Thursday, July 30, 2015

Is this pleasing to God?

I find myself asking that question a lot. Is what I'm doing pleasing to God? I consider myself to be a consummate student. I don't often accept information on the surface, and leave it alone. Instead, I usually dig deeper and undertake my own research. This is the case with nearly everything that I involve myself in. I don't just want to know the basic facts; I want to know more. This aspect of my personality has led me to do quite a bit of personal study on scripture and theology. And the one thing I've realized with all of my private studies on the Christian faith is that the more I learn, the less I know. I used to have a very "Sunday School" knowledge base of the Bible. The bigger, more popular stories I knew. Some of the other stuff, I did not. But I was fine with that. Now, however, I have a much broader knowledge of the different parts of the Bible, Old and New Testament. Whenever my wife and I watch shows on the History channel that focus on the Bible, I'm aware of the details before the narrator can even mention them. My wife often has to tell me to be quiet so she can just watch the special without me giving things away. But even with all of my expanding knowledge, I'm still often unsure of what is and is not pleasing to God.

The concept of sin has always fascinated me. If you consider yourself a Christian (and if you've done your homework), you'd know that God has made seven different covenants, the last of which was fulfilled through Jesus Christ. That is the covenant that Christians (should) follow today. And what is it that Christians should do? I'm reminded of two lessons from the Bible (stated in several gospels). For the first lesson, I'll use the example from Matthew. This is known to Christians as the Great Commandment. "Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." The second lesson was Christ's final commandment to his disciples, from the gospel of John. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."

Basically, the final commandment is just like the second part from Matthew. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Of course, these simple commandments have been interpreted differently over the centuries. By saying that we should love God with all our hearts, does that mean that we must continue to uphold the laws in the older covenants? I've heard different responses to this. Also, I have read that, by telling his disciples to love one another, Jesus was commanding them to be missionaries and spread the gospel, not just love your neighbor. However one interprets those commandments, one thing is clear, certain behavior is pleasing to God and other behaviors aren't. Sometimes, it's hard to know for sure if what I'm doing is pleasing, however.

Certain actions and thoughts are obvious. If a guy cuts me off in traffic, and I curse at him from my car, that's not loving your neighbor as yourself. Celebrating when a good player on an opposing team gets hurt is not a good thing either. Neither is talking behind your coworkers backs, or getting into bar fights, or cheating on your spouse. Those are clear no-no's. 

But what about the actions that are less clear? They're more gray, and not so black and white. I often have trouble with this. In my life, I have to balance my responsibilities to my family, my job, and my church. Oftentimes, my contributions are requested in all three aspects, but unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day. My greatest fear is not saving enough time to do what I want for my own selfish purposes. Instead, I fear that, by focusing my attention on one aspect of my life, I'm disappointing those people who need me in the other parts of it. For example, if I lessen my responsibility at work, even though it's needed, so that I can devote more time to church responsibilities, is that a good or a bad thing? On the other side of the coin, if I refuse to participate in a group or event at church so that I can contribute more at my job, is that displeasing to God? 

In Sunday School, I learned that my conscience lets me know when I sin against God. I often find myself living with a heavy conscience. If I am home spending time with my family, I feel like I'm letting someone down elsewhere. And if I'm at a meeting at church, I'm worried about what's going on at home. And if my mind is focused on the task at hand, I often wonder "Am I doing enough?" "Should I be doing more?" I'm interested in hearing other people's thoughts on this topic. What do you think? What is your understanding of sin? In our daily lives, what is and isn't pleasing to God? Please leave a comment below.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Are Christians an Easy Target?

In my field of expertise, academia, I am surrounded by intelligent individuals who choose their words carefully. After all, they didn't get to where they are without understanding the concept of tact and why it's important when dealing with students from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. In higher education, specifically, balancing academic freedom and political correctness is tricky. Teachers want to expose students to a variety perspectives, some of them controversial, but they also need to create an environment of respect between themselves and the students (as well as from student to student). To put it simply, they encourage open-mindedness and discourage dogma, but they also don't want to offend anybody. Let's just say that, in higher education, an instructor needs to be adept at striking that balance. Many people couldn't do it, which is why pursuing a career in education is not for everybody.

