Monday, February 28, 2011

When I Say 'I Am A Christian'

“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?... For we will all stand before the judgment seat… [and] be accountable to God.” (Romans 14:1, 10 & 12)

Last week as we concluded our series “Christianity and World Religions,” I shared my own thoughts about what this series has taught me about my own faith, and a few of the many reasons why I am a Christian, as opposed to some other religion (Read the complete sermon here).

Along these same lines, several years ago, a poem made its rounds on the internet called “When I Say “I Am A Christian’” that I believe captures a sense of some of these reasons. Although the poem was incorrectly attributed to Maya Angelou (it’s true author was Carol Wimmer), the original, unaltered words are worth sharing here as a reminder to all of what it means to be a follower of Jesus in our world today…

“When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I’m not shouting ‘I’ve been saved!’” I’m whispering ‘I get lost! That’s why I chose this way.’

When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I don’t speak with human pride.
I’m confessing that I stumble – needing God to be my guide

When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I’m not trying to be strong.
I’m professing that I’m weak and pray for strength to carry on.

When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I’m not bragging of success.
I’m admitting I have failed and cannot ever pay the debt.

When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I’m not claiming to be perfect,
My flaws are far too visible but, God believes I’m worth it.

When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I still feel the sting of pain,
I have my share of heartache which is why I seek His name.

When I say... ‘I am a Christian,’ I do not wish to judge.
I have no authority – I only know I’m loved.”

[--Carol Wimmer first wrote this poem in 1988, and it is cited here from the book Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul. Read about the origins and history of this poem here ]

Whether or not you are a follower of Jesus Christ, my prayer is that these words will help you understand what we truly mean by “Christian” (as opposed to the arrogant judgmentalism that is often ‘sold’ to our popular culture as “Christianity”). For those of you who are already followers of Jesus, may these words also encourage and challenge you to remember our calling to be people of grace, humility and (above all) love as we share the good news of Jesus with the world! Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Monday, February 21, 2011

What Other Religions Can Teach Us About Being Better Christians

“Live in harmony with one another…. So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:16 & 18)

During the six weeks of our series "Christianity and World Religions," we’ve learned about the origins and beliefs of four other major world faiths, and we’ve discussed numerous differences between these other faiths and our own. As we wrap up the series, however, I want to once more highlight a few of the things we share in common – things these other faiths do well that might perhaps remind/teach us how we can be better Christians. For example…

From Hinduism, we can learn to have a more open mind and heart regarding the faith of others without the need to pass judgment, even when we disagree. We’re also reminded of the importance of respecting and honoring the presence of God in all people. Doing so transforms the way we interact with others, challenging us not to treat them as objects to be exploited or taken for granted, but as children of God to be valued and cherished.

From Buddhism, we’re reminded of the dangers of attachment -- of having inappropriate desire/craving for things that are not of lasting importance… things like success, pleasure, wealth, and even good health. When you and I give inordinate attention to such things, we’re essentially making them into God and worshiping them. Needless to say, that always causes problems.

From Islam, we are reminded of the value of being passionately “sold out” (e.g., submitted) to God, and the great value of using various spiritual disciplines/tools (like prayer, fasting, and generosity) to help us grow in and practice that “submission.”

From Judaism, we are reminded that you and I are loved dearly by the one God of Creation, and that He desires a relationship with us (covenant) so that the actions of our lives (moral living) would point others towards the reality of His power and grace in the world.
[To read my sermons about the relationship of each of these faiths to Christianity, click here]

Obviously, each of these concepts from other faiths actually have counterparts within our own, and the focus on them in other faiths can actually help encourage us to highlight their importance in our own practice of Christianity, as well. So, my hope and prayer is that you’ll use these ideas to encourage you in your own walk with God -- to lovingly challenge you to be the very best follower of Jesus that you can be, so that God will get the glory, and others will be drawn to Him through your example. Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Christianity & Islam: More Differences & Similarities...

“Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” (Romans 12:11-13)

This past week in worship we focused on the religion of Islam during our series "Christianity and World Religions" in an attempt to better understand our Muslim cousins so we can dialogue and share faith with them. During the sermon, time only permitted me to share one point of difference (#1: the nature of salvation and how we achieve it) and one point of commonality (#1: their commitment to prayer). However, here is a summary of several more such issues for your own consideration and further discussion (Read more detail about each of these in Endnote #22 and #25 in the sermon found here).


