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Memorial Day 2014 May 27, 2014

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My son went to a local cemetery this weekend, where, as a service project, he and his fellow Boy Scouts planted hundreds of flags to commemorate American veterans buried there.  This was not a military cemetery, and for a non-military cemetery, to me it seemed like there was a high proportion of military to non-military.  I followed along behind the scouts, finding a few here and there that had been missed by the over-excited scouts as they scattered to carry out their assigned tasks.  The few markers that were missed were small and harder to notice than the bold lettering on the grave markers.  I went to church, too.  It was Memorial Day weekend, so naturally I also watched Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.  And after it cooled down on Monday, I worked in the yard.

At church, our pastor spoke well about wealth and how Christ-Followers ought to handle it.  As I am currently outside of that circle, I confess to have really tried to tune it out.  But what he said, to those with money, was a good message.  He wasn’t deliberately trying to avoid the subject of Memorial Day, but was following the track of preaching through his texts systematically, verse by verse, currently in Matthew 6.  A couple of weeks ago he had spoken about prayer and fasting.  I often wonder what visitors think if they come on holidays, and if they came Sunday, they probably made our church out to be another one of those that always talk about money and how we ought to give more out of our abundance.  But on the contrary, messages about money are pretty rare at this one. He tied it in a little by saying that how we use our money shows our character, and our character tells others how we will be remembered.  Do we leave a godly legacy behind, or a monument to self that is destroyed and stolen?

I thought while I was working in the yard about how people try to fake it through life.  They say one thing, but their lives, and their checkbooks, say something different.  I pulled thistles from my yard, tucked in and hidden in the corners, and I looked at them thinking about how they try to stay inconspicuous until they are huge.  While they are small, they might be mistaken for ordinary dandelions, but when they grow bigger, the thorns become more obvious.  And if allowed to mature, the blue flowers don’t match the sunny yellow dandelion.  This then, was the explanation of another text, where Jesus defends his ministry by teaching “by their fruits you will know them.”  The same Jesus told sinners to turn away from sin, told hypocrites off after He called them out, and once made a whip to redirect the livestock, and flipped over tables in the temple when they were selling grace to people who could afford it at their prices.  He didn’t fake it.  When He loved he loved, and when He didn’t like a behavior He told people to leave it and follow Him.  He called out the hypocrites because they had a counterfeit religion based on fear and power and money, not on love and helping others. 

I keep pulling the weeds of sins- temptations, bitterness, complaining, etc., out of my life, and they keep seeding my lawn like maple samaras, or “helicopter” seeds.  We have two of those trees.  I raked and my wife swept in the cool of the day Monday, and we got a lot.  But there are too many to pull every one of them up from the grass, so if any try to take root, I’ll have to mow them down.

And while the viewing of Revenge of the Sith is not my normal habit on Memorial Day weekend, it did give me something interesting to think about.  We have counterfeit weeds masquerading as dandelions, we have counterfeit lives masquerading as “good people,” and we have counterfeit religions masquerading as the real thing.  In the movie, Emperor Palpatine revealed his evil, powerful nature when pretending to be good and weak were no longer needed.  He was a counterfeit, like so many of us are in real life, pretending to be good and humble, but when given the opportunity our dark, pride-filled hearts are revealed.  Hear Lord Sidious, Emperor Palpatine, tell his “legendary” story of his own Sith master, Darth Plagueis:  “He became so powerful… the only thing he was afraid of was losing his power, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, and then one night, his apprentice killed him in his sleep. It’s ironic that he could save others from death, but not himself.”  

