Monday, August 20, 2012

August 19, 2012 Spiritual Gifts: The Three R's - Wisdom

I Corinthians 1:18-30

Croesus was the king of ancient Lydia, reigning from 560 to 547 BC.  Famous for his immense wealth, he once encountered a man by the name of Solon.  Solon had traveled throughout the world and was seen as a person of great wisdom and insight.  

Croesus, after showing Solon his vast stores of treasure, asked which man is most happy?  Because of his great wealth, Croesus assumed Solon would name him as the happiest man on the earth.  Solon, though, shocked Croesus by naming others who were happier.  They were happy in spite of having no relation to great wealth, thus teaching Croesus the wisdom that happiness is not found in what we possess.  Croesus had so much, but he did not have the gift of wisdom.

The middle school I attended had a quote from the book of Proverbs above the stage in the auditorium – Happy is the man that findeth wisdom (Proverbs 3:13).  This is the lesson that Solon sought to teach to Croesus, that wisdom is a great gift that enriches life in ways that go far beyond the riches of wealth or possessions. 

As we continue our study of spiritual gifts, this morning we come to the gift of wisdom.

The Scriptures have much to say about wisdom.  Wisdom, in the Biblical sense, is not necessarily knowledge.  A wise person may have a great deal of knowledge, but it is not knowledge that makes a person wise.  To have knowledge is to possess a mental store of facts, figures, and truths that come through education and study.  Education is very good at imparting knowledge, but it won’t necessarily impart wisdom, because wisdom is more than a collection of facts, figures, and truths; wisdom is the gift of having insight into the nature of life and truth.

What I have done in most of the messages about spiritual gifts is to define the gifts.  What I haven’t done as much is talk about how we develop those gifts in our own lives.  I believe that most people have one or two of these spiritual gifts, but that does not mean that we cannot develop some measure of the other gifts.  I may not have the gift of wisdom, but I can develop some amount of the gift in my life.

1.  Wisdom comes from living a life of the spirit.
Yesterday morning I was in Louisville and stopped at a post office.  While waiting in line I was running this message through my mind, trying to get it more organized.  I was staring at one of the walls and noticed that on the wall was a collection of specialized stamps, and one of the stamps was labeled wisdom. 

How convenient, I thought.  I walked over and looked at the display.  The picture on the stamp to represent wisdom was very interesting but I had absolutely no idea how it related to wisdom.  It was just the word wisdom and a picture.  But it had my curiosity, so I had to find out the relation of the picture on the stamp to wisdom.  Where do you go when you need to know something?  Google, of course.  The image on the stamp is a sculpture called Wisdom, and it stands over the entrance to the GE building at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which also happens to be #56 out of the top 150 favorite tourist destinations in the country.  The sculpture of wisdom is 37 feet tall, and under the sculpture is this quotation, which is not on the stamp, by the way – Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of Thy times, from Isaiah 33:6.

It took a little bit of work to find out what I wanted to know, but the time invested was worth it.

We are a combination of flesh and spirit, and if we are going to nurture the gift of wisdom in our lives we must work at nurturing the spirit.  Flesh is the word the Scriptures use for describing that part of our life where we are concerned with taking care of our physical needs such as food, water, shelter, making a living, and such matters.  The spirit is much different.  The spirit deals with other concepts, and we aren’t as pressed to work at the spirit.  If you don’t work at the spirit you won’t go hungry.  If you don’t work at the spirit you won’t lose your job. 

This is part of what Paul is talking about in our Scripture passage this morning, that some people invest nothing into the life of the spirit.  Their lives are concerned only with the elements of survival each day – making a living, feeding and clothing ourselves and our families, and gaining a few possessions.  There is certainly nothing wrong with those things; they are essential to life, but a life of wisdom is one that is concerned about more than just surviving, about more than just feeding ourselves, about more than just clothing ourselves, and about more than just earning a living.

A person who thinks there is nothing more to this life than just existing for the 24 hours of each day will have a hard time understanding matters and principles of the spirit.  This is what Paul means when he says the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. 

The logic of a life living without the spirit is a life that says every penny I earn I should keep to myself.  That money can be invested to ensure that my needs are taken care of and that I have a comfortable retirement, and I can buy some of the things I would like to have.  The life of the spirit says, I cannot think just about myself.  Yes, I need to take care of my own needs, but I cannot forget that others have needs and some of them are not able to take care of their own needs.  

