Sunday, December 28, 2014

The God of Second Chances

Jesus teaches us about the God of Second Chances, and with every new day, and new year, we face fresh opportunities to turn back again to God.

When we come to the knowledge of God's will for our lives - that we should love God with all our heart, mind, strength and soul, and love and serve others just as we love and serve ourselves - we have embraced a new beginning, and undergo a New Birth. We are saved from sin.

Mere knowledge, however, is not enough. Mere verbal or mental assent is not enough. Emotional fervor and good feelings about God are not enough. God, our Creator, calls us to act, and do, and become better, more Spiritually complete people who reflect that which God created for us to become.

Repentance of our past sins and shortcomings gives us a clean slate - we indeed become "white as Snow" when we first ask for forgiveness and repent. But then we must commit to strive to keep ourselves clean and unspotted from a world that has not yet embraced the love and purity of God's path.

While we have not yet achieved moral completeness, all of us are called to seek it. Those who continue to recklessly sin and rebel against God's moral Law does not know God, nor the one whom God sent, Jesus.

Jesus demonstrated with his life, teachings and death the way we should respond to God's gifts. Jesus' example is our model and template.

If we follow the example of Jesus, our lives may become just as full, complete and pleasing to God as his was.

Jesus calls us to a life of Good Works in humility and compassion. Service to others leads to spiritual completeness.

We must approach his example with fear and trembling, and with great humility, and not arrogance. And of course, always seeking forgiveness from God our Father and Creator for our shortcomings.

If we seek forgiveness from God, in true repentance, then our past sins are forgiven. If we then remain in his Teachings, Jesus says we will be saved by God.

After repenting and accepting the knowledge of God's path Jesus reveals to us, we are challenged to actively live out this Faith.

But God doesn't leave us to face this challenge alone. We always have the example of Jesus, and we also have God's ever-present spiritual comfort, always there to guide, encourage and hold us tightly during times of trouble and trial.

And God has implanted within us the seeds that can grow and become a visible representation of the Kingdom of God - in this place and in this time. Knowledge of God's moral plan for our lives, shown to us by Jesus, germinates those seeds and they are nurtured by his example and God's ongoing love and strength.

Each of us can grow within us a Spiritual Abundance that gives light and hope to the world.

Let us greet every new year, new month, new day, new hour, and every new minute as a precious opportunity to serve God and our neighbors in God's name!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

5 Ways Modern Christmas Is Not Far from Jesus Christ

Is Modern Christmas really that far from Christ Jesus? In many ways, it certainly is. It focuses on “getting” far more than giving, on money and acquiring expensive things rather than on God and accruing spiritual riches, and it can often put the focus on pride, and ourselves, rather than on giving to others.

In all these things, the Christmas that we keep today is indeed far from Jesus, and from the God Who chose him to be our example and guide in all things.

Then again, our Modern Church often also reflects these failings, being too inwardly focused, centered on obtaining money and materialism, and obsessed with “rock star” preachers with huge egos.

But do those who get so upset this time of year about how “secular” Christmas has become in our lives have a point? Or are they missing some of the wonderful redeeming values of the Season, even as most non-Christians celebrate it? Let’s take a look.

1. Modern Christmas has become a time for giving, with an emphasis on those in need.
Jesus in fact said we are to give to those in need.

Jesus does not say IF we give to the needy, he gives us instructions on how to act WHEN we give to the needy (Matt. 6:2-3.) While we are not to “trumpet” our good deeds JUST to be seen by others in a prideful way, we are clearly and specifically told to give to the poor (Matt. 10:21) and “give to the one who begs from you” (Matt. 5:42.)

2. Modern Christmas features people coming around the table for big meals – including friends, co-worker, long-lost relatives and even the “black sheep” of the family.
Jesus invited people to dinner; some who weren't on the guest list of the wealthy and powerful.

“When you give a feast,” he says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 14:13.) He ate with outcasts, including hated tax-collectors and with sinners (Matt. 9:10-13.) He expanded his definition of “family” to all who did the will of God (Matt 12:50.) All of this outraged the religious elites of the day.