How curiously close to another familiar quote:  “He saved others; but he can’t save himself,” found in Matthew 27, Mark 15, and Luke 23.  The people thought Jesus was starting another counterfeit religion and mocked him in his “powerlessness,” not realizing what was happening around them.  When your religion, or your idol, is power, you pursue that and your life becomes memorialized by your pursuit of power, with all of its’ truth and consequences.  In the end, our pursuit of money and power becomes empty and we are gone, spent on that.  Jesus’ religion on the contrary was about giving up power- Matthew 17:25, Luke 9:24 and Luke 17:33- in order to see how powerful He is.  Because He saved others, and because He returned from death, he was evidently able to not only save others, but also himself.  “Father, Into your hands I commit my spirit,” said Jesus, quoted in Luke 23.  And then He laid it down.  It wasn’t taken from Him; (John 10:17-18) he was in control the whole time.  Strength, real power, isn’t always seen in showy displays, rumbling thunder, lightning, earthquakes like on Sinai in the Exodus wilderness.  Sometimes it’s shown by restraint, and keeping it under control.

With religion, one has to be careful to search it out and compare diligently, to make sure it’s not a counterfeit.  The real one won’t change with the times, and the bending ideologies of humans, if it’s the same God behind it.  The real one won’t have contradictions in teaching.  The real one, if followed, should be applicable to everyone, available to everyone, and make us better for following it. The real one will tell us God loves us, and we should love one another, yes, but will also honestly address and deal with the problem of sin without trying to make us work for salvation.  Because, how would we ever know if we’ve done enough good works or prayed enough prayers?  If the leader says you haven’t done enough, won’t you do more to earn your salvation?  How far will you go with that?  Will you do a bad thing, or sanction a bad thing, because your leader or your peer group said it’s good?  (Isaiah 5:20)  Will you hate other people because they don’t agree with what you believe, instead of loving them and merely hating the sinful behaviors they choose and habituate or endorse?  What about your own (what about my own?) habits that you know are bad?  Aren’t they just as bad if your God is perfect and sinless?  Better for us to adjust to the side of grace, if we’d like to receive grace ourselves.  God changes people, not by external commandment, but from inside, from the heart.  Counterfeit religion is made up by men as they go along, and will reveal impure motives of acquiring money, power or popularity, eventually.  It’ll be exposed.  Some even teach that killing another person, as long as it’s done for God, is all right, when we know from universally accepted standards of right and wrong that, basically, killing other people is bad.  Some have even written their own Bibles or extra “holy books,” or rewritten the one we have, to support their specific claims.  As good as any religion may sound, the origin of true religion that reaches God has to come from God.  If they make, or have made, a prophecy, it must have come true to be of the truth.  If it didn’t, it’s a lie.  Count the religions which predicted Jesus’ return that hasn’t happened yet.  Counterfeit religion also frequently concerns itself with outside appearances, more than on the heart.  Count the religions that say you have to dress and act this way and submit to their authority without question, to get to heaven.  There have been a number of cults that ended very badly by submitting to whatever the leader said to do.  By contrast, the Bereans in Acts searched the scriptures diligently to find out if what Paul was teaching was the truth.

In some ways, money would make it easier to make ourselves look good.  We can give larger sums of money to charity.  We can buy suits or pretty dresses, fancy cars, big houses, have facial surgery to delay the appearance of aging.  We can pay people to say nice things about us that cover over the negative things we’ve done.  In my line of work there is something called a “media search” where companies pay us to search the internet, periodicals, and other media, for comments about people.  Where there is defamatory information, one can pay to have positive things posted to make the negative harder to find.  

In my own life, I could search for myself and find a certain famous Australian singer from American Idol, season 7.  Under cover of his fame, my infamy- my blogs and my online games- are pretty much obscured unless you know what you’re looking for and have a good idea where to find it- but I do like Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, and Pacxon.  And my blatant faithlessness and other sins against God and family are as secret as my family will keep them, since I couldn’t pay to avoid any blackmail.  If they come out I may as well confess in advance:  it’ll probably all be true.  When I fail, which happens all the time, I ask God for grace and mercy and forgiveness.  I would hope others would know that when we follow in faith, and ask, according to First John 1:9, God is faithful to forgive and clean us up, and start us on the right path again.  Thank God.

