Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Thought

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean.  Remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”  (Isaiah 1:16-17).

“Isaiah was a realist. Though he was convinced of the truth of his message, he expected the people to be able to hear the message the first time, but not necessarily able to understand its importance and follow it readily. Old habits are not easily changed.”

“Much like the Israelites, we also find our ears are dulled to the message. That is why Isaiah comes to us. Isaiah intends to be our hearing aid. Isaiah wishes to help us perceive the silent sigh, to amplify the message that is an octave too high, and bring it down to a level to which we can not only hear it, but also pay attention to it in a way that will call us to action.”

“Isaiah's warning is not meant to be depressing, but inspirational. He notes that IF we can hear the message to act in a good and just manner, we can turn the course of our world around. By learning to do good, devoting ourselves to justice, and looking out for those who cannot look out for themselves, we can find our world transformed. Only when we transform our hearing into understanding and action, can the heavens and the  earth be glad and rejoice.”  Rabbi Matt Dreffin

So our United Methodist mantra to “make disciples for the transformation of the world” must first involve our own transformations.  We who claim to believe in the message of Christ have a bounden duty to reflect all which is taught to us by Messiah.  Claiming to believe goes far beyond a benign belief that Jesus of Nazareth once walked the earth; faith involves actions which reflect what it is we believe about The Lord, a reflection of the mercy once extended to us.

Make no mistake; our actions do not buy us favor with our Holy Father, for He cannot be bought nor can He be impressed by human action.  Rather we understand that the “transformation of the world” begins with the transformation of our own hearts, doing and being to our neighbors and to the world all The Lord has done and has been to His Church, His people.  Then will we begin to see changes.  Then will those outside of the Covenant begin to understand what the Holy Covenant is about.  We will never see it nor understand its importance, however, until we first begin to do it ourselves. 

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Thought

“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field”  (James 1:9-10).

So much for the so-called “prosperity gospel”, right?  That The Lord is just aching to give us material blessings in such abundance that we will not be able to keep up with it all?  Not so fast, according to James.  We should understand this passage in its appropriate context, however, before we are so quick to judge the “rich” for having more than we think they are entitled to.

There are many persons who are financially very well off and who are also not afraid to share their abundance; and they are not afraid because they have a deep and abiding faith in The Lord to see to their futures.  They recognize that The Lord has seen to their abundance so they have plenty to share, not so they can have more for themselves (“for the Lord does not show partiality”).  Even though there seem to be many passages that condemn the “rich” for simply being rich, everything must be taken in its appropriate context.

James is speaking in terms not of money but of faith; real faith, enduring faith, the kind of faith that transcends an empty and often uncertain belief that has yet to be proved.  We do not see this passage as promising material wealth to the “lowly”; we must therefore not read this same passage as a curse on those who have found success.  Rather we should understand this passage as the same Promise fulfilled in all; that the “lowly” will be raised up from the trappings of whatever has brought them low (it may not be strictly about being “poor”), and the “rich” will be released from the trappings that often come with wealth.  We must believe (because it is true) that money does not buy happiness.  It might be rented for awhile, but it doesn’t last.  And The Lord wants to redeem them as well.

I will grant that the entire passage seems to be condemnatory toward the “rich”, but we must understand we all have our own crosses to bear in whatever form is presented to us.  The Lord assures us that if we take up that cross faithfully and follow Him, He will show us the way out from under the world’s many traps.  The Promise is predicated, however, on our choice to deliberately engage in Messiah’s life and path; not to simply believe He is or that He walked the earth or that He was raised from the grave.  We must have the faith to know it! “For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the winds; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8).   

Don’t be so hard on the “rich” for being under condemnation, and don’t be so hard on the “poor” who seem to have let life’s opportunities pass by them.  We all have a cross to bear, according to our Lord, and each one is as heavy as the next.  So if we are to boast at all, let us boast in knowing we are being led out!

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, July 28, 2014

Making disciples: the attributes

Deuteronomy 4:1-8
2 Peter 2:1-9
Luke 16:10-17

Last week Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds questioned whether we could - or should - know a disciple or a potential disciple on sight.  In our determination to keep out those less-than-desirable cultural influences, it is likely we would do much more harm than good not only to disciples who are in early spiritual development but also to future disciples who might be interested to know more about our Holy Father and His mercy in Christ - until they discover Christians are not always disciples themselves.

