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Worshiping Idols

God tells us to worship God alone. We are to have no idols before him. And yet, there are so many idols that we put in God’s place…

All these things I will give to you, if you will fall down and worship me.

Matthew 4:9

This passage sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It sounds sort of like something God would say. “Bible Quotes” books will sometimes even use this short verse.

The problem is that God nor Jesus is speaking.

This quote comes from the section of the gospel where Jesus is being tempted by Satan in the wilderness (remember that Satan’s name literally means “the tempter”). He is trying to get Jesus, God’s own self, to turn away from God. To worship a different power source. Jesus is neither amused nor fooled by his words.

God tells us to worship God alone. We are to have no idols before him. And yet, there are so many idols that we put in God’s place.

Sometimes it is money. Or power. Or popularity. Or strength. Sometimes it is even our religion or scripture. But the most dangerous of all idols are the human ones.

We must remember that God does not worship anyone. God does not prostrate God’s self before anything in this universe. Anyone who says otherwise is not only lying, but walking a dangerously fine line with blasphemy.

We should also remember that none of us is without sin, save God alone. All of us have sinned and fallen short. Which means that to place our trust in any earthly power is folly.

Whatever idol we choose, or whoever, we are breaking our relationship with God when we do. That is the very definition of sin.

People say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

So identify the idols in your life and then work with God to root them out.

Then seek the true worship of God. For pure and undefiled religion is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress. To loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free. To share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your home. To cover the naked and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

Go and do likewise.

Better Together

Because the truth is this: we are better together…

“Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow.” 

River Phoenix

Yesterday I had to travel to Pittsburgh (from where I live in central PA) for a couple of appointments. And while I was there driving through town, I passed by the Tree of Life Synagogue. For those who may not remember, the congregation was attacked during Shabbat services one Saturday morning in October 2018.

I was living in Southern Louisiana at the time and I clearly remember all of us gathering at the synagogues in our city the following weeks to show solidarity as they faced the intense realities of what the tragedy had meant and would mean for their community.

Five months later, when the Christchurch Mosque shooting occurred in New Zealand, we gathered on Friday evening at the Islamic Center in Baton Rouge. Many of us who were not of the Muslim faith covered our heads in solidarity. And the congregation there told us it was their first candlelight vigil as they handed out the candles. But the most powerful moment that night was when members of the Jewish synagogues, who had been supported only months before, ended their services early so that they could be there for their brothers and sisters.

Because the truth is this: we are better together.

When we find the place that we care as much about our brothers’ and sisters’ safety (no matter who they are) as our own, then we are beginning to understand who God truly is. Throughout history and in nearly all the major world religions, God has proven God’s self to be about caring for people, creatures, and the creation. As Joachin Phoenix said, when he quoted his brother the other night, if you focus on love, peace will follow.

An important thing to remember here is that the love to which I am referring is not the romantic type we will celebrate later this week. It is instead the compassionate, merciful, emancipating, empowering force of nature that is God’s own self. That is the love we are meant to seek with every fiber of our being.

That means we do stand together when trouble comes, no matter where we come from. That means that we seek to befriend those who are different than us. That means that though we may tolerate other humans in their God-created bodies, we have no tolerance for hatred, injustice, and oppression.

For make no mistake: hatred is unacceptable.

We are all entitled to our opinions until that moment when our opinion harms another. Be it bigotry, sexism, racism, classism, ageism, or judging someone for their religion – none of them are acceptable. We cannot simply be non-racist, or non-ageist, or non-sexist. We who follow the God who is love must be anti-all of those things. Actively. It is a choice we must make multiple times every day, because it is that important.

So, this Valentine’s Day, reach out and get to know your neighbor. And not just the ones who look like, sound like, or think like you. Be God’s love to whoever needs it. Then, just maybe, we’ll start finding a way forward. Together.

Love Is…

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, which means that our world is flooded with romantic excitement about love, as it always is this time of year.

However, at this time in world history, we have once again seen a rise in blatant, tangible hatred and more public support of those who promulgate it. While Elie Wiesel was correct that apathy is the true opposite of love, hatred is nevertheless one of its great adversaries.

So how do we fight hatred with love, as Dr. King suggests?

