Category Archives: theology

Toxic Charity?

Saturday I returned from a short-term mission trip to Denver with our youth. I was pumped by the diverse and intense experiences we had together serving the urban poor. I preached on how the week gave me a new perspective on prayer in yesterday’s sermon and how excited I am to see future mission trips.

Then this morning I read a short article in L Magazine titled: Toxic Charity. It is an excerpt from the book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). In the article, Robert Lupton argues that many of the service projects that churches and nonprofits perform with good intentions are not really helping the needy. Americans work hard at serving others, but do rarely consider the outcomes of such service.

What is so surprising is that its outcomes are almost entirely unexamined. The food shipped to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit — all seem like such worthy efforts. Yet those closest to the ground — on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity — quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping. How? Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.

The article started me wondering about some of the service projects we assisted in Denver. One was the David Clifton Carpenter’s Cupboard, a food shelf in Wheat Ridge, CO. David Clifton was homeless for a time early in his life and had gone to churches for help. Afterwards he started a food shelf to help others like himself. But in my one day of service at his food shelf, I wondered if it was helping people transitioning out of poverty or was simply a “band-aid” that continued a cycle of dependency. From my limited observation it appeared that many families came every week for the free food.

Robert Lupton writes,

To be sure, not all charitable response is toxic . . .  But our compassionate instinct has a serious shortcoming. Our memory is short when our recovery is long. We respond with immediacy to desperate circumstances but often are unable to shift from crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development. Consequently, aid agencies tend to prolong the “emergency” status of a crisis when a rebuilding strategy should be underway.

NewHabitatLogoOne agency that I believe has long-term development in mind is Habitat for Humanity. It seeks to transition people out of poverty by helping them move into home ownership. One of their mottos is “Not a handout, but a hand up.” Habitat home recipients must first complete 500 hours of “sweat equity” working on Habitat homes, complete a course on homeownership and sign a mortgage agreement that is not more than 1/3 of their income before receiving their home. Habitat is not toxic charity but transitional charity.

What do you think about charity and service for other?

Lord Jesus, teach us to love our neighbor in ways that honor you.

Jesus Clears the Temple

A member of Resurrection sent me this cartoon today: “Jesus clears the temple.”* The cartoon got me thinking about the story in Jesus’ ministry (Mark 11:15-18). For many of us, the fact that Jesus cleared the temple of money changers is not significant or  meaningful. We don’t realize how upsetting and radical  Jesus’ action was for the ruling religious council in Jerusalem. We often see Jesus’ angry expression as some sort of deviation from the nice, kind Jesus we adore.  It was sort of “bizarre,” like someone “clearing” the temple on a skateboard.

But the Temple Cleansing was central piece of his Messianic vocation.  N. T. Wright helps to clarify this from the historical perspective of first century Judaism (the full essay is here):

Jesus believed he was Israel’s messiah, the one through whom God would restore the fortunes of his people. . . .  Anyone doing and saying what Jesus did and said must have faced the question “Will I be the one through whom the liberation will come?” All of the evidence—not least the Temple-action and the title on the cross—suggests that Jesus answered, “Yes.”

Second, Jesus’ radical and counter-cultural agenda, subverting both the political status quo and the movements of violent revolution, was focused in his awareness, of vocation.  John the Baptist re-enacted the Exodus in the wilderness; Jesus would do so in Jerusalem. Jesus’ gospel message constantly invokes Isaiah 40-55, in which God returns to Zion (Jerusalem), defeats Babylon, and liberates Israel from her exile. At the heart of that great passage there stands a job description. This would be the victory over evil; this would be the redefined messianic task. Jesus had warned that Israel’s national ideology, focused then upon the revolutionary movements, would lead to ruthless Roman suppression; as Israel’s representative he deliberately went to the place where that suppression found its symbolic focus. He drew his counter-Temple movement to a climax in Passover week, believing that as he went to his death Israel’s God was doing for Israel (and hence for the world) what Israel as a whole could not do.

Third, Jesus believed something else, I submit, that makes sense (albeit radical and shocking sense) within precisely that cultural, political, and theological setting of which I have been speaking. Jesus evoked, as the overtones of his own work, symbols that spoke of Israel’s God present with God’s people. He acted and spoke as if he were in some way a one-man, counter-Temple movement. He acted and spoke as if he were gathering and defining Israel at this eschatological moment—the job normally associated with Torah. He acted and spoke as the spokesperson of Wisdom. Temple, Torah, and Wisdom, however, were powerful symbols of central Jewish belief: that the transcendent creator and covenant God would dwell within Israel and order Israel’s life. Jesus used precisely those symbols as models for his own work. In particular, he not only told stories whose natural meaning was that YHWH (God) was returning to Zion, but he acted—dramatically and symbolically—as if it were his vocation to embody that event in himself.

