Monday, November 29, 2010

"Plowshares and Pruning Hooks" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 204
“Plowshares and Pruning Hooks”
By Rev. Greg Smith

In 1959, the Russian sculptor Evgeniy Vuchetich crafted a muscular man with a hammer in his right hand, and a sword in his left.  The industrious laborer is hard at work beating his sword into a plowshare.  The Soviet Union gave this beautiful statue to the United Nations as a gesture of peace.  However, when I notice that the hammer in the sculpture is the same kind that we find in the Russian flag, I wonder whether the intended peace was a mutual coexistence or one in which the Soviet hammer beat the world into a submission much like the Pax Romana.  How ironic that in its desire to portray peace, this atheist government chose to utilize an image from the Bible, in its statue entitled “Let Us Beat Swords Into Plowshares.”
In his famous Christmas song, Longfellow writes, “And in despair I bowed my head.  'There is no peace on earth,' I said, 'for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.'”  As we enter the season of Advent, we find a tension between the message of “peace on earth, good will to men,” and the reality of violence around the globe.  Isaiah said, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore (Isaiah 2:4 NIV).”  Many of us wonder, when will that day come?
Isaiah believed peace would arrive on the Day of the Lord, when the Messiah arrived and set up His kingdom.  Christians know that Jesus came the first time as a suffering servant (Isaiah 53), and that at his second advent the Lord will return as the King who brings both judgment and peace (Isaiah 11).  But do we have to wait until the return of Christ, in order to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks?
The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns (4:3 NLT).’”   Hosea said, “Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. Plow up the hard ground of your hearts, for now is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and shower righteousness upon you (10:12 NLT).”  This is something we can do today, to ready ourselves for the return of Christ.  We can let God remove our violent, hateful thoughts from us.  We can let Him plow up our hearts, to make them soft so He can plant His seeds of righteousness.
In John 15:1-2 NIV, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”  Let Jesus prune away from your heart every thought of unpeace.  Let Him use His pruning hooks in your life, trimming off all that is unfruitful.  Then the words of Longfellow will ring true:  Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 'God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, good will to men.'”

Swords-Plowshares.jpg‎ (607 × 451 pixels, file size: 70 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959; my picture taken from UN grounds showing sculpture in front of the East River.

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"Prison Visits" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 203
“Prison Visits”
By Rev. Greg Smith

            Jesus of Nazareth.  Joseph, son of Jacob.  Paul the Apostle.  John the Evangelist.  The Apostle Peter.  John the Baptist.  They all did time in jail.  Some more, some less.  Each of them knew the bite of chains, the pain of punishment, the darkness of the dungeon.
            One day, each of us will stand before the Judge in a heavenly courtroom.  To those whom God approves, Jesus will say, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:35-36).”  From this, it is evident that Jesus had compassion for those in prison.
            As I write this article, I’m sitting in a court room, waiting for my parishioner’s case.  Some defendants have been brought into the courtroom with chains about their waists, wrists, and ankles.  They anticipate additional prison time if convicted of their crimes, which were committed while in jail.  Others stand to lose their freedom if they are convicted today.  Each of them, at this moment, is fearful of the future.  And each of them is a child of God.
            Those who are on trial today know the potential for being forgotten once they enter the prison system.  Friends forsake you.  Family intends well, but visits are infrequent.  Yet while society as a whole forgets these children of God, we must never forsake them.
            Jesus puts prison visits on par with food, water, and clothing.  Without these most basic needs being met, a person shrivels up and dies, either physically or spiritually.  Christians who follow Jesus’ example must also be about sharing the same compassion that He shared, even with those who are easily forgotten or ignored.  We need to consider and care for the needs of prisoners, the same as we would care for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, or sick, especially during this holiday season, when loneliness and despair threaten to break the human spirit. 
Do you know someone who is incarcerated right now?  Why not send them a card, write a letter, or make a visit?  It’s not as difficult as you might think.  Actually, it’s quite rewarding.  Once you do it, you’ll want to go back again and again.  You’ll want to share the love of Jesus with those who need it most.
            Frankly, visiting people in prison is not something that most Christians take seriously.  We write inmates off and say they deserve it.  But Jesus says that a lack of compassion on our part just might cause us to fail the final test.  “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me (vv. 41-43).’”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Daniel's Yellow Belt

Daniel earned his yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do yesterday.  He's so proud.  Just wanted to share.

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words

If a picture's worth a thousand words, then I can just post this one, without comment, except...

Now THAT's Life!

