Sunday, July 15, 2018

What Should I Ask For?


15 July 2018

Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

“The earth is The Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”  Psalm 24:1

Prayer is the single most challenging, and often the most difficult, of the many means of grace needed to keep us connected to The Lord and to one another.  And by “prayer”, I don’t mean the kind of thinking we often do while we’re preoccupied with something else that requires more of our attention – like driving.  

When I say “prayer”, I mean the kind of mind-, body-, and soul-encompassing effort by which we not only voice our concerns but devote unrestricted and unencumbered time to listen for what may more often be the “still, small voice” experienced by the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13).  That is, the “Voice” which can be heard only when we ourselves are “stilled” and humbled – and, as Jesus taught, when the “door is closed” to the outside world (Matthew 6:6).

Absent that “Voice” and the stillness and humility required to hear, it can more often be that our prayers are “answered” only according to our own consciences and deepest desires.  That is, if there is something we really want, our minds can trick us into believing The Lord has granted our request when, in fact, The Lord may have had nothing to do with it.  We have only convinced ourselves.  And that conviction may have more to do with external voices (the dominant culture, friends, or family) than with an internal “Voice” of reason and Truth.

We are compelled to face up to the hard truth that our consciences only really begin to enter into the equation when we get caught up in the struggle between our minds and our souls which are not always on the same page.

King Herod had a struggle within himself, and his conscience played a significant role in this struggle between what external voices were telling him and what his internal voice knew.  People were wondering who this Jesus character was, and the guesses of Elijah or other “prophets of old” were pretty close to the mark in that Jesus, as “the Word which became flesh”, taught consistently from The Word since He Himself IS The Word.

Herod, on the other hand, seemed to reject these guesses perhaps because of a guilty conscience in knowing the Baptizer was dead only because he commanded it.  John was a thorn in Herod’s flesh because John spoke only the Truth, but Herod’s mind was more in tune with his own flesh – that is, his own desires.  Yet with all the unchecked power at Herod’s disposal, he would not likely have deliberately had John executed.  Thorn in the flesh or not, Herod seemed to know deep within himself who John really was. 

Yet it was an external voice which compelled him to act against his own conscience, and even that external voice (Herodias) was not sure what to ask for.  So that external voice of Herod went to yet another external voice for counsel.  And because of an intensely personal and internal desire for … what?  Peace of mind?  That voice overwhelmed Herod’s own conscience and demanded a personal desire to be fulfilled.

We’re talking about murder, of course, and I doubt many of us have such a dark side; but we cannot discount our Shepherd’s very words that a curse against another soul is just this side of murder.  In fact, outright murder would be more merciful than the thousand deaths the victims of our scorn, our ridicule, our slander, our gossip suffer – not by our hands but by our tongues.  We “murder” – or worse, torture – the soul of another who was also created in the Divine Image.

And even though our consciences should tell us otherwise, our minds demand more because the desire of our flesh, our being, is more determined to please itself, regardless of the Internal Voice.  We may know what we should be asking for, what we should be seeking, but the external voices which feed and satisfy the flesh of our inmost desires drive us to demand and to seek something else.  

It is written in the Proverbs (NRSV), “The human spirit is the lamp of The Lord, searching every inmost part” (20:27).  The Good News Translation renders this passage: “The Lord gave us mind and conscience; we cannot hide from ourselves”.

We must also not try to kid ourselves.  Our greatest struggle is always within ourselves, and that struggle is always between flesh and spirit.  We know what we want, but we only think we know what we truly need.  We can try to assuage a guilty conscience, but in the end the flesh will more likely win out because our personal desires overwhelm our spiritual senses.  And even though we may still feel guilty afterward, we appease the conscience by remembering a merciful God who is more likely – and willing - to bless than to curse.

And this happens, more often than not, when we create for ourselves a “personal” God who does our bidding rather than submit to the Lord and Shepherd of the Church who is more likely leading us in an entirely different direction.

This is why prayer is the most challenging and most difficult of the means of grace.  And because it is so difficult and so challenging, it is the most neglected.  We may convince ourselves we are praying while we’re doing something else, but the truth is we’re only thinking.  We’re distracted from the essence of what it means to pray – the willingness to listen even if it is not what we wish to hear.  And because we don’t fully commit ourselves to prayer, we allow our flesh to determine what it is we want.

But a full commitment to prayer can often mean something else is going to happen.  A full commitment to putting ourselves in a position not only to listen but to hear that “still, small voice” means what we will hear is not likely what we desire most – though it will be what we truly need.  It means we will not get our own way.  It means we will be asked to do more for The Lord and His Church than we have ever been willing to do before.  It may mean giving up more of ourselves than we are comfortable with.  It may mean not having our own desires met.

Most of us have an informed conscience.  Having been raised in the Church and hearing the sermons and the Bible lessons, a Christian ethic begins to take shape.  Only when we are fully engaged, however, will that Christian ethic take its truest form.  Herod had only a sense of a Jewish ethic – why else would he have any sort of “fear” of John? – but his desire to please and to protect his reputation overruled what he knew to be true and right.  And he went to his grave with the blood of a true prophet on his hands.

