Archive for the ‘Poverty’ Category

Helping those in need

Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse. —Proverbs 28:27*

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on US and global economies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed for varying pandemic-related reasons. The food service industry here at home has been hit particularly hard.  Thousands of restaurants have closed, with most having no hope of reopening. The middle class is shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have nots. History has demonstrated that as the middle class shrinks and the lower class grows, civil unrest often increases.

To survive, many American families have had to dip into retirement savings, placing the future in question.  When savings are exhausted, losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  The ability to pay a big mortgage, something common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of both spouses.  If even one of them loses their job, foreclosure becomes a distinct possibility! To stay afloat they must negotiate with lenders, which in the long run usually means increasing the size of their mortgages and/or tapping into short term savings and retirement accounts. Early retirement withdrawals are usually accompanied by additional fees.

On top of pandemic problems, even before COVID-19 economic globalization had given rise to thousands of large companies that are loyal to neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers, especially blue collar ones, are increasingly being treated like disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table. Highly educated and skilled working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I heard many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This can and must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when those affected are members of the church. Many churches have lost touch with early traditions. The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tell us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

Even clearer instruction comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential to serving those in need outside the church.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop outreach ministries. One way for small groups to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in their church’s local area.  Charities are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.  The closest ministry filed for any church is the one inside its doors. The largest ministry field for every church is the one just outside the church doors.   

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed. —Proverbs 19:17

*All Bible quotes are ESV.

Feed My Sheep

The Good Shepherd (C.1650-60) by Philippe de Champaigne

My recent work with a struggling young man in my community has provided me a stark reminder of the reality of hunger in America. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food security as “having access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.”  According to USDA figures, 10.5 percent of American households in 2019 lacked proper food security. While the government’s 2020 food security figures are not yet available, indications are that this year’s numbers will be much higher.  The primary reason for this is the sharp increase in national unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the map below shows, the food insecurity problem is widespread.

As a state workforce developer in Pennsylvania, I worked with hundreds of clients who had recently lost their jobs.  Food security was often a major concern of these displaced workers. Many had small children at home, making their situations even more dire.  More recently, as a volunteer job coach working with the elderly, I discovered that food security is a major concern for many of my clients. My typical client is age 70 or older, dependent upon a Social Security check of less than a thousand dollars a month as their primary income, and frequently has to decide between purchasing expensive prescription drugs or food, as they lack sufficient income to pay for both with what remains after paying the rent or mortgage.  

While the mission of Christ’s church is to spread the Gospel, it’s difficult to convey the Good News to someone with a growling, empty stomach. Jesus clearly recognized this. By feeding the five thousand in the miracle of the loaves described in John 6, Jesus provided for the physical needs of the crowd.  The very next day, he called Himself the “Bread of Life.” (John 6:35). Clearly, one needs food in the belly in order to be more open to partaking of the Bread of Life.  The level of involvement in feeding the needy varies significantly from church to church.  Many get involved in collecting and distributing holiday food baskets for the needy.  While this is a wonderful thing, such baskets only cover a few days of the annual 365 that people need to eat. Much more is needed.   

Food banks and pantries exist across the country to help support food security. Typically, a food bank supports a region (such as a county), while local food pantries serve small towns or communities within larger towns/cities. According to the non-profit organization Feeding America, a food bank is a non-profit that safely stores thousands to millions of pounds of food for bulk distribution to local food programs, like food pantries. Food banks come in all different sizes. In contrast, food pantries receive food shipments from food banks and run food distribution programs where hungry families can receive food directly. Pantries feed hundreds of people per week! Because every community is different, there are many different types of pantries. It is common for a food pantry to operate from inside a community school or church. Some areas even have mobile food pantries to serve seniors with limited mobility or rural communities with little transportation.  Some pantries require the clients to demonstrate financial need, while others serve anyone who shows up. Some communities also have food kitchens, where the needy can eat a hot, nutritious meal.

