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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Christianity and Communism

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me,
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
 to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:18 (Common English Bible)

     Raised in the sixties and seventies, I was taught to loathe and fear Communism. I was taught well and I did. Yet, as childhood gave way to adulthood my capacity to think and reason for myself developed. One natural result was that I began to question everything, including the political ideology of Communism. College studies introduced me to The Communist Manifesto and my curiosity continued to mature and deepen. That personal and intellectual growth included my love and appreciation of The Holy Bible. Initially, I was surprised to discover that at least one basic value in Communism, a value that is held as essential to that ideology, is shared with the Christian faith: a passionate concern for the poor and social justice. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ first recorded sermon establishes this value as intrinsic to the mission of Jesus.

     This uncomfortable truth is why many Protestant pastors and Christians in general supported Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba in the late fifties and his establishment of a Communist government. The great social needs of the Cuban people, once the responsibility of the Christian Church, would now be addressed more comprehensively by the government. The hungry would now be fed, the naked clothed and the poor provided opportunity. This all had a familiar sound of Holy Scripture. The question pressed, what exactly is there to loathe and fear about that? Communism and Christianity share the same value and same mission to lift the poor and the marginalized. This is undoubtedly one reason that Communism has such a strong appeal to underprivileged people around the world.

     But there is a critical difference between Christianity and Communism – a difference that became very much apparent to me during my recent trip to Cuba: Communism makes no place for God. Communism expects to usher in a new day of equality for all people by its own, unaided efforts. Religion in general and Christianity in particular, is little more than wishful thinking. Governments are purposeful, they take charge and act. Christianity cedes responsibility to an unseen deity, argues Communism. The trouble comes when Communism seeks to advance its values through any means including force, violence, and imprisonment. The same people for whom the government seeks to provide equality are treated as instruments of the Communist cause.

     I no longer loathe and fear Communism – those are strong words. Nor do I entertain any notion that Communism is the hope of the world. The world has one hope, and that hope is centered in the person of Jesus Christ. Under Communism, life is cheap. In the Christian faith we embrace the conviction that each person is created in the likeness of God and is deeply valued. Communism advances its mission through force and intimidation. Christ advances his mission through the power of faith formation and the transformation of the human heart. Cuba lacks that perfect society for which The Communist Manifesto aspires. That is because such a perfect society will be found first and last in the person of Jesus Christ whose mission was, and is, the lifting of the poor by people just like us whose hearts have been changed, not by fear, but by love.     
           

Joy,

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Central Purpose of the Bible

Blog 021916

“This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.”
John 17:3 (Common English Bible)

     Perhaps the greatest honor of my ministry was the invitation to preach for the First Presbyterian Church of Havana, Cuba this past Valentine’s Day. Over 400 people were in attendance and it appeared that every one of them brought their own Bible. But there was something more. There was something in the manner in which their Bible was clutched in their hands, a strong sense that they were holding close to themselves a life support device. Present was a sense that if they let go of their Bible they would be letting go of life itself. True, I had only been in their country for five days. Maybe I was sensing more than was actually present, but I don’t think so. There was a spiritual power among these worshippers that I often miss in worshipping communities in the United States. And the source of that power appeared to come directly from a Bible held securely in hand.

      It is not difficult to discern those who are well fed from those who are hungry. The evidence is in the eyes and in the manner in which people carry themselves. The eyes of the hungry are desperate and the body appears weak. It isn’t so for the well fed. The eyes are clear and hopeful and there is present in the body, strength - not only physical strength but a strength in which the individual faces opportunities and challenges of the day. The worshippers that morning in Havana were well fed. It was in their eyes. It was in their smiles and the warm manner in which they greeted one another. It was in the positive manner in which they anticipated worship. And in their worship, it was as if each person was on tiptoe, searching the worship space for evidence of the risen Christ. They were a people well fed. The source of their rich nourishment held in their hands.

     I preached that morning on the importance of not becoming distracted. When we are distracted by difficulties and challenges, we become afraid. The Bible calls us to remain focused on one thing; to remain focused on the risen Christ. It is this focus that reminds us that we live not by our power but by God’s power. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “Preaching to the choir?” Simply, it means preaching to those who have already heard. That morning in Havana, I preached to the choir. Since the political revolution in that country of the late fifties and the U.S. embargo since 1961, life for the Cubans has been one difficulty followed by another. Life is hard for the average citizen of that nation. But for the Christian community, they are well fed – not necessarily with physical bread but with the bread of life, Jesus Christ.

      In the words of Christ, “This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent.” That is the central purpose of the Bible, to make known God. It is this central purpose that shines forth from every person who regularly reads the Bible and lives by every promise found there. The Bible changes lives. It fills spiritual hungers inside all of us, and releases the uncommon power of God for our life today and all of our tomorrows. I accepted an invitation to preach the Bible to a congregation in Havana, Cuba. When I stepped into the pulpit and looked into their eyes, I saw a people who had already heard.