We cannot always trust our own conscience when the ethic is formed independent of the Internal Voice of reason and Truth, but we can always trust The Good Shepherd to show us The Way since He is Himself “The Way, The Truth, and The [only] Life” we must pursue.  And genuine, time-consuming, contemplative prayer (I am convinced) is the only way to get – and remain – so intimately connected. 

What must we always ask for in our prayers?  “Show me The Way”.  We are assured that when we earnestly “seek, we will find”.  And when we “find”, we will be filled.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Walking in Circles


The United Methodist Church continues to struggle with human sexuality issues (actually only one sexuality issue), and I am not sure if we are being completely honest with one another or ourselves in thinking this one component of sexuality is the issue.  My own questions have not been fully answered, but I am also not sure if my questions are being fair.  This I am sure of, however: we are not working out our differences; each side is digging in.

Accountability is everything in the life of the Church; it is about a community living in covenant with one another within the greater Body.  It is the biblical measure of care and concern for the spiritual well-being of one’s fellow disciples.  As a community held to a higher (biblical) standard than the common human culture, it is necessary to sometimes take our fellows to task when we know they are living outside the covenant standards and are perhaps “in danger of the judgment”.  Even in the common human culture, one who continually refuses to live according to a community’s lawful standards can expect to be forcibly “cast out” (i.e., locked up).  Only when they can prove their willingness to live according to the community’s common standards can they be allowed to return – and sometimes not even then!

Our level of accountability will be virtually non-existent if our doctrine pertaining to human sexuality, marriage, and ordination are reduced to individual conscience – which is the essential doctrine of the common human culture.  As long as one’s “rights” are protected by law, there is no harm and, thus, no penalty.

Except the Church is not – and should never seek to become – assimilated into the common human culture.  The Church should know and be aware of the culture, to be sure, but for the sake of engaging members of that culture in a meaningful way.  In doing so, however, the Church must not compromise its integrity and moral authority in a vain attempt to fit in.  Our task is to invite people out of the mud.  Sometimes it is necessary to go into the mud to help pull them out, but it is not okay to stay in the puddle just to be “relevant”.

Let’s also bear in mind the idea that since we seem to give a pass to heterosexual divorce and serial remarriage – that one thing Jesus does specifically mention – then perhaps we should not be so readily critical of homosexual relationships, since we are engaged in or are endorsing sinful conduct while projecting “real” sin upon others (the “plank” vs. the “splinter” in one’s eye).  How do we reconcile an attempt to be culturally fair but biblically faithful?

I’m not sure we can.  If we give a pass on one sin but hold the line on another, we may convince ourselves we are being “fair” but we can hardly believe we are being “faithful” to our God or our fellows.  Can we?  If we honestly believe there is to be a day of judgment when we will all be “judged according to our works/deeds” (Romans 2:6; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 20:12)?

Like many, I continue to struggle on a personal level.  I am the very last person in a position to judge anyone, and there is much I do not fully understand.  Yet I am also aware of the many who have left the United Methodist Church in search of … what?  Integrity?  A consistent Truth not subject to “conscience”?  To be sure, we can all use a good purging of “conscience”.  There are too many sins to list, too many culturally acceptable practices that are “incompatible with Scriptures” we give a pass to with a wink and a nod, sometimes even with congratulations!

I would suggest this.  First take note of Jesus’ admonishment of those who wanted to stone the female “adultress” but not the male “adulterer” (John 8:1-11): “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”.  Though the Law of Moses required the death penalty – “I came to perfect the Law and the Prophets, not to do away with them” (Matthew 5:17), Jesus suggests there is something more at play in this case. 

The Law required both parties face the death penalty (“You must purge the evil from among you”, Dt 17:7), but the crowd chose to target the “weaker” one.  In that single act, the integrity of the Law is called into question – when the Law was being applied arbitrarily or even culturally rather than uniformly and fairly.  Would Jesus have done the same if both parties had been present?  We can speculate, but the simple fact is the man (the adulterer) was not there.  What others may also have been missing are actual witnesses who would be compelled by the same Law to “cast the first stone” (again, Dt 17:7).

Then there is the ol’ “splinter” in the eye of the observed vs. the “plank” in the eye of the observer.  What Jesus is saying is very simple: first purge yourself of sin.  Only then can you see clearly to help purge the sins of others.  And we must not – MUST NOT – attempt to justify ourselves by settling for, “Well, at least I’m not gay”.  That doctrinal dog will not hunt.

Jesus is not excusing sin, not by any means, nor is He redefining the nature of sin.  He did tell the adulterous woman to “sin no more”, but that same theme can be applied to those who were challenged to first look within themselves before they could dare cast a stone at this woman.  Can any one of us think we are, on any level, “without sin”?

The more I delve into this “issue”, the more I feel compelled to look more carefully at myself.  Every denomination has some component that does not seem fair or compassionate, that may even be considered “judgmental” when we don’t get what we desire or demand for ourselves.  There is, indeed, a compelling theme throughout “The Shack” that stirred my own core: we judge only according to what we can see with our eyes.  Even though we may eagerly lay a burden on a “sinner”, we cannot possibly know how much of a burden that “sinner” has already been saddled with.  There is very likely already more spiritual or emotional damage done than we can begin to imagine; and in the end, we hurt only ourselves and the Church, and we help no one by declaring their sin(s) more dire than our own.

