By CARLA OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Sept. 9, 2014 – With Central Christian Church pastor Rev. Deb Griffin traveling this past weekend, our columnist was a pinch-hitter in the pulpit, leading the Sunday service while she also prepared and delivered the sermon. The following was her message:
We are a couple of weeks into the new school year. And isn’t it exciting to see how excited children (pre-K to college students, really) are to please their teacher or professor? How excited they are to do their homework and read their textbooks? How excited they are to carry that backpack?
I remember teaching college courses at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake before Chuck and I moved to Jefferson, and the first part of the school year was always the best. Excitement, commitment, enthusiasm to learn. All of that is evident on the faces of students, who are in awe.
All the school supplies, new clothes, new backpacks bought with enthusiasm – even when it’s more than we can imagine or afford. Students go to school, study hard. Attendance is high. And everyone is all dressed up.
Students want to please their teacher. At least for the initial few weeks. And then all hell might break loose.
Then the year is over and a new year begins. The same scenario is repeated over and over and over for, oh, about 12 to16 years for most students.
Here is Carla Offenburger at the marquee of her Central Christian Church in Jefferson, after she’d given her sermon. She explains in the sermon text, published here, that the “fist-to-the-forehead” idea came from her granddaughter Lindsay Offenburger, whose teacher told her that it might help her focus when she’s struggling with math problems. Carla thinks it might help when we’re struggling with our spiritual lives, too.
I find this same scenario a lot like our Christian lives.
When we are “early” Christians, we are good students. We read our textbook – our Bible. We memorize Bible verses and maybe a few hymns for extra credit. We attend church on a weekly basis. We go to Sunday School. And we say plenty of prayers. We want to please our instructor – our Heavenly Father.
Excitement. Commitment. Enthusiasm. Awe.
Don’t you wish we could have kept that initial “new Christian” mentality into our young adult years, our parenting years, our middle-aged years, and our retirement years?
Don’t you sometimes long to get that “new Christian” enthusiasm back?
Teachers give passing grades to their students, which allows them to go from one grade to the next. What kind of grade would God give us for our Christian ways?
TOUGH TEACHER BUT HE LOVES US. First, I’m thinking we’d all fail. Then I’m thinking He could have been an easier instructor. Given us some easy test-outs.
I’m thinking He could have done a little bit more to make our life-long Christian journey less of a test and more recess. Or at least I would have liked to see a multiple choice test with an “all of the above” answer.
I mean, really.
It’s a shaky start from the get-go. After God created Adam, He brings us Eve. He knew full well that male and female would find plenty to argue about, whine about and challenge each other over. Surely He knew that men would oppress women, and that women would want more from a man than is possible to get. Surely He knew they’d talk each other into bad behavior.
Why did He do it?
Then He sends them off – out of the Garden of Eden, which could have been theirs for all eternity had they passed God’s first test – and He says “go be good people.” Oh, and by the way, “Make your own decisions!”
What could He have been thinking?
Surely He knew we wouldn’t make good decisions, we wouldn’t do our homework before we spoke or judged or condemned.
And then all through the Old Testament we find ourselves fighting amongst ourselves. Doing evil to our enemy, our brother, our sister, our countries. We are an ugly people. If there were a test to pass into the New Testament, we would have failed. We would have been held back. And God sees this.
But He still loves us. He still holds out, hoping that we are going to get it. Hoping that by the end of the year, we will have studied His word more and started being a bit more intentional with our faith.
But we don’t.
And He eventually sends us Jesus Christ – His only son. His perfect son. The man without sin. The always right-decision-making son. The always loving, obedient son. Our perfect example. To teach us.
And it’s like the beginning of a new school year for us. We get that excitement and enthusiasm and commitment and awe back.
BACKSLIDING. Then we lose interest fast.
Because it is hard work being a Christian. It takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot of study. It takes a lot of reading. It takes a lot of seeking out the “experts” to help us understand it all. Heck, it’s just difficult to admit we need help.
It’s difficult even though Jesus made it simple. In fact, He couldn’t make it any simpler than the scripture today – “Love. Love your neighbor trumps all the commandments. Because love does no harm.”
But no. Love is hard work. And we simply get tired of the dirty, gritty work.