Churches and individuals can help their local food banks, pantries and kitchens in a number of ways by donating money and by volunteering their time. Check directly with your local organizations to ascertain the best way to help each. A general rule of thumb is that monetary donations are preferable to food, as it enables the organization to spend where the need is greatest. Another general rule is that volunteers are always needed; this is particularly so during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many food banks, pantries and kitchens have adopted special precautions for COVID-19.  Those who might wish to volunteer should check with their local organization(s) to determine if they are comfortable volunteering in light of the precautions that have been adopted. In any case, I encourage you to reach out as you can to support food security in America. As James 2:15-16 tells us, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

Jesus feeds the five thousand, John 6:1-13 (NIV).  Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.  Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.  When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So, they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

Messy Christianity

Soup Kitchen

Many Christians love their big, opulent church buildings. They can be quite impressive, especially older ones that are massive relics of past centuries. Standing inside a pristine, beautifully ornamented Gothic cathedral can certainly give one a sense of awe. They’re a wonderful place in which to worship God.

The entire world was recently shaken by images of the beloved Notre Dame Cathedral on fire in Paris. Notre Dame is now closed for who knows how long, as the French government and people begin the long process of rebuilding. The church building is a mess.

Christianity is a messy business—in many ways messier than the scorched interior of Notre Dame.  In John 14:12, Jesus tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.”  Acts 10:38 tells us Jesus “went around going good.” As Christ’s disciples, we are to follow his example of doing good. Good works are not a condition for salvation. Salvation is a free gift for those who put their faith in Christ. But as the Book of James tells us, works are a manifestation of Christ’s love that is in those who put their faith in Him. 

We are to follow Christ’s example.  Matthew 9:35-38 says:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Jesus is the Lord of the harvest. The harvest he is speaking about has many faces including the sick and suffering, people in trouble, those who don’t know Christ and many others. They all need caring, compassionate Christ-believers who care about the wandering sheep.

Unfortunately, many Christians are too comfortable in the places where they currently are in their faith journey; perhaps they attend church regularly, give money to the church; and participate in church social events. They enjoy this and aren’t eager for change. People in this condition can find it difficult to reach out to the sheep of Jesus’ flock. In his video series on the Good Samaritan, Christian author Rev. John Ortberg likens this to someone sitting on a comfortable bench in a beautiful park—a place one doesn’t want to move from.

Christians who find themselves in such a comfortable condition today but recognize the need for change can rise from their bench in small steps.  It might mean spending a weekend working on a church project with a group of volunteers, inviting a new family on the block over for dinner, visiting a church member in a hospital or nursing home, or leading a Bible study. Taking such baby steps isn’t very messy, but it helps prepare one for Christ’s messy work.

Messy Christianity requires getting one’s hands dirty in both the figurative and literal sense. It’s found in places like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, getting involved in helping someone  who is being physically or mentally abused, inviting someone on the down and out into your home for awhile, giving someone in need a loan with no expectation of being repaid, or traveling to distant places to perform mission work such as flood or hurricane relief. It often requires taking personal risks and/or experiencing considerable discomfort.

Early Christians in Rome were noted for fearlessly caring for the sick and diseased. Many non-Christian Romans admired the Christians’ selfless acts. The Western Emperor Constantine the Great decriminalized Christianity in 313 AD by issuing the Edict of Milan.  Ten years later Christianity became the official religion of Rome. This occurred through a different kind of revolution marked not by violence and warfare, but by countless acts of Christian love, charity and sacrifice.

The Rev. Ken R. Klaus, Pastor Emeritus of the Lutheran Hour said, “All too often the job of reaching others is left to others. That can be unfortunate. After all, there are times when you may be the best person to reach someone who is lost or wandering.” You don’t have to be an evangelist or great orator to succeed either.  All you need do is open the door for the Holy Spirit to begin His work in another person’s life. Share your joy!”

