house, Mike and I could see that this would be no simple operation. The bathroom that Charlie was trapped in was very small and there was no room for two guys to get in there and left him. But something else was apparent. It wasn't just that Charlie was weak, he was suffering some sort of episode. He was out of it. I called 911.

When the paramedics arrived they were also at a loss as to how to get Charlie off the toilet. After a few moments, I developed a strategy of positioning a bed sheet in a certain way under Charlie such that it would support his weight, allowing four of us to lift him, two on each side. We tried it and it worked. Moments later, Charlie was in the rescue squad and on his way to the hospital.

It never was determined what sort of episode Charlie was having that night. The next day in the hospital he was lucid again. He had no memory of the experience of the night before but his friend told him about what Mike and I did. Charlie thanked me profusely and he said that Mike and I were working for Jesus when we lifted him off that toilet.

This morning I read today's selection in Oswald Chambers' classic daily devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. In the reading Chambers connects intercession with worship. Using the two verses from Romans above he makes the case that, because intercession is continual act of Jesus and of the Spirit, it should be a vital part of the life of Christ-followers.

Intercession is typically linked to prayer. But is prayer the only way that we intercede for others in the name of the Lord? Is service on behalf of those in need a form of intercession?

Last Sunday I preached on the the account of Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. Christ helped the woman at the well--he served her. After the experience he indicated to the disciples that this act of service fed his soul (John 4:32).

Acts of service are seldom convenient. Regularly we cannot see the positive results of service immediately as in the case of successfully lifting a weak man from a toilet and onto a gurney. Sometimes those we serve are not thankful like Charlie was. But, no matter the circumstances, when we fail to intercede in service to assist others I think we miss wonderful opportunities to feed our souls.