We still are a mean-spirited, ugly, poor decision-making people. Just read the headlines. It doesn’t matter if we are watching national, state or local news. It’s ugly folks – drugs, murder, crimes of all sorts, and war. Way too much war. Ugh!
We lose focus, we lose hope. This is especially easy to do when we can do what students at all levels do – what we’ve all done.
We find short cuts, we try to skirt the system.
We break a few of the rules to ease through the tough parts of the curriculum.
We read the CliffsNotes instead of the novel.
Or we read the final chapter and nod our heads a lot as if we know what the entire book says and means. Or better yet, we just watch the movie.
We read only what we agree with and then apply it to everyone and everything.
We expect our neighbors to do the hard work and then we look over their shoulder and take some credit where it isn’t due.
Heck, sometimes we blatantly cheat.
We fail the test.
WE CAN FOOL SOME, BUT WE CAN’T FOOL GOD. Oh, we can fool some of the class and some of the instructors. Because we attend church. Because we go to Sunday School or Bible Study. Because we own a family Bible. Because we know the Lord’s Prayer. And we pray it every so often. Because it sounds pretty good when we say, “I’m a member of Central Christian Church.” Because we drop a few dollars in the offering plate.
It’s easy to fool each other, our pastor, our neighbor, the masses.
But we are going to fail the ultimate test because here’s the bad news – it is impossible to fool God.
And it seems that whether we read the Old Testament to get the full historic picture with the hope of not repeating the sins of God’s people so long ago; or maybe we read the Old Testament seeking a little instruction from God himself; or maybe we are just trying to find His redeeming grace, we still don’t get it right.
Psalms 119 finds us asking to be taught. “Teach me, O Lord the ways of your decrees. Direct me in the path of your commands. Take away the disgrace that I dread, for your laws are good.”
Many of us choose to read only the New Testament. It’s a little bit easier to get through. The chapters are shorter. It’s kinder. We can read it in hopes of being able to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ – and learn by his many examples, his parables, his commandments.
Romans 13 reminds us – “Do not commit adultery; Do not murder; Do not steal; Do not covet; and whatever other commandments there may be are summed up in this one rule – Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
And yet, we still fail?
But oh, He is a gracious God. He let’s us take the test again. And again and again.
Our entire lives he lets us retake the test. He doesn’t hold us back. He lets us fail, and retake. Fail and retake. Fail and retake.
What a loving, forgiving God:
–He puts a new hungry child in front of us – and says feed her.
–He puts someone in front of us who has lost everything and needs help – and says help him now with all that he needs.
–He puts an ill friend or family member in front of us – and says go to her. Or pray for him.
–He puts a new program in our church – and says be enthusiastic and supportive of this.
–He puts our enemy next to us – and says hug him.
We can do pretty well for awhile. Especially on “Outreach Sundays” or when Habitat for Humanity needs a few volunteers. Or when we are being watched.
HARD WORK, CONTINUOUS WORK. It’s just so frustrating because we can’t keep up. We can’t keep going. It is so much dirty, gritty work. Over, and over, and over again.
It makes me tired to think of how much work it takes to be a true, commandment-following, loving, forgiving Christian day-in and day-out. Doesn’t it make you tired, too?
And so we go back to trying to find the easy way out.
We convince ourselves that talking ill will about someone is okay if everyone is doing it. We convince ourselves that the hungry should just get a job.
Or that the homeless should just move back home.
Or that our neighbor’s Christianity isn’t our Christianity and therefore we can pass judgment.
Or whatever other excuse we come up with to stop being the Christian God is asking us to be.
It is sad – but true – to acknowledge that every day, every single one of us in this room fails God’s tests.
I don’t know how you have sinned, but I have:
–I have had thoughts of greed and envy.
–I have judged others – in my own home, in the grocery store, in the coffee house, on the highway driving here.
–I have talked behind someone’s back. I have been a part of gossip. Or I have not stopped it when I was hearing it.
–I have not always been compassionate.
–I have turned away to avoid confrontation with someone I know is not being kind.
–I have…I have…I have.
You have, too.
You see what I’m saying? Many times a day. Millions of times in a lifetime. We are a disappointment to ourselves, to our neighbors, to our God.
Isn’t that the truth? Isn’t that the challenge? How do we overcome this?