Jesus saw himself as the means of salvation, no longer the Temple as the means. He became the sacrifice for our sins. He cleansed not only the Temple, but our hearts so that God can live in us. Amen.

Lord Jesus, continue to cleanse us.

*The cartoon is by Cuyler Black and you can find more of his cartoons here

Adam versus Jesus

If death got the upper hand through one man’s wrongdoing, can you imagine the breathtaking recovery life makes, sovereign life, in those who grasp with both hands this wildly extravagant life-gift, this grand setting-everything-right, that the one man Jesus Christ provides?  (Romans 5:17.The Message)

The story of Adam and Eve is central to the Christian’s understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it. In Genesis chapter two and three, God creates man (Hebrew: Adam) from the dust of the earth (Hebrew: Adama). He places Adam and later Eve, in a garden called Eden to till and keep it. They are given great freedom, with one rule to remind them of their dependence on God, their creator: do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

All goes well until the serpent talks Eve into the fatal bite. Adam joins her in the rebellion against God. When God comes to visit, they hide, ashamed of their nakedness. God give them the opportunity to confess but in turn they blame another. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. God casts them out of the garden as the consequence of their rebellion.

The story is way for humans to talk about our in-born tendency to rebel against God. We want to run things our way, to be in charge of our destiny. We all trespass against God’s rule. As Paul write in Romans 5, one man’s trespass shows us the reality of sin and death in each of us.

But humanity’s rebellion is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning. God immediately begins a rescue mission. In Genesis 3:21 God provides garments for Adam and Eve from the skins of animals. Death provides protection to humans, a foreshadowing of the cross.

The rescue is completed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If death can come through one man, then surely new life can come through one man, Jesus Christ, the son of God. Jesus is so much greater than Adam or you or I. Jesus Christ lavishly dispenses the free gift of God’s mercy and grace. New Vibrant Life flows forth from the cross of Christ. We are sinners, but we are REDEEMED and FORGIVEN sinners. We are sons and daughters of muddy earth, yet we are also Princes and Princesses of God’s Kingdom. Let’s rejoice in that reality.

Lord Jesus, let me live as your forgiven child, trusting always in your grace.

New Wineskins

C. S. Lewis wrote an excellent book on literary criticism, An Experiment in Criticism, that is applicable to how one reads scripture. Lewis argues that a critic should not take preconceived opinions into the reading of a book, but remain open to receive what the writer brings. Our culture too quickly labels a book as good or bad and that judgment is often based on some arbitrary taste. Lewis argues that a book would be better judged by what kind of response it elicits from the reader. Does the reader cherish the book and want to read it over and over, reflecting on its meaning, prose and insights?

An open stance towards the reading of scripture is even more important. We need to allow our mind to hear the text. We cannot simply make our own quick evaluation of it nor rely on the comments of a biblical commentary. We need to read Luke as Luke and distinguish it from the perspective of Matthew, Mark and John. We need to keep our own evaluation process out of the reading and allow the text to speak to us, on its own terms. In other words, let the text shape and critique me and not the other way around.

This can be challenging since so much of my reading of scripture has been shaped by what others may have taught or preached. I bring my biases and cultural norms that are hard to place aside so that the text can speak. I struggle to be quiet and receptive to what God may say through the Word. Yet as I open myself, trusting the Holy Spirit to work through the text, I discover the life giving Word.

It sort of like Jesus’ teaching that one put new wine into new wineskins, so that as the wine ferments and expands, the wineskin has the flexibility to expand and adapt (Mark 2:22). Old wineskins lack the flexibility to expand and instead burst.  My openness to God’s Spirit allows the wine of the Spirit to expand and shape my wineskin of thought and action. I want to be a new wineskin, receptive to the transforming power of God’s Word. And I pray that my congregation and national church would be new wineskins as well.

How do you stay open and receptive to God’s Word?

Lord Jesus, fill me again with your new wine.

Christmas Is Natural

During the season of Advent, I have been using Luther Seminary’s God Pause devotional. This morning Dr. Fred Gaiser reflected on Psalm 98, a favorite of mine, to help us see how the whole creation participates in Christmas.

