Monthly Archives: April 2012

Johnny Appleseed

When I was in middle school, the teachers held a contest to see which student could come to school dressed in the most authentic costume representing a famous person from American history. I selected Johnny Appleseed (even then I had no life). If you’ve never heard of Johnny Appleseed, Google him! Johnny Appleseed was known for traveling about the country barefoot and dressed in rustic garb. And yes, he planted apple trees, lots of apple trees (these days we’d call him pathological).

I was excited about the contest and enlisted my mother’s help. She was a proficient seamstress (an archaic term used to describe someone who actually makes clothes by hand). My memory is a little fuzzy, but I am sure my costume looked great. We used burlap to make a tunic. My breeches were worn and torn. I had a cloth sack full of faux apple seeds. An old battered felt bag became my hat. I studied the life of Johnny Appleseed in preparation of my short presentation. I showed up barefoot on the day of the contest. The only problem was that another student had also selected Johnny Appleseed as his character (what are the odds?). His costume was pitiable. Hey, the kid was wearing rubber boots, jeans, and an old jacket. I felt confident of winning in my category.

As the judges announced the winners to a packed house of beaming parents, I felt sure of victory . . . too sure. I almost stepped forward as they called out the winner, but it wasn’t my name they announced. Wait, what? Yep, they called the name of that other would-be Johnny Appleseed. I choked back tears and took it like a man . . . on the outside. On the inside I was livid. Oh the indignity and unfairness of the whole affair. I felt resentful. My friends tried to assure me that I had the best costume. It didn’t ease my indignation. I would have left that school and never returned if I had the option.

After the contest, the principal called me to his office. He said the contest judges wanted to express their apologies because they had called the wrong name for the contest winner. They got my name and the other kid’s name mixed up. They couldn’t officially declare me the winner but they had pitched in and bought me a consolation prize. The principal assured me that my costume was excellent. Even though I wouldn’t get a trophy, I felt vindicated and recognized for my effort.

Don’t most of us crave some recognition? I’m not saying recognition is bad, but let me give you an example of a potential problem with recognition: Jill volunteers a lot in church. She comes to church early to set out refreshments. She stays late to clean up. She chaperones at junior high youth outings (in which case she’s practically Mother Teresa). Jill always shows up on work days at the church sanctuary. She paints and cleans and scrubs the church to keep it looking nice. She serves on the hospitality and visitation committee. Jill thoroughly enjoys serving in the church; she feels like it is her calling from God. Then one Sunday she’s sitting in church when the pastor calls Walt to the front and praises him for all the work he does leading the missions committee each year. Jill feels a twinge of indignation that steadily grows. Walt only works a couple hours on the missions committee once a year, she thinks to herself. She has poured her life into serving behind the scenes and the pastor has never once said thank you. Before she knows it she is shopping for another church, or left church altogether and reactivated her Facebook account.

I am not making excuses for insensitive behavior. But why do we (I) get hurt and offended when our efforts go unnoticed even when doing work we cherish? We know God appreciates us. Still, it’s nice to hear people appreciate us now and then. Neglecting to say thank you is simply considered ill-mannered behavior. The Bible tells us to encourage one another. Yet we know all humans, even clergy (I am not implying that clergy are not human), are flawed and can unintentionally overlook proper etiquette.

So why does the heart still crave recognition, fairness, validation? Are we justified to crave these things? Or do we simply need a thicker skin? There are some Scriptures that can guide us through the problem.

James 3:13 -16:

“If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.”

Strong language for jealousy and selfishness! Such things lead us into the work of the enemy. Ouch!

This sentence in the Scriptures above really caught my attention: “But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth . . .” In other words, it just feels better to wallow in our indignation but the Bible tells us to confront the resentment in our heart. We may have indeed been wronged. But the Bible urges us to react different—to not be in denial. It’s like this: the work we do with God inside our heart is just as important—if not more so—as our physical acts of service.

Matthew 6:1:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

(So much for good citizen awards) It’s about our motive; the inner urge that compels us. Is it duty, ambition, bragging rights, a desire for affirmation from others . . . or love? Part of the problem is that we don’t fathom the depth of God’s love and largesse.