I can make all kinds of rational, doctrinal, and even “legal” arguments against gay marriage or ordination; but the more I wade into this mess, the more “stuck” I become myself.  I may be biblically (technically) correct, but what am I trying to accomplish?  Am I really concerned for the well-being of the soul of another, or am I only culturally offended?  Am I really concerned about the judgment they may face, or am I hoping The Lord will be so busy with them that He won’t notice me??

A friend asked recently, “Are you turning into a liberal?”  The answer is no, not as he understands the term.  Yet growing as a disciple, “going on to perfection and leaving behind the basic teachings” (Hebrews 6), compels me to look more carefully first at myself rather than to be too fixated on the sins of others.  I will continue to preach “The Truth” to the best of my ability, but I will also continue to depend on the accountability of my fellow disciples to keep me honest.  Only when I am first honest with myself may I hope to be fully honest with the congregation I serve as pastor. 

I’m not sure what the answer to our dilemma is, but I do know there are no easy answers I will find alone.  I also know that “individual conscience” will not serve The Lord or His Church.  Only when we are willing to walk together and talk together will we be able to move on to the next problem … and the next.  God willing, we will be continually “tested” (Dt 13:1-3) until we breathe our last, being constantly renewed and revitalized!  Let that be enough for now.

Knowing the Difference - a sermon for 10 June 2018


10 June 2018 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 12:13-17

Samuel may have suffered the same malady suffered by many preachers the world over and throughout the ages; taking personal the things said by the people in his charge.  How could he not?  He was fully vested with the people.  His office was not a thing he did; it is who he was.  Samuel was the prophet of The Lord; when The Lord spoke, He spoke through Samuel.  The people had to trust that Samuel would be diligent, faithful, and forthright with what The Lord had spoken.  By all accounts, he was.

So when the elders demanded a king, Samuel may have felt as though his own integrity had been called into question.  After all, the reason they gave Samuel had to do with their lack of confidence in Samuel’s sons to carry their father’s tradition and calling faithfully.  They were looking to the future, and they were afraid of what may happen under Samuel’s sons, given that Samuel was “old” and his days numbered.  This is the mortal reality, so their concerns were valid.

Part of the problem in this quest to be “like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5) is that Israel could not see the danger of losing its sense of self and the reason for their very existence: to make known to “other nations” the One True God.  This cannot possibly be done if their desire is now to be “like other nations”.  They will no longer be distinguishable from the “other nations”.  In being like the “other nations”, they will no longer be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto The Lord” (Exodus 19:6).

But, The Lord said to Samuel, Don’t take it personal.  It isn’t you they’re rejecting; it’s Me.  So I’m gonna give them exactly what they asked for – BUT – you must warn them so they cannot come back later and say, ‘We didn’t know’!

After Samuel had spelled out for them that what they once owned would no longer be theirs, including their sons and daughters, their produce, their livelihood, they said, SO?  Even after Samuel had shared with them The Lord’s own warning – “In the day you realize you are that king’s slaves, you will cry out to Me, but I’m gonna say, ‘Talk to the Hand’ …” (1 Sam 8:18) – the elders still had the audacity to say, ‘We are determined to have a king over us …”

Though it has the appearance, I don’t think we are looking at a total revolt of the people against The Lord or against Samuel but, rather, a manifestation of their worst fears.  The Philistines are a legitimate threat to Israel, a military power which must be checked.  It may be the “elders” who came to Samuel had taken this into account, the political and military issues they certainly faced in being outnumbered, outgunned, and possibly overpowered. 

Yet the problem is not necessarily that they were looking for a king to rule them and defend the nation against this apparent threat; it was that they had made this determination without first consulting The Lord’s prophet, but had made this decision according to their fears.  They had not considered their primary status as a “holy nation of priests” ruled by, and under the protection of, The Eternal King.

This context makes Jesus’ challenge to the Herodians and the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel – and to us today! – very problematic because what is being inferred in Jesus’ teaching is not a simple “yes or no” answer to whether paying taxes is the right thing to do.  It may be said that paying taxes is the result of demands made long ago, decisions made perhaps in fear.  Over the course of time we have given over to the government more and more control of our lives because we wanted tangible safety and security more than we valued our God-given liberty. 

Now, as one of my political science professors once posed to us, name one component of your life that is not, in some way, affected by the government, that very government, that “king”, we demanded.  “[That king] will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots … and to plow his ground and reap his harvest … [that king] will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  [That king] will take the best of what you have and give it to his own advisers and companions.  [That king] will take the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work.  [That king] will take a tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”

What does it say to us that this “king” takes far more than a tenth today??

This parallel between ancient Israel and the contemporary Church is staggering, to say the least, and yet it is everything we have asked for and demanded over the course of time – because we chose to be Americans first and Christians incidentally.  So when we are challenged by Jesus to “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what belongs to God”, it is hard for us to know the difference.  It is the worst reality of the adage, “Be careful what you wish for”.

