Good News and Better News … January 25th, 2016

 Jonathots Daily Blog

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Good News Messiah Lutheran

I arrived early.

Nothing had started popping at Messiah Lutheran.

I was sitting at my book table checking out a few details when I looked across the vestibule and saw the bulletin board pictured above.

My first instinct was to chuckle since I was peering at a snowman while abiding in Panama City, Florida. But I guess because it was Sunday morning and my thoughts had become a bit introspective, I considered the snowman.

It isn’t, you know–a man, I mean.

If you came across a snowman and decided to melt it and free the human being inside, after extensive warming, all you would end up with is a puddle.

There’s nothing within.

It’s an imitation of life–using lumps of coal, a broom, a button, a scarf, a carrot and a top hat.

But it got me wondering if there are frozen people crusted over by the iciness of our culture, who really are more than just snowmen. Is it possible to become so chilled by indifference that you live beneath inches of ice?

Well, I certainly see it in politics.

Freezing out your competition and appearing above the fray, free of fault, seems to be the “call of the wild” in Washington. But I fear if the real heat of pressure and responsibility fell upon any one of them, they would sink into a drippy mess.

How about entertainment?

What could be more hypocritical than a bunch of snowmen in Hollywood who think they are so open-minded and liberal, who make a stand against guns–even as they use pistils, automatic rifles and any number of instruments of mayhem to kill thousands of human beings in their plotlines.

Then there’s religion.

Seems to me that we have sunk to the position of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who spent their time counting cups, cleaning plates and decorating their robes.

Snowmen.

Nothing really left inside–just a cold form of what they once might have looked like.

So as I prepared to share with the folks at Messiah, I was reminded of the sarcastic statement of the angel, speaking to the women who came to the tomb to embalm Jesus: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”

I had to ask myself a two-part question:

  • Is my life the pursuit of melting snowmen, only to find there’s nothing really there?
  • Or, under this arctic exterior, are there still living human beings who would like to have joy and abundant life?

The good news is that Messiah lifted my spirits.

Although at first they treated us as strangers, our hearts soon burned within us, taking away the frigid fear.

It was powerful.

It was good.

It was hopeful.

And unlike the snowman on the wall of their bulletin board, what I discovered were human beings suffering from a little hypothermia from being exposed to too much cold. So here’s the better news: We can warm up society and find out where the snowmen are and where the people just need to come in out of the elements.

1. When you see somebody doing a good job and you know they make minimum wage, give them a buck and a word of encouragement for their extra-mile efforts.

2. When you’re in the doctor’s office, instead of pretending to read an out-dated magazine, attempt to strike up a conversation with a nearby human being and see where it takes you.

3. Let “thank you” come off your lips more and more easily.

4. Lead with a smile long before you come face-to-face.

5. Appreciate the small things and be amazed at how the big things begin to take care of themselves.

6. Sit in your quiet, staid church and clap your hands during one of the hymns and see if anyone joins you.

I could go on and on.

Here are two dangers in life: falling under the spell of the deep freeze, or believing that you have no power to thaw it.

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If You’re Happy and You Know It … June 9, 2013

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church campMaybe it’s the notion that it’s summertime or that I drove by a lake on the way to my Sunday gig–or just the sunshine filling the air with warmth instead of chill that makes me reflect back on church camp. Church camp is one of those terrifying experiences mingled with lasting memories and benefits that are only recognized as you find a little gray creeping into your temples.

It’s terrifying because you are suddenly thrown together with a bunch of strangers who you deem to be more attractive, lining up to trail down to a lake for swimming, staring at one another in disbelief and confusion.

Lasting memories happen because it may be the first place you got kissed on the lips that wasn’t initiated by some overbearing aunt, and benefits arrive because a vesper service in the woods can certainly make God seem closer than scooting your bottom on a pew, hoping the sermon will end real soon.

But one of the things I remember is that joyous little ditty, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” For all of its simplicity and child-like quality, it is actually a theologically profound message.

For after all, it declares:

  • If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”
  • “If you’re happy and you know it, lift your hands”
  • “If you’re happy and you know it, lend a hand”

and it closes out with the sublime realization that

  • “If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it.”

No kidding.

I just wonder. If there was such a device as a face-ometer, which was used to evaluate the contentment of a human being, and it was brought into church on a Sunday morning, would the meter  register joy, or immediately dip into the red for a reading of malcontent?

What we consider to be childish often is what God considers to be truly human. So we have given clapping hands, lifting hands and lending a hand over to the care of the world for their celebrations of music and mission, and we use our hands only to fold in prayer or clutch an offering plate to procure funds.

Is this really the best deal? Some mainline denominational churches have such a fear of revivalism that they’ve forbidden clapping hands–and certainly lifting hands–as the taboo of tent revivals.

But if you go to a rock concert, people clap their hands ferociously and if a slower song comes on, they all lift their hands to the sky and wave them in unison. They even take their cell phones out to shine a beam and give light to the situation. Therefore an overpaid singer on a stage who is crooning some melancholy tune is worthy of hand-waving, but not “our Father which art in heaven…”

A politician posturing his political position is appreciated by applause but for some reason, we think God would prefer not to be touted quite so loudly.

If it were possible to express happiness without smiling, being joyful or exuding physical energy, I would be more than willing to accept the sobriety of typical religious worship. But the truth is, even those stern-faced, ardent believers who sit in their seats and fold their arms in an aggravating position of disapproval will go out to a football game or a country music show and hoot and holler at the players.