(#2) God’s relationship to humans – In Islam, Allah is a personal being (as in Christianity) who is understood and related to mainly as a transcendent “Sovereign Lord.” We Christians believe this, as well. But we also add that God is “immanent” – Jesus invites us to relate to Him intimately as our “Abba/Father/Daddy.”

(#3) How God speaks to humanity – Muslims believe that God spoke definitely and directly through Muhammad in the words of the Qur’an. We Christians, on the other hand, believe that when God wanted to speak a final, definitive word, it didn’t come through a prophet. Instead, we say that God Himself “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). This is why the equivalent of the Qur’an in Christianity is not the Bible, but Jesus – for us, Jesus is God’s Word incarnate; for Muslims, God’s Word incarnate is the Qur’an itself.

(#4) The place and role of Jesus in faith – In Islam, Jesus is considered to be a great prophet of faith, but they deny that he was God’s son, that he died on a cross, or was resurrected. Of course, for Christians, these beliefs are at the core of our faith, as we believe these truths were affirmed and shared by eyewitnesses at the time of Jesus, rather than by a personal vision of one man (Muhammad) 500 years later.

ADDITIONAL SIMILARITIES (Please note that all of these -- plus commitment to prayer that was mentioned in my sermon – are mentioned in the Romans 12 scripture above):

(#2) Wholehearted submission to God – the Muslims that I know are deeply committed to following the will and ways of Allah in ways that often put us Christians to shame. In contrast to what often seems to be our tendency towards shallow, superficial faith, they are radically sold out to God. If more of us as Christians would capture that kind of wholehearted passion for God, it would transform the world with love.

(#3) The priority they place on generosity –Remember that Muslims are expected to give the zakat – 2.5% of their income each year to the needy, and most actually do that! What’s sad is that even though our Bible calls on us to give God at least a tithe (10%) of our income to God’s work, the latest data seems to show that we American Christians don’t even give as much as our Muslim friends – we only give a little more 2% . Perhaps we Christians can learn better generosity from their example.

I hope these insights will help you better understand your own faith and how it relates to that of our Muslim neighbors as we seek to find peace for our world through constructive dialogue. Remember, God loves you and I do, too!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Your Church Staff

“The gifts he gave were… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith… to maturity, …to the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Your church staff works diligently to implement the scripture above, so that each and every member and friend of our church can reach the full maturity of faith in Christ. But from time to time we all need reminding of how to do that in our local setting. That’s why we recently created a new Staff Mission Statement to more accurately communicate to others (and remind ourselves) of our “reason for being”: “To glorify God together by Empowering and Encouraging East Cobb UMC members and leaders to be God’s Church in our world.”

Let me unpack several phrases to help us all see what this means for each and every church member and friend:

To Glorify God means that we view our work not primarily as a “job” that has set hours and boundaries, but first and foremost as a “calling” and as a “ministry” that gives us opportunities to glorify God through what we do. It means that we will be responsible to attend to our own spiritual walk with God, and that the ministry of “glorifying God” will at times be more important than individual tasks we may do. It means we will work to identify our own spiritual gifts, passions and abilities, and will place a priority on cultivating and developing these.

Together refers to “teamwork” — it means we believe our calling and ministry can best be achieved as we work together as a “team,” rather than merely as a collection of individuals who happen to work in the same organization.

Empowering refers to equipping, training, educating and commissioning others with the spiritual authority to act

Encouraging refers to affirming other leaders/members in their work, helping them to embrace a “teachable spirit” (a willingness to grow/improve), and helping them to critically evaluate progress towards specific goals

To be God’s Church means that we believe that our church’s members and leaders (not just “staff”) are “God’s Church.” It refers to the fact that we are “God’s” church, not “our” church (hence God’s plans and visions need to take priority over our own self selfish wants)

In the World means we are to be “God’s Church” not merely within the walls of our building, but within our local and world community — it refers to the fact that if we expect church members and leaders to do ministry “outside the walls,” then we as staff must do this, as well.

Our prayer is that as we work to carry out our mission as God’s church, we’ll all remember these as we partner together – staff and members, guests and friends, clergy and laity -- to be the church of Jesus Christ in our community and world. Remember, God loves you and I do, too!