If you believe in Jesus, you are not to spend all your time in the calm waters just inside the harbor, full of joy, but always tied to the dock. You have to get out past the harbor into the great depths of God, and begin to know things for yourself. –Oswald Chambers

*Note: all Bible references are NIV.

Rescue the Weak and Needy

Homeless

 Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.

                                                                                                                                   —Proverbs 28:27

After enduring over 10 years with a dismal economy, many Americans today find themselves in perilous positions far exceeding anything they could have imagined. The middle class is quickly shrinking, leaving a fractured nation that is increasingly becoming a land of haves and have-nots.

The average American family has somewhere around $5,000 in savings, placing them in a position where losing a job can mean losing nearly everything.  Paying big mortgages, which is common for young working couples today, often depends on the salaries of two working spouses. Only two or three missed paychecks can lead to foreclosure! To stay afloat they tap into savings and then into retirement accounts, darkening their prospects for the future while also paying the federal government large tax bills for early retirement withdrawals.

The global economy has given rise to large companies having loyalty neither to their country of origin nor to their employees.   Workers are increasingly becoming disposable commodities that are brushed into the trash bin like rubbish on a picnic table.

Highly educated and experienced working professionals who lose their jobs and end up turning to the government for assistance are common today.  In my job working with the unemployed, I’ve heard far too many lament, “I never imagined that I could end up in this situation.”  This must change.

Churches, especially those in large urban areas, are often unaware of the financial struggles of individuals and families in their area—even when the strugglers are members of the church. Too many churches have lost touch with early traditions.

The scriptures speak frequently about caring for those who share the faith.  This is an essential part of discipleship that helps the church set its own house in order.  In Acts chapter 6, the Apostles appointed seven deacons to assist in the distribution of food to local widows, who were followers of Christ.  James 1:27 tells us,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (ESV)

Even clearer guidance comes straight from the mouth of our Lord in John 13:34-35:

 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Building a healthy church family is essential.  Brett Eastman has served as the small groups champion in several of the largest mega churches in the country including Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.  Eastman writes:

“If you want to create a church community that really cares for one another, the best way to do it is through small groups. When small groups become the vehicle for care-giving, the whole church gets involved in sharing one another’s burdens—a much more personal approach than relegating the task to a committee.  The whole congregation should be making hospital visits, taking meals to people when they’re sick or something’s happened, doing childcare when someone’s in crisis and giving money when somebody’s lost a job.”

Small groups in churches set the conditions for encouraging personal intimacy and trust building—essential elements of loving Christian relationships.  Only by sharing our hopes, fears, cares and concerns do we really get to know other believers well.

Small groups also enable churches to develop many outreach ministries. One way to quickly make a difference is by reaching out to Christian charities in your church’s local area.  These organizations are always in need of volunteers, financial supporters, prayer warriors and other resources.  The possibilities are endless. You can’t take care of everybody, but you can take care of somebody.

Look closely and see that behind the face of every downtrodden man and woman is the face of Christ.

                                                                                                                                        –Oswald Chambers

Peace through Weakness

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USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, CVN-69

As someone who served 24 years in the military, I naturally favor a strong national defense.  But I have to ask, just how much defense is enough?  Practically every day we hear one politician or another warning there’s not enough money for Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education, job creation and a host of other programs.  Even worse, there’s not enough money to help feed hungry Americans, so many children go to bed hungry every night.

The popular TV comedian Stephen Colbert, who is also an outspoken Christian, said of America, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”  Among the needy I include those who lack the health care, education and jobs that are essential to growing self-sufficient, productive citizens.

Despite our country’s perilous economic condition, some politicians wail and moan that we need to spend more on defense.  They warn that China is going to overtake us in military capacity.  Iran and Syria are threats to the world.  North Korea has the ability to strike America’s west coast with a nuclear missile. And the list goes on!  These are the talking points of the war hawks—and the hawks aren’t limited to those on the political right.

Many liberal politicians have joined the war hawk ranks on the premise that growing the defense industry can help bring jobs to their respective districts.  Perhaps that’s true, but manufacturing televisions or a host of other products that are no longer made in America would also create jobs.