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
He has remembered his steadfast love
and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.

Dr. Gaiser wrote,

Advent means coming. God is coming to judge the earth, sings the psalmist. But will we survive this? Will we like it? The creation seems to—the floods clap, the sea roars and the hills sing because they know something we might not: that God’s judgment is always just, that this Judge is always good. But we humans are not as innocent as the creation.

Can we sing as quickly as the creatures? There is evil around us and within us that needs to be cleansed, removed, cut out. God knows this to be true—so do the hills and so do we. But even as we fear God’s coming, we look forward to it because it will make us new. Come, God. Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new—me too.

All I can write is AMEN!  As the Christmas carol Joy to the World declares, “Let heaven and nature sing!”

Stir up your power, O Lord, and come. Make your world shine as on the day of creation’s dawn. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Prophet’s Profit

The prophetic books have always been a challenge to me as a preacher and pastor. I prefer to work with narrative portions of the Bible: stories that make a point about God and humanity. The Biblical prophets rarely tell stories (the prophet Jesus being the exception). Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah and others tend to use poetic language of metaphor and direct speech. The language is often harsh and demanding. Law seems to prevail over gospel; God’s judgment over God’s mercy.

Do not rejoice, O Israel! Do not exult as other nations do; for you have played the whore, departing from your God. You have loved a prostitute’s pay on all threshing floors. Threshing floor and wine vat shall not feed them, and the new wine shall fail them. They shall not remain in the land of the Lord; but Ephraim shall return to Egypt, and in Assyria they shall eat unclean food. (Hosea 9:1-3)

Yet this is God’s Word and needs our faithful attention. Like a good doctor, the prophet gives a proper diagnoses of our spiritual condition. The prophet does not sugar-coat the news, but rather forcefully calls for the repentance of God’s people. The prophet shows us our sinful arrogance and calls us back to God’s ways. It is our disloyalty to God and God’s ways that causes the judgment. It is our mistreatment of our neighbor that causes God’s to be angry.

 Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.  Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him, “Take away all guilt; accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips.   (Hosea 14:1-2)

The prophets announce God’s mercy and tenderness. God’s love permeates even the judgment.  The prophet Hosea proclaims God’s grace towards us in a poem that reminds of the paradise garden of Eden in Genesis 2.

I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.  I will be like the dew to Israel. . .   They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

The prophets can still speak God’s Word of life for us. Are we willing to listen?

Lord Jesus, you have the words of eternal life. Open our hearts to hear them.

Sanctuary Light

On Sunday, our Biblical focus will be King Solomon’s building and dedicating the temple in Jerusalem. His father, King David, had wanted to build a temple, but through the prophet Nathan, God instructed him to wait.

Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word  saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:5-7)

The temple was a mixed blessing to Israel. Like many beautiful cathedrals it provided a place for the worship of God to flourish. Awe and wonder could be expressed in multiple ways within its walls. The book of Psalms captures some of the beauty of that magnificent structure.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. Psalm 27:4

But as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the danger of a fixed structure is that we compartmentalize God’s activity and restrict God’s presence to the “box on the hill.” A temple, church or cathedral should draw us into the wondrous presence of God yet also send us out renewed and refreshed to be God’s people in the world. The light of Christ is to shine both inside and outside the sanctuary.

I have been rereading Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion.  A Quaker, Kelly testifies to how the light of prayer is to be transformative wherever we are:

A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into it inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and rejudges it, who brings the Light into the world with all its turmoil and it fitfulness and recreates it (p. 35).

Having worshipped in a simple Friend’s Meeting House, I know that it was not the magnificent space that inspired Kelly’s deep conviction, but rather the Light in the people who gathered to listen and be in the Light. The Light calls us together where we amplify its wavelength in community but then the Light directs us back into the world. Our meeting places are to be launch pads.

Lord Jesus, let your light shine in me.

The Rebellion

When I read the first few chapters of the Bible, I am always struck as to how quickly everything slides from being GOOD to being BAD.  Declaring all creation to be “very  good” in chapter one and creating beautiful garden of paradise for Man and Woman in chapter two, the Bible provides us a glimpse into creation as God intended it to be: beautiful, balanced, and harmonious.

But the creation (and especially the human creatures) do not remain in harmony.  Man and Woman, Adam and Eve, choose to disobey God. The story in Genesis 3 is often called “The Fall”, because humanity “fell” out of God’s favor, but I prefer to call it “The Rebellion” because they rebelled against God’s order and design.  The Fall sounds accidental or unintended.  Their rebellion is not an isolated historical oddity.  It is a deliberate act., a rebellion in which we all participate.