The mission of the Church, however, is not to spot disciples!  As Christians baptized into the Church and the Eternal Covenant we cannot escape the "Great Commission" from Jesus; our mission to "make disciples".  But to "make disciples", as pointed out last time, is pretty broad and somewhat vague.  So if we have no real concept of what a disciple is, or what discipleship is supposed to look like, how can we know we have succeeded in "making disciples"? 

Is our success measured by receiving new members, restoring fallen-away members, celebrating professions of faith, or increasing our giving?  Yes, yes, yes ... and then some!  As much as these are good and necessary practices of discipleship, trying to quantify discipleship must be approached carefully because "quantity" suggests a goal which can be reached.  I don't think discipleship can be defined strictly by such quantitative terms because discipleship must never be measured in terms of how we can know we're "finished" - because we never will be.

The challenge, however, cannot be brushed aside.  A fellow pastor from another denomination was sharing some thoughts not long ago, general notions, nothing special or specific.  He was telling me about a Bible study he leads on a university campus in the town where he serves, and he mentioned this one particular young woman who never missed a study session.  She faithfully studied the lessons, she was enthusiastic, and she was always prepared for the study sessions with all kinds of questions - not to challenge but for clarity's sake.  Clearly she had a desire to learn more about The Lord and was willing to put in the time and effort.  However, the brother pastor pointed out she was not yet "saved".

I asked brother pastor how he could know something of such depth and spiritual intimacy about another person and what difference it might make.  Understand he comes from a tradition almost completely foreign to the tradition I grew up in, the tradition I pretty much ascribe to even now as a United Methodist.  I'm pretty sure I know what he meant, but I began wondering if it is possible to know what a "saved" person looks like as opposed to a disciple - or if there can even be a difference.  Jesus said, "If you hold to My teachings, you are my disciples" (John 8:31).  This seems to suggest to us that if we faithfully read and then put into practice The Lord's "teachings", we are disciples in the truest sense.

The distinguishing difference, I think, is in what a person says (the so-called 'sinner's prayer' or an appropriate Creed or an officially prescribed Confessional Prayer) and what a person does (study the Scriptures in community with other disciples, for instance). 

We assume too much in Christianity, and there is a certain level of arrogance that comes with these assumptions.  So when we assume anything, we take too much for granted.  We assume others know we are "Christians" because we are "good people" - at least by our own standards.  We forget there are scores of persons in our own neighborhoods who have heard of Christianity in a very general sense, but they know very little about the religion apart from the behavior and practices of known Christians.  We always hope they see only the good stuff - and there is much good stuff to see! - but we cannot ignore the reality that they see, and probably notice more, the less-than-holy stuff. 

The goodness they need to see, the goodness that offers hope to a hopeless world goes far beyond just being a "good ol' boy" or a fine, upstanding Christian woman, both of which are based strictly on subjective regional, cultural, or individual standards.  I have met and have known some decent, moral atheists, agnostics, and Muslims who are clearly not "disciples" of Jesus. 

Based on their culturally subjective moral standards and charitable hearts (that which I could clearly see) of these non-Christians, however, I have a hard time believing these good and decent folks have flat-out rejected Messiah Jesus or His moral teachings.  In fact I think sometimes these folks on the "outside" can see what is "inside" more clearly than we who have been inside most of our lives.  So what they see, perhaps, is what they are rejecting. 

Jesus did indeed tell the Pharisees in Luke's Gospel that "God knows your hearts" (Luke 16:15) even though they were clearly putting on outward airs, but Jesus also warned His disciples about false prophets who will be "known by their fruits" (Mt 7:16); that is, whether they bless or curse by their actions.  The Lord does indeed know what is within one's heart but since the "abundance of the heart comes from the mouth" (Luke 6:45), it is more difficult than we imagine to pull the wool over another person's eyes.

Moses spoke to Israel: "You must observe [The Lord's statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples who ... will say, 'Surely this great [people of The Lord] is a wise and discerning people!"  (Deut 4:6)   

Peter made a clear distinction between Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as a matter of which human practices are "godly" and which are not (2 Peter 2:7-8).  Jesus also points out that human choices can and will be a determining factor in what will be entrusted to us later, that we can make a choice of what or Whom we will love and devote ourselves to - as a matter of our own choices - in keeping with the Moral Law or in violation of that Divine Law (Luke 16:10-17).