In Matthew 20 you’ll find the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It’s the story of a landowner who hired some workers at different times of the day and sent them into his vineyard to work. At the end of the day, the workers who worked longest expected to receive more pay. But the landowner paid each worker, regardless of how long he worked, the same wage—one denarius (a day’s wage). The parable is there, in part, to describe access to the Kingdom of Heaven by both those who serve God all their lives and those who find God near the end of their lives. I always thought the landowner was unfair. I just couldn’t get beyond the appearance of unfairness. But it recently dawned on me—we see the Kingdom of God from a feeble human perspective. Think of it this way: If the landowner paid each of his workers one billion dollars for one day of work, would the workers squabble about the unfairness of the landowner? Maybe, but I doubt it! You see I think we don’t comprehend the largesse of our God. We just can’t get our head around his actual generosity and how much he does for us. From our imperfect earthly perspective it looks like God pays us a denarius when in fact he has given us access to the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s generosity should overwhelm our indignation about unfairness and recognition.

All we need do is think of the generosity of God when we feel our nose getting bent out of shape when we don’t get any recognition for our efforts.

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To Live Again

Here is a chuckle found among the announcements in a church bulletin: “The church will host an evening of fine dining, superb entertainment, and gracious hostility.”

Recently I became aware of a growing church in Redding, California. The church is called Bethel and it probably qualifies as a mega-church. Controversy swirls around Bethel because of healings and supernatural events that purportedly occur with regularity at the church. Bethel’s mission is Revival. The controversy has been raised by Christian pundits, ex-congregants, and pastors of other churches. They accuse Bethel’s pastor of being a false teacher. They suggest the miracles and supernatural events at the church are counterfeit. If you want to learn more about the miracles and the controversy, check out the Bethel website at http://www.ibethel.org/ and look up “Bethel of Redding” on YouTube. Some harsh, even mean, things are being said about Bethel.

I don’t know if the miracles, supernatural events, and Bethel’s pastor are legitimate. I have not yet attended any of Bethel’s services so I am still on the fence. I have examined Bethel’s statement of faith on their website and it seems like they adhere to mainstream Christianity . . . at least from a basic doctrinal standpoint. And yet I believe there are many styles of Christian churches. Just because a style doesn’t work for me does not give me license to call it heresy. Yes, I know some of the critics are citing Biblical doctrine for their opposition to Bethel. I get it. They may be right. Again, I don’t know. But I have noticed that the bigger a church gets, the more critics come out of the woodwork. There’s no shortage of heresy-hunters. Of course I strongly believe we need to be on guard against false teachers because the fallout can harm and disillusion many people. A counterfeit church experience can drive people away from God for the rest of their lives.

Here is the core of the issue for me: I don’t know if Bethel is for real. If I get the chance, I will attend one of their services and use my spiritual discernment to help me decide. But sometimes we simply don’t know if something is from God. In those cases I think we need to be cautious and take the advice of Gamaliel, which is found in Acts 5 beginning with verse 17. In that passage the apostles of Jesus have been arrested by jealous religious leaders for teaching the people about Jesus and performing many miracles. The apostles refused to stop. The religious leaders were so mad at the apostles that they planned to kill them. That’s when Gamaliel, also a religious leader (a respected man), stood up and advised his fellow leaders that they should: “take care what you are planning to do to these men!” He told them that if the apostles were doing those things with human effort, they would be overthrown. But if the work of the apostles was from God, the religious leaders would be fighting a futile battle against God. The religious leaders agreed and did not kill the apostles.

If the events and things done at Bethel are not from God, it will be uncovered. In the meantime—barring any strong evidence—critics should take care.

If events at Bethel turn out to be counterfeit, the congregation won’t need to hear a bunch of I-told-you-so comments. They will need love and encouragement. If, on the other hand, Bethel’s ministries turn out to be legitimate, then the critics are persecuting God’s work. A sobering thought!

Waiting at the Table

I was reading about the Last Supper in Luke in preparation for Easter when something leaped off the page and into my heart. But first, here is the scene in Luke 22:14 – 17:

“When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the Kingdom of God.’
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes.’”

I always focused on the promise within this dramatic scene with Jesus and his disciples. That is, that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior will have death pass over them because they have the blood of Christ covering their life. It’s a similar image to the scene in the Bible when death struck the Egyptians but passed over the children of God because they had wiped the blood of a sacrificial lamb around the doorframe of their homes. It’s the promise of eternal life after this life. Jesus is telling his disciples—and us today—that he will not eat the Passover meal until we are all there with him.