Though we still enjoy a certain measure of freedom in this country and still have the capacity to turn things around, we do not often realize how much control over our lives the “emperor” really has … especially when we depend on the “emperor” to protect our religious liberties.  That one component of our lives given and guaranteed by The Lord Himself, and we have become convinced we cannot have even this unless it is granted – and protected - by the “emperor”!

This is the very disturbing aspect of what is commonly referred to as “nationalism”, especially when such “nationalism” informs religion and even faith.  Not to be political, but the so-called “evangelicals” who endorsed the current president did so for all the wrong reasons.  The inference was an endorsement of the Church for a “king” to protect us from … whom?  Name your terror, and fill in the blank.

As with almost every election, we are made to be afraid of the boogy-man, and the people of The Lord often fall for it without realizing what we’re really afraid of, what we need most.  We are manipulated and misled on so many fronts and the line has become so blurred that we really do not know what belongs to the “emperor” and what belongs to The Lord.

This is how the Holy Scriptures speak to real life, to real living.  This thing between Samuel and the elders was not just some thing which took place so long ago; it set the stage for what would follow.  The degradation we continue to witness came into being a very, very long time ago, perhaps in ancient Israel.  What we witness today is the culmination of some very bad decisions, some very bad choices made long ago.  Just how far this degradation may go before we awaken to its reality and check its power over us, only The Lord can know.

Yet it is also The Lord who continues to call out to His people.  We have to live with the consequences of our choices – that is the harsh reality – but it does not mean we are forever condemned.  “Seek Me while I may be found”, our Lord cried out to His people Israel.  “Seek and you will find”, our Lord calls out to His Church.  “And when you seek Me with your whole heart, you will find Me”. 

But we have to actively “seek” it if we really wish to find it; it will not fall into our laps.  It is that Promise we must learn to live for.  It is that Promise we must seek.  It is that Assurance we need above all else.  And when we find it, we will know there is nothing – NOTHING – that does not belong to our God and Father for our well-being.  Then will we have peace of heart, mind, and soul. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Knowing the Difference


10 June 2018 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

“Knowing The Difference”

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Mark 12:13-17

Samuel may have suffered the same malady suffered by many preachers the world over and throughout the ages; taking personal the things said by the people in his charge.  How could he not?  He was fully vested with the people.  His office was not a thing he did; it is who he was.  Samuel was the prophet of The Lord; when The Lord spoke, He spoke through Samuel.  The people had to trust that Samuel would be diligent, faithful, and forthright with what The Lord had spoken.  By all accounts, he was.

So when the elders demanded a king, Samuel may have felt as though his own integrity had been called into question.  After all, the reason they gave Samuel had to do with their lack of confidence in Samuel’s sons to carry their father’s tradition and calling faithfully.  They were looking to the future, and they were afraid of what may happen under Samuel’s sons, given that Samuel was “old” and his days numbered.  This is the mortal reality, so their concerns were valid.

Part of the problem in this quest to be “like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5) is that Israel could not see the danger of losing its sense of self and the reason for their very existence: to make known to “other nations” the One True God.  This cannot possibly be done if their desire is now to be “like other nations”.  They will no longer be distinguishable from the “other nations”.  In being like the “other nations”, they will no longer be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto The Lord” (Exodus 19:6).

But, The Lord said to Samuel, Don’t take it personal.  It isn’t you they’re rejecting; it’s Me.  So I’m gonna give them exactly what they asked for – BUT – you must warn them so they cannot come back later and say, ‘We didn’t know’!

After Samuel had spelled out for them that what they once owned would no longer be theirs, including their sons and daughters, their produce, their livelihood, they said, SO?  Even after Samuel had shared with them The Lord’s own warning – “In the day you realize you are that king’s slaves, you will cry out to Me, but I’m gonna say, ‘Talk to the Hand’ …” (1 Sam 8:18) – the elders still had the audacity to say, ‘We are determined to have a king over us …”

Though it has the appearance, I don’t think we are looking at a total revolt of the people against The Lord or against Samuel but, rather, a manifestation of their worst fears.  The Philistines are a legitimate threat to Israel, a military power which must be checked.  It may be the “elders” who came to Samuel had taken this into account, the political and military issues they certainly faced in being outnumbered, outgunned, and possibly overpowered. 

Yet the problem is not necessarily that they were looking for a king to rule them and defend the nation against this apparent threat; it was that they had made this determination without first consulting The Lord’s prophet, but had made this decision according to their fears.  They had not considered their primary status as a “holy nation of priests” ruled by, and under the protection of, The Eternal King.

This context makes Jesus’ challenge to the Herodians and the Pharisees in Mark’s Gospel – and to us today! – very problematic because what is being inferred in Jesus’ teaching is not a simple “yes or no” answer to whether paying taxes is the right thing to do.  It may be said that paying taxes is the result of demands made long ago, decisions made perhaps in fear.  Over the course of time we have given over to the government more and more control of our lives because we wanted tangible safety and security more than we valued our God-given liberty. 

Now, as one of my political science professors once posed to us, name one component of your life that is not, in some way, affected by the government, that very government, that “king”, we demanded.  “[That king] will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots … and to plow his ground and reap his harvest … [that king] will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  [That king] will take the best of what you have and give it to his own advisers and companions.  [That king] will take the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work.  [That king] will take a tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.”