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Those Who Dream: Restoration" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 202
“Those Who Dream:  Restoration”
By Rev. Greg Smith


Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
       like streams in the
 Those who sow in tears
       will reap with songs of joy.
 He who goes out weeping,
       carrying seed to sow,
       will return with songs of joy,
       carrying sheaves with him.
(Psalm 126:4-6 NIV)

 “Author Leo Buscaglia tells this story about his mother and their ‘misery dinner.’ It was the night after his father came home and said it looked as if he would have to go into bankruptcy because his partner had absconded with their firm's funds. His mother went out and sold some jewelry to buy food for a sumptuous feast. Other members of the family scolded her for it. But she told them that ‘the time for joy is now, when we need it most, not next week.’ Her courageous act rallied the family (Christopher News Notes, August, 1993).”
Psalm 126 was written as a worshipful response to God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from their captivity in Babylon.  As they returned home to Jerusalem, it seemed as though they were in a dream.  They approached God with joy and laughter, even though they didn’t know what future lay ahead of them.  They knew they faced hard work and danger in rebuilding their city.  The future was still uncertain, yet they anticipated it with joy.
Each of us goes through “captivity” times in life.  Like Israel, we endure seasons of hardship.  God’s prodigal sons and daughters wander away from His blessing, only to find ourselves desperate for Him.  And so we return, leaving captivity behind, hoping for God’s restoration.
When your future is uncertain, you can trust in the same God that Israel knew.  God sees your trouble, and God restores your fortunes.  When you return to Zion, God does not leave you standing with empty hands before His throne. If you have suffered loss, then trust the God who tells you, “I will repay the years the locusts have eaten (Joel 1:4; 2:25).”  Like streams in the desert, like water from a rock, God brings a flow of blessing back to His people who trust Him. 
What have you lost in life?  Has your depth of spirituality suffered because of hardships you’ve endured?  Have you gone through financial trouble, or medical hardships, or difficult relationships?  When you pray, God restores.  Prayer is like sowing seeds into God’s fertile ground.  You may be sowing seeds of any kind—repentance, righteousness, relationship, requests—and your prayer may require many tears.  But watered by your tears, your prayers will germinate and grow, and spring up to new life in God’s due season.  You’ll be able to return with songs of joy.  You’ll be able to see the fruit of your labor in prayer, carrying your sheaves with you.

Monday, November 1, 2010

"Be a Fish" - My Article in the Southside Messenger

Spirit & Truth # 200

“Be a Fish”

By Rev. Greg Smith

In Luke 18:18-30, a rich, young ruler came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. He said that he had kept all the commandments from his youth. Jesus replied that he lacked one thing: he must sell all that he has and give it to the poor. The man went away sad, because he had many possessions. The Lord then told his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God."

You’re missing the point if you think this story is about money. It’s really about the idols we have in our lives. Augustine said, “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped.” The young ruler needed to get rid of his idol in order to put God first. When he was unable to do that because his money meant too much to him, he abandoned Jesus.

Most idols aren’t inherently bad things. The worst kind of idol is the thing that’s good. Wholesome, fun activities can become idols if they keep us away from church on Sunday mornings. Things like patriotism, good health, and charitable work can become idols when we lose our godly focus in order to follow them. Too often we can pursue good things, in exchange for the best things that God has for us. Even your family can be an idol, if you let caring for them deprive you of the time you need to give to God in prayer and the reading of God’s word. Only when our priorities are straight can we truly be effective for our families, our churches, and our God.

There’s an old story about two monks who came to a rushing river. There they saw a lovely young woman trying to cross. The older monk graciously offered to carry the young woman across the torrent to the shore on the other side. When all three reached the other bank, they left the young woman and the monks went on their way. For some time, the younger monk said nothing to the older monk, but eventually he could contain it no longer. “We monks are not allowed to touch a woman,” he said, “especially one that is young and beautiful!” The older monk replied with a smile, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank. It looks like you’re still carrying her.”

God wants us to shed those things that have become idols in our lives. Anything that has taken a higher priority than God in our thought-life must be abandoned. In Prayer, Simon Tugwell writes, “St. Ambrose gave his congregation some very good advice. Using the old Christian symbol, he compared them in this stormy world to a fish swimming in the sea. And to them he said: ‘Be a fish.’ We must learn how not to be swamped by the [tempting] situations that we find ourselves in. We must learn how to get through them with a minimum of damage, and a maximum of profit.”

Jesus urges us to let our idols go. Leave your temptations behind you, and devote yourself only to God. Be a fish, and let anything that distracts you from God float on by.