3. Modern Christmas has become a particular time for expressing love to people, and for reconciliation, even among enemies.
Jesus called people to love one another. Even our enemies. At all times.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44.) We are called by Jesus to love our God with all our hearts, mind, strength and soul, and to extend this same love to our neighbors (Luke 10:27.) Before gift-giving, Jesus said we must reconcile with our siblings (Matt 5:23-24.)

4. Modern Christmas has become a time when people are focused on doing good to others.
Jesus calls us to do Good Works and serve others righteously and in humility.

Jesus says, “Do unto others that which you would have done unto you” (Matt 7:12.) Jesus wishes us to, "observe all that I have commanded you." (Matt. 28:20) and says we will do even greater works than he did (John 14:12) Jesus clearly says we must “Do Good” (Luke 6:35) and serve others.

“I was hungry and you gave me food,” says Jesus. “I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” (Matt 25:35.) In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we are called to, “Go, and do the same.” (Luke 10:37)

5. Modern Christmas has become a time when we celebrate light in winter.
Jesus calls us to always let our Good Works be a beacon of light, representing God’s Kingdom made “real” in the world.

We are to let our “Light shine, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” But we cannot keep our goodness hidden, but like a lamp on a table or a city on a hill, we must show God’s love to the world through our actions. (Matt. 5:14-16.) Jesus tells us how to show this service to God – so that God’s Kingdom would come (Matt. 6:10) – and also how to serve others: to clothe the naked, care for the sick, house the homeless, feed the hungry (Matt. 25:35-41.)

Of course, the clear difference between the “secular” Christmas and the Message Jesus proclaims to us is that Jesus’ message is what we who follow him are called to follow year-round, not just during one season.

None other than that secular Christmas celebrant, Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, said the same. “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

That, too, is what Jesus asks of us. And as Tiny Tim might say, “May God bless us, everyone,” at this precious time of the year, and always.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

True Justice

Do we truly believe in Justice? It's very popular to say we do. Religious denominations are constantly passing resolutions calling for "Justice" for this or that oppressed group. And it's good to be aware of oppression and injustice in a broad and universal sense.

Scripture tells us, however, that it's better, and more effective, to act justly every day to our fellow human beings. We can rather too easily SAY that we "love all people" with smug satisfaction, thinking we've done something simply by saying so.

But it's often harder to love the people who stand beside us, live among us and are seeking justice, kindness and mercy FROM us. But it's a challenge the prophets and Jesus say that God wishes us to take up and make a part of our daily lives.

Micah the prophet is often wisely quoted as telling us God wishes us to act in a just manner towards others. "HE has told you, O man, what is good; and what does GOD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (6:8)

Jeremiah is another prophet who speaks about justice, taking pains to note that justice starts WITHIN OURSELVES, in the amendment of our own actions, and this leads to peaceful living among each other:

"Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ “Because if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail." (Jeremiah 7:1-8.)

Jesus echoes these words, saying we cannot simply say to God, "LORD, LORD," and not put His commandments, and the example of Jesus, into action within our lives.

Justice is achieved by individual acts of service and acts of kindness today, not in bold proclamations of what we will do in the future.

Isaiah said that God called Israel to, "Maintain justice and do what is right" (56:1) and that's a lesson for us today, as well. Elsewhere, after he famously calls for us to "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean" he says we must "learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow." This firmly places justice at the center of action, not theory or speculation, or good intentions.

The Roman world in which Jesus and his fellow Judeans lived was far from just. Rome ruled its empire by imperial decree, and Judea itself was governed through a puppet king, who himself was answerable to Pontius Pilate, the brutal and ruthless Roman governor.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for dealing with lesser matters, but neglecting, "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Matt. 23:23.) He said elsewhere in the Gospels that Jesus "will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. (Matt 12:18) and our acts were to be like a light and as salt to the world (Matt. 5:13-14.)