The life of the spirit is the way of wisdom, and it is a way of life that is diminished if it is not exercised.  Here is where we find one of the great differences between wisdom and knowledge.  Knowledge can help a person to gain a great many things in life, but wisdom will guide us in how those things ought to be used. 

This is why people gain a great measure of satisfaction from spending hours working at a fund-raising event, and finding a great level of satisfaction in making money to give away rather than in making money to keep.  But to someone who cannot see beyond making money for himself, it seems as foolishness to be giving anything away.

2.  Wisdom seems counter-intuitive.
I really, really dislike reading instruction manuals.  I inherited this unfortunate trait from my dad, who used to open a box and immediately throw away the instruction manual.  I can remember him putting together something one day, and it wasn’t going well, and he muttered to himself I’m going to have to dig the instruction manual out of the trash. I especially dislike reading instruction manuals for computer programs.  I would find more joy in nailing my feet to the floor than in reading software manuals.  So as I was comparing a couple of software programs recently my decision was immediately made when someone said this program is much more intuitive – you don’t really need to read the manual to figure out most of it.  That’s the one I want!  Which, unfortunately, hasn’t proven to be all that intuitive. 

Something that is intuitive is something you can just figure out on your own, because it seems obvious.  The problem with faith, the problem with the life of the spirit, the problem with following Jesus, is that those things are often counter-intuitive; they don’t always make a lot of sense.

We can be very influenced by the world in which we live, and not even realize the extent of the influence.  When I was young I once asked my mom how people know to do things such as file their taxes.  She was busy collecting papers and items to file our family’s tax return, and I wondered how people knew about things such as filing taxes.  She told me, it’s just one of those things you learn as you grow up.  No one really has to tell you; you just know.

We absorb certain values and beliefs because they are a part of the culture in which we live.  We don’t consciously adopt them or take them to heart; they just become a part of who we are.

The values of the spirit can be in conflict with the values of the world in which we live, those values that become a part of who we are.  The values of the world are often values of self-survival, self-first, getting a bunch of money and a bunch of stuff, and the values of the spirit are love, and not just love for those who love us, but love even for our enemies.  The life of the spirit is a life of compassion, to say we will not forget others while we are looking after ourselves.

A life of the spirit – a life of wisdom – will ask things of us that don’t, at least on the surface, make any sense.

3.  A life of wisdom is a life bound to the lives of others.
The Romans could not understand how the cross could be a sign of strength or power.  To the Romans the cross was a sign of weakness, because it was used on their enemies.  If you were crucified, you were weak.  The Romans used the cross unsparingly, because they didn’t value the lives of others.  They cared about their lives, but not the lives of others.  The Roman Empire was full of people who did not matter to the Romans – those whose own countries had been defeated by the mighty Roman army, the millions and millions of slaves throughout the Empire, the millions of peasants who struggled to scratch out a daily existence.

The Christian faith spread rapidly throughout the Empire, in part I believe, because it preached a message that those people mattered, and every life mattered.  Those who had been told they were worthless were now told they were of great value, those who had been told they had no freedom were told they could have freedom, those who felt forgotten found that someone had indeed remembered them, and those who were considered unlovable found they were loved.

A life of wisdom is a life that connects to the lives of others. John Donne wrote the famous lines –

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
(From Meditation XVI).

Monday, August 06, 2012

August 5, 2012 - Spiritual Gifts: The Three R's - Tongues and Interpretation

Acts 2:1-13

I am fairly confident in assuming that the spiritual gifts we study today have never been practiced in our church. This morning, as we continue with the Revelatory gifts, we come to the gifts of tongues and interpretation, which are linked together, as I Corinthians 14:28 says If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

The first time I heard someone speak in tongues was in college, when I was working in the cafeteria one evening during a meeting of the local chapter of the Full Gospel Men’s Fellowship.  During their meeting some of the men began speaking in tongues, and it was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  A few years later, while Student Minister at Bethel Christian Church in Jonesboro, Tennessee, I witnessed speaking in tongues on a number of occasions.  The choir would often travel around the northeast Tennessee area and some of the churches we visited were rather charismatic in their worship, including the practice of speaking in tongues.  At one church, there was a long banner proclaiming the ten things necessary to be a Christian.  I don’t remember the first eight, but number nine was that one must possess the Holy Spirit, and number ten was that possessing the Holy Spirit would lead to speaking in tongues.  So much for the Holy Spirit being present in my life, if that’s true.