Now, what does this have to do with Christians being an easy target for attacks? Well, it seems like even the most tactful of individuals, like academics, have no problems criticizing Christianity. Notice I didn't say criticizing "religion". No, most professionals (and white-collar professionals tend to be the most politically correct of the bunch) keep their comments reserved and respectful when discussing Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., but they have no problems attacking Christianity. I wonder why that is. Perhaps, it's because the United States is a pluralistic society, and Christianity is the dominant religion. Maybe, they figure that it is okay to criticize a religion that is in the majority, not the minority. Whatever the reasoning, Christians seem to be an easy target these days. Let me give you an example.

On a number of occasions, I have been around colleagues in a social, non-work setting. In these situations, I had mentioned, off-hand, that I had attended a service, or that I planned on attending a service, or that I have certain responsibilities at my church, the New Hartford First United Methodist Church. As I said, this information was brought up in the flow of natural conversation. Perhaps, I was responding to an inquiry or I had to leave that social setting for another commitment at the church. Whatever the reason, it wasn't to preach to my colleagues. I wasn't trying to convince them to join my church, and I wasn't spreading the good news of Christ, which is what Christians are supposed to do. We are supposed to take our faith out of the church building and into the world. Christians are charged with making new disciples; it is our duty. I wasn't even doing that. I just mentioned my church briefly. That's it. It was as nonchalant as saying that I was going to the grocery store to pick up milk and eggs.

Well, this brief mention, on each occasion, resulted in lengthy criticism of Christianity by my colleagues. Without provocation, they felt the need to discuss their negative views of my religion and point out its, in their words, illegitimacy. Some of their talking point involve the following:
1. Corruption within the Catholic church
2. Inconsistencies within the gospels
3. Gospels which were omitted from the New Testament
4. Questionable and/or perplexing teachings (working on the sabbath, anti-homosexuality, the issue of slavery, mixing different fabrics, the justice system, etc.)
5. Skepticism of the miracles detailed in both the Old and New Testaments
6. "It's all about money"

These are just a few of the criticisms I hear from my peers. Don't get me wrong. I never felt cornered or verbally attacked. The conversations were always civil, but for the most part, they were one way. I usually just stood there and nodded occasionally to let them know that I was listening, but I didn't try to interject and refute them. I wanted to do that each time, but I knew that it would get me nowhere. It would only rile them up more, and I wanted to avoid a serious conflict with a group of great colleagues whose minds I would never be able to change.

These are people who work closely with others who practice different religions. But I never hear criticisms or condemnations of those respective religions. Buddhism is often praised. The other two Abrahamic religions are met with acceptance and an endorsement of the diversity they represent in this part of the state. So why is there rarely any apprehension to speaking negatively about Christianity? Maybe it's because Christians are easy targets.

This is the challenge that faces Christians in the 21st century. How do we grow as a faith community when even mentioning our faith off-hand brings about condescension? It's getting harder and harder to make disciples.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Does God answer individual prayers?

In a scene from one of my favorite movies, a young man who is trying to get accepted to a prestigious university is having a conversation with a priest. Because he had applied and been denied acceptance several times, the young man asked the priest if he hadn't prayed enough. The priest's response was "I'm sure that's not the problem. Prayer is something we do in our time. The answers come in God's time." The young man then asked the priest, "Can you help me?" To this, the priest responded, "Son, in thirty-five years of religious study, I've come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts; there is a God, and, I'm not Him." This exchange between the aspiring student and the priest brings me to an important topic: prayer.

Believe it or not, there is some debate across the monotheistic religions, and even amongst Christians, if God hears and answers individual prayers. Most of the people that I know who believe in God also believe that prayer is essential because, yes, He does listen, and He does respond. There are others that I know who do believe in an all-powerful God, and even believe in Jesus Christ, but they think that, in a world of 7 billion people, one individual expecting his or her prayers to be answered is a wild proposition. I consider myself as part of the first group. God does hear our prayers, but, like the priest in the movie, the answers come in His time, not ours. Or, as is often the case amongst us humans, no answer is the answer. But, there are times when I pray for specific things, and God provides a quick and definitive answer.