What does it say to us that this “king” takes far more than a tenth today??

This parallel between ancient Israel and the contemporary Church is staggering, to say the least, and yet it is everything we have asked for and demanded over the course of time – because we chose to be Americans first and Christians incidentally.  So when we are challenged by Jesus to “give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and give to God what belongs to God”, it is hard for us to know the difference.  It is the worst reality of the adage, “Be careful what you wish for”.

Though we still enjoy a certain measure of freedom in this country and still have the capacity to turn things around, we do not often realize how much control over our lives the “emperor” really has … especially when we depend on the “emperor” to protect our religious liberties.  That one component of our lives given and guaranteed by The Lord Himself, and we have become convinced we cannot have even this unless it is granted – and protected - by the “emperor”!

This is the very disturbing aspect of what is commonly referred to as “nationalism”, especially when such “nationalism” informs religion and even faith.  Not to be political, but the so-called “evangelicals” who endorsed the current president did so for all the wrong reasons.  The inference was an endorsement of the Church for a “king” to protect us from … whom?  The terrorists?  The Chinese?  The Russians?  The liberals?  Name your terror, and fill in the blank.

As with almost every election, we are made to be afraid of the boogy-man, and the people of The Lord often fall for it without realizing what we’re really afraid of, what we need most.  We are manipulated and misled on so many fronts and the line has become so blurred that we really do not know what belongs to the “emperor” and what belongs to The Lord.

This is how the Holy Scriptures speak to real life, to real living.  This thing between Samuel and the elders was not just some thing which took place so long ago; it set the stage for what would follow.  The degradation we continue to witness came into being a very, very long time ago, perhaps in ancient Israel.  What we witness today is the culmination of some very bad decisions, some very bad choices made long ago.  Just how far this degradation may go before we awaken to its reality and check its power over us, only The Lord can know.

Yet it is also The Lord who continues to call out to His people.  We have to live with the consequences of our choices – that is the harsh reality – but it does not mean we are forever condemned.  “Seek Me while I may be found”, our Lord cried out to His people Israel.  “Seek and you will find”, our Lord calls out to His Church.  “And when you seek Me with your whole heart, you will find Me”. 

But we have to actively “seek” it if we really wish to find it; it will not fall into our laps.  It is that Promise we must learn to live for.  It is that Promise we must seek.  It is that Assurance we need above all else.  And when we find it, we will know there is nothing – NOTHING – that does not belong to our God and Father for our well-being.  Then will we have peace of heart, mind, and soul. Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

All Up, All In


6 May 2018 – 6th Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

“I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”  John 15:17

What does our Lord mean by saying His commands are given “so [we] may love one another”?  Does He suggest that without these commands, we are incapable of love?  Or that without His commands we may lack a willingness to love “as He has loved us”?  Does it even matter whether we are willing just so long as we do it … which is, of course, another way of asking if it matters whether our hearts are really in it?

Attitude is everything, of course, and a good attitude makes any task bearable, no matter how mundane or difficult the task – like loving someone we don’t even like.  The trick is to understand and appreciate every task in a positive light as something needed, something that serves a greater purpose beyond the task itself, as something that matters not to ourselves but to others.  Because this cannot be emphasized enough: the kind of love Jesus is referring to is not subject to how we may be feeling at any given time, and it is absolutely not subject to our cultural standards.

There is even more to what Jesus is talking about.  Doing for the sake of doing because the work needs to be done is important, but often our challenge is in finding real joy in what we do – not only for the sake of personal satisfaction in the “abundant life” Jesus offers but for the joy of knowing we enhance our Holy Father’s reputation among those who may question His goodness, His mercy.  Just as importantly, so we may experience Divine Love ourselves because we all need that affirmation.

There are too many quests for “personal” in religion anymore to the point of rendering the Church meaningless, truly irrelevant, and only an afterthought.  We often miss altogether our need to live, to work, and to love in community with one another.  Too much “personal”, too much “me first, me only”, too much in expectations of joy falling into our laps rather than seeking it out is all very subjective.  We miss the universal element, meaning love for one (even for oneself) must be love for all – or it cannot be said to have come from The Lord.

The “circumcised believers” who were with Peter (probably meaning the Jews) were “astounded” to learn that The Holy Spirit visited even the Gentiles (Acts 10:45). Peter himself was equally astounded about the vision he had experienced prior to his meeting with Cornelius and the other Gentiles.  The killing and eating of that which is, by The Word, “unclean” was reprehensible to him only because he thought the vision was about “food”, about what is applicable only to himself and what he can or cannot do, what he can or cannot eat.

Yet when Peter put together the experience of the vision and the Gentiles who would summon him to preach the Good News, suddenly what Peter had experienced in the vision was not at all about food, not at all about himself.  “I understand now that our Lord does not show partiality”.  That is, He does not love one more than another, He does not favor any group over another, and He does not recognize our “personal” sense of religion or faith, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of good vs. evil, our sense of “love” outside of His “commands”.