Speaking in tongues is found in a style of worship we call charismatic, which is from the Greek word charisma, which means favor or grace.  Worship that includes speaking in tongues is also called full gospel, as some of the practitioners believe one does not preach the full gospel unless all spiritual gifts are included.

I tend to believe the gift of speaking in tongues is a gift that was given for a limited period of time.  During the era of the early church, the need for crossing barriers of language and offering important spiritual truths was especially important.  I don’t believe the same conditions that brought about the need for tongues in the early church exist today.  The gift of tongues, while a gift of grace for the early church, is one that is no longer needed, in my opinion (though I should, in all fairness, mention that plenty of people would disagree with me).

Today’s Scripture reading, from the Pentecost story in the book of Acts, tells us that people heard their own language being spoken.  There is a great debate in scholarly circles about whether or not the miracle was in the speaking or the hearing.  Were people speaking in a variety of languages, or were people hearing in their own language?  In the end, I guess, it probably doesn’t matter.  What mattered was that communication about God was taking place, which is the important point.

It is on the point of communication that I wish to concentrate our attention today.  Obviously, we do not speak in tongues in our worship.  We do, however, understand the importance of communicating important truths about God to one another and to our wider world.  The gift we are considering today, then, is really the gift of communication.

Some people are very gifted at communicating even very complicated subjects in an interesting and understandable way.  Others, not so well.  If I had passed Algebra I might be an engineer.  I couldn’t understand what letters had to do with math.  How does 3x=2y?  I still don’t understand how you can put letters and numbers together, and my teacher didn’t seem to know how to communicate that concept to me (to be fair to her, I probably wouldn’t have understood the concept anyway).

The root of many of our problems in today’s world stem from the difficulty in communication.  Someone has written a version of Murphy’s Law for communication –
1.  If communication can fail, it will.
2. If a message can be understood in different ways, it will be understood in just that way that will do the most harm.
3.  There is always somebody who knows better than you what you meant by your message.  That one reminds me of a Sunday some years ago, when I was greeting people after worship.  As one person shook my hand they said, I really liked when you said…I agree with you 100%.  Actually, I had said the exact opposite of what he heard.  But that’s not as bad as what happened to my friend Carl Rucker, who for years was minister at Campbellsburg Christian Church.  One Sunday morning one of his members greeted him after worship and went on and on about how much she enjoyed his sermon and how much she got out of it.  Just a few steps away she turned to a friend and said, loudly enough that Carl heard, you know, I never have a clue what in the world he’s talking about.
4. The more communication there is, the more difficult it is for communication to succeed.

I think churches today have a communication problem.  What people often hear from churches are things such as intolerance, anger, and judgmentalism.
What are we to communicate to others about God?  Well, there are many things, but I’ll mention just a few today.

1.  Love. 
I guess this begins to sound like a broken record after a while, but until humanity learns to practice love we’ll just have to sound like a broken record.  Of course, within the church we sometimes have a lot to learn about practicing love as well.  There are some voices from within the church that don’t sound as though they have much love for people.  Even a small group, such as Westboro Baptist Church, tends to make us all look bad, as some will believe they are representative of all churches act. 
We must cling to love always, and demonstrate love, until people see that is what we are truly about. 
Love should allow us to speak across all the matters that bring division to our world.  Love should allow us to reach across all the differences that threaten to separate us.

2.  Each person is of incredible value to God. 
There is a lot of Calvinism in the world of religion today.  Calvinism is a theological point of view based on the writings of John Calvin, who lived in the 16th century.  Calvinism is most famously known for the idea of predestination, which is the idea that God chooses some for salvation and some for damnation, and there is nothing you can do about it; you have no choice in the matter.  It also sees almost everything as being predetermined.  If you have ever said something such as I guess it was just meant to be, you have a bit of Calvinism in you.  I don’t like the idea of predestination.  I also dislike on of the other tenets of Calvinism – the Total Depravity of Mankind.  This tenet says there is nothing good about humanity.  Nothing.  We are worthless.  A lot of preaching today is founded on this idea.  It’s the kind of preaching that tells us how bad we are.  I find it discouraging and depressing.  I am not a Calvinist.  Never have been, never will be.  I believe that because we are created in the image of God we all possess a measure of the divine spark and that we possess goodness and can help bring beauty to our world because we reflect the image of God.  If you tell people they are bad and worthless, they eventually believe it and act accordingly.  If you tell them they are valuable and loved, they eventually believe it and act accordingly.

3.  Grace. 
I’m the kind of person who has only a couple of themes in my preaching.  I think I preach the same basic sermon over and over, with a bit of variation.  Most everything I have said this morning you have heard me say before, and you’ll hear me say it again.

I believe in grace.  We live in a world that doesn’t extend much grace to people.  We live in a world that builds people up, but seems to have greater joy in tearing them down.

How do we talk across the liberal/conservative divide?  The red state/blue state divide?  The Republican/Democratic divide?  The UK/U of L divide?

When I was a junior in college, one of my best friends arrived on campus and we were roommates.  That is also the year when Tanya and I began dating.  My friend is a great guy, but for some reason he decided he should go with Tanya and I on all of our dates.  If we were going to a movie, on a picnic – or anywhere else – he would suddenly appear in my car to go along with us.  One day, when Tanya and I decided to go on a picnic, we were determined we would slip away from campus without him.  I picked Tanya up at her dorm and we made our way through campus in my car.  When I stopped at the stop sign just before turning onto the highway, the front door suddenly opened and in jumped my friend.  He was breathing hard from running down the hill after us.  Breathlessly, he said, it’s a good thing I caught up with you before you left!  You almost missed me!  I did have much of a sense of grace at that moment.  My idea was to drive far into the hills of east Tennessee and drop him off in the middle of nowhere.  That’s not grace – and he is my friend!

If we have a hard time extending grace to those we love, imagine how hard it is to give grace to all people.  And yet God calls us to lives of grace.  He calls us to value all people, and, most importantly, he calls us to love all people.  This is what we must communicate.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

July 29, 2012 - Entering A Kid's World

July 29, 2012
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

A friend of mine loves to fish and go boating, and he had a nice garage built for his boat.  It wasn’t just a shed – it was a garage with a nice concrete floor, finished walls, and a brick exterior.  I imagine it was quite expensive to build.  When it was completed, he was excited to back his boat into his new garage.  I’m not sure how it happened, but a mistake was made on the garage.  When my friend pushed the button on his garage door opener, the door came down and he discovered the boat was a few inches too long for the garage – after all the expense of building this nice garage, the garage was too small for the boat!  What a shock to find out it didn’t fit!

Kids don’t fit into our adult world.  We expect them to, but they don’t.  Perhaps it is time that we try and enter their world, which is a very different world than the one we knew as kids.

A lot has changed since I was a kid.  When I was the age of the kids who came to our Vacation Bible School, I never worried about walking through our neighborhood at any hour of the day or night.  Now, we are afraid to let our children out of our sight.  When I was a kid, I knew that getting an education would lead to economic and career opportunity.  Now, young people graduate from college with a mountain of debt and little or no job prospects.  When I was a kid, the economy was growing and appeared to be limitless.  Now, kids are growing up in economic uncertainty unparalleled in our day, and they are inheriting what may be an insurmountable national debt.  Kids face an uncertain environmental future, and some of our most trusted institutions have failed them in tragic ways.

Most people think of Shelby County as being fairly prosperous, and we are one of the more prosperous of the 120 Kentucky counties.  It may surprise you, then, to know that from 2006 to 2010 just under 20% of Shelby County residents lived in poverty.  Operation Care, one of the community ministries here in Shelbyville, last year serve 10,000 people who walked through their doors.  That’s not a total number for assistance – that is 10,000 unique visits.  One person, working in one of our area ministries, told me recently that probably 25% of Shelby County residents are at risk economically.  Those are disturbing numbers.

I don’t share the statistics to overwhelm you with statistics, or to discourage you, but to remind us all that kids are growing up in a very different world.  Of the approximately 44,000 residents of Shelby Country, 32% are age 18 or younger.  That means a lot of our fellow residents are growing up in a completely different world from the one we knew as kids.

I am only speaking for a few minutes this morning, because of the Vacation Bible School program, so I want to leave you with one primary thought.  You may remember that earlier this year, in my sermon series on belief and unbelief, that I spoke of the group identified as spiritual but not religious.  That is certainly the right of anyone who wants to be defined in such a way, but the failure of that view is that it doesn’t always connect to something, and we live in a day and age where we need to connect to something, we need to be working together to make a difference, especially in the lives of kids.  People can make a difference individually, but we can do so much more together.  I believe that churches are uniquely equipped to help kids because of the resources entrusted to us.  We have the volunteers, the spaces, and the calling to reach into the lives of kids and to minister to them in the name of God.

It is a different world for kids.  We are called to enter into their world, to reach out to them with the love of Christ, and to change their world.