The problem with success and prosperity is you can never get enough. We not only want to protect what we have gained, but we cultivate a mindset of self-satisfaction that smothers selflessness and wonders why others are not willing to work as hard as we have or adopt our successful values and work ethic. If everyone would work hard, take care of their own and believe in God, their problems would be resolved. Of course we want to help the needy; it's just that they should begin to take responsibility for themselves.
The needs of the world are overwhelming. When faced with a widespread disaster, such as the latest hurricane on the Gulf of Mexico coastal areas, we often think it more than we can help. Need and tragedy are not resolved by one person or organization but by the compassion and contributions of many.
Years ago I knew the pastor of what was then reported to be the second largest Baptist church in Texas. Every September was “stewardship month” and the pastor preached about giving every Sunday. Worship attendance dropped in September. The budget was pledged. The pastor commented: “They may not want to hear sermons about tithing but their checks keep coming in!”
We were hosting a group of Chinese educators at Second Baptist Church, Liberty, Mo, as part of their tour across the U.S. Some of our guests had more than one PhD. None of them had ever attended a Christian worship event and they asked about our faith and how we were organized and financed. The one point that amazed them and produced multiple questions was the fact that the church was totally funded by member contributions.
Waiting for a connecting flight in Dallas, I met an old friend headed to the opposite coast. As we sat and visited he showed me a popular book he was reading about the second coming of Christ. Obviously fascinated by the book, he asked me what I was reading about the rapture and had I preached on that subject lately.
Over the years, whether I was doing research for a sermon, preparing to teach a class or trying to understand a person's expectations for our church, various ideas about the purpose or reasons for involvement in church surfaced. People voiced a need to be wanted, a church that provided sound doctrine in its teaching and preaching, a place to escape the noise and pressures of the world, a safe place for children, excitement in the music and sermons and a place where we will be with people like us. The list is longer, but you get the idea.
Suffering and submission are not popular ideas. Control, winning, success, power: these are the ideas driving our culture. Unlike the Roman Empire in Peter's day, we have the privilege of expressing ourselves through voting and freedom of speech. Even so, our challenge is to face rhetoric that contradicts the word of God, coming from people who claim to believe in God!
A common dictionary description of “power” is the capacity to act or ability to accomplish a purpose. This morning I listened to news commentators discussing political power in Washington D.C. and the various elected officials trying to control a national agenda without success. You might say it was a tale of power without accomplishment.
King David wrote about the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23) and he knew his subject. David knew great victories as well as the calamities resulting from his own ego and selfishness, but he also knew the restoration God's grace can bring to us in the darkness. Israel has come to the darkest night of the soul, when every day is more disastrous than the previous and it seems they are no more than a valley of dry bones.
I remember baptisms from my earliest days in ministry, one at a lake in a beautiful park, others in a stock pond with red mud up to my knees, as we sang “Shall we gather at the river where bright angel feet have trod?” The waters of baptism offer a memorable image of a new beginning to life.