According to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, in 2012 (the last year for which full records are available), the United States spent 4.12 percent of its GDP ($645.7 billion) on defense.  China spent 1.24 percent ($102.4 billion).  In fact, the United States outspent all Asian countries combined, which had a total defense expenditure of $314.9 billion, less than half of America’s total.  In 2012, the United States accounted for 41 percent of global defense spending.  How much is enough?

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”                                                                                                                                                           —Dwight D. Eisenhower

I believe we need a strong national defense, but we have to balance defense with domestic needs.  If we can’t maintain a healthy, well educated, well nourished and self-sufficient population, then what is left to defend?

America is truly threatened from many directions, but the greatest threats stem from internal problems, not foreign countries or transnational groups.  Perhaps the biggest threat is our ignorance of history.  American society seems to have lost site of a key historical fact—the farther a nation separates itself from God, the more imperiled it becomes.

The Bible is full of examples validating this.  Those who don’t care to read the Bible should try reading Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”  The similarities between Rome’s decline and what is occurring in America today are astonishing.  (Sharie Pyke comments on this topic in an informative piece titled, “Is America like Rome in decline.”  http://goo.gl/7BgZFS)

“God is present in the places where our fears live.”   —Randy Kilgore, Our Daily Bread

Just as our nation is imperiled by pulling away from God, the more we humble ourselves before God the stronger we become.  1 Peter 5:6-7 says, “6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (ESV)

Chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Judges provide a wonderful example of this. The Midianite people had impoverished the land of Israel through constant raids and pillaging of the countryside.  God chose Gideon to defeat the Midianites at a time when they were encamped in the land of Israel with a large Army.  From across the land, Gideon raised a great Army to defeat them.  But God had other plans.

God knew that Gideon’s army would overwhelm the Midianites, increasing their confidence in their own abilities to take care of themselves.   God wanted to teach Gideon’s followers to trust in Him, not in their own abilities.  He had Gideon select 300 of his best men and instructed him to have them surround the Midianite encampment.  With these 300 men and through a clever ruse God enabled Gideon to crush the Midianite force.  God delivers strength from our weakness.

I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.  —Philippians 4:13 (ESV)

Just as God wanted the Children of Israel to trust in him, he also wants us as individuals to trust in him. The law given under the Mosaic Covenant does not consider the moral weaknesses or infirmities of humans in their natural, fallen condition.  God’s law is absolute, demanding absolute morality and obedience before Him.  The law accepts no excuses.  When a person comes to this realization, his life seems an inescapable, fatal tragedy.

St. Paul describes this in Romans 7:9, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.”  (ESV)  This is the powerful conviction of sin—a person coming to grips with his or her absolute weakness and inability to please God through works.  The cross of Christ is just a foolish notion to anyone who has never come to this realization. To believers, however, the cross is the only logical remedy for sin.

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”  —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Likewise, the cross of Christ is a foolish notion to anyone who believes our nation can prosper without God. Jesus doesn’t command us to have a strong national defense, but in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), he does say He will bless us if we are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and hungry and thirsty for righteousness.  He also tells us to give to the needy, love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

The best form of national defense is unquestioning trust in God.  God will allow us to push him away from our government, schools, businesses, social organizations, sports teams, televisions, movies, homes and lives.  Unfortunately, those pushing God away do not understand that every vacuum created by God’s departure is filled by something less desirable.

A Christmas Alternative

Christmas Gifts

The cornucopia (or horn of plenty), a symbol from Greek mythology, is widely recognized as representing food and abundance.  Over the years, it has become associated with certain religious holidays in Christianity, Judaism and Islam—Christmas, Hanukkah and Eid al-Fitr respectively.

Most Americans enjoy a cornucopia of blessings every day.  The majority of us have enough to eat and adequate clothing and shelter to meet our basic needs. Some have far more than they need. Unfortunately, not everyone is so blessed.