I followed behind the young scouts, looking for the less obvious markers on the graves.  I did it with the motive that if a veteran’s family came by, they wouldn’t think poorly of the scouts for having missed the one.  But God’s not really doing anything to make a church look good.  I think God will pay attention to the markers in our lives that are smaller and easier to miss than the grand, showy displays of power, like people who give out of their abundance.  He won’t pay attention to the things we do to draw attention to ourselves.  He will look for people who do what is right when no one is watching, who give in spite of their own needs.  He will look for genuine faith from people who trust and hope and give their all in spite of all the odds.  And He will make sure they are remembered.  And thanks to His efforts and restraint on the cross, my sins are covered and my debt to God is paid in full.  If He remembers nothing of what I have done because it’s been covered, I think it’s fine as long as my feet get on the right side of those pearly gates.

In the sermon, the joke about money was at the expense of the rich miser who didn’t give much at church.  (I had to laugh thinking, did the rich guys at our church listen as I did?)  His mansion was said to be smaller than the maid’s and the butler’s who gave out of their need.  St. Peter quipped of the small heavenly hovel, “we did the best we could with what you sent us.”  And maybe it’s true, the mansion is smaller when the sacrifices made aren’t sacrifices.  I don’t care about the size of any mansion or hovel; I just don’t want to be homeless in eternity, or to have too much heat, all year, if you know what I mean.

While remembering the fallen, laid to rest in their graves, I can’t help but remember that Jesus promised that we would follow where He went.  Then, He showed us death isn’t the end, and following Him means from the grave to the heavens (John 14:3).  

 

I want to follow Jesus, and His way of Love.  So I pray, Lord Jesus, lead the way, and help me follow.

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My Mite, His Might May 14, 2014

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On Saturday I witnessed the first communion of my niece and nephew.  As a Protestant I was surprised to feel so very welcomed and included.  And I was pleased with the encouragements being offered to parents and young, new communicants.  The clothes were elegant.  The language in the pew before and behind our family was unmistakeably Polish.  The grandparents and parents beamed with pride, and hope, and love.  The singing was scattered, but led well and played and sung loudly enough one didn’t have to notice if their neighbor didn’t sing.

My Mother-In-Law declined to partake in communion, saying her knees were unfaithful and she was afraid of the trip from pew to altar.  I stayed by her, mercifully pardoned the lonely embarassment of being Protestant in a crowd of Catholics.  Their worship books in the pew have provisions for non-Catholic participation in communion.  It’s done by special written permissions from the higher church authorities.  Or, it’s done by presumptuous people who don’t know you’re supposed to get permission if you haven’t been through their instruction programs.  I know too much to participate with a clear conscience.  But they were so welcoming!  From what the priest said, all were to be included in the special occasion.  I felt that I could have gone right up and received the elements.  It would have been very awkward for me though.

After the celebratory parade of new communicants and the faithful participated in the communion rite, what the priest had to say reduced me to tears.  Not because of what he said.  But because of what it meant to me.  I kind of simultaneously love and hate when God says stuff and seems to aim it directly at my hard, faithless, doubting heart. 

The text was John 6.  When Jesus tried to get away with his disciples just for a chance to break away from healings and other ministries, a crowd followed them and just when they sat down, the crowds were coming in a swarm, almost upon them.  Jesus knew they were coming and knew what he wanted to do all along.  He asked the disciples to figure out how to feed everyone.  They counted the cost, about a half a year’s wages or more, and knew they didn’t have that kind of cash. 

A little boy offered them his lunch.  5 small barley bread loaves and two fish.  The priest asked what the kids thought the disciples were thinking.  They gave various responses.  “It’s not enough.”  “What will the boy eat?”  And the priest only told about the disciple’s response of how much it would cost to feed the crowd. 

I read the text and they joked, I think with not a little sarcasm, amongst themselves, “oh, great.  That’ll go really far!”  But the kid offered it.  It was an offering far too small to meet the need, and it was offered because the innocent boy had faith.