Even though Scripture study is a very good start for a disciple (in fact, maybe it is the only real start - otherwise, how would they know whom they are following?), discipleship is much more than simply reading the Bible just as justification before The Lord must mean more to us than memorization of a few select Bible verses, a particular prayer, or a creed - or just being a "good person".  All these practices have their places in spiritual development but if they never become innate to our being as the people of The Lord, we cannot claim them as "attributes"; characteristics of whom we are or choose to be.

Practices, good or bad, are habits; they are things we do.  These can be good practices, as the many means of grace are good and necessary toward growing in faith and in love; but unless or until these practices bear fruit worthy of the Kingdom, they remain mere practices with no discernable value. 

An attribute, on the other hand, is a characteristic of our being determined by the choices we make.  Discipleship, then, is in deliberately choosing intentional development of these attributes for the purpose of learning to emulate Jesus, to become more and more Christ-like with every thought and with every choice, and taking nothing for granted - ESPECIALLY The Lord's mercy! 

When we learn to take Divine Mercy for granted, we take the Church, the Lord, our neighbors, our spouses, and yes, even those we perceive as enemies for granted.  We assume too much as "given" when in reality, we have spiritual choices to make every single day; choices between what pleases us against what pleases the Lord.  These choices are not always synonymous; "for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15).

In order to "make disciples", then, we must first understand discipleship on terms well established by Jesus.  The enduring mercy of The Lord can and will justify us before The Lord, but only we can choose discipleship - not to earn Divine Favor but to make this Mercy known.  All this comes from a heart flowing with gratitude, a grateful heart that assumes nothing and therefore takes nothing for granted.  It is as I have shared about prayer and being in mission: we cannot know how important mercy really is until we practice mercy ourselves.

It is often said we do not really appreciate something until that something is no longer available to us.  Well, it is a little hard to think our Lord would withdraw His favor from His people - yet even conventional (human) wisdom can acknowledge how easily we take all that is good and right for granted.  For it is truly as Job had observed: "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away" (1:21).


Before we can begin to make disciples (and we must), we must first become disciples ourselves.  Unlike American Express, church membership has no "privilege" except that of serving our Lord by serving our neighbors.  We can find it within ourselves to do this with glad hearts, however, only when we remember our Lord having served us ("I came not to be served, but to serve", Matthew 20:28).  And He has - by His own attributes of mercy.  So must we - by embracing His attributes as our own.  Amen.  

A Thought

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe – it is yourself.”  St. Augustine

I doubt there are many among us who take everything written in the Scriptures as “gospel” (good news) – especially those portions that seem to strike at the heart of what is most important to us.  Even the prophets are hard to read because we hear a very angry God speak to a people who had chosen their own course above The Lord’s direction for them.

Yet for all that is written, there is an overall context in which everything comes together.  The New Testament has its context entirely in the First Testament.  The “bad” stuff has its context entirely in the good.  It is, however, as Augustine observed in himself; it is the “bad” that makes the good truly good because even in the “bad”, we find a Holy Father who is much more eager to forgive and restore than He is to “smite”.  That reality is expressed in Messiah, for The Lord did not have to do this remarkable thing – He chose to.  It is in the abundance of His mercy that He continues to reach out to an unbelieving world through His Church.

This is the reality of who we are.  Being who we are, then, requires the necessary expression of all we claim to believe about The Lord. 

So what is it we believe?  That is what we are called to express.  Not with hatefulness, not with spite, and certainly not with an agenda of our own.  The Gospel is The Lord, and The Lord is the Gospel.  All of it – because in the end, we find The Lord still waiting patiently.

Let us not flee from hell.  Rather let us run to Love.  Then hell no longer has a legitimate claim over us.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Thought

“Be still and know I am The Lord.  I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46:10

Commonly taught as the imperative to “sit down and shut up” so we may listen to what The Lord has to say, the principle is consistent with St. Paul’s understanding of the perfection of Divine Strength in mortal weakness; “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

We don’t often think of being “still” as being “weak”, but maybe this is because we do not understand what weakness means – especially when we choose that imperfect state for the perfection of Divine presence in our prayers.  It is not necessarily that The Lord is most merciful and revealed to those who are weak; rather it may better be understood in terms of complete submission – a willingness to put aside self in favor of something greater even if only for a moment.