The Greeks had six different words for love, ranging from self-love to brotherly love and everything between and beyond. Unfortunately, romantic love and playful love, two of the six (Valentine’s love), will not be strong enough to overcome hate in our world. We will need something more robust.

In everyone’s favorite wedding passage, 1 Corinthians 13, the Greek word for love used agape. It is not the word for romantic love, which is eros.

In the New Testament, agape is used to describe not only the caring regard between humans, but also to describe the relationship between God and Christ. And that Love is stronger than anything. So here is what the passage actually says:

Love is steadfast. Love is merciful. Love is not jealous. Love is not a braggart, not conceited, will not behave disgracefully toward another, is not possessive for one’s self, is not provoked to wrath, keeps no score of wrongs, does not enjoy injustice, but rejoices in the truth. Love always endures, always has faith, always hopes, always has patience. Love is never destroyed.

This this who God is. And this is who God calls us to be.

What is more, these are the ways we will fight hatred with love. By living with patience and mercy. By not giving into jealousy, bragging, conceit. By showing grace and honor to others. By being unselfish and not giving into anger. By not holding grudges and counting the score. By seeking to end injustice. By rejoicing in the real truth when we find it.

We do these things because our God is a Love that will always endure, have faith, hope, steadfast patience, and will never be destroyed. No matter what this world may try to do to us for speaking truth to power and hatred, no matter how much it may try to silence us, demonize us, or even kill us, in the end, God’s Love will win.

And it is our only weapon.

So here is your task for the day: actively love those around you. Not just with words, but also with concrete efforts to see them live the lives they were meant to: full of flourishing, equity, and wholeness.

A Day to Remember

As we remember one of the greatest tragedies in the last century, it is not enough to simply say never again…

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Anne Frank

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.

What was striking were not all the posts flooding social media reminding us to never forget, but instead all of the posts sharing how much we have already forgotten. The number of people in our world who do not even begin to comprehend the scope and severity of what occurred is staggering.

What is more, most of us hate to remember that it was not that long ago. Less than 100 years. And there are still people living who survived it.

The Holocaust was not the only grievous mass tragedy of the twentieth century. But it is the one which many of our families chose to help fight. To stop. To stand against.

At the same time that we were fighting overseas, however, we were also fighting our own battles at home. Many groups of people, including Jewish people, were facing discrimination, death threats, and injustice on our shores, too. And those are the battles that still rage today.

White Supremacy has made a shocking resurgence in the last decade. Yet the main visible response in our midst is to bury our heads in the sand. “It’s the twenty-first century. That’s can’t possibly be happening.”

But it is. Racism is still alive and well. Anti-semitism (in its anti-Jewish and anti-Arab forms) is very much at work in our midst. Sexism is still dying a long, slow death. And bigotry in general is still so ingrained in many hearts that when the lives of the “unwanteds” end, the world remains silent.

As we remember one of the greatest tragedies in the last century, it is not enough to simply say never again.

Yes, we must teach the real facts of how many died and how pervasive the sentiment held by the Nazis truly was. But we must also talk about the many things that occurred that made space for the Third Reich to gain a foothold. And we must not stop there.

We must face our own demons. We must actively look for those places that enable us to keep forgetting how many people are still getting hurt. We must keep working on our own systems to ensure that not only will we prevent future Holocausts, but also that we might start ending all the forms of injustice that still proliferate our world.

This is not just something for us to do because of our faith – though ours is the God of the oppressed, the orphan and the widow. But we should do this work because it is the good human thing to do.

We need to care as much for those we would want to forget as we do our own families. Only then will we truly be safe from such a tragedy ever occurring again.

 

Truth to Power

The road is long ahead of us and there are many things that stand in our own way. Including ourselves…

The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Yesterday we remembered the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

But what legacy did we remember?

Most of the quotes proliferating our social media feeds were about love, light, and coming together. Being a preacher, there is no doubt that Dr. King said those things. However, what is far more telling about yesterday were all the quotes we did not see.

We, as a society, have largely sanitized the prophet from the paradigm we promote. We love to tote Dr. King to make ourselves look as though we care about all the things he died for. And yet…

He was murdered for standing against the status quo our society has fought so hard to sustain.