Ever read the story of “the widow’s mite?”  See Mark 12, Luke 21.  That lady gave, down to her last lepton.  I don’t spend a lot of money.  What I earn mostly goes into the checking and out to bills.  But if I ever get any extra, and it isn’t spent on my wife or kids, I think it’s hilarious to empty my wallet (usually a buck or five is all I have) into the offering box.  My son saw me do that once and he was worried.  “DON’T!!  What if you need that?!”  I said “God and I have an arrangement.  I won’t need that.”  And since I don’t go out to eat normally, and rarely need anything for myself, if it makes it into my wallet, chances are, I won’t. Besides, it’s only a tiny mite, and I don’t want anyone to make a big deal about it, because it’s no big deal. No one is blowing trumpets to announce my giving (please).  I once went the whole week with a $20 in my wallet while my wife and kids were away from home.  My gas tank was filled before they left, I cooked my own meals and brought them with me to work and cooked at home, and when they came back I still had the $20.  So I have times when I live like a miser.  But there are other times when money goes like water and I can liquidate a hundred or two.

Like at the gas station, for instance.

The priest never specifically mentioned the faith of the little boy. He never mentioned the sarcasm of the faithless adult disciples, who obviously didn’t know Who they were hanging around with. But to silence their faithless sarcasm, not only did Jesus feed the crowd of 5000 men, not including women and children, he had the disciples go around and collect the leftovers. Not just one basket, but twelve. Not 13, He’s not wasteful. So that meant there was enough for one more meal of fish and bread for the disciples to enjoy.

About eating your words? In your face, faithless sarcasm. God can do anything He wants, even if the offering is far too small. I thought through this. And at that point in my thought process, I wept, right in the middle of my in-law’s first communion, in the Catholic church. My heart is broken, my wallet and my checkbook always only has an offering far too small. Lately, it’s been a harsh, brutal, difficult journey of getting into debt, with creditors now calling several times a day. Where do they get the money to keep up the attacks? We got call tracing on our phone and we don’t answer any more. The debts started accruing when I got a job that doesn’t pay enough and we tried to preserve the value of one of our cars and it ended up needing to be replaced in spite of our repair efforts and our investments toward it. It’s only gotten deeper from there. The interest rate is too high and we’re hardly able to make that, not to mention the principle we borrowed to start with.

So, Jesus, I have what I have, and I earn what I earn, and think in my sarcastic, bitter heart, “Oh great. That’ll cover a lot of the debt. Good luck with that, vultures. I mean bankers.” I don’t have enough. But like the widow and the boy with the single lunch, I need You to feed these vultures at my door and on my phone, and could You leave a few baskets behind for me and the family? I’ll cheerfully eat my sarcasm and bitter faithlessness if You’ll multiply the tiny offerings I have. From my perspective, there are too many details for which money is the answer, and not enough to cover the costs. But from God’s perspective and plan, perhaps the proverbial “lunch” I have to offer can be blessed and multiplied somehow.

Readers, I’ll let you know when He answers. And I’ll let you know what He says, too. Right now He’s pretty quiet. Maybe He’s waiting for them to sit down. Maybe there’s still something I’m supposed to learn. But He can do anything. This I know. My mite is still going to go into the offering, because it’s still ridiculously hilarious. I just pray He covers me, and multiplies my mite with His Might.

Being the Butt of God’s Joke March 20, 2014

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On a Yahoo Answers board, someone asked what the expression “the butt of a joke” meant, and one user efficiently answered. “The word butt basically means to strike with the horns in the way a bull, cow or other horned animal does to defend itself. As a noun it means the object of butting — the target of jokes.” Thank God it doesn’t mean backside, but being the butt of a joke makes one feel a bit like a backside being “[struck] with the horns.”