FIST TO THE FOREHEAD, AND DO IT! We are a lucky people, we Christians. We have the superior teacher. There’s only one textbook – and it’s never gone out of print. There are hundreds and hundreds of scholars that God has placed in our lives to help us understand what isn’t always easy reading.
Heavenly Father, we are sinners. Help us.
Here’s what I think we need to do. We need to become intentional Christians.
We know how to be intentional. We do it in other parts of our life all the time.
I’m not so good at math. I need to concentrate, I need a calculator (or Lynn Hardin nearby), I need to stay focused and not multi-task when I’m dealing with numbers. My granddaughter Lindsay Offenburger says her teacher told her if she put her fist on her forehead, she would be able to concentrate on her math problems better. I wish I would have had her math teacher when I was in first grade!
You all have something that you aren’t very good at, and you too put in extra effort, extra time, seek out extra help. Put your fist to your forehead.
And then little by little, we get a little better – not great, but we are aware of our weakness. And this allows us to be aware of the weaknesses of others. We give a little bit of grace when we see someone struggling with the same things we struggle with.
But we don’t do that so much when it comes to our faith. Why is that?
We know God is going to keep trying to give us the answers. We just have to keep our eye and our heart open to the possibilities that are right in front of us.
We have to stop dividing ourselves into petty groups because we can’t agree to disagree. We have to stop picking each other apart.
We need to have that fist on the forehead and think LOVE! Love is all we need!
My friend Hollie Roberts can often be heard saying, “I’m only talking good today.”
I love it. Imagine, if the only thing we changed was agreeing to “only talk good today.” Many of us would be hard pressed to say anything, many of us would take longer to speak, and many of us would be silenced.
Then maybe we could start working on “I’m only going to do good today.” And then a hungry child would be fed, a friend would get a needed ride, a heating bill would be paid. A church offering would be made.
And then and then and then…good, good, good!
God is good to us. He is filled with grace. He is filled with forgiveness. He is filled with love.
We need a little fist-to-the-forehead Christianity, friends.
Let’s put our fist to our forehead and be intentional about our Christianity. Go ahead put that fist to your forehead right not – and just say out loud, “Love, Love, Love!”
BEING AN “INTENTIONAL CHRISTIAN” means we’d be always mindful. And before we spoke or acted out with ugly words or ugly behavior, we’d tell ourselves, “I am a Christian and this is how I NEED to act. With love.”
I’ve got three good suggestions to get us started:
Let’s pray with intention. Prayer can be very powerful and yet many of us are scared of it, or unsure how really to go about it. Start by praying with names. Go ahead write down the names of people who you are going to pray for all week by name. Mark Rasmussen shared a prayer idea early this year at an Elders meeting when he suggested we pray for each other by name. I took him up on that suggestion and for most of 2014, every time I walk into church and sit down I pray for the Elders by name: Mark, Bob, Gerald, Joey, Dave, Marcia, Julie, Jane, Jessie, Lana, Larry, Pastor Deb and myself. It has become a very meaningful prayer for me – I picture each Elder as I say their name, usually in the order where he or she is sitting around the church. At the Offenburger home, we pray before every meal. We start with the nearly universal Catholic dinner prayer: “Bless us, Oh Lord, in these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” And then we say the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” And then we list by name – all those who need special prayers – sometimes our list can be a dozen names, and always because we are afraid we will miss someone, we end with “and all others who need your help.” You can imagine that sometimes our meal gets cold, but our prayers are perhaps the most important part of every meal. Perhaps you do similar praying rituals. If not, I encourage you to start praying with intention.
Next, let’s take communion with real intention. Today and all Sundays to come, when you take the bread, say to yourself “His body,” and when you take the cup, say to yourself, “His blood.” Wow! Four very powerful words that will really put communion in perspective for each of us!
Finally, let’s GIVE with intention. Give your money, give your time, give your hugs, your loving, your zucchini. Give, give, give. It’s an amazing form of loving our neighbor when we give away what we have! Let’s remember, “To the one who has much, much is expected!”
Let’s talk good and be good.
Let’s be filled with grace for one another.
Let’s follow the instructions that God places in front of us.
And when we need to be reminded, or when we need to remind others – let’s just make it the universal symbol to put that fist to our foreheads so we can be intentional Christians.
We can do this, folks. We can pass God’s test by following Him with intention and loving each other in the same way.
You can write the columnist at carla@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.