Have you ever struggled with selecting a holiday gift for a relative or friend who has almost everything he or she needs?  Far too many people end up purchasing unneeded or unwanted gifts that eventually get stuffed in a drawer, tossed in the trash or simply set aside and forgotten. There’s a better way!

Alternative Gifts International (AGI) is a way to give meaningful presents to people who have virtually everything they need.  The AGI movement was begun in 1980 by Harriet Prichard, director of a Presbyterian children’s ministry in Pasadena, Calif. AGI started in a small market where shares of goods and livestock for needy people in Third World countries were sold.

The idea was to give gifts that could make a real difference to an individual, family or village. For instance, a present of a milk cow or a means to purify water can truly change lives for impoverished people living in remote areas of Africa.

Prichard’s idea was so popular that five Pasadena-area churches held markets the next year. By 2004, there were more than 325 Alternative Gifts markets in the United States. The movement has now spread to Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and Korea.  There are opportunities to give both domestically and in foreign countries.

Here is how Alternative Gifts works:  Instead of buying that symbolic gift that might soon be put away or discarded, consider making a donation to AGI on behalf of a friend or loved one. Instructions are located on the “give a gift” tab of AGI’s website at www.alternativegifts.org.

When you make a donation through the website you can write a short message to the individual you want to honor. AGI will send that person a card announcing your alternative gift.

Perhaps you would prefer helping people in your local community; the needs are great and the opportunities plentiful in whatever town you live in.  During this Advent season, when some of us tend to overeat, there are many who haven’t enough food.  You might consider supporting a local food pantry. Many of these are experiencing significant shortages.  Many local churches host food pantries that could use your support as well.  The Salvation Army also offers gifts of food, clothing, shelter and various other services to the needy in most areas.  Donations of time and treasure are all welcome.

Even if you’re short on money, you can still give a gift of time. Consider spending Christmas day volunteering at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter.  I promise you will find it rewarding—a gift to yourself more than a gift to others.

For those who are able, I encourage you to share your blessings with others and consider giving alternative gifts this Christmas. Make a donation to AGI or one of the many worthy charities in your area. Better yet, consider alternative gifts throughout the year and make a real difference in someone’s life the next time you give.

Whatever you do, never forget the real meaning of Christmas as expressed in John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (ASV)

May God bless us all in the coming year!

Recalling Some Life Lessons

Traffic Jam

Normal is getting dressed in clothes you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.   ―Ellen Goodman

Time has been called “a great healer” because it helps ease the pain of physical and emotional wounds.  Unfortunately, time also sometimes causes us to forget some of the best lessons life teaches—lessons we ought to have held on to.

Such was the case for a life lesson I recently recalled—something I originally learned while serving as a Civil-Military Operations Officer in southern Somalia some 20 years ago.

In 1993, Somalia was engulfed in civil war, much like today.  One day I visited a refugee camp run by the United Nations. Hundreds of Bantu people were housed there in small, igloo-like huts made from long bent sticks covered with plastic sheeting.

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The Bantus were brought to Somalia as slaves in the 19th century and remain so to this day. They are a small people of very different ethnicity and appearance than the Somalis.

The Bantus I saw that day were living in absolute squalor. Yet despite their situation they seemed remarkably happy.  When I asked a UN worker about the reason for the Bantus’ apparent joy, he provided a life lesson.  “These people were once slaves,” he said, “but now they’re free, well fed and together.”  The things they held dearest were freedom, family and a full belly.  They enjoyed all of these in the squalid camp where they were living.

Over the course of my time in Somalia and several other deployments during my Army career, I learned other lessons about how little we humans truly need.  For months at a time I lived with no possessions beyond what would fit in my rucksack and duffel bag.

With no car to wash, no lawn to mow, no gutters to clean, no leaves to rake, no Internet, no TV and no long commute to work, one has freedom to discover the gift of time.  Personal productivity can increase significantly in such situations, as can relaxation and renewal.