Like the Lord he served, he preached real justice, hard lessons, and stood actively against the systems that allow and promulgate oppression in all its forms. And he met the same death sentence for daring to speak truth to power.

So what legacy should we remember?

First, we should stop using Dr. King as our token social justice soothsayer. Second, we have to speak the truth about the real lessons he taught. Most importantly, we must not only hear those words, but actually listen. Listen to a point of understanding. And understand to a point of acting. Actively walking in his footsteps.

The road is long ahead of us and there are many things that stand in our own way. Including ourselves.

But I can tell you this for certain: if you claim to be a follower of Jesus Christ and do not understand the importance of being radically against all hatred, oppression, systems of injustice, imperialism, greed, and dominating power, you need to reread the gospels.

And as you do, take time to read the Letter from the Birmingham jail alongside. It speaks to far more recent history of which you and I are still a part.

There is still much work to be done. And God is always looking for prophets brave enough to stand even when seemingly good people tell them to shut up. Could God be looking for you?

See the World

No one is expendable…

My family are away this week sharing in some much needing rest and recreation following the crazy mess that is December (especially for pastor’s families). So, in honor of our journeying about a bit, let’s talk about one particular way we can fight against evil in our world. Cheers!


 

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of [humanity] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Mark Twain

My fellow Missourian raises an important truth in this saying: we will never become who God intended us to be if we remain stagnant in one location.

Yes, travel is good for the soul and helpful in creating compassionate hearts towards our fellow humans. However, for many it is not financially feasible.

But what I told you there was a way to travel that cost next to nothing?

What is this miracle journey-service, you ask?

Books. Reading everything you can stand, from fiction to non-fiction, and by a diverse set of authors – that is a practice that empowers you to see the world, even if you cannot leave your house.

The other essential thing to do along with traveling in body or in spirit, is to intentionally seek out relationships with people who are different from you.

This is not so you can collect a set of “token” friends.

On the contrary, I mean seeking chances to truly listen to what someone who thinks, looks, lives differently that you has to say. Learn about their lives. Take time to care about them before you share your own experiences. Then find what you have in common. Celebrate your unique and wonderful differences.

The real truth is that God created all of us. Every single human on this planet (as well as the planet itself). No one is expendable.

It’s time we start seeking to expand our ability to love as God intended. Our world desperately needs it. So go and seek. See what you find. And remember, the world is so much bigger than you can possibly imagine.

Begin Again

So, as we begin this new year, the new decade, will you begin again?

Who will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s a new year. What is more, we have now moved through the twelve days of Christmas and are entering all that comes next.

The trees are made bare. The lights are being wrapped up. The music has shifted fully back into our usual playlists.

Nevertheless, before we get too far away from the celebration of Christ’s birth, it is worth taking a moment to consider what effect the festivities should have on our lives.

Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not about the decorations. It’s not about perfect parties. And it’s certainly not about the presents.

Christmas is about the God of the cosmos loving the creation so much that God entered into it, not out of wrath and vengeance, but out of love. Love that is more powerful than everything, even death itself. Christmas is when we celebrate that Love coming into the world as a light no shadow can ever snuff out.

But what is real love?

We’re about to head careening into Valentine’s Day decorations next month – and I enjoy all the hearts and romance as much as anybody. However, that love cannot compare to the love that Christmas represents.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Paul was writing not to lovers, but to the church. These verses from Corinthians do a better job than most of scripture in describing not only the love we are meant to have for one another, but also the Love that is God’s own Self.

Here’s the rub: If we seek power, if we desire honor, if we care about our reputation above all else, if we think only of ourselves, if we hold onto a sense of control with a white-knuckled grip, if we believe we matter more than others – then the true Love, God, does not rule our lives.

If we who would follow Christ truly want to honor the remembrance of his birth, the only way to do so is to do as Bonhoeffer suggests. We must lay down all that inhibits God’s love taking hold within us.

Only then will we be able to begin again. To start afresh. To find the path God has laid at our feet.

So, as we begin this new year, the new decade, will you begin again?

Just imagine what the world might look like if we finally got out of the way and let God’s love take hold.