Mega Millions: A Tax on the Poor and a Scam of Riches

One of my favorite songs in high school was the Barenaked Ladies’ classic “If I had a Million Dollars.” In the song, the band dreams of things that they would do if they had a million dollars and how they would give it the woman they loved.

With tonight’s anticipated Mega Millions drawing and anticipated $600 million-plus payout, it has everyone doing their own version of the song and dreaming of what they would do with that money. For the record, my wife and I jokingly had our little “$600 million dream” session last night. We decided we would pay off seminary debt, pay off the debts of our family members, put money away for our future children, give money to our favorite charities, establish scholarships at all of our alma maters, and follow through on Michael Scott’s desire to find a class of students and give them a free education.

We all have dreamed big with this payout, but tonight’s drawing raises an important question for us to consider. Should we support lotteries and should we play them? Ignoring the claims that lotteries promote education, it is my belief that lotteries are nothing more than a state-sponsored scam aimed at the poor with the hopes of a better life and fortunes.

It is often the poorest in our communities who will spend hundreds on lottery tickets banking on the hope that one of their numbers provide fortune and fame. The investment is unwise. As CNN pointed out yesterday, you have a better chance of getting killed by a vending machine than you do winning the lottery. Yet, the thrill of striking it rich brings us back to our neighborhood store with our money in one hand and lucky numbers in another.

Had that same money been invested, as some like Dave Ramsey points out, it would have turned and made a profit that has better odds than hitting the “powerball.”

Even though Scripture never comes out specifically against gambling, we can infer that gambling goes against God’s desires. If we assume that is the poor who play the lottery the most and that it takes away money that could be used elsewhere, then gambling and lotteries take advantage of the poor. In both the Old and New Testaments, we see that God calls us to care for the poor and seek their provision and care. One of the basic calls in Jesus’ ministry was to care for the poor who had, so often, been neglected by the ruling elites of his time.

Lotteries also shows us who are god truly is. It’s almost ironic that as we prepare for Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate Christ’s arrival to Jerusalem as king, that we have this massive lottery. Chasing after lottery payouts shows us that our money, and future riches, is really are god. When we lay down our money at the lottery stand, we do so as an act of greed and lust of money. Something as simple as wanting to provide a better life for our family can deter us from our obedience and desire to live for God.

Turning to lotteries for financial success will only breed financial and personal ruin and will deter you from your faith in Jesus Christ. We can and must seek better for ourselves and our neighbor.

My hope is that the day will come when lotteries are phased out. Though this is my hope, I recognize that as long as lotteries pay big money and people are dictated by their love of god (money) they will be here for a long time to come. As leaders in the church, we must be willing to address lotteries and teach people a better way to financial health and personal obedience in Christ.

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The Kentucky-Louisville Rivalry: Seeing Our Sporting Enemy as Our Neighbor

This week, I have gained a new level of appreciation for Switzerland.

For centuries, Switzerland has claimed neutrality and refused to get involved in many of the wars that dominated Europe, such as World War I and World War II. Switzerland has maintained political neutrality since 1515 , which was internationally recognized at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Even when wars surrounded the tiny country, Switzerland maintained its desire for neutrality.

I’m not sure how representatives from Switzerland would have enjoyed being in Kentucky this week. The commonwealth is in a state of manic frenzy with the anticipated Final Four match-up tomorrow featuring bitter rivals Kentucky and Louisville. It’s a classic rivalry being played on a big stage featuring two schools that do not like each other, two coaches who do not like each other, and two groups of fans who have little respect for the other.

Everyone is focused on this game and battle lines are being drawn. A wrong word at a dialysis center could lead to a fight and the wrong allegiance could lead you to not having as many friends at work.

No one is beyond being impacted by this rivalry. That includes a certain pastor and blogger who just wants to see a good game.

This happened the other day when three individuals approached the parsonage seeking my support for a local candidate running for office. At the end of the conversation, one of the individuals looked at my shirt and said, “You need to change your shirt!”

What is this … high school? Am I going to have to turn my shirt inside out now?

For the record, my crime of fashion was wearing a St. Louis Cardinals shirt. This isn’t the first time I’ve been scolded for wearing a Cardinals shirt, and not always be Reds or Cubs fans. There have been a few Kentucky fans, throughout my time in the state, who have seen my shirt and believed I was supporting their enemy.

Sports rivalries bring out the worst in us. I’m not discounting myself in this. I am just as guilty. During a time in my life that I am not proud of, I have told a few Pittsburgh fans what they could eat for lunch. In recent years, I have told my wife that if our future children decide to attend Pittsburgh that I am not going to pay their tuition. (Now, of course I will pay for their education. I will just wear my WVU gear to their graduation.)

Sports are meant to be fun and entertainment, yet we often take our passion for our teams to an unhealthy level of obsession. When we reach obsession level, it distorts our ability to perceive reality clearly. The fan is no longer just a person who is equally passionate about their team as we are of ours, but, instead, they are the enemy. They are not our neighbor, but they are a representation of the thing we hate the most. Even worse, we will close the potential for relationships simply because someone wears the other teams colors.

This is true anywhere where our obsessions reach a point where we can longer see clearly the love of God that exists in the other person. For example, our obsession for our favorite political party of ideology can blind us to seeing the humanity of our political opponent. Even our loyalty to our country can blind us to the wrongs our country has committed throughout the years.

Obsessions are blinding and prevents us from being our true selves. It is only when we have true perspective about the things that matter can we get beyond our need to lead obsession-dominated lives. As followers of Christ, we must remind ourselves that we are all created in the image of God and that we are called to love our neighbor. Jesus connected the love of neighbor not just to our friends, but also to our enemies. If we are to connect that message to the world of sports, we are to see that true Christian love is to extend hospitality and grace to the person wearing a different team jersey than we do.

This is difficult to do, because in the heat of the moment the last thing we want to do is be hospitable to the other team. We want to express our anger and frustration, and we don’t always think first in those moments. In the heat of the moment, when we think we are about ready to say something we will regret later, take a breath and think about it. Would what you say to the person wearing a Kentucky shirt or Louisville shirt (or a Pittsburgh shirt) reflect the glory of Christ? Even more, if Jesus was wearing the other team’s colors what would you say?

Ultimately, some perspective is key. Regardless of who wins on Saturday, the Commonwealth of Kentucky will come out a major winner. A Kentucky school will play, Monday night, for the NCAA championship for the first time since 1998. Also, the Kentucky-Louisville game has provided more than $5 million in free advertising to the state.

That is something for all of us who call Kentucky home to be proud of and rejoice in.

Sunday’s Sermon: Witnesses of Reconciliation

Peace is  hard to achieve and harder to maintain.

To achieve peace, which I define as a harmonious relationship between two or more individuals or entities, requires someone to work to bring the sides together for discussions. Sometimes we believe the work of achieving peace is the hard part, but I disagree. It is relatively easy to get people to talk about the problems they have with someone else. Once peace has been achieved, the difficult work comes in maintaining this condition by refusing to return to the previous situation of hard feelings and frustrations. This hard work produces some amazing fruit. When peace is introduced to a relationship that was once defined by hostility, we catch a glimpse of the condition we will all experience when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness.

In our lifetimes, we have a number of examples of the difficulties of achieving and maintaining peace. For me, the best example of working for and maintaing peace came in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In November of 1989, two groups separated by a wall, West Berlin and East Berlin, were reunited. This led to the end of East Germany and contributed to end of the Soviet Empire. Where there was once fear and anxiety, the people of Germany were united by a common desire for peace.

We don’t have to think about peace on the global scale to really see it played out. All of us can think of times when we have had to work for peace in our homes and in our relationships. Peace comes about when two people put aside their resentment and are reunited in a relationship. More than likely, we have experienced this in our own lives. The extension of peace comes when we have been reconciled with a family member, such as our spouse, after a fight, or when we have reestablished a relationship with a friend who hurt us. When we forgive someone of a wrong committed, it leads to the potential and possibility for peace to exist.

This idea of peace is our way of understanding reconciliation. Today, we conclude our Lenten sermon series entitled the “Journey to Forgiveness.” The title of the series is a little misleading, because it can lead one to believe that forgiveness is the end of the road. It is not. Forgiveness does not necessarily lead to two once-hostile groups returning to a renewed relationship. Sometimes, we forgive someone and have no desire to renew a relationship with that person. To seek reconciliation is something that is difficult, but holy. It is to do the hard and difficult work of bringing two or more people or groups back into a relationship built on mutual love and trust.

Reconciliation is important to understand and do. I believe reconciliation is an expression of God’s love for humanity. Each step of our series has worked towards this moment of seeking reconciliation. At the start, we said sin was an act of disobedience against God’s will. We walked through what sin looks like, and how there might be a sin we are struggling with during this season of Lent. When we are confronted with sin, we said we are to admit what that sin is and also repent from it. Remember, we said repenting was different than confessing. Repentance is a complete reversal and desire to move away from our sin. Finally, last week we said forgiveness was the grace that washes away the guilt of our sin, by Jesus’ act on the cross.

Throughout this entire journey, God has been right in the middle of it. God is actively involved in the work of forgiveness and reconciliation. Every moment and step was initiated by God’s Spirit with the purpose of bringing humanity back into a relationship with God. From the moment sin entered the world, God set a course to seek humanity’s salvation. It is a process that has its climax with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Reconciliation is the message Paul proclaims in 2 Corinthians 5:11-21. In this passage, Paul is working through a contentious situation with the church in Corinth. The people began to doubt Paul’s authority, because he had not visited them as promised. Paul and the Corinthians are working towards the goal of reconciliation. Notice what Paul says. It is not a human act that brings reconciliation. It is an act of God out of God’s great love for all people. Reconciliation is a gift that expresses the depths and lengths of God’s love.

How did God secure reconciliation? It came on the cross. Jesus voluntarily gave his life up for us and our sin. In this, Jesus served as the High Priest who took it upon himself to be the officiant and the sacrificial lamb that secured humanity’s atonement. On the cross, Jesus took on the Levitical sacrificial ritual in a one-time sacrifice for all of humanity.

Something else happened on the cross. Paul makes notice of this when he says Jesus was “reconciling the world to himself.” Why was this needed? Sin creates a distance between us and God. It has been this way since the first sin of Adam’s disobedience. Just like someone sometimes needs to help bring us back into relationship with someone who has hurt us, Jesus does the same in our relationship with God. He became the mediator. Jesus reconciled God’s holy love and humanity in order to restore the bonds of a relationship that we broke.

By faith in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled in our relationship with God. When we receive this free gift, we are able to experience the peace and transformation that comes in knowing that God will no longer count our sins against us. Christ’s death and resurrection is the key that opens the door to this relationship. That is the promise of the journey that we have been on throughout Lent. When we sin, Christ’s act of mediation brings out God’s grace to all who would believe. That is a promise that we can hold onto today, tomorrow, and for all time.

Reconciliation is not something we hold onto as our special possession. Paul says we are to be Christ’s ambassadors, which means we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation. What does Paul mean by this and what does it mean for us today? I think it is clear what Paul is saying. The free gift of God’s grace and reconciliation is something we are called to receive ourselves and proclaim to others. All Christians are called to be ambassadors of God’s peace and to be peacemakers.

Being peacemakers is at the heart of what it means to be a reconciler. As children of God, we are called to be like Christ in seeking and proclaiming reconciliation. This is not an easy calling, which is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:9 that those who work for peace, those who seek and proclaim reconciliation, will be blessed and called children of God. It is hard to work to be peacemakers, reconcilers, but it is a rewarding and deep calling that we are all called to participate in as a fruit of our own reconciliation with God.

The first place we can be a witness of reconciliation is at home. This is the place can be the most meaningful and difficult to practice God’s love for all and desire for all to be reconciled. We do so by seeking to be reconciled with those whom we have harmed. We take it upon ourselves to make the first step in restoring relationships that have been broken by our hurtful action. As well, we also help others, among our families and friends, experience reconciliation by being mediators between two people who are upset at one another. Of course, this isn’t easy. It is possible we are going to be in the middle of some nasty dialogue. Our role as reconcilers with our family and friends is like being the negotiator of a peace treaty. Negotiators sit and compassionately listen to the wrongs and help both sides see their need of each other and the greater value of love and forgiveness.

We can also be reconcilers in our world. It is hard for us to live as reconciled people if we are unwilling to be people who are proclaiming reconciliation in our communities and world. Here, I am thinking of two specific ways. First, we can be reconcilers who proclaim justice. In his historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” These words were true when he wrote them, and they are true today. As witnesses of reconciliation, we are called to stand for justice and be advocates of peace. We do so by uniting our prayers, our voice, and our heart with those who are hurting and who have been harmed by injustice. The call for justice should be the mantra of the church, because God is deeply passionate and concerned about justice.

We are also witnesses of reconciliation by being unifiers in our communities and world. The church has a strong message of God’s reconciliation and what it means to live as people reconciled with one another in response to God’s love. As Christians, we are called to be mediators who help mend the brokenness in our communities and seek to bring groups who see nothing but hate to experience love and respect for one another. We can be people who help bring down the walls that prejudice, racism, injustice, poverty, ignorance, stereotypes, and bigotry have for centuries built. As witnesses of reconciliation, we can be people who proclaim the unifying love of God’s grace.

This can begin for us today. It is disheartening to hear the reports coming from Sanford, Fla., of 17-year-old Tayvon Martin who was allegedly killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman who believed Martin was a threat. Martin was unarmed and was killed because of one man’s stereotypical response in believing a black man wearing a hoodie was a threat. We must not be silent. We must take off our fear of being persecuted for our love Christ and love of God’s desire for justice and take on Christ’s call to be unified with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. As a response to God’s holy love, we should seek to stand with all who are oppressed simply because of the color of their skin.

The world needs to hear from the church and it needs to hear that God’s loves all people. Friends, we live in troubled times and times that desperately need God’s love. It will only hear that message if we are willing to join with the Holy Spirit in being witnesses of reconciliation. We cannot ignore God’s call to be ambassadors of reconciliation when a world needs to hear this message so desperately. This message goes beyond racial, cultural and socio-economic lines. It is a message that God has done the work of reconciling all of humanity, because of God’s love for them. We must share and live into this message.

The Curious Case of Tim Tebow: How an Athlete is at the Center of a Polarized Culture

Tim Tebow is an interesting case study.

He is the kind of guy you want your daughter to date. Tebow is a strong Christian who is rooted in God’s love. We’re not talking about the celebrity form of Christianity, in which one claims to be a Christian but you never see any fruit. Tebow is authentic in his faith and charitable in his care for others.

Yet, Tebow is the last person you want starting for your favorite NFL franchise. Sure, Tebow managed to lead the Denver Broncos to a postseason victory over the Steelers, but he is much maligned for his style of play. His style is more suited for the college game, which Tebow was, perhaps, one of the best ever winning a Heisman and two national titles. Tebow’s biggest weakness has been his ability to accurately throw a pass, which is something a quarterback is expected to do.

This week, Tebow was traded to the New York Jets after the Broncos acquired Peyton Manning. It has led to usual discussion that accompanies Tebow in the NFL. On one side, you have those who believe Tebow is not a starting quarterback and should change positions. On the other side of the debate are those who believe Tebow has been unfairly criticized because of his faith and that his record shows he can play in the NFL.

It is a debate that will not go away with Tebow moving to the country’s media center. With this maybe another question needs to be asked. Why is Tebow such a polarizing individual and what does it mean for all of us? Continue reading

Racism is Still a Problem Today

I remember the day quite well.

I was sitting in my dorm room at West Virginia University, during my freshmen year, when “John” entered my room. “John” was unhappy and he wanted to share with me his frustration. His anger was centered on a person who lived in the floor, a person whom I thought was a decent guy and great future talent. “John” in his anger used words and language that was inappropriate and uncomfortable to hear. What I learned that “John” was not angry simply because of something that may or may not have happened, but because of my acquaintance’s race.

It wasn’t the first time I had encountered racism. Growing up in West Virginia, racism was a central belief for too many. Racism is wrong. It is vile. And, unfortunately, it continues still today.

We like to believe racism is no longer a problem in the United State, but it is present in many sections of our country. It is my belief that racism may be more an issue today for many of reasons. That is because it is not discussed and when it is discussed we immediately believe someone is playing the “race card” and dismiss their arguments. It may also be a bigger issue, now, because our racism is not limited to white and black issues, but includes racial differences that extends beyond many cultures and races.

If there is any doubt racism still exists in our world, one only needs to see the reaction some have had towards President Obama, or the ongoing outcry regarding a recent shooting in Florida, or the controversy at ESPN regarding comments made about Jeremy Lin.

As Christians, we are called to be followers of Christ in seeing a world that no longer sees others only by their skin color. So, how do we do this? I believe we have two guiding principles that help us.

First, Genesis teaches us that we are all created in the image of God. Each of us shares a common humanity that comes from the love of God. The image of God is not exclusive to a chosen race or a chosen culture. It is a blessing bestowed upon all of creation. When we see that we are all created in the image of God, it should open us to see the commonality that each of us have. Thus, we are not separate by our races, but unified by our shared nature that comes from the hand of God.

As well, Paul writes in Galatians 3:28 that there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female, in the eyes of God. We could also add that there are no races. We are all united by the blood of Christ, who died and rose for all. When we see that Christ’s love is there for all, it should inspire us to share that love with others, regardless of one’s race or culture. To deny someone the love of Christ because of their race is to deny the power and holy love of Jesus Christ.

We, who are followers of Christ, are called to take the lead in tearing down the walls of racism that still exist in our country and our world. This can only happen when we desire to be witnesses who welcome others because God has welcomed us.

Let us share the common good and work to eliminate racism from our vocabulary, so that all will know the love of Christ.

Jerry West’s Autobiography a Must and Difficult Read

Growing up in West Virginia, there are several things you were expected to know.

West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War. Coal is king. Politics is corrupting. Oh, and Jerry West is a cultural icon and the state’s favorite son.

I never had the opportunity to watch West play for West Virginia University and the Los Angeles Lakers. That didn’t matter.  His name was all around. You knew about him and you knew his importance to West Virginia;  that he grew up in Chelyan, a tiny town near Charleston; that he played for West Virginia University; and, that he was “The Logo.”

Even though you knew West was from West Virginia and his many athletic accomplishments, you never really felt like you knew West. This was probably because I was more familiar with West as the general manager of the Lakers during the “Showtime” era and the familiar face in black and white photos that decorated trophy cases at the WVU Coliseum. I never felt I really knew much about him. I don’t think I am alone, as far as the general public is concerned, in feeling this way.

This curiosity to learn more about a cultural icon from my home state is why I wanted to read West By West, which is West’s recently released autobiography. What you find in its 300-plus pages is a narrative of a life filled with athletic achievements and personal challenges of depression, which stemmed from an abusive relationship with his father and the loss of his brother, David, during the Korean War. It is a hard read, because it deals with difficult subjects in abuse and depression. At the same time, it is an important read because it tells of how much West overcame in order to achieve the success he had.

West is tremendously vulnerable in the book. He goes into detail that takes you deep into his family life. He makes the point to say  his father only cared for him when he became successful. This came after much discussion of his father’s beatings, abuse, and neglect.

West also was open about what his battles with depression had cost him personally. The depression, and perhaps his fame, led to some of his mistakes, especially with women. West is open about his failings involving his first wife, and how his second and current wife helped him to have a true family. Yet, West is open about his inability to truly express how he feels about someone. A struggle, he writes, that comes out of his family life as a child.

At times, the book is a retrospective on a great career, but, at other times, the book is West’s attempt to understand himself. By the book’s conclusion, you are left with a deeper appreciation of West as a person and a player. The reader is also left with a deep sadness for a life filled with so much pain.

After reading the book, I feel as though I can relate to West more than ever. Before reading, my only connection to West was that he was from West Virginia, attended West Virginia University, and was involved with the Lakers. The Lakers were my favorite team growing up, in part, because of West and Magic Johnson. I understand how West might have felt of wondering what it would take to earn his father’s love, because it is a question I, and perhaps many others, have asked as well. The inability to have a strong home environment can have a lasting impact on someone’s life, especially with how they interact with others. West was able to rise above it due to basketball, but in reading you are left wondering what his life would have been life had he not found a release to his personal frustration. His is basketball. Mine has always been communication, whether it be writing or preaching. It is important for anyone who has had personal struggles, especially as children, to find something they are good at that can be a release point for them.

West’s book is not going to appeal to everyone, because it is focuses so much on his athletic career. If a reader is interested in understanding the life of someone who battles from self-doubt and depression, they would find no better subject to study than West and no better book to read than West By West.