Yesterday I was the butt of the joke, and it was God’s joke. God has a sense of humor, people. He created us in his image, and some of us have senses of humor, after all. As soon as I got the joke, I realized it was kind of hilarious. But while the joke was playing out, not so much. Perhaps half of comedy is the timing of telling out the joke. Timing makes it funnier.

First I had a hard day at work. There weren’t enough people to take care of the work I just got laterally moved (here read “a promotion with more work for the same amount of pay”) away from, so I got delegated to do the old work AND the new work. It was harsh. At the end of the day all I wanted to do was run away, and get out of there.

I’ll confess, I’ve got issues. My sister reminds me that I need to demonstrate more faith. But when things fall apart, or don’t go right, which, let’s be honest, is ALWAYS and happens to EVERYONE, I personally feel like God is allowing or even directing it at me personally. I’ve never been able to use my shield of faith to fix a broken window, stop something from falling apart when it’s worn out, or pad a short paycheck. Anyone else? Occasionally I have seen prayers answered, but not nearly enough, and certainly not on my schedule. I’m told to trust in God’s timing and that He is on time. Israel in the wilderness got what they needed, daily, and kept complaining. I’m waiting while my life seems to fall apart. It’s stressful sometimes.

What I think I need now, apparently is not what I need now, from a God’s eye view. But I don’t have that perspective. To me it looks like it’s growing more hopeless day by day. But somehow I’m supposed to understand that if I need it now, I have it now. So if I don’t have it, I don’t need it, at least not yet. Tell me this when I need a repairman, and cash to pay for services rendered.

My wife says I should be more capable of fixing things myself. To her a man is auto mechanic, plumber, HVAC Tech, repairman, because her dad tinkered with everything. Occasionally his result was farpotshket, but most of the time he was able to fix what he tackled. Me? Not so much. I have a phobia of plumbing, and I just about have a panic attack when things fall apart.

When I got home, my wife reminded me that the lights outside our garage were burned out. Simple, you say. Just change the bulbs. It was cold and windy. I took off the top of the box-style fixture the first one was in, and installed a new bulb, no problem. I put the top back on. Then I went to the left side. Trying to take the top off, one of the screws was stuck, so I revolved the top of the box and changed the light bulb, no problem. But then the reflective cardboard backing on the back of the box fell in. I revolved the top again, and the glass from the left side fell out. Comedy for any audience, sure, but not very funny to me.

I must have looked like one of those silent movies with Charlie Chaplin, or maybe I’d have qualified as one of the three stooges. Except my murmur was far from silent. At the end, I gave up on the fixture, all 3 glass sides and the cardboard backing were removed, and the lid is still hanging stubbornly from the skeleton that’s supposed to hold the 4 sides, but had stubbornly declined to receive and hold. And I was cold. I have to try again later, or buy a new fixture. Perhaps something of a superior design, that enables easier switching of light bulbs. One of my car windows has a broken motor and is held poorly in place with duct tape. There, I fixed it. pity you can’t duct tape a garage light bulb enclosure, it would defeat the purpose. But if you could, I would have done that.

I abandoned the effort (here read, “rage quit.”) I came back into my house with frozen fingers, and my wife offered me a hot cup of tea. I thanked her and murmured a bit. And somehow, I had the presence of mind to ask my wife and our son to pray for me, since I was pretty frustrated and very discouraged.

When things fall apart, as they just do in a world stamped “Made in China,” I routinely have a crisis of faith. Sorry, it’s just me. I read about how the children of Israel were cared for during their time in the wilderness, and I’m just jealous. Deuteronomy 8:4, and just in case they forgot, Deuteronomy 29:5, remind Israel “During the 40 years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.” Well, I’ve got shirts with holes in the elbow, I’ve got pants that have a rip in the knee, and my last pair of shoes had cracks in the soles until I mustered the cash for a new pair.

I am so jealous. Why can’t my things not wear out? Why do my things fall apart faster than I can fix them? The more it happens, the less I trust.