It is clear from the wisdom of Scripture and from our Master's words that our individual actions are the key to spreading justice, and that God wishes those who would be called "righteous" to act justly.

Today, it's very easy to have "deceptive words," that are without meaning without action. We must not refuse to take actual action within our own lives - concrete, specific and effective action that is LOCAL in nature and actually makes justice into something other than an abstraction.

- Good intentions and warm spiritual feelings we keep within us that are never acted upon do not bring justice.

- Mere angry words and endless proclamations condemning others' injustice do not in fact bring true justice to others better than our humble, everyday acts of justice and kindness.

- The condemnation of Good Works, and imagining Jesus does not require us to act righteously, does not bring justice.

So, let us renew in this coming year to instead LITERALLY act justly with others, letting each of our individual actions kindle justice to shine as a light to the world, spreading justice and equity wherever we go and in whatever we do!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Loving God With Jesus' Simple Faith

God calls us, through Jesus, to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all of our strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

This the core of the selfless and life-giving Gospel given to us by the one whom God chose and sent out to us, Jesus.

We become whole and complete beings when we serve God and others in His name, and seeking to do this completes our spirits.

Jesus says we are to come to him like a child:

"But Jesus said, 'Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.'" (Matt. 19:14)

Children easily believe, and their love is pure and natural. Children have a faith in God as the Creator and Father of us all.

Childlike obedience, childlike love, childlike trust in God, all lead to a spirituality that leads us into God's presence, and helps us show God to others.

When our spirits are in union with God, we achieve the Spiritual Abundance and wholeness of life that God means us to have.

And Jesus showed us, by the example of his life, teachings and death, that we may become spiritually complete and become all God wishes us to be. This is the amazing and glorious gift that God has shown us through Jesus.

The Gospel that Jesus preached is simple and pure and easily believable:

Love God. Love others. Live Righteously. Serve others. Do Good Works. In this way, we bring in - and actively live in - God's Kingdom.

That is it. Full Stop.

But because we humans like to over-think and over complicate things, we have added much to this Gospel.

Human beings throughout the centuries have polluted this pure message with complicated and confusing doctrines that negate every part of the Gospel.

Did Jesus preach (as later men taught) that all men were born evil, and are unable to obey God, without God giving him extra and special powers to do so? Or did he preach that we had the ability to obey God, and would be judged according to our deeds, and that our acts MUST be righteous?

Did Jesus preach (as later men said) that he was equal to God, and therefore we need only worship his Personhood in order to be saved, eternally? Or did he preach his utter dependence upon God, his Father (and ours) and that only obedience in righteousness leads to salvation?

Did Jesus preach (as men do) that we must wait for him to come back to earth with an avenging army before the Kingdom of God comes? Or did he preach that we must seek to bring in the Kingdom IMMEDIATELY with our acts of love, compassion and service to others?

Did Jesus preach (as men do) that we can pray to God to attain material wealth, increase our power over others, and have all our physical desires granted? Or did he call us to seek spiritual treasures from Heaven, and to serve God and others even in our material poverty?

Human beings are born capable, thanks to God's gifts, of doing great and amazing things. We send rockets to space, explore the deepest seas, and create works of fiction that amaze and entertain us. But we also create excuses by citing man-made doctrines that falsely assure us that we need NOT do Good Works or actively serve our fellow human beings.

During his ministry, Jesus condemned the doctrines of men, which were being put above the love of God. Men created mythologies and doctrines that put empty ritual and dogma ahead of God's love and our requirement to serve and love others.

Should we be surprised that doctrines of men still dominate the powerful dominant religion of today? These strange doctrines we are taught as "Faith" today are encrusted with complicated theologies that defy definition, cleverly devised to keep us from the simple Gospel of Jesus. They are indeed another man's "gospel" rather than the pure and simple one Jesus left us.

Jesus was given God's message and conveyed it simply and clearly to us.

We must return to the simplicity and childlike faith that Jesus left us, putting aside the childishness and foolishness that men want to require us to believe in its place.