When I was younger, I prayed for all kinds of things, most of them selfish. As I grew and matured, my prayer matured as well. Now, I usually pray for the same things every time: forgiveness for my sins and the health and happiness of my wife and son. A few weeks ago, that nasty stomach bug that swept through the area also affected everyone in my household. My wife and I only got a touch of it, but it really affected my son. It seemed to keep him out of sorts for more than a week. At church that week, during prayer time when we lift up our concerns to God, I asked God to give me my son's illness, to take his sickness and give it to me. Later on that day, my son took a nap and woke up with more energy and an appetite while I was beginning to feel ill even though I had already gotten over the stomach bug the previous week. Well...I got it again. That night, when I was preparing to go to bed at 8:30 since I couldn't stay awake any longer, I told my wife that I had prayed for God to take my son's flu and give it to me. I summed it up by saying, "I think He obliged."

That example is just one of the many times that God has directly answered my individual prayer. I am just one small, relatively insignificant person in a world with 7 billion people, but He still heard and answered my prayer. What are some ways in which God has answered your prayers? Provide an example of a time that you went to God with your concern and you got an immediate answer. Or do you think, like some of my friends, that what we believe are answered prayers are just merely coincidence? There's no judgment here. Please, provide your insight, your opinion. Whether you are a devout Christian or just someone who has thoughts and questions about prayer, I'd like to hear from you.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Favorite Bible Verse?

A common question that members of the Christian faith ask each other is "What is your favorite Bible verse?" The assumption is not that all Christians have the entire Bible memorized. I'm just going to throw it out there right now that I don't. I've read many parts of the Bible several times, and I'm familiar with a lot of the well-known stories in the Old Testament, but I wouldn't be able to say where exactly those stories take place. I've got a general idea. I could tell you the book, but probably not the chapter and verse.

For example, a lot of the juicy stuff that gets made into major motion pictures can be found in Genesis and Exodus: the creation story, the great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the creation of the Ark of the Covenant, etc. Leviticus provides some fascinating insight on how to treat leprosy. The gospels contain the stories of Jesus' birth, ministry, and death. And if you want to find verses that detail the end of times, look no further than Revelations, which was my favorite book as a young teenager (probably because I was all dark and brooding, like many teenagers are). The point is that knowledge and retention of the Bible fluctuates among Christians.

However, most Christians that I know have one particular Bible verse that is their favorite, for one reason or another. Maybe they find it uplifting, or informative, or controversial. Whatever the reason, it's a verse that sticks. For me, it's Psalm 23. Yes, I know, it's a bit of a cliche to pick such a popular Bible verse. So many people love that Bible verse that it's become part of popular culture. It's like when young actors relate a complicated character they're playing to Holden Caulfied from Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows the Caulfield character because that book was required reading material for many ninth-grade English classes, so it's a popular choice. The same thing goes for young classical musicians when they say that Beethoven was their inspiration. Not very original; just popular.

For me, though, I am truly drawn to Psalm 23. It isn't just a verse that comes to mind because it's well-known. I read it weekly (sometimes more than once a week) because it is the one verse that makes me feel the closest to God. When I read it, a feeling of calm overtakes my body, a feeling of warmth. I'll include the New King James version of Psalm 23 below (because that's the Bible that I own). I'd like to know what your favorite Bible verse is, and why. To post a comment, just click on the comment link below. You can post anonymously, or if you want, you can sign in using one of the several options provided to you.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Welcome to the blog of the New Hartford First United Methodist Church

The way in which people connect and communicate in the 21st century is completely different than what it was for previous generations. The evolution of technology just within the last five years has led to a culture of constant connectedness. Whether this change is a welcome one or not, it is a change that is here to stay. Organizations in different areas of interest and people from all walks of life have embraced this change in culture and are using it to their advantage. While many faith-based organizations have utilized the Internet to branch out and connect with people in their community and around the world, for the most part, churches still operate under the old system. At the New Hartford First United Methodist Church, we are making steps to change that.

The purpose of this blog is to allow followers of Christ to connect and discuss Christian issues in an online forum. While websites and Facebook pages are great ways to inform the community and receive feedback, a blog is a perfect forum for Christians and non-Christians alike to discuss and debate issues concerning Christianity. There are topics that Christians wish to discuss but might feel reluctant to do so in a face-to-face setting. This blog will provide a resource for open and anonymous discussion so those topics can be discussed. Non-Christians may have questions about our faith, and this blog will provide a setting where those questions can be discussed and possibly answered. The goal of this blog is to help believers strengthen their faith and entice those who haven’t asked Christ into their hearts to do so.

At the New Hartford First United Methodist Church, our vision is “Walking with Christ…working to be God’s presence in today’s world.” By starting this blog, we hope to be able to further that vision.