We are a little too busy and too “in charge” of our lives for our own good.  We confuse Divine Will with personal desire because we already know what we want – and we like to pretend The Lord always agrees with us.  I am convinced this is only because we do not fully give The Lord the time He requires of us in order to make Himself and His will known.  We must first not only “be still” but we must also choose to “be still”.  It is the principle of complete Sabbath, and it is no less so in the midst of our haste.  And really, when we are in such a hurry, such a state of impatience, are we not just seeking an earlier grave?

Slow down today.  Make time to acknowledge the reality of The Lord, and learn to set aside time strictly for The Lord.  Private time.  Unencumbered time.  It is what we probably need above all things, for surely from such an intimate moment do all good things come.

Blessings,

Michael

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Thought

“ … Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:34-35).

Because we have been conditioned over generations toward Jesus’ many parables each with its own distinct meaning, we are often inclined to overlook certain parables and take them for granted as having been figured out.  While we might agree there may be only one meaning for any particular parable, we cheat ourselves when we strike one off the “list” of things completed – especially when it comes to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which the parables speak to and teach about.  So when we believe we have “finished” any portion of the Scriptures, we stop reaching; and when we stop reaching, we stop growing spiritually.  It is the reason there are so many “mature” Christians who have become stunted in their growth; it’s all “figured out”, the ‘secrets’ have been revealed. 

Nothing could be further from the truth!  There are treasures within each parable Jesus teaches that demand a closer look, and it is the reason why our Wesleyan Methodist heritage has an official “discipline”, a discipline which transcends denominational “rules” and promotes and encourages the many “means of grace”.  The study of the Scriptures is a lifelong journey in search of “joy unspeakable” which can only be revealed as we draw nearer.  We must never forget that discipleship can never be considered a “hobby” nor is it a way of living.  It is Life itself which comes only from The Word.

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Thought

“Now all the people gathered together as one in the open square that was in front of the water gate, and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Moses.  So Ezra brought the Law before the assembly of men and women … then he read from it in the open square … and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law”  (Nehemiah 8:1-3).

As with yesterday’s thought about “law”, this reading must also be understood more carefully than to think Ezra simply read off a list of “rules”.  In this context the people of the Lord had returned to reclaim the land the Lord had given them after a long exile.  They were determined to reorient themselves toward what they were brought out of Egypt to be: a “priestly nation”.  They were more determined to learn from their mistakes of the past and truly be The Lord’s People.  The “Torah” (which English translations may have carelessly reduced to ‘law’) is “the written and cherished normative memory of the community” (Brueggemann).

Yes, there are some “rules” to live by as well as some restrictions and prohibitions.  The fullness of a people’s identity, however, goes far beyond what they are prohibited from doing; it is much more about what they are to do in the fullness of life – to be everything The Lord has created them to be.

This reality has not been diminished in the New Testament or Christian theology.  Jesus was clear in that He did not come to “do away with the Law (Torah?) … but to fulfill it”.  So must we as lean into and live in the fullness of The Word which is Christ.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Thought

“Do not let sin reign in your mortal body … but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”  Romans 6:12-14

“You are not under law but under grace”.  Is it possible to quote a Bible verse word-for-word and still get it wrong?  I think so because this particular verse is often quoted when Christians are called to task and challenged for what others deem to be misconduct; that is, being less than ‘holy’.  The question, however, is not whether the verse is being misquoted but misappropriated.  The question centers on whether “law” captures the fullness of Torah (Torah as the first five books of the Bible, generally referred to by Christians as ‘law’).  We may even wonder if Paul, when speaking of ‘law’, is actually referring to Torah or to some other man-made religious law based loosely on components of Torah but rendered unduly restrictive as little more than a set of “rules”.

The scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, says “our English rendering of Torah as ‘law’ is mischievous and problematic.  The word ‘law’ scarcely catches the point of the reading.  Torah means the entire written and cherished normative memory of the community, all the lore and narrative and poetry and song and old liturgy that had formed and shaped and authorized the imagination of the community” (Biblical perspectives on Evangelism, pg 74).  So it hardly seems likely St. Paul, a devout Jew himself, is suggesting Torah no longer has meaning for the people of The Lord.  Rather he is suggesting, I think, another created ‘law’ that has so bound a redeemed people that they can no longer function as the truly liberated people The Lord intended them to be.  Or perhaps he is trying to take ‘law’ out of Torah’s context.

There is indeed grace (call it Divