Posted by: Bob Clark | January 30, 2013

A Refreshing Appointment

The recent election cycle seemed especially negative. I know historians can point to other elections where candidates were more vicious in their attacks and the press more negative in their coverage. But to me, it seems every time I heard anything about the election it involved candidates (or their surrogates) attacking each other and pointing out all the things wrong with our nation.

One candidate would spew about what was wrong from his or her perspective. Then the other candidate would spout about what was wrong from his or her perspective. And after all the speeches and advertisements and interviews were over, chances are what sticks in your mind is what was wrong from every point of view.

And you begin to wonder if anything is good. Is there anything positive about our country?

Yesterday I experienced a refreshing reminder of one the positives about my nation and my community. We checked into the doctor’s office for an appointment. The first person we encountered on entering the building was a white male who in doing a great job helping people find their way in the massive building was overcoming a “disability” with every step. The receptionist was a self-proclaimed “country girl” who had moved to the city several years ago. The worker taking vital signs was a beautifully dark-skinned immigrant from Africa. The resident who was working with the primary physician was a beautifully pale-skinned woman with Scandinavian roots.

As we left the building I couldn’t help but think about how wonderful it is to live in a country and in a community where such diversity exists. The politicians do a great job of pointing out all that is wrong. Those people I encountered at the doctor’s office did a great job of pointing out something that is right and good.

How beautiful it is to see people from diverse backgrounds cooperatively working together.

Posted by: Bob Clark | January 7, 2013

PEP, Pease, and Worship

In the 1990’s limits on tax-deductions known as PEP and Pease were part of a budget deal. Specifically, they limited the percentage of charitable giving and other deductions that could be itemized on your tax return. PEP and Pease were in effect for a decade before being eliminated in 2001 tax cuts.

With the “fiscal cliff” deal, Pease is back in 2013, at least for higher income people. So if you make $250,000 per year (singles) or $300,000 (married couples) there will be a cap on how much of your charitable giving can be itemized and deducted on your tax return. Here is a quick explanation and example of how it works.

 …the Pease limitation reduces a household’s itemized deductions by 3% of the amount over the threshold. The reduction can’t exceed 80% of the total deductions.

A couple with income of $400,000 average about $50,000 in itemized deductions, according to IRS statistics. Because their income would exceed the $300,000 threshold by $100,000, their allowed deductions would be reduced by about $3,000 to $47,000—potentially boosting their tax bill by about $1,000.
(from Deduction Limits Will Affect Many by John D. McKinnon  in The Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2013).

The return of Pease will give some opportunity to rail against tax increases. Others will give thanks that taxes have increased, especially on people many consider wealthy. Still others will fret about the effect Pease might have on charitable giving. Some may even vow to stop their charitable giving. While I have little interest in the politics of all this, I am very interested in people of faith taking opportunity to examine our motivation for giving, particularly to church, but other charitable giving as well.

Back in the 80’s a friend of mine named Dennis told me that he did not itemize his church contributions. He explained that he did not feel right about benefiting from what he was giving to God. We looked at passages like Malachi 1 in which the prophet rebuked the people of God for giving God blemished sacrifices. Dennis asked, “What kind of ‘giving’ is it when we give God what costs us nothing?” After we finished our conversation, Dennis decided the best approach would be to itemize his church contributions, calculate how much that deduction benefited him, and donate the refund amount generated by the itemized deduction. I appreciate his intentions.

So as political rhetoric rages, I want to encourage people of God to give their first fruits to God as they have been prospered, give generously to those in need, and to do it all to worship Almighty God, not for a tax break.

Posted by: Bob Clark | July 12, 2012

Beyond Civility

Election Day — November 12, 2012 — is fast approaching.

Some members of our church family feel that this day is important and voting is an essential exercise. Others in our church family feel this day is irrelevant and voting an exercise in futility.

Some members of our church family cannot wait to cast their vote to re-elect President Obama. Others in our church family cannot wait to vote for Governor Romney. Still others in our church family do not like either candidate and so will vote for another candidate or refrain from voting in the presidential election.  And still others will vote for “anybody but Obama” or “anybody but Romney.”

Some members of our church family will enjoy every minute of this election cycle. They will attend rallies, watch and listen to commercials, talk back to the television during debates, and be enthralled with the entire experience. Others in our church family are dreading the whole experience — the debates, the television and radio political ads, the blog posts, and status updates.

At some point in the days leading up to November 12 the debate will turn nasty, the ads will go negative, the name-calling will become demonization, and some pundits and other talking heads will call for civility in the public discourse.

What role should Christians play in all this? Let me make it clear that I am not talking about what candidate Christians should back. Again, as I stated above, Christians — including those at Lafayette– are all over the map on political affiliation and candidates. I am talking about the role Christians can and should play when it comes to civility.

Christians should lead the way in promoting civility. In fact, Christians should not be satisfied with civility. Our standard should be even higher — the golden rule, for example. Perhaps the standard should even be love, kindness, and compassion.

So if you are interested in the election — whether you are red or blue; R, D, or I; voting for Obama, Romney or a third party candidate — don’t settle for civility. Go beyond civility. Watch your words and your tone. Be careful not to personalize issues and demonize candidates or their supporters. Think twice before you pass on an email, tweet, or status update that is filled with angry rhetoric and information and accusations that might not even be true.

What would it be like if Christians took the lead in setting the tone for public discourse by going beyond civility to love, kindness, and the golden rule?

Posted by: Bob Clark | March 26, 2012

A Surpassing Unity

Many times I have focused more on what separates me from other Christians than on what unites us. Several years ago I began to realize that if I let something destroy unity in the church or between me and another follower of Jesus, I am elevating that something to a greater level of importance than that of the things that unite us (or the One who unites us).

So with that bit of explanation, perhaps you can see why this quote from Garry Friesen captured my interest: “We begin by affirming that our unity in faith, grace, truth, and in our Lord Jesus is greater than our differences on this topic.” (This quote is from his presentation of “The Wisdom View” in How Should We Then Choose? Three views on God’s Will and Decision Making).

The next time I feel the bonds of fellowship straining, I want to ask myself a simple question: Is that which is threatening fellowship of greater importance than that which bonds us together?

Posted by: Bob Clark | February 16, 2012

Open Arms

For those wishing to go deeper in studying themes in the Open Arms sermon series, especially in reaching out to “outsiders” of other religions, I recommend reading Miroslav Volf’s book, Allah: A Christian Response.

Volf is a Yale theology professor who grew up in what was then Yugoslavia and has co-taught a class on faith and globalization with Tony Blair. Volf is a Christian with a vast knowledge of both church and world history and both the Bible and the Qur’an.

Where do you begin in building a relationship with a Muslim? Volf has some good suggestions. Warning: the first chapters of this book are heavy on historical stuff and the entire book will require engaged, critical thinking.

If that sounds like something that interests you, here’s a link.

Posted by: Bob Clark | January 19, 2012

Open Arms

God created the world with human beings with the intention for the humans to live in a unity that reflected the unity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). When humans sinned their unity with God and one another was shattered. No longer were they living as equals, but they tried to dominate one another.

As God called a people to begin the process of righting the world, we see God calling people to bless each other. God called people to treat each other with respect. God called people to stop taking advantage of other humans. God gave Israel a law that called them, to paraphrase Jesus, to love God and love all.

People continued to rebel against God’s plan by seeking dominion over one another rather than enjoying unity. Prophets expressed God’s displeasure with the way God’s people were trampling the poor and refusing to respect outsiders.

God came to live among the people to show them how they were originally intended to live. Jesus (also called Immanuel or God with us) modeled for all to see how people are to relate to each other in God’s Kingdom, where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus demonstrated respect for all people. Jesus treated people with dignity. Jesus cared for all people, even those who had nothing to offer him. Jesus even modeled for people how to treat enemies and those who mistreat or sin against them.

People following Jesus today will do the same. We will respect all people. We will treat people with dignity. We will care for all people, even those who have nothing to offer us. We need to treat our enemies and those who mistreat or sin against us with forgiveness and love rather then vengeance.