I help with a group of kids who get together to memorize Bible Verses. The meeting was right after I had a few sips of tea, so I went. I thought I had arranged a scheduled speaker, but the person assigned for the evening’s large group Bible study did not step up. The adult leaders looked around at each other, asking who had agreed to take the week’s short Bible devotional to open the study session. No one. Blank stares landed on me. So after my “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” (thank you Judith Viorst), I stepped up to pinch hit.

I checked the schedule for the assigned Bible Study topic and honestly was swept with all different manner of emotions. I remembered my hopelessness and exhaustion. I remembered my anger. I remembered how my sister tries to encourage me when I want to give up. I remembered the tea cup, and knew God had aimed the lesson straight at me. I almost cried. And then I almost laughed. It wasn’t for the kids today. I chose laughter and played along, accepting my role in God’s joke. The topic, a favorite of my sisters, was I Thessalonians 5:17-18. I decided to roll in v 16 just for good measure, and provided what they call in preaching circles “an extemporaneous talk.” That means I made it up, after praying very quickly. God handed me this and required me to teach it because it was exactly what I needed to hear myself. That was the funny part of it. There He was, showing up to meet my need, in His own timing and in his own hilarous way. I did plan the topics but I didn’t plan to teach this one.

I Thessalonians 5:16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

I told the kids, and myself, that God wants us to talk to Him. I told them about how difficult my day had been, leaving out most of the irritating details, my failure, and my faithless raging response. I think I just said that sometimes life is difficult but God calls us to trust Him through our difficulties. The text says, “Rejoice always.” The irony is not lost on my heart. I explain that sometimes I don’t feel very much like rejoicing. I explain that in spite of days when things don’t go right, God cares about us, which is why the next verse says, “Pray continually.” We cry out to God (although my reaction was a murmur) when things fall apart. We cry out to God when we’re hurt, or feeling lonely, or sad, or scared.

So we are instructed to pray when things are happy and we do feel like rejoicing, and we pray when things are difficult. It’s a relationship though, not just a “God, please give me this and that, and heal Grandma who is sick, and help my dog learn to obey.” It’s not just us asking and telling God we’re happy, or not happy. It’s us listening to God as he speaks to us through the Bible and other Christ followers and, if you can hear it, that still, small Voice. It’s me, taking encouragement from all of the kids as they learn God’s truth. It’s us, taking encouragement as we watch how God works in other people’s lives.

I didn’t say it, but, even if He seems uninterested in our light and momentary trials and petty concerns that we ask about for ourselves, it is better to pray for others in their times of need than to worry about our own problems. If the focus is on us, we are tempted to rage quit because our stormy lives are so hard. It is better to focus on, and celebrate, as others seem to win, than to focus on our own trials.

I remind them that we live in a world where things fall apart, sometimes we lose the big football game, sometimes we get a bad grade, people sometimes get sick and sometimes even die, and friendships are even sometimes fickle. It’s not even the end of the world, I joke, when your boyfriend or girlfriend leaves. But God cares about all of this and helps us to get through the trials.

And the hardest thing I had to read: “In everything give thanks, for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus concerning you.” I’m not feeling very grateful. But I am feeling crushed. My annoying sister frequently reminds me of this verse, like a challenge. I tell them, truthfully, that I am thankful for them, for their progress, and their encouragements, and for my wife offering me a hot cup of tea when I came in all frustrated and cold. Today was hard, but I survived and came to help at church anyway. I tell them that they should keep working toward their spiritual goals even though it is sometimes hard, and they can do it. In life, you don’t always get another try, but in church, we’re supposed to extend one another grace, so if they don’t make it through their books this year, there’s next year. I tell them instead of giving in to feelings of hopelessness, you should look for those moments when people give you grace and encouragement, like a hot cup of cocoa or tea when you’re cold, or an after school snack when you’re too hungry to wait for dinner. You should pray and trust God. And you need to keep trying.

You need to pray, and trust, and keep trying.

And so do I.