Preaching to the Choir

What’s wrong with preaching to the choir? Someone commented recently that she thought most political ads at this point in the campaign are just “preaching to the choir.” Whoever the intended targets are most political ads are a terrible waste of money that could be used to actually do some good, and I just want them to stop! I plan to vote early this week and how I wish that would somehow trigger a magic switch somewhere in cyber space that would exempt me from hearing or seeing any more hateful negative ads.

But my friend’s comment got me wondering about “preaching to the choir.” We all know it means unnecessarily trying to persuade people of something when they are already convinced. Anyone can sell a product or an idea to those who have already decided to buy, I get that. But consider “preaching to the choir” more literally. With all due respect to musicians who faithfully give of their time and talent in church or elsewhere, I would argue that choir members need to hear the Gospel just as much as anyone else, preachers included. In fact I’ve known both choir members and preachers who need to hear God’s Word more than other folks.

That understanding of what preaching to the choir or those already converted reminds me of something Dr. Everett Tilson, one of my seminary mentors often told us many years ago. He said, “You can’t understand the Scriptures until you are willing to stand under them.” Both the judgment and grace of God are for all of us, saints and sinners alike and we need to hear it early and often, especially in campaign season. As St. Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And “all” means all, no exceptions, no deferments. Christ died for all of us fallible human beings, and we are in great danger if we ever forget that. When we are tempted to judge others as more sinful or less worthy of God’s love, we are treading on very thin ice.

Humility is a very basic requirement of faith. As any regular reader of mine knows, Micah 6:8 is my default summary of what is required of a faithful follower of God, and the final item in that verse is “to walk humbly with your God.” (See my 10/4/15 post “Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning” for a discussion of that text in more depth.) The same advice from a negative perspective is given in the familiar adage that “pride goes before a fall.” But if you check out the biblical source of that proverb, the consequences of pride are much worse than a just a fall. What Proverbs 16:18 says in full is “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is such a serious problem that it comes in at number 4 on the Roman Catholic list of seven deadly sins.

Wouldn’t you think with all those dire warnings there would be less ego and more humility around? But just the opposite seems to be the case in our selfie-crazed society. Dare I say especially in campaign season there is a plethora of hubris in the air? One of the big problems with pride is that it often gets expressed not by building ourselves up but by putting others down so we look better by comparison. If truth be told most of our visits to eye doctors would include a reminder that part of the trouble with our vision is that we can’t see the logs in our own eyes because we are too busy criticizing others for the tiny specks in theirs. (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:42).

I could go on showing off my biblical prowess by proof texting many other references to pride, but that doesn’t seem wise at this point. An image of stones and a glass house comes to mind! And yes, in this age of digital transparency where all of our actions can be captured on cell phone video and all of our tweets are fair game for public exposure, we all live in glass houses, including the choir. The prescribed antidote for pride is a regular reminder for all of us that the peace of mind and heart we crave never comes from the fame and recognition worldly values tempt us to pursue. It comes only to the humble who know that “the greatest of all is servant of all.” (Mark 10:44).

By the way, that bit about the glass houses isn’t biblical, but it’s close to Jesus’ daring those of us who are without sin to cast the first stone. (John 8:7).

Humbly yours, as one who can’t sing a lick, but I know I belong in that chorus who need to stand under the Scripture.

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Prayer for a 70th Birthday

O God. All of my friends are turning 70 this year. And my turn is coming very soon. Just two years ago we celebrated 50 years since high school graduation with a big reunion, but this milestone has spread through us first wave of boomers like a thief in the night, picking us off one at a time on a steady march from January to October and the toll keeps climbing.

Our 50’s and 60’s came and went with “Over the Hill” jokes and some solemnity, but being 70 seems much more serious. Denying our aging gets harder every year, but 70 has the extra power of biblical authority. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalms 90:10). OK, maybe the Psalmist was just having a bad day when those words were written, but they still are hard to shake for those of born in 1946 or sooner, no matter what the actuarial tables say about our increasing life expectancy.

For me there’s an added omen. My mother died of brain cancer when she was 70. It was only 3 months between her diagnosis and her death. She didn’t have much time to make a bucket list, but then Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson didn’t popularize that term until 14 years later. Even though that 2007 movie highlighted the most serious of topics in a comic fashion, it’s not such a laughing matter as my peers and I hit the big 7 0.

