Nothing Much Has Changed

Have you ever thought about why you don’t have to teach your children how to be bad? Why is it that obedience has to be learned, but disobedience comes naturally? If you put a vase on the table and say, “Don’t touch.” What’s the one thing your child wants to do? That’s because we are born with a nature that wants to make its own decisions about what is right and wrong. We chafe under the notion that some outside force – even our Creator, even God – could tell us what is right and wrong.

It is ironic to me, that even though we continue to progress as a people; even as we continue under the notion that somehow the essential nature of humankind is improving; the reality of sinfulness is unchanged………………….

Friends, it is hard to deny the reality of sin. Augustine, in the fourth century, identified pride as being at the core of sin. A ninth grader, in a confirmation class I taught named Diana Richards, gave the best working definition I have ever heard. Sin is an overwhelming slavery to self-centeredness.

That self-centeredness, that conviction that WE should determine ultimate right from ultimate wrong is at the core of brokenness that has infused our world. We don’t have to teach brokenness and rebellion – we simply are.

But God – the same God who created us out of love, who created us out of a desire for relationship – that God is not content to leave us in the midst of that brokenness, that sin that we have chosen for ourselves. God sends to us the Holy Spirit – to remind us, to encourage us, to convict us. God raises up men and women, children and youth of faith who serves as exemplars for us. We are so much stronger together than when we are left to our own.

Friends, God has come to be amongst us in Jesus Christ. To demonstrate for us in person what right living looks like. To demonstrate the power of acknowledging that there is a God in heaven, and we are not that God. To demonstrate to us the viability, the meaningfulness, the joy that comes from living within God’s design for life.

But most importantly, Jesus has come – as a gift of grace – to make possible our return to the relationship with God for which we were created in the first place. In that relationship is freedom – tremendous freedom – to be all that we can be in Christ.

The Tyranny of the Present

Friends, to whom do we belong? We have so many things pulling at us. We have so many things demanding our attention, demanding our time, demanding our allegiance. Appointments, schedules, sports, recreation, work, family, the church – so many things that are just so insistent about wanting a piece of us. And if we are honest, some of those things demand more than our time. They demand a place of ultimate importance in our lives. They seek to become the thing around which everything that we do orbits.

In two weeks is the opening Sunday of the NFL season. I have friends for whom that means September 8th is the beginning of their 5-month absence from church. The game may start at 1:00, or maybe even 4:00, but the tailgate begins much, much earlier. They can’t miss something as special as the tailgate, for something as common as worship. I have friends who spend most of their winters on the ski slopes. They will pick church back up as soon as the ski lifts close. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

We have so many things wanting us, demanding our attention. I don’t have a coin to show. But if I could, I would hand each of you a mirror and ask you to look into it. What would you see? A face, a person, created in the image of God. Each of us carry a spark of the divine. You would see a person redeemed by God, at great expense. A person who’s very being reflects the image of God. You, I, all of us like the coin in our story, we reflect the image of God. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; but give to God the things that belong to God. Friends, that you and that’s me.  

It is God who claims us, who made us in his image. We do not belong to anything or anyone else. Nothing else can demand our ultimate allegiance. Nothing else can claim to be sovereign in our lives. Even if we allow it. Maybe, especially if we allow it. Those allowed things are pretenders trying to sit on the throne of our lives.

We are so often willing victims of the moment. We are so often terrorized by those things, those places, those commitments, those people, that demand to be at the center of our worlds. They make the claim, they make the demand, they offer eternal significance, but they can never deliver. We’ve been sold fool’s gold and too often we don’t realize it until we see it in the rear-view mirror of our lives.

Friends, we live in a busy world. We are people of means, people of substance, we have lots of choices. We have lots of squeaky things demanding our attention. I don’t want you to feel guilty over their presence, but I am asking you to take responsibility for their prioritization. What is REALLY most important? What is REALLY worth your undivided attention? What is REALLY worth scheduling your life around? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.

The Intersection of Faith and Politics

I am really not interested in this blog space becoming a forum for ongoing political conversation. The name of this site is “Talkingfaith.org” and so it seems that issues of faith would be our primary focus. This is a conversation ministry of our church and I am a pastor. I guess I should be sticking closely to those areas and topics around which I have some expertise. Sounds reasonable.

Last week I posted about my frustrations with politicians who seem content with “thoughts and prayers” when our country is struck by another mass shooting. Most of the feedback I heard was positive, even when we disagreed. We can have serious disagreements and still have positive conversations.

But I have to admit my frustration when someone says to me, “Jim, you need to keep the politics out of faith conversations.” Over the years I have heard this comment a lot. Most of the time, it seems to come from a distorted view of the separation of church and state. I strongly support constitutional provisions that restrict governmental intrusion into the life of the church. However, that is a limitation of government not personal self-expression.