My unscientific observations suggest that as possessions increase, freedom decreases. A multitude of possessions tend to chip away at the gift of time. While I am not a practicing minimalist, I do believe it would behoove most Americans to consider reducing their material possessions.  Garages were designed for cars, not unopened moving boxes. The primary purpose of an attic is to allow proper ventilation of a house, not to store a lot of stuff.   According to the Wall Street Journal, only about 20 percent of the clothes in a person’s closet are regularly worn. You get the picture.

Relearning Some Past Life Lessons

After each long military deployment, I returned home with renewed enthusiasm for life and a deeper appreciation for my freedom, family and the many blessings God had given us. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and appreciation always slowly faded as I became increasingly re-engaged in the daily, mundane distractions of life and work. After awhile, many life lessons just seem to vanish.  Some of us are fortunate enough to be have an opportunity to relearn some of them.

About a year ago, two major changes in my life occurred.  First, my wife and I moved from a house in Johnstown into a condo near Pittsburgh. Then, only four weeks later, I lost my job.

I had wanted more free time and I got it.  Sometimes God has a real sense of humor!

Laughing Jesus

Two of the main reasons we moved into a condo were to reduce our material possessions and to escape the workload that accompanies owning and maintaining a house. We simply wanted more freedom to do the things we enjoy.  Losing my job wasn’t part of the plan.

However, over the course of the past year I’ve relearned some valuable life lessons, ones I should never have forgotten.

First of all, I remembered that I really don’t need a lot to make me happy.  We have a lot less space and a lot fewer possessions than a year ago, but we also have more time and more freedom to enjoy life.  It has been a great tradeoff—so much, in fact, that my wife and I are already discussing another major downsizing.

Living without abundance makes one more aware of God’s daily provisions.  Instead of asking Him for specific blessings, I’ve learned to pray each day that God will provide my family and me just enough to satisfy our needs and that His perfect will may be done in our lives.

During the past year I also remembered how little it takes to make me truly happy.  We have adjusted to living on my military pension, something that seemed nearly impossible a year ago.  I also have remembered that it doesn’t take much more than my freedom, family and a full belly to make me happy–just like the joyful Bantu people I observed in Somalia many years ago,

Well, there is one other thing. The gift of time has allowed me to dig deeper into the Scriptures than ever before, bringing me closer to the only true source of joy. As the Rev. Dr. Sam Storms so clearly explains, “Joy is not necessarily the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God.”

May you find true joy and peace in your pilgrim’s journey!

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.”  —Matthew 6:19-21 (ASV)

Pray for Sandy Hook and More

Jesus Praying - Dec 2012

“The world as God designed it was the best of all possible worlds, but it has now become the worst of all possible worlds; in fact, the Bible reveals that it could not be any worse than it is.  Individual men who take the wrong line can get worse, but the world itself cannot get worse. Grief brings a man to see this more quickly than anything else and he longs for an umpire who will hold the scales.”  —Oswald Chambers

The recent shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School have left the minds of many spinning—such horrific acts defy the human mind’s ability to understand.  We’ll probably never learn the shooter’s motive or understand the thoughts that were going through his head on that terrible day.

Watching friends and family of the victims being interviewed, it’s clear that many of them are experiencing difficulty simply trying to explain their feelings in the wake of the calamity.  They just can’t seem to find the words.  At times when others are hurting and we can’t seem to find the right words, good people everywhere ought to pray.

There’s no need to be eloquent in your prayers, just pause, get in touch with God and let the Spirit do the rest.  Romans 8:26 tells us, “…the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (NKJV).  Before  going to bed tonight take a minute to drop to your knees and lift up the families, friends and loved ones of all whose lives have been affected by the Sandy Hook tragedy.