Yes, I know, we have birthdays every year, but those ending in zero always seem bigger. Reflecting on being 70 reminds me of the Christian practice of giving up something for Lent, a good spiritual discipline. But Lent only lasts 40 days, Lord. The things we give up at 70 are often forever. At 60 I could finish first in my age group in a 5K race. Yes, I know there weren’t many in that age group running, but now I read the morning paper on line because my aging body rebels at walking 500 feet to the end of the drive to pick up the newspaper. I would love to play softball or football with my grandkids, to ski some moguls again, or to chase down those difficult tennis shots the way I used to. Lord, I’d even like to be able to mow my grass without pain or to stay up all night reading a great book. Alas, the mind and spirit are willing, but the flesh gets weaker every day!

What’s that Lord? Yes I know it is much too easy to get turned in on my aches and pains. Even when I vow not to do it my conversations with my peers seem to inevitably turn to recent medical tests and how much time we lose going to the doctor. We often lament, “I don’t know how I ever had time to work.” Forgive my little pity parties, Lord. Remind me I have a choice about where I focus my attention. Lead me not into the temptation to bemoan what I’ve lost to the aging process and deliver me from the evil of criticizing the “younger” generation. When I find myself saying those things my parents said that I swore I wouldn’t ever say, gently nudge me to live in the now, free from regrets about the past I cannot change and liberated from the fear of what lies ahead.

Help me live in gratitude for the things I can do that would have been impossible a generation or two ago – travel opportunities, world-wide information available 24/7 anywhere I am (unless I forget my smart phone), medical advances that enhance and extend the quality of life for those of us who are privileged to have access to them, mind-boggling discoveries about the infinite mysteries and marvels of the universe we live in, and the freedom in a comfortable retirement to reflect on it all.

Lord, it breaks my heart to know how many of your children lack the basic necessities of life that I take for granted. Even as I give thanks for all I have, remind me that even in my advanced years that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Remind me that the word “retirement” is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Discipleship is a lifetime commitment. If we stop growing in our faith at any age we cannot maintain the status quo but regress.

Let me not, O Lord, rage against the realities of age, but instead to faithfully embrace the present as the gift it is. Knowing that negativity and fear immobilize, let this birthday teach this old dog to treasure every day because they are finite. Adjust my trifocals to focus on the joys of life so I can make the most of what is instead of regretting what was or is no more. Blessed with 70 years of life experience, let my prayer be “For all that has been, thanks; and for all that is yet to come, Yes!”

“No Way!” or God’s Way? 2 Kings 5:1-14

I was leading a group for Sr. citizens a few years ago and asked the group to share with us some information about them to get better acquainted. One question I asked was, “How do you spend your time now in retirement?” One gentleman said, “I spend my days going to dr. appointments and funerals.” It was funny then, but as I’ve gotten older I sometimes find it harder to find humor in that reality.

With my back problems and other joys of aging, I’ve got more Doctors in my contacts list than any other category, and like many of you, I’ve spent extra hours in waiting rooms well beyond the time my appointment was supposed to be,. Having an iPhone and other devices to distract me helps, but I don’t think any kind of toy would have been much consolation for a friend of mine. He waited several weeks to get an appointed with a specialist because this doctor was supposed to be the best around. On the day of the appointment, my friend waited 2 hours past the appointed hour and finally asked a nurse how much longer it would be. The nurse went back to check for him and returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper in his hand and said the doctor was too far behind schedule and would not be able to see my friend that day, but he wrote a prescription and said he should take it for a month and then come back.

Yes, that would be grounds for malpractice, and it didn’t really happen. I made that story up because it is very much like what happened to Naaman in our scripture lesson for today. Naaman, was a great man – a commander, a victorious leader. But Naaman’s story also reminds us that even the great and powerful are vulnerable and mortal. Steve Jobs, Mother Teresa, Prince, –all of us are dust and to dust we will return. Naaman fell victim to one of the worst diseases in human history – he contracted leprosy, which not only ate away the body but was so contagious and dreadful that anyone with it was isolated and excluded from society and any contact with other people. The great poet Robert Frost was once asked what the ugliest word in the English language is, and his answer was the word “exclusive.” We are social beings who need each other, even if we get on each others’ nerves at times; so the worst thing you can do to a human being is to exclude him or her.

So Naaman is desperate to find a cure for his dreaded illness, and the advice he gets on where to find that cure is fascinating. A young slave girl who has been captured in Israel tells Naaman he needs to go see a prophet in Samaria. A young slave girl from a foreign country– you cannot get any lower on the socio-economic pecking order in those days than that; and to send him to Samaria of all places (Think Urban Meyer being told the doctors he needs are in Ann Arbor). Naaman says, “No Way! A prophet? Some faith healer?

That couldn’t be the answer to Naaman’s problem! He knows he needs to go to someone with real power – not to some intern or resident but to the best surgeon available. Naaman also knows the best things in life are never free; so he takes a bucket load of cash to get the best medical treatment money can buy. Money has its privileges. It may not buy happiness, but it sure can buy most everything else. Wealth is the universal language the power people of the world speak. So Naaman bypasses God’s prophet and goes straight to what he thinks is the top – he has his king send a letter of referral to the King of Israel.

But notice how the king of Israel reacts when Naaman comes calling – he’s threatened. The king knows he has no power to heal Naaman. His worldly power is illusory, like the wizard of Oz – hiding behind the magic curtain pulling levers. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And notice also how the king immediately assumes the worst about Naaman. Rather than take Naaman’s plea for healing at face value, the threatened, insecure king immediately assumes that Naaman’s real motive is to expose the King’s lack of power and make him look bad.

Why do we so often project our own fears and suspicions on others instead of just asking what’s really going on? When dealing with conflict or potential conflict, it’s like the old story about everyone trying to ignore the elephant in the room. The way to deal with conflict constructively is to communicate – not behind someone’s back, but face to face. There are always at least two sides to every story, and we will not really know the other side until we get it from the source. The king’s reaction in this story illustrates that when we expect the worst from others – that’s exactly what we get.

Now the prophet Elisha enters the drama. He hears of the king’s distress and his response to Naaman is very interesting. Elisha says, “Come to me…” that makes sense, but notice why he tells Naaman to come. It’s not just to get the healing he wants, there’s much more at stake here. Elisha says, “Come to me, so you can learn there is a prophet in Israel.” Prophets are not fortune tellers, remember, but are spokespersons for God. So if there is a prophet in Israel, the important message here is that there is a God in Israel who is for real and can heal whatever ails you, no matter how important and rich or poor you are.

Do we believe that today? Do we believe there’s a God in our broken nation and world who can cure what ails us? Naaman does, sort of, at least enough to go to see Elisha. But then the story takes another interesting turn. Naaman’s visit to Elisha is like the story I began with. Elisha sends a message to Naaman, probably through another lowly servant that says, “Go take 7 baths and call me in the morning.” The prophet doesn’t even bother to come out and see Naaman in person. You can imagine the reaction of this great commander who’s used to people bowing a scraping before him. He expects better treatment than that. He expects a big showy miracle with red white and boom fireworks, and all he gets is a prescription to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River.

And then Naaman gets very parochial. Again he says, “No Way!” He complains about the water quality in the Jordan and says, “We have many better rivers back home in Damascus.” Does our parochialism ever get in the way of what God wants us to do? Our way, my team, my religion, my country is way better than yours! We like what we’re used to; so we refuse to venture out of our comfort zones because, well, it’s uncomfortable out there!

Perhaps sports are the best example of how loyalty and pride can cross the line into embarrassing territory. Last week’s Ryder cup golf match between the US and Europe showed both tremendous enthusiasm and patriotism, but it also showed the danger of being overly zealous. Some fans were ejected from the course because their cheers and jeers became inappropriate. I confess I even found myself yelling things at my TV screen that were quite unchristian! When my son played high school basketball my family didn’t like to sit with me because I sometimes embarrassed them when I got upset about a bad call by the refs.

I can be a perfect reminder that the word “fan” is short for fanatic! Team spirit and patriotism are good things but when taken to the extremes of fanaticism that burns couches after a big win or nationalism that leads to dangerous conflicts between countries, not so much. UK’s decision to leave the European Union a few months ago concerns me because at least part of the reason for that vote was a spirit of nationalism that seems to say “We can do this better on our own that with our neighbors.” Fear of terrorism and the refugee crisis are of course also realities that can fan the flames of overzealous nationalism. My fear in looking at the history of centuries of conflicts and wars in Europe where so many countries live in such close proximity to each other is that nationalism has led to many of those wars, including two in the last century that involved the whole world. No human creation is without problems, but the European Union seems from this outsider’s perspective to be a better way to promote peace and cooperation among neighbors than nationalism.

Naaman almost falls victim to nationalistic pride that tries to blind him to the help he needs. He complains about the rivers in Israel, but this story is not about water quality or if our river is more beautiful than yours. It’s about faithful obedience to what God asks us to do. Naaman is too proud to accept this simple solution to his leprosy and is about to stomp off and go home to pout in Damascus. And again, a lowly servant intervenes who is smarter than the great and powerful leader.

Do you ever get advice from someone else that is so obvious and simple you hate to take it because you feel stupid for not seeing what is so obvious yourself. That happens frequently to me but I remember a particular incident a couple of years ago at the church I was serving. We had a leak in the furnace room up above the men’s restroom and water was dripping down thru the ceiling. I do not have a plumbing gene anywhere in my DNA; so my solution was to put buckets under the leak until someone could come and fix the problem upstairs. Fortunately one of our church secretaries had a better idea, which was to put some buckets upstairs too and catch the water before in ran thru the floor and ruined the bathroom ceiling. [HIT EASY BUTTON]. Why didn’t I think of that?.

That’s what happens to Naaman. He is too proud to do what Elisha tells him to do, but his servants say, “With all due respect, sir, what have you got to lose? Why not give this a try, and if it doesn’t work, you are no worse off than you were before.” And it’s Free!

So Naaman reluctantly does what he has been told to do – he washes, not once but 7 times. And that’s important. If we expect instant gratification or simple solutions to complex problems, it’s not gonna happen. Sometimes the solution is simply doing what we believe God is telling us to do, even if it seems foolish or unlikely to work. Washing even multiple times in a river does not sound like a logical cure for something as dire as leprosy, but we will never know unless we try.

Life threw me some extra curve balls one day a few months ago. And the worst part is I think I asked for it. After dealing with the epidemic of orange barrels and detours in our neighborhood I decided to wax philosophical and wrote a little piece on my Facebook page and in my blog about how detours and obstacles are good metaphors for the roadblocks we run into in life. And when we do, we can either give up on getting to our goals, or we can get creative and find another way to achieve what God wants us to do. It sounded great on paper and I got a lot of “likes” on my Facebook page.

But then it was like God said to me, “OK preacher, put your money where your mouth is. Let’s see how well you really cope with some roadblocks!” Within one 24 hr. stretch I got three major pieces of bad news. I learned some good friends are moving out of state. I got an email from a very dear friend that he was in the hospital and told he has had some mini-strokes. And then I went to the mailbox to find a not-so-friendly letter from the IRS informing me that they think I owe them $10000 in back taxes, penalties and fines. I didn’t really need that many obstacles to deal with all at once, and my mood was lower than a snake’s belly for quite some time. Being turned in on oneself is one definition of sin, by the way. It’s one of my favorites when I see others doing it, but when I look in the mirror and see it in myself, not so much.

I’m not telling that story to get pity or sympathy (although I’ll take whatever I can get). I tell it because churches and other organizations, companies, nations, and families can all get turned in on themselves too. And the solution to dealing constructively with our challenges in life, health, finances, relationships, grief, whatever threatens to break our spirits and isolate us from others like Naaman was, is as simple as not throwing up our hands and saying No Way! But asking for God’s guidance.

When we turn to God for help, do you ever fall into the trap I do? I catch myself turning my prayers into giving God a honey do list. Dear God, please do this and this, and take of these people, and this mess we’ve made of things here and there. How much time to we spend telling God things God already knows? So instead of telling God our problems, prayer needs to also be a time of listening carefully for what God has to say to us.
Often God’s messages come from other wounded and broken servants, simple, common folks like the slave girl and servants who ministered to Naaman and helped lead him to a cure for his affliction. God’s time is not our time; so the answers to our prayers don’t usually come with 4G speed. But as Isaiah puts it, “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up with wings like Eagles.”

That kind of waiting requires great patience and humility. It requires a faith and humility that can say, “Not my will but your will be done.” It’s a humility that instead of jumping to unfounded conclusions and saying “No Way!” teaches us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation so we can benefit from the experience of those who are different.

That redemptive love of God reminds us that Naaman’s story is really a baptism story. Baptism is an act of celebrating the fact that God has created us each in God’s own image. That image gets tarnished from time to time and needs to be renewed, but the power of love and mercy is in us all from birth, waiting to be nurtured and fed. That means the answer to our prayer may be already within us waiting to be revealed. Like King of Israel, the Wizard of Oz story didn’t have the power to give Dorothy and her friends what they were seeking, BUT he didn’t need to. Because they already had courage and wisdom and hearts that got them to Oz in the first place, and Dorothy already had on her feet what she needed to get back home. Those gifts were already there within them – they just needed to trust and believe, and when they did–THAT WAS EASY.

PRAYER – O God our creator and re-creator, like Naaman, we all need multiple cleansings. We don’t drive a car thru a car wash once and expect it to stay clean forever. Our spirits need regular cleansing and renewal also so we can be rid of whatever needs to go from our lives as individuals and as a church. We need regular reminders where real power lies so we are not fooled by false power. We ask that you provide us with modern day prophets who are the ones to show us the way to the power to heal and make us whole. Let us be those obedient and humble servants who minister to one another as disciples of the servant king from Nazareth who was baptized in the same River Jordan just as Naaman was. We ask these things in his name and for his sake. Amen.