Our feelings, our moods, how we choose to experience and express “love” are all subjective outside the “commands” of The Lord.  We may say aloud how much we love Jesus, but we overlook Jesus’ “commands” within the context of the kind of love He is referring to; loving one another when we don’t even like them.  Expressing to them the depth of the sacred value The Lord attaches to them even when we cannot find that value ourselves.  And in so doing, finding within ourselves that very Love coming from the One who perfected love at Calvary.

It is not always easy, but I think there is an element of understanding what Jesus means when He teaches us to avoid the “easy path”, the path of least resistance, the path with fewer challenges, fewer obstacles – because the Truth is that “easy path” is far more dangerous than we can possibly realize, comfortable though it may seem. 

The danger lies in the deception that the abundant life found only in Christ, that abundant life hijacked by the so-called “prosperity gospel”, is marked by material wealth and feel-good notions of faith that are incompatible with Scripture.  Living in ignorance of what the Scriptures teach is not the answer nor can the answers be found when we choose to interpret the Scriptures independent of over 2000 years of apostolic revelation and interpretation.

If we are going to be “all up, all in” for the sake of Divine Love within the context of Divine “commands”, it must first begin with trust; trusting The Lord not only for the sake of “going to heaven” but also trusting that our Lord knows what He’s talking about in the here-and-now.  If we withhold The Lord’s love from anyone for any reason, we are effectively stating we do not trust Jesus, we do not trust The Word.  We trust only our instincts and our own feelings.

What if our Lord had not been “all up, all in”?  What if our Shepherd had trusted His own feelings, His own fears, and simply walked away rather than to allow Himself to be arrested, beaten to within an inch of His life, and hung on a cross until dead?  What if our Lord had said, “I’m just not feelin’ it today for these jerks who are just going to abandon Me anyway”?  What if our Lord had embraced the cheap notion of religion we have created for ourselves – that if our God loved us, really loved us, He would not ask so much of us?

But He didn’t.  “I am giving you these commands so you may love one another … as I have loved you”.  It is the depth of Love He has even for those we cannot stand, the very ones for whom Christ died, the very ones upon whom the Holy Spirit fell.

Christ has died.  Christ has risen, and Christ will come again”.  For you, for me, and even for them.  To the glory of The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Must We Really?

Today is the nationally designated Day of Prayer (established in 1952 by President Truman, not the Holy Scriptures), and I've been asked before why I don't actively participate. While I don't go out of my way to avoid NDP, I have a hard time fully embracing it.

Every Sabbath (Saturday) is a day of prayer. Every Day of The Lord (Sunday) is a day of prayer; these days established by The Lord and by the early Church, respectively, to devote to worship, prayer, The Word, and the Sacraments. Each of these is devoted to the community of faith coming together to give thanks for the past week and to pray and to prepare for the week ahead.

As I continue to develop into my role in the Church as a pastor as well as a disciple of Christ and seek to become more actively engaged in The Way (as we all must), I become less concerned about gathering for prayer only because the president or the governor has declared it. I agree the nation must always seek ways to come together, but the faithful must first find it within themselves to worship The Lord deliberately, purposefully, and with holy intentions.

I do not discourage NDP. Any opportunity to engage the secular within the holy narrative is a worthwhile endeavor - until "what is holy is thrown to the dogs" and eventually loses any real meaning.

I do pray The Lord will deliver this nation, but the "leadership" from Washington DC cannot ask for or expect a national day of prayer to have any real impact while they actively seek ways to destroy those with whom they disagree and continue to deceive those whom they claim to represent. This unholy conduct, unfortunately, is not limited to Washington DC.

It bleeds into the Church which, in too many instances, has become more concerned with political action and social justice than with Her standing before The Lord. Not to impugn social justice, but often it seems to be that our sense of social justice is highly subjective, with no real shared value, and not based strictly on The Word which requires we look out for one another. Social justice, then, becomes a "god" unto itself, and prayer becomes self-serving only to that end.

Will The Lord hear a collective prayer nationally designated? Only The Lord knows. Prayer is never a wasted effort nor an empty gesture - unless we are seeking "our will be done" rather than His. Then, as The Word seems to infer, will our prayers fall on deaf Ears.

It is often said, "As the Church goes, so goes the nation". I might ask, then, how're we doin' so far? Until the Church finds Her way according to The Way, until the Church takes its role as spiritual leader to the nation seriously, we will continue to be lead by the nose according to the whims of "Caesar".

Looking at the state of this nation, I suggest we "seek The Lord while He may be found". Then may we expect our prayers to be heard ... and answered.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Unraveling at the Point of Dispute

"Methodism was not born because of any doctrinal dispute”.

Disciples studying for the ministry in the United Methodist Church (UMC) as elders, deacons, and licensed pastors have surely read and heard this declaration from many seminary and course of study professors.  John Wesley was a priest of the Church of England, and there is no indication he ever had disputes with Anglican (catholic, little “c”) doctrine.  His disputes with the powers-that-be were that the church needed to more proactive in the lives of the marginalized, that the church needed to go to the people rather than to merely expect the people to show up. 

However, it was not social justice or social principles Wesley took to the people.  It was the Good News of The Lord faithfully delivered, and the people were left to decide for themselves which “side” they would choose – the full promise of the Gospel or the empty promises of the world.   Only the Holy Spirit compelled many to step forward and receive that Good News for themselves.