While Sandy Hook might be foremost in our thoughts and prayers today, never forget that there are far more Americans elsewhere who are also suffering greatly.  For many Americans, 2013 promises only uncertainty and potential disaster.  I recently joined a local job networking group.  Although currently unemployed, I’m fortunate enough to be a military retiree with a dependable monthly paycheck and medical benefits.  Most in the group aren’t so lucky.  Many struggle to make a mortgage payment, others are facing looming homelessness and still others don’t even have enough money to pay for gas to drive to our networking meetings.

As Jesus tells us, we will always have the poor with us.  Unfortunately, there’s a new variety of the poor in America.  It’s composed of educated, middle class people who have worked for years and now find themselves struggling through long periods of unemployment.  The American middle class is shrinking while those living in poverty grows proportionately.

As our politicians bicker over taxes and spending, it appears that the federal emergency unemployment benefits that are currently in effect might be allowed to expire on December 31st.  This would place many more American families at risk.  Judging by the news, the politicians are nearly out of time and ideas as to how to reduce the massive national debt and get spending under control.  It’s time that we turned to God for ideas.

So while you’re on your knees tonight, don’t stop after saying a prayer for Sandy Hook.  Also ask God to help our nation by blessing our elected officials on both sides of the aisle and giving them the wisdom and courage to do what’s best for America in the coming year.

May you have a very merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

Religion and Politics Don’t Mix

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”     James 1:27 (NIV)

There has been much discussion about religion during the current presidential election campaign.  At one time or another, candidates from all of the parties have invoked the name of God to support their respective causes (the lone exception perhaps being the National Atheist Party).

With all of the problems in our national politics, it makes one wonder whether God could possibly support any party’s platform.  I recently heard an evangelist state unequivocally that, “neither the Democratic nor the Republican party supports the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  During the sermon he referenced a publication called “Christ and the Needy,” a piece penned by Abraham Kuyper in 1895.

I’d never heard of Kuyper (also spelled Kuijper), so I decided to Google him.  It turns out he was a Dutch politician and theologian. Based upon my subsequent reading of “Christ and the Needy,” which I found online, he appears to have been theologian first and politician second.

Kuyper, who was a Calvanist, noted that while some politicians might support reforms closely paralleling Jesus’ teachings on social justice, there is one profound difference.  The ultimate aim of a politician’s rhetoric is to get elected and consolidate political power for his/her party; the aim of Jesus Christ’s preaching was to lead lost souls to the Kingdom of Heaven.  For this reason, religion and politics can never successfully mix.

Following Kuyper’s logic, while it’s important for Christians to be informed on key political issues and to vote accordingly, it is unwise to tie one’s Christian beliefs too closely to one political party or another.  Therefore, after careful self-examination, Christians should vote for the candidates whose positions most closely align with their own religious convictions.  This approach does not lend itself to so called “straight ticket” voting.  Each candidate should be judged on his or her own merits.

Reading “Christ and the Needy” got me thinking about a recent trip my wife and I took to Harlan County, Kentucky, my birthplace. Harlan is situated in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, in the heart of Appalachia. Its entire economy is built around coal and little else.

Many if not most of Harlan County’s citizens are in economic dire straits to say the least.  The ramshackle homes of those living in abject poverty are a poignant contradiction to the scenic beauty of the area’s mountains.  Sadly, we don’t hear our presidential candidates talking much about Harlan’s poor or the poor elsewhere in the nation.  Could this be because a large portion of them don’t vote?  James 1:27 states, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”(NIV)

Television comedian and entertainer Stephen Colbert, a Roman Catholic, is quick to comment on politics from a religious perspective.  He recently said of the United States, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

It is fitting and proper for governments to help the poor and needy, but the actions of government are by their very nature “polluted” by the world of politics. Jesus calls upon all Christians to care for those who cannot care for themselves.  He doesn’t tell governments to do this.  Unfortunately, as Colbert so clearly points out, far too many Christians and Christian churches have failed to answer this call.  For the individual Christians and churches that have chosen to lift up the banner of this or that political cause, perhaps your time could be better spent lifting up the cross of Jesus and following Him.