We have all decided to go our own way and leave God’s chosen path.  We each do it in unique ways, but at the root of it all, we rebel against God being God.

For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23

Our rebellion is our sinful desire to be little gods.  Genesis 3-11 show how the human rebellion grow as Cain kills Abel (Genesis 4) and wickedness permeates all humankind (Genesis 6:5).

Yet there is good news in these chapters as God always provided for God’s children even during the rebellion.  God provided animal skins to clothe Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21).  God provided protection for Cain (Genesis 4:15) and an ark for Noah (Genesis 6:13-14).  Ultimately God chose Abraham to be the pioneer in God’s restoration (Genesis 12:3).  Through Abraham, a savior would come to save us from our Rebellion.

How do you rebel against God?  How has God continued to reach out to you?

Lord Jesus, forgive me of my sin and restore me to the Vibrant Life of faith in you.

In the Beginning

Genesis 1 starts in a conventional way, In the beginning.   Isn’t that where all stories should begin? Occasionally a novel or movie may start in the middle or end and then flashback to the beginning, but we are conditioned to think Beginning/Middle/End. If we were to start near the middle, we would wonder, “How did we get here?” Genesis 1 has no such confusion.

Genesis 1 however pushes, “In the beginning” to the Nth degree. This is not simply the beginning of a story or a life. It is the beginning of time itself. There can be no earlier beginning or start. This is the ultimate starting point and in some ways beyond our comprehension.

Genesis 1 then states that the only thing prior to the beginning is God. God precedes the beginning and is the one who creates all that was, and is, and will be. In confirmation students sometimes ask, “Who created God?” They struggle to comprehend that God is the First Cause, the Eternal One. I often respond to their question with this response: if I said “X” created God, then you would ask “who created X?” And if I said “Y created X,” then who created Y? God is at the very beginning and the first creator. In the beginning God created.

I find this opening phrase of the Bible to be not just a deep theological concept, but also an even deeper source of comfort and hope. The creation is NOT a random act of physical and chemical reactions, but a CREATION that God started for a reason. God wanted a beginning, chose to create. God did not do this in secret, but revealed this creative beginning to us in his Word. God wants us to know that He stands behind the creation we observe and live within.

And if he is the author of this creation story, then he has a purpose for us. God deliberately choose to create each part of creation, giving us significance. God stands at the beginning of creation and at the beginning of each day.

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24

How do you invite God into your beginnings?

Lord Jesus, may my beginnings start with you today.

Cornfields, Pumpkins and Worship

Cross and Corn

My daughter, Christina, is home from her college in Pennsylvania and worshipped at our outside service on Sunday.  She commented afterwards, “It is so amazing having worship beside a cornfield.”  She went on to say that many of her eastern classmates think Minnesota is covered with cornfields, so our worship reinforced that stereotype. I reminded her that just north of Bailey Road is a golf course and thousands of suburban homes.  Still the cornfield stands out.

Perhaps the cornfield can serve as a symbol of the vibrant life in Christ.  Jesus often used the image of seeds to communicate the growing aspect of our life in him

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat (or corn?) falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

The cornfield also reminds us that we are called to grow together.  The cornstalks are stronger and more resist to wind if they grow in a field together.  Yet each cornstalk is unique in it height, breadth and yield.  We are all unique creations of God, wired with our own dependable strengths, passions and callings.

The cornfield also connects us to a key petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread.”  God uses the farmer, millers, bakers, merchants, and financiers to move the corn in the field to the food on our table.   We can be thankful not only for the food but for all the people who work to feed us.

Scott H tilling the soil

Near the cornfield is the pumpkin patch that our church is  utilizing to grow pumpkins for our harvest festival in October.  Scott Hanson is working the field, trying to keep the weeds down and the vines growing.  It is truly amazing to watch how the vines in such a short time have covered the field.   Pumpkins are rapidly growing into ripe fruit.  I am reminded that God first put Adam in the garden of Eden to till and keep it (Genesis 2:15).   Our patch may not be Eden, but it is direct descendent.

How do you celebrate the wonder of summer growth?

Early Pumpkin

God of the harvest,
I celebrate the earthiness of potatoes just dug up, 
the sweetness of corn,
 beads of dew on tiny gourds,
the orange glow of ripe pumpkins,
green cucumbers and zucchini,
the garden full of life, health and bounty.