Joy,


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Living Positively with Our Handicaps

“So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses
 so that Christ’s power can rest on me.”
2 Corinthians 12:9b (Common English Bible)

     Bragging about our weaknesses is uncommon. What is customary – even encouraged – is that we “hide” our weaknesses and present the illusion of a life that is lived in a tranquil manner that is deep and even and unhindered by frailties. One unfortunate result is the deep disillusionment that is experienced when we find our heroes far too human, with frailties and weaknesses like our own. We look for people who seem to have no limitations, no handicaps, no imperfections and we aspire to be like them. In no small manner, people with weaknesses are not considered worthy of our admiration and praise.

     Naturally, the danger of finding such a person, a person who is unencumbered by difficulties and imperfections, is to know someone who also possesses considerable conceit. They need no one; they require nothing for their journey through life, not even God. Worse, when understood correctly, their perfection fails to inspire those of us who struggle with handicaps. Another’s perfection can only result in our despair. This is why Paul “brags” about his weaknesses – Paul’s interest is that we praise only God and that we find in his broken, imperfect life reason for encouragement as we struggle with our own handicaps.

     Paul did pray multiple times that his handicap might be removed. That is a demonstration of his humanity. It is an honest prayer that we have no doubt prayed ourselves. Yet, our spiritual condition is developed, positively or negatively, from the place of our weaknesses. For many, the first and instinctive reaction toward our limitations is a negative attitude – a rebellion or self-pity. We revolt against our limitations. Such a negative struggle often advances to cursing God. What we fail to see is that disappointment with our imperfection arises from conceit – we expect to be perfect. That is a poor spiritual condition indeed!

     Paul’s positive and hopeful response to his weaknesses demonstrates that anyone, regardless of their limitations, can make a spiritual contribution to the world.  History is replete with stories of people who rise up and make great contributions in spite of handicaps. These are the stories that inspire each of us to push through whatever difficulties hinder us and advance our lives and the lives of others. Anyone fortunate enough to have the charm and looks of a prince, excellent physical and mental health and is untroubled by limitations, fail to inspire those who struggle daily under limitations. It is not easy to estimate the spiritual stimulus that comes into human life from handicapped people who have found that Christ’s power is sufficient for them.


Joy,  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Our Responsibility to One Another

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
Cain said, ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?’”
Genesis 4:9 (Common English Bible)

     We all recognize this evasive response; perhaps we have used it ourselves: God questions Cain as to the whereabouts of his brother, Abel. Cain responds, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s guardian?” When you don’t have a good answer, or don’t want to answer at all, you are evasive. And many times it works! Even if everyone knows that you are being evasive. Except it doesn’t work for Cain, it doesn’t work this time. Immediately, God confronts Cain about his behavior; about Cain’s anger that results in him killing his brother, Abel. God doesn’t let Cain off the hook. Apparently, evasive maneuvers don’t work with God.

     This story is a reminder that all of us are God’s children. It is a story that all of us are connected to one another by our common humanity. We belong to a great family of God that share mutual interests and concerns. Each one should care for all, and all should care for each. This notion of our interdependence with one another is pervasive throughout the Bible. In the twelfth chapter of Genesis, God calls a nation, the nation of Israel, to be a people set apart. The purpose of setting this nation apart is so that God may bless them. And God blesses them specifically so that they may bless the nations of the world. God’s concern is always for communities of people. Though God does select particular persons for special tasks – such as Moses and the apostle Paul – they are always selected for the purposes of blessing a community of people.

     Naturally, this runs counter to the dominant view of western civilization that values individual initiative, individual success, and personal responsibility. None of that is bad except for when it is used as an excuse for not concerning ourselves with our brothers and sisters who have needs. There seems to be a “survival of the fittest” mentality that suggests that each one is responsible for themselves, and not the responsibility of the community. Where this is most evident is in the distribution of wealth – those who have wealth seem to have little concern about the growing gap between those who have little and those who have more than they need. “Am I my brother’s guardian?”

     Whether we like it or not, we are. A careful reader of the Bible cannot pretend to miss God’s concern for the poor, God’s command in the Old Testament to provide debt relief to those burdened by debt and the clear instruction to redistribute wealth in 2 Corinthians 8:14, 15. In fact, as the church gathers for worship, and an offering is collected, the church participates in a redistribution of wealth for “the blessing of the nations.” God has established that we have an obligation for the welfare of one another, without which our society disintegrates, and we become fearful of scarcity resulting in selfishness and meanness toward one another. When a child of God dies because they lacked access to adequate health care, or food, or shelter, each of us must be ready. God will ask, “Where is your brother, where is your sister?”

Joy,