Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Thought

“The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendents so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live.  The Lord your God will put all these curses on your enemies and on the adversaries who took advantage of you.  Then you shall again obey the Lord, observing all His commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings …”
Deuteronomy 30:6-9

This passage almost sounds like the “magic spells” (snake oil) of contemporary Christianity I have such disdain for and have warned against in the past, the borderline superstitions that have convinced us that The Lord’s acts in our behalf require nothing of us at all – not even participation in worship and in community with other disciples.  Whether we should believe it literally or believe its possibility is not quite the point, but it is also important to understand that this passage – as with every other passage throughout the Scriptures – has a context that must be fully read before this small passage makes sense.

Moses was speaking to a rebellious people.  So the context requires a belief that fully engages heart and mind enough that a resolve is to obedience even when we do not fully understand what is being asked of us.  The context presumes repentance, a full “turning toward” The Lord and away from the life we had previously chosen for ourselves: “If your heart turns away and you do not hear but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish …” (vs 17). 

The proclamation is not that The Lord will magically make things happen; rather the Truth requires that we turn fully toward The Lord and turn our backs on the many “gods” we have allowed to all but consume our thoughts and our actions – even as we have claimed to be Christian.  To turn toward The Lord is to understand that in order to turn our hearts toward The Lord, we must first turn our attention (our minds) to Him.  It is like an audition for a play or a band; we cannot expect to get a role in either if we do not show up first for the audition.  The “circumcision of the heart” is not quite magic but is the Spirit of the Lord giving us what is needed so we may “see” with our hearts what our eyes are unable to behold.  This is the pure Gift of mercy that does not magically change our behavior; it is the grace of spiritual insight that gives us a reason to reorient ourselves toward the new life that is assured those who follow faithfully.

The assurance of The Lord is that He will not abandon those who turn fully to Him and trust that we will be given what we need when we need it: the strength of heart to carry on when our minds convince us the hardship is not worth the journey.  It is not about “works” to earn His favor; it is about giving Him our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole soul so “you shall live and become numerous” (vs 16).

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Thought

“He who is not content with what he has will not be content with what he would like to have.”  Socrates

Contentment is not necessarily a state of satisfaction in which acquired possessions mark the goal.  Rather contentment is a state of mind in that anything more we might achieve or acquire is like a pleasant surprise since we are already satisfied.  Like the biblical concept of love, however, contentment is not something that just happens or comes naturally.  Contentment requires that we actively engage in what is at our disposal, reveling in what is already present rather than focusing on what we convince ourselves we lack.  So contentment may come down to what we think we own or what we believe we are entitled to vs. what we have been allowed for purposes much greater than for self-satisfaction because as long as we are in pursuit of “stuff” we think will make us happy, there will never exist a goal which can be reached – and true happiness will never be known.

Contentment may be the single greatest gift we can offer and teach to our children rather than to orient them toward religious holidays the sole purpose of which is to get more stuff.  The religious holidays (i.e., Christmas and Easter) are the gifts themselves, not incidental to what is found under a tree or in a basket.  If we cannot find contentment in these, we will not find contentment in the “prizes” because the true gift is overlooked.

This is how contentment is neglected.  Much like it is often said that we are inclined to “step over a dollar to pick up a dime”, we become so focused on what we do not have that we take for granted what we always had.  Counting our blessings is more than the title of a religious hymn.  It is the essence of faith itself in trusting that what we truly need is already present, however much or little.  And if we can embrace the spiritual reality that nothing is given that is not intended to be shared, we will find much more satisfaction in what already is than in vain hope for what may never come to be.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Thought

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”  Aristotle

Being open-minded and willing to listen is, in the truest sense, being “liberal”; “liberal” having its root in the Latin “libre” which means “liberty”.  That is, we have the capacity and the freedom to think as we will think.  Being “educated” (not strictly about the degrees we may have earned) is to be simply informed and open to new ideas without feeling threatened.  I think it must be that when we close our minds to opinions, perspectives, and observations that do not mesh with our own (and this includes very educated persons!), we are actually uncertain about what we really believe; we are unwilling to risk what we have already settled in our minds.

This is the state of the Church today.  We impose “liberal”, “conservative”, and other labels more often in demeaning and demonizing ways without really understanding – or even willing to understand – where our fellows are coming from.  It is a lot like believing there can be such a thing as “common” sense when in reality, few of us have “common” backgrounds.  We all have different as well as some shared experiences from our past that we have been conditioned to.  It is that staple which makes us feel good about ourselves.  It is our comfort.  Often we mistakenly believe it to be our strength when in reality, it may be our greatest weakness.

In order to fully appreciate that the strength of the Church is actually found in its diversity, we must be willing to listen just as we wish to be listened to.  There is no need to preface a discussion, an argument, a debate, or some pretense of “holy conferencing” with a preset agenda and/or an accusatory finger pointed at others.  This is the sure way to guarantee there will be no discussions, no new ideas, and no consensus.  Worst of all, it is the surest way to close the door to the possibly of the Holy Presence.

It has been said that perception is reality regardless of its truth, but reality is also not always what it seems.  Seeing something with our eyes only means we can see what is physically present; we cannot know all there is to know about what we are seeing, but our backgrounds and traditions and experiences will fill in the blanks for us impulsively.  This is not always a good thing!

In order for the Church to be all the Church is called to be, all “members” must be present (whether one’s name in a “book” or on a “role” is not quite relevant); the arms, the legs, the eyes, the ears must be together physically and spiritually just as St. Paul teaches.  The Church cannot function to its fullest potential without everyone on board – even those who dissent.  Yet this biblical reality is what does not set well with us as individuals because we have come to believe our journey is done and our obligations fulfilled once we are “saved”.  We withdraw from the Church because it is no longer “needed” – and the Church is further weakened with each absence.  Worse than this, our spiritual growth is stunted.  Not only is the Church weakened, but so are we as individuals.  We fail to realize the depth of our need for the Church until we actually need the Church.

No one can possibly know all there is to know.  It is why the Church exists, and it is why discipleship is a lifelong journey of learning and growing and doing until we are finally called “Home”.  The Lord alone knows what we may discover tomorrow as long as we do not shut ourselves off to new ideas, perspectives, opinions, and experiences.  And we will never know if we choose to disengage from the only Source of Life there is: Christ, who is the Head of the Church.

Yes, we may be convicted by a new word.  We may find that what we have been doing all along is not ok.  We may discover that the path we chose for ourselves is actually the road to perdition, but we will never know if we do not stop once in awhile and ask “directions”.  Make no mistake; that “inner voice” is not always The Lord!

Listen.  Look.  Learn.  Grow.  This is real life, and it is the life in pursuit of holiness we are called to.

Blessings,

Michael

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Thought

“Thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place with those who have a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite ones’.”  Isaiah 57:15

This anniversary of a dreadful day we hope and pray will never be repeated is an anniversary that provokes different responses from different people.  Some continue to grieve their losses.  Some allow anger to overwhelm them while others are awash with emotions they find difficult to sort out.  Almost all remember where they were when word of these attacks came.  Working on the operations floor of a trucking company at the time, a place almost always filled with chaos and ringing phones, there was nothing but silence.  Even the phones stopped ringing.  It seemed in those dark moments that the world had stopped spinning on its axis.

Now we are facing an expanded battle with those who would continue to threaten peace.  What tomorrow may bring and what this expanded battle will look like and how many more lives it will cost is impossible to assess.  Yet we of the faith are called to do one thing before anything else: turn toward the One “whose name is Holy”.  Whether we are seeking answers or trying to find justification for our anger or grief, whatever we may be facing, this is an invitation to the people of The Eternal One to turn away from the life we currently face (as The Lord was speaking to His exiled people through the prophet) and seek the “revival of the heart” we are being offered.

What this “revival of the heart” may look like we cannot know (“for My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are My ways your ways).  What we can be sure of is that we will receive whatever it is we need to forge ahead in faithfulness and with the highest of hopes.  The name of Eternity is not ‘misery’; it is “Holy”.  It is complete.  It is perfected.  It is a state of being which recaptures all we were created to be in the very beginning and restores the Image in which we are created.

Rather than allow this anniversary to renew feelings of anguish or grief or hatred, let us allow this to be a day of “revival of the heart”.  Let us approach The Holy One with contrite hearts, humbled by our grief and our anguish and our fear, so we may find what it is The Almighty seeks to give us.  The Scriptures assure us it is much more than we could possibly imagine for ourselves, and that it will be enough.

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Thought

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of My Father in heaven.”  Matthew 18:10

Often this passage is taken as meaning small children, but the broader context would surely include not only small children but “infants” in the faith as well; new believers who are still trying to work out their connection to The Lord and to the Church (can’t know one and not know the other!).  The language of admonishment, however, is much stronger than we take note of because we do not often consider that we “despise” anyone as much as we just don’t “like” someone.  Yet the language challenges us to take a closer look at what it means to “despise” someone even if we are not actively seeking to do them harm.

The love/hate analogies throughout the Scriptures are much stronger than any particular feelings we may have (including ambivalence); in very nearly every context the love/hate speaks more closely of what we “do” or fail to “do” for others.  We love when we “do” regardless of how we feel, and we “hate” or “despise” when we neglect the needs of those who have legitimate needs or fail to protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Small children and those new to the faith require the full attention, protection, and nurture of the Church.  Just as there is only one Body (which is Christ), there can be only One Church (of which Christ is the Head).  And the whole of the people of The Lord are commanded to care for those who cannot care for themselves, whatever the need.  To “despise” these is to decide that it’s not “my” business even as we become aware – and thus deny Christ Himself.  As is so often said not only in the Church but in the secular business world: if you become aware of a problem, it becomes your problem until it is resolved or until you ask for help.  To “despise” is to deny this reality because we simply do not care enough to put ourselves out except for those we “like”.

Social justice involves much more than a pet project for a particular cause, spewing bile toward those we disagree with, and cursing elected officials who do not succumb to our demands and do for the “little ones” what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  Social justice requires our active engagement not with political lobbies but with the “little ones” not to merely speak in their behalf but to “do” for them what they cannot do for themselves.  This is fulfillment of the Great Commandments to “love the Lord our God with all we have and with all we are” and to “love our neighbors as ourselves” which, as Jesus affirms, is “like the first [Great Commandment]”.

We cannot revel in our salvation while others suffer in their misery, and we must never demand of “Caesar” what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  The Love we claim to know is the Love we are required to express.  And we will never really know or even appreciate the depth of that Love until we actually engage in that Love.  It is our duty, it is our privilege, and it is our Lord’s blessing.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

A Thought

“I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendents may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days.”  Deuteronomy 30:19-20

The people of Israel had witnessed firsthand the might and the power of The Lord in Egypt, and they had spent 40 years developing a relationship with The Lord and with one another within the Covenant.  They had seen and experienced the blessings of The Lord’s favor and mercy, and they had experienced the cursing which comes from disobedience and faithlessness when they tried to go it alone.  Yet even as the journey itself was about to come to an end, a whole new chapter was about to unfold with dangers and challenges not unlike all they had already endured.  Moses was taking great care to remind the people of The Lord that it was far from over!

Serving in the US Marine Corps while stationed in the Mojave Desert in 29 Palms CA, we had a company commander who was the epitome of the Marine officer.  He was hard and firm and rigid in his demands, but he was fair.  He used to lead us on what he called the “Death Run” through the desert, but the purpose of the run itself was not just to see who could hack it.  The run was a means to an end.  This commander was incapable of getting tired, it seemed, so we ran for what seemed like eternity!  In the end the captain always made it clear that the run was not a test (though we were all expected to pass!); it was pure training to prepare us physically and mentally for the rigors of combat.  It was a means to an unseen end.  It was hard to appreciate what he was preparing us for since it was peacetime, but he worked to keep us focused while we were at peace.

Moses is doing the same thing to the people of The Lord, then and now.  There are experiences written of that seem overly harsh to us (taking a disobedient child outside the camp to be stoned to death!), experiences you and I cannot fathom in our contemporary culture; but it was all done not as an end but as a means to an end: to prepare to take possession of the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey”, and to “put evil out from your midst”.  Even then, the people were clearly warned that the challenges they faced in the wilderness were nothing compared to the challenges they would face once they crossed over the river and into the Land; and obedience to the Word of the Lord was key to success, while disobedience would lead to utter failure and disaster (as in the Exile they would soon face).

Jesus, as the “Word made flesh”, the “Voice” we must obey, continues to lead us, but He is also clear through the Scriptures that we still must be willing to follow completely, not half-heartedly.  The death on the Cross does not in any way mean it is over for us, that nothing more is required or expected of us in this life!  There is still something ahead we cannot anticipate, challenges we cannot imagine.  It is necessary, then, that we “train” constantly to learn to obey The Lord, learn to “cling to Him” before we face these challenges, and remember where we come from.  It is entirely about learning to trust Him and learning to trust one another.  It is always about developing relationships; and if we do not care about one another, including the “stranger”, if we expect that Jesus will do all the hard stuff for us while we refuse to participate, we will not be prepared for whatever is ahead.  Even though The Lord promised to lead Israel into battle and to protect them, He nevertheless required them to create an army of warriors because they were still going to have to do the work.  The enemies they faced did not magically dissipate!

The same is expected of the Church today.  No one is going to do “for us” or “instead of” us, but most would be willing to do “with” us if they can be shown what it is we are preparing for and can trust that they will not be abandoned.  There are no magic spells, no magic potions, no magic prayers or incantations that will make all the broken pieces of our lives come together; only devotion and dedication.  We are required to do for one another and with one another.  That is the Church, the Body of Christ.  A “decision for Christ” leads us into this reality; it does not end the journey nor does it excuse us from further participation.

“Count the cost” before the decision is made, but “choose life” in that decision and all life entails; the blood, the sweat, the tears, the disappointments, and the heartaches.  But “choose life” knowing the Church is with you to support you, to “train” you, to teach you that you are not alone.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Thought

“This day the Lord your God commands you to observe these statutes and judgments; therefore you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul.  Today you have proclaimed the Lord to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments, and His judgments, and that you will obey His voice”  (Deuteronomy 26:16-17).

Sometimes it seems Christianity is more concerned with which “laws” are not worthy of our time or attention, and which “laws” are the really important ones.  Many classes and discussions I have been a part of have too often centered on this very conflict especially when it comes to the social “hot button” issues of our day.  The Jewish culture, however, does not seem to wrestle with which ones are “important” and which ones no longer merit serious attention (the absence of the Temple dictates which can even be fulfilled).

To “fulfill” a commandment, however, goes beyond being strictly “legal”.  Rabbi Jeremy Simons is director of Rabbinic Services at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson MS; and he writes: “These commandments existed to bring holiness to the utterly mundane tasks of life. Cooking a meal, putting on a shirt, even building an outhouse all became holy tasks. Throughout the day, dozens of actions reminded the Israelite of his or her connection to God. Seeing commandments as blessings rather than obligations motivated the rabbis of later generations to create countless more of them. Ultimately Jewish law had guidelines on how one ties his shoes in the morning.

The rabbi points out that even in going overboard on more rigid regulations governing virtually every facet of daily living, the purpose has never been about being strictly legal (although the Pharisees in the Gospels seem to suggest otherwise!).  The overriding purpose has been toward staying connected to The Lord in daily living, in even the most mundane tasks.  We Christians have our daily devotionals, but too often we give that little bit of time to The Lord and then go about our business – often forgetting that devotional time and the lesson which may have come from it.  Talk about being “legalistic”!  We satisfy our sense of righteousness and/or obligation by devoting a fraction of our day to The Lord and His Scriptures, but we rarely take those lessons with us to work and see no problem with it.  We have “fulfilled” a holy obligation!

What Christians can (and should) do well to learn from Judaism is that these “statutes” and “commandments” and “judgments” are not about fulfilling some legal obligation, being “holier than thou”, or stifling independent thought; they are entirely about staying connected with our One, Only, True, and Living Source of Life itself, leaving no portion of our lives untouched by The Lord.  In this we are constantly being reminded of the great care our Lord has taken to teach us, just as a loving parent teaches their children.

We are called to obedience, of course, but serious prayer and study of the Scriptures also teaches us why we should pursue obedience.  It is always about Divine Love, but we will not know what Divine Love really means unless or until we are fully engaged in and with The Lord.

Obedience is not being unduly burdened; it is being fully loved.

Blessings,

Michael