Communities of Jesus followers (churches) will do the same. Churches will respect all people. Churches will treat people with dignity. Churches will care for all people, even those who have nothing to offer them. Churches need to treat their enemies and those who mistreat or sin against them with forgiveness and love rather than vengeance.

Jesus had open arms, even for outsiders.
Jesus had open arms, even for the powerless.
Jesus had open arms, even for women.
Jesus had open arms, even for children.
Jesus had open arms in his physical body.
Jesus had open arms in his spiritual body.
Jesus has open arms in his spiritual body.

On earth as it is in heaven!
In St. Louis as it is in heaven!

–Bob Clark

Posted by: Bob Clark | September 26, 2011

Into the Quiet

The phone is off.
The television is off.
The computer is off.
The music player is off.
The car is off.

Sure, in a way it is quiet,
but still, this is not the quiet
I am searching for.

My mind is racing –
thoughts are clanging around
cares are distracting
to-do list leftovers are screaming.

How do I find the quiet?
Is there a switch?
Can I turn off all the distractions?
Is there a door?
Can I just walk away from the noise
and into the quiet?

God, take me into the quiet.
Take me into Your peace.
Please, God, let’s go together,
walk with me into the quiet.

Posted by: Bob Clark | September 18, 2011

Anger

Here’s the piece I read in this morning’s sermon.

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is probably the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
–Frederick Buechner from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC

Posted by: Bob Clark | September 14, 2011

Re-reading Books

Recently I re-read a book that I have read several times. As I thought about books I have re-read it dawned on me that when I talk of re-reading a book, I most often am talking about a book by Henri Nouwen. Have you ever read Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son? If so, maybe you will want to join me in re-reading it. If not, What are you waiting for? You can order the book here.

Posted by: Bob Clark | August 18, 2011

Love in the Details

Lourene and I settled into a booth at a Denver restaurant eager to relax, converse, and check out yet another find from Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. By the way, if you are looking for a good restaurant to try, take a look at the places Fieri’s show has been. But enough of that, let’s get back to the booth.

I have learned that I am easily distracted when at a restaurant. I love people-watching, so if I want to be fully present with my wife it is helpful if I sit where I will have the fewest people in my line of sight. I also enjoy sports-highlight watching, so I try to sit where the television is least likely to distract me.

From past experience it seemed I had chosen a perfect seat to allow me to be focused on my sweet wife. I carefully chose a seat where my back was to the television. In front of me was a perfect view of a wall, the whole wall, and nothing but the wall. Hey, I even left my smart phone in the car to eliminate distractions.

So I slid into the booth that night pretty confident that I was going to get the attentive husband award. But even before the server had brought us our water, I became distracted by the conversation coming from the booth behind me. Yes, I heard them talking. Yes, I was listening.

Now let me try to make myself look a little better by saying that I did not intend to listen. It just happened. The two men in the booth behind me were having a very animated discussion about baseball. In fact, I would dare say this was the most detailed conversation about a baseball game I have ever heard. One of the guys was getting more excited and louder with every pitch he described. When I say, “every pitch,” I mean he was going pitch by pitch through inning after inning in his recollections of this ballgame.

For a minute I got pretty excited about who this mystery baseball commentator might be. Was it some baseball play-by-play announcer or color-commentator? Was it an active or retired major league player recalling a memorable playoff game or maybe even a game from the World Series? The conversation went on and on. Strike two. Ball four. Line-drive. Pop-up. Stolen base. Double play. Wicked curveball. Pitch in the dirt. Tagged out at the plate. Pick-off attempt. Ground-rule double. Balk. Terrible call by the umpire. Questionable strategy by the manager. Pinch hitter. Relief pitcher. Extra innings. Walk-off single. Mobbed at the plate.

Just when I was trying to figure out how I was going to get the autograph of the baseball star sitting behind me his words revealed that the entire conversation was about a little league game that his son had played. Then I realized the entire conversation had been from the perspective of a father sitting in bleachers behind the backstop to watch his son’s game.

The conversation had come alive with details because that father had been fully present at his son’s game. He wasn’t people watching or checking messages on his phone. He was glued to the game — every single pitch of the game — because it meant so much to his son.

And that’s when I looked across the table into the forgiving eyes of my wife.

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