It is strangely ironic, then, that disputes of doctrine may soon be the undoing of the United Methodist Church - as we now know it - whose only mission is to “make disciples” but whose mission has been seriously compromised in favor of a very highly subjective “social justice”.  The UMC’s steadfast teaching on human sexual ethics has been ruled by the UM Judicial Council as having the force of church law, and it was recently affirmed in decision 1341 that “Under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore, or negate Church law”.  This includes matters of sexual conduct.

Since 1972, there have been those who have insisted that the church’s stance be changed to be more accommodating of the dominant human culture.  Now we are at a point of official declarations of disobedience by bishops, clergy, and even whole Annual Conferences because the covenant they all freely entered into is no longer tolerable to them.  

“Holy Conferencing” is upheld as one of many means of grace in the UMC.  That is, we gather to worship, to pray, and to celebrate our common ministry in Christ with one another and with the communities we are called to serve.  Included in this principle of “holy conferencing” is our need to be held to account for the very challenging components of discipleship with a sincere and expected offer of help and support when (not if) we falter.  Sometimes we or our fellows must be challenged in some chosen courses of action not merely because we disagree with the action but because we understand the Judgment is coming and is perhaps upon us now, and that it is our intense desire that “all” be found in good standing with The Lord.

While the circus continues on the national stage as some of our fellows insist upon publicly airing the Church’s dirty laundry (note that the secular press will gleefully report these disputes and protests but are virtually silent on the remarkable work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief {UMCOR} during this challenging hurricane season and other disasters!), the local church is having a difficult time trying to wade through the nonsense and find some measure of good sense as it pertains to the doctrinal practices of the United Methodist Church.  It isn’t always easy to maintain a solid composure and missional focus on the local level, and it certainly presents challenges to clergy and laity alike to stay focused on the “main thing”.  If the Primary Mission of the UMC is to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”, how do we stay focused on that Great Commission while some insist we first hear, and agree with, them and their ideas on what is most important?  And frame it under “social justice” just for good measure – in case we’re not biting?

It matters because the UMC continues a steady decline in worship attendance, Sunday school and small group participation, professions of faith, and tithing – all measures of the Church’s vitality.  It matters not to a connectional Church that one Conference may be faring better than another, for we can be no better off than the weakest among us.  Of course we must acknowledge there are many who are only looking for a reason to bow out of the life of the Church and/or to withhold funds – all spiritually very risky – and we cannot accommodate the demands of every individual nor must we cave to those who scream the loudest or give (or threaten to withhold) the most money. 

And this is the very reason why this “issue” is so troublesome to so many.  It seems one side (or maybe both) may be willing to see the whole Church burned to the ground rather than to concede the greater point.  Perhaps we need King Solomon’s wisdom to guide us from this point (1 Kings 3:16-27

Even those who might be willing to be more accommodating have acknowledged the difficulty with trying to stay on task and remove ourselves from any sort of political posturing; and on the local level, what happens at General Conference does not always flow easily to the local church.  Clergy are in a very difficult position in trying to maintain the vitality of our Connection without making members feel compelled to pick a side before we can continue on The Way.

Yet this is how many are left to feel.  The raging battles make many feel as though the UMC cannot continue to “make disciples” until we first choose which “side” we will make disciples with.  At least, this how the advocates of a much more liberal doctrine make us (me) feel.  It is as if I cannot continue until I decide whether or not I will agree to marry any and all who demand to be married regardless of my personal beliefs.  It is as if the Gospel itself has no meaning or purpose until we choose which “side” we will work with.

Worse than this is the false dichotomy that we must choose between what we understand about “faithfulness” to The Lord and another’s notion of secular and cultural “inclusiveness”.  It is an impossible choice to make and an unfair burden to place on Christians, many of whom are not yet equipped to deal with such matters.  Never mind the “milk” vs “solid food” of theology; we’re trying to serve these “babes” hard liquor!!  It is, I believe, the primary reason so many are choosing to leave the UMC.  They come to hear the Good News, not the latest political or social news “from the front”.


Regardless of the outcome of the “Commission on a way forward” and the called session of General Conference, the UMC is going to walk away from this bruised and bloody.  Only The Lord knows whether we will recover and remain intact (or even useful) for His Purposes rather than for our own.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Circumstantial Hatred

Genesis 45:1-15
Matthew 15:10-20

If anyone had reason to be bitter and vengeful, it would have been Joseph.  Though he was favored by his father Jacob (Israel), his brothers hated him.  Recall that from an early age, Joseph had dreams; dreams he probably did not fully understand and so should have kept to himself … at least among his siblings, because these dreams foretold of a time when his older brothers and even his parents would bow down to him (Genesis 37:7). 

Little did Joseph know what he would be forced to endure before this would take place!  He knew he was “favored”, but he had no idea what The Lord may ask of those who have found favor with Him.  Like the “beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”.  Remember Him?

His brothers had conspired to kill Joseph, so deep was their hatred for him.  It was his brother, Reuben, who had convinced the brothers to spare his life (Genesis 37:21-22).  Yet it was also Reuben who had the idea to throw him into a pit. 

We don’t know why the pit seemed a good idea but when a caravan of traveling merchants came by, it was his brother Judah who proposed the idea to sell Joseph to these traders to be rid of him once and for all.  Even if they had no idea what would become of Joseph, they had to know that they were about to break their father’s heart.  But they did it anyway.

Joseph had plenty to be angry and resentful about, and he had every reason to use his substantial power and influence to make his brothers pay for their crime against him.  For a time it looked as though he would have done that very thing but, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well!  It wasn’t “fate”, however, that turned the tables; it was Joseph’s unflinching faith!

There are a couple of things for us to bear in mind in reading this passage.  First is to listen to Joseph as he testifies it was The Lord who sold him rather than his brothers; second is to hear Joseph reveal why this thing had been done: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth” (45:7).  This “remnant” is important for the sake of the Covenant The Lord had long before made with Abraham.  The “remnant” would keep the Promise alive.

Let us also consider, however, that it was not The Lord who threw Joseph into the pit and it was not The Lord who sold Joseph into slavery; it was his brothers who did this horrible thing and lied to their father about Joseph’s fate.  It was The Lord who turned the story around by way of one agent – Joseph – who refused to submit to the dominant culture, who refused to renounce his faith, who refused to give up hope!

We know there are those who have learned to resent The Father because life has been unfair to them.  Things have not worked out the way they had hoped or intended, so it must be God’s fault in directly causing the harm, or God’s non-existence or unwillingness to intervene for His “favored”.  Either way we slice it, The Lord takes a pretty big hit.  And because He is not physically present to sit down with us to help us to work through whatever it is, it becomes easier still to blame Him for all the misfortune in our lives.

We must always bear in mind this kind of “genie-god” only exists on the lips of some certain TV preachers whose end game is money, not making disciples.  Even in the early centuries of the church’s history when there were conflicts about the nature of God and the very being of Jesus, there was no “prosperity gospel” that offered material wealth and perpetual happiness in exchange for real faith.

But because we have learned to make this God into our own image and discovering it does not quite work that way, we develop the very angry and bitter heart which not only defines us but also defiles us, as Jesus points out.  We might like to believe we have every right and reason to be angry and bitter, and there are some worldly (even Christian) remnants that would tell us it’s ok, but Jesus also points out that when the blind follows the blind, both will nevertheless fall into the same pit (Matthew 15:14).  In other words, our anger and bitterness may be understandable under certain circumstances, but it is never ok.

This is important for us to understand because even though we might like to believe someone else is at fault for whatever misery may befall us and should pay the price, the reality is if we follow a narrative that goes along with what we’ve already made up our minds about, the fault will have to be shared – by the “blind guides” as well as the blind who follow them.

A lot has been written about what happened in Charlottesville VA last weekend, but most of what I’ve read so far is trying to create an exclusive narrative of racism and our legitimate need to confront this particular evil.  I do not suggest racism does not exist and did not play a part; but when the dust settled and a young woman lay dead, it became extremely difficult to confine the narrative to a single issue – unless that issue is ultimately hatred borne of a lack of hope – spawned by defiled hearts and brought about by profound spiritual blindness and a perverse need to be defensive.

The very essence of the character of the Holy Church is our mission to make disciples.  In the name of “social justice”, however, we seem unconcerned with making disciples and more concerned with identifying enemies.  The manner in which we conduct ourselves while angrily shouting in the streets or cursing the president or ANTIFA or white supremacists on social media reveals we are doing the very thing Jesus warns us against.  While cursing those whom we seem to believe are already defiled, we ourselves become defiled.

It has long been said Christians are better known for what we stand against rather than what we stand for.  Can we really stand with anarchists toward the same cause?  By being anti-racist, are we being pro-Gospel?  How is fighting by any means promoting the Good News of The Lord and making disciples?  As if we have even a right to be angry and bitter as Joseph truly did.

So many on both sides of this culture war are claiming to be angry and bitter and resentful for what has been heaped on us, but where can we show direct harm and, ultimately, direct offense?  Unlike Joseph, we have not been thrown into a pit or sold off against our will – by our own siblings, no less!! - and yet we seem eager to freely jump into the pit of defilement rather than to offer to help someone out of that pit.

Our cause is Christ, the Eternal Word which became flesh.  Our cause is the Good News that speaks to the Hope we share in our redemption and adoption.  Our curse, however, comes upon us when we choose to “return evil for evil” as our Lord prohibits instead of “praying for our enemies” as our Lord commands His followers.  Our false bravado impresses only the weak-minded who are equally ignorant of what our Lord expects and demands of all who are baptized into His Covenant.

So if we live in hope rather than to dwell in darkness, we can expect to be like Joseph.  Through the ashes of our despair and refusing to become defiled and defined by our circumstances but trusting fully in The Lord and His Word, we can be sure we will be raised up! 

Sooner or later The Lord will save His people – but only those who play by His Rules and not by the rules of this self-destructive culture.  “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.  Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but The Lord rescues them from [all those afflictions]” (Psalm 34:18-19).


Trust in this, dear friends, and He will deliver us from our own anger and afflictions.  Believe and live into this assurance, and we will also be looking down on our enemies who tried to crush us.  But let it come in The Lord’s time and not our own, for it will come soon enough.  Amen.