To suggest that faith has no voice concerning politics is to somehow suggest that there are areas in our lives where God is not sovereign. To suggest that the church should not be addressing political concerns of the day is to relegate the church to the cloudy margins of irrelevancy. Faith is a worldview, a way of ordering priorities and values. As a result, faith inevitably addresses EVERY area of our lives – personal and corporate. Faith can – and should – shape our politics, not the other way around.

Thoughts and Prayers

I am so tired of the politicians, on BOTH sides of the aisle, who respond to mass shooting tragedies with the offering of “thoughts and prayers.” Now I am a pastor, I am all for reflection and prayer, but I have to wonder what they are praying about. I am sure they are praying for a strong sense of God’s presence to surround the families of victims. I am sure they are praying for healing for those wounded. But they clearly are not praying for wisdom because, once again, we have thoughts and prayers offered but no action. They are not praying for courage because they exhibit none.

I was raised in a gun home. Our family ate game meats for a significant part of the year. Our father loaded his own ammunition and so that also meant that, in addition to guns and pistols, we also had a significant amount of ammunition and ammunition components in our home. All were stored responsibly. With four children in the home they had to be. No one could simply open the gun cabinet, pick up a weapon, and fire a round.

I have brothers who own both rifles and handguns. Both hunt. If I could afford it, I would have a handgun myself – not for protection – but simply because I enjoy target shooting. I am supportive of responsible gun ownership. I recognize that we have a second amendment right to keep and bear arms.

However, and this is where I am going to get in trouble, I do not believe that our second amendment right to gun ownership is absolute. Just as we do not have the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire, just as children do not have a right to purchase guns that are legally sold to adults, so also our constitutional rights are boundaried by reason and common sense.

I do not need a 100 round magazine to either target shoot or hunt. They are large, bulky, and serve no purpose other than to facilitate a massive expenditure of rounds on a target in the shortest possible time. It is time that large capacity magazines are outlawed.

When I was a teenager, I had to undergo a significant driver education course to get behind the wheel. That course included classroom education, practice driving on an enclosed range, and supervised driving on the open road. That education was designed to maximize not only my personal safety, but also the safety of those around me when I was driving. The idea that someone can walk into a gun shop in some of our states, or a gun show, and walk out with a weapon with no demonstrable safety training is stunningly ignorant to me. It is time to mandate appropriate shooting education courses prior to the purchase of any weapon. Just as driver’s licenses need to be renewed with appropriate testing, so should shooting licenses.

Background checks should be mandated, thorough, include mental health, and perhaps some kind of screening for social media presentations. The delivery of the purchased weapon should only be finalized once the thorough background check has been successfully completed. The gun show loophole for purchase should be closed.

Ammunition not used for target shooting or hunting should not be available for purchase. No one has a need for armor piercing rounds. Rounds designed to fragment or tumble upon impact serve no recreational purpose. With no reasonable common use, ammunition purchases should be limited to recreational or hunting rounds.

These precautions seem reasonable to me. They should be federally mandated. They provide for responsible gun ownership. Will this end all mass shootings? No, but it will help. I am open to reasonable compromises. What do you think?

I’m Just Asking – A Recap

What do you do with a congregation that is unafraid to ask the really tough, core questions of our faith?

What do you do with a congregation that is willing to accept a variety of responses to those core questions of faith, understanding that we won’t all accept the same answer?

What do you do with a congregation that is unthreatened by honest emotion and passion expressed with integrity by its pastor as the pastor seeks to address their questions?

Here is a very practical question……What do you do when your typical sermon ranges between 1600 and 1900 words and your attempt to answer significant questions from the congregation goes well over 3000 words? That is the difference between a 22 minute sermon and a 35 minute sermon. Will the congregation accept it? Will there be mumbling in the pews and people pointing to their watches as the sermon time goes long? What about our lunch reservations?

What do you do? Well I don’t know about you, but I can only give thanks for the spiritual hunger, patience, and grace of Laguna Niguel Presbyterian Church today in worship. We had absolutely stunning music offered by Timothy and Nathan Le as they offered violin and cello pieces in worship. Singing was great. But for the first time, we experimented with the teaching offered during the sermon slot in worship.

Borrowing an idea from Dr. Chris Atwood, senior pastor at San Clemente Presbyterian Church, we solicited questions from the congregation and sought to address them in worship. I tried to first give the congregation some sense of the variety of responses to questions posed about the interpretation and practical takeaways of the book of Revelation, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and then how one can be faithful and still struggle with Scripture.

I don’t know if the answers given were any good. I gave it my best shot and the congregation seemed genuinely appreciative. Most importantly they seem to embrace the idea that church should be a place where we are unafraid to ask questions – ANY question!

I am so thankful for the saints of LNPC. I am thankful for their honest, open, inquiring minds. I am thankful for their unwillingness to accept trite historical clichés and formulas. I am thankful for the freedom to say, “I am not sure.” I am thankful for the grace that covered the entire experience.

I think we will do this again. Thanks Chris for the idea. Thanks LNPC for the freedom. To God be the glory!