Think about it. It sounds like Jesus is fasting. If so, that’s a long fast . . . more than two thousand years and counting. Yes I know Jesus is God and is not constrained by time and physical needs like food and drink. I get it. But what happens when we fast, even for a short time? We get very hungry and look forward to our next meal. The next meal tastes exceedingly delicious. I think of it this way: Jesus is looking forward to his next meal with you and me. It’s not the food and drink he longs for. It’s us. He’s looking forward to joining us at the table in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Church Gossip

Can you keep a secret? Few can. Even in the church gossip rears its ugly head now and then. Unfortunately gossip gets validation in our culture. Millions love the scuttle, the grapevine, the talk around the office water cooler. I’ve read articles citing studies that suggest gossip serves valid evolutionary roles. For instance, gossip is used to gauge the trustworthiness of others with whom we might do business. Gossip about the opposite sex is used to determine the faithfulness of potential mates. It’s used to track the actions of those in power to make sure they aren’t corrupt. Gossip concerns itself with the income and spending of others as a way of keeping score. Gossip teaches the young about social interaction and the way the world works.

Gossip can be positive or negative, though I suspect most people tend to go negative. For instance, sharing with others how Sue looks wonderful with her baby bump is not as tantalizing as sharing that Sue got pregnant because she’s a disreputable woman and the identity of the father is a multiple choice question.

American culture knows that gossip can be hurtful and destructive. But that doesn’t stop us. Even many in the pews don’t take it seriously. We sometimes treat gossip as a minor sin like overeating or cursing. But I wonder if gossip is more evil than we think. The book of Proverbs refers to gossip and gossipers as causing much trouble and pain. Proverbs tells us to have nothing to do with gossip. But let’s take a look at 2 Corinthians 12:20 where the apostle Paul speaks directly to an ancient Christian church. The lesson still applies today. Here is what Paul says:

“For I am afraid that when I come I won’t like what I find, and you won’t like my response. I am afraid that I will find quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorderly behavior.”

Remember Paul is speaking to church people. The Greek word for gossip is psithurismos. It means a whisper; by implication, a slander; a secret detraction. Detraction means the act of belittling the reputation or worth of a person. It doesn’t sound like the characteristics of a safe church.

Yes I know there are folks who probably deserve belittling. Not our job. The problem is we are imperfect humans. We do not always gather and share accurate information without bias. We can think we have direct or accurate information about others, but often our observations and sources are flawed. Therefore we pass along false information. It’s worse when we embellish or intentionally speak false words about another person for then we become a false witness. Bearing false witness is a big “you shall not” in the Ten Commandments. Ah, now gossip doesn’t seem so . . . trivial.

I know a lady—we’ll call her Erin—who often complains about the incompetence of some of her co-workers. Before she utters her complaints she looks around to make sure nobody is near and then whispers her grievance. Erin’s complaints are mostly accurate. Some of her co-workers are indeed below par in a couple of their job responsibilities. Management is aware of the deficiencies of Erin’s co-workers and does not deem them serious enough to take action. Yet Erin continues to whisper her gripes. The root of Erin’s problem is hard to identify. Only God and Erin can ascertain why she feels compelled to belittle the reputation of her co-workers when everyone knows nothing will come of it.

Our growth and intimacy with God gets stifled when we gossip. Of course Christians are not supposed to live in a make believe utopia with a Pollyanna view of life and people. We need to have accurate information about dangerous and unethical people intent on harm. The Bible cautions us to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” We need to cherish truth, confront evil, and somehow remain innocent. This task is impossible if we don’t allow the love of God to work in our heart and ask the Lord to help us identify and confront our flaws. We also need the discernment and strength of the Holy Spirit. Gossip is a lousy substitute for the Holy Spirit’s discernment.

Here’s the bottom line: We will occasionally hurt and offend each other. If the offense is egregious, there is an appropriate response we must follow in Matthew 18. Otherwise our words should encourage and build each other up. It also wouldn’t hurt to grow a thicker skin and get on with life before temptation seduces us into gossip as a coping mechanism. Otherwise joy will elude us.