Sooner or later we have to realize that when people are happy and they know it, their faces will surely show it.

And a God who claims to be pretty upset when we worship other gods probably isn’t too pleased when clapping hands, lifting hands and lending a hand is reserved for adventures other than the kingdom of God.

So I must warn the good folks of Carlyle, Illinois, that I am of a conviction that happiness always shows up in what we do, not in what we pledge, plead, narrate, recite or hymn-sing.

So if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, lift your hands and lend a hand. You might be surprised that once your face is notified of your intentions to be ecstatic, you will take the tension off those wrinkles and end up looking a lot younger.

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Somer-salt … October 29, 2012

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Today‘s story is in two parts, so please grant me the courtesy of staying around for both tellings.

Yesterday morning I was introduced, and our dear sponsor invited the congregation to make us welcome. What followed was silence. Now, I don’t consider myself an authority on human customs across the globe, but I am pretty sure that silence, as a form of greeting and welcome, is universally considered to be hostile. I paused for a moment before striking the keys of my piano to begin my opening song. Was I going to say something? Was I going to request that they give me the basic courtesy of the gentle acceptance normally given to any stranger? Or would such a demand come across as crass and pushy? I opted to go ahead and just share my song.

The reason I made that choice? This was NOT a normal situation.

I was in a church.

And for some inexplicable reason, we have convinced ourselves that God expects us to act anti-human when praying in His presence. I don’t know how this got started. It would seem to me logically, that since God is our Creator, He would not only anticipate our need for enthusiasm, but encourage it. Yet I am often led to believe that applause in a church is not only optional, but often inappropriate. This belief has flourished even though the Bible screams at us, “Clap your hands all ye people! Shout unto God with a voice of triumph!”

What cranky grandmas got together with a bunch of malevolent old widowers to conjure the rule that being in the presence of God demands silence, reverence and apparently, giving tribute to eighteenth-century classical music? I don’t know. But it does not make better people–and if it doesn’t make better people, it can’t be God.

For instance, that’s why I stay out of politics. I have never seen anyone become more generous and creative by running for office. But I have also never had the experience of observing human souls who have been cleansed of their sins by baptism free themselves of being introverted and frightened of being successful.

Here’s the way I read it: we are to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. I looked out at those faces who refused to welcome me with even a tiny round of applause and saw beautiful, gorgeous, delightful fellow-travelers who, for some reason or another, got “stuck in neutral” through perching in a pew.

This leads me to the second part of my story. The problem is not the people. The problem is what we ask the people to be.

Human beings were never meant to be dry,  somber and withholding. If you don’t believe me, just go to a football stadium. They don’t sit there and sip coffee, staring at the field, barely acknowledging the activity before their eyes. We LIKE to clap. We LIKE to cheer. We LIKE to be happy. It’s our nature.

Here is the formula for having a successful venture when it comes to dealing with human beings. I don’t know–maybe your organization is trying to gear its approach to melancholy, intergalactic aliens. I would have no idea what these creatures from outer space would require to make them tick. But human beings are heart, soul, mind and strength. Therefore may I present a list? We need:

  1. To feel more.
  2. To believe something.
  3. To think deeper
  4. To live bigger.

If we do these things, we can escape the limitations of the culture of our upbringing, and at the same time, enhance it–by feeling more, believing something, thinking deeper and living bigger.

I have grown weary of hearing people say that “certain parts of the country have certain personalities” and will not adjust to any unfamiliar offering. It just ain’t so.

I was in Somerset, Ohio, a village of fifteen hundred people. Yes, I am sure they have ways of doing things. Undoubtedly, they pride themselves on NOT being part of the big city down the road. But church is not about duplicating the mindset of the community around you, while ignoring your own personal needs to excel and be joyous.

Jesus says we are the salt of the earth. Could anything be any simpler than that? Try to cook a meal without salt. You may have just discovered the menu of the cafeteria from hell. Salt is flavor; we are salt. We are the good taste to those around us. So we are supposed to teach people who love God to be salt. It doesn’t mean they walk away from their loved ones or even some of their choices. It means they feel more, they believe something, they think deeper and they live bigger. They choose Jesus over their culture. They always select love over fear and they produce joy as a remedy for disappointment.

Can I give you the good news? I did my little “dog and pony show,” opened up my heart to these beautiful brothers and sisters, and guess what? They greeted me with their own personal victory, humanity and sense of well-being. They were lovely. They escaped religion to find God.

This is what we all have to do. You have to escape politics to find justice. You have to run away from big corporations to generate quality products. You have to refuse to succumb to committees to promote progress. And you have to ignore religion if you want to be close to Jesus.

I love Somerset. I just want to see them become Somer-salt–to live in their town but be just enough flavor to make people thirsty to drink at the waters of life. One fine gentleman came up to my table and said, “We had church today.”

We certainly did. I will never forget you folks, because you stepped out of your predictable approach and allowed yourselves to be human in the presence of God. You learned the power of true worship:

  • Feel more
  • Believe something
  • Think deeper
  • Live bigger

And if you do this, you will become the salt of Somerset. Your vision for your new community center will be more than a building, but also a great big hug for your neighbors, telling them how much you love them. And you won’t EVER sit in silence again, pretending that’s a way to welcome strangers.

I take great comfort in the fact that God made humans. And since He did, I don’t have to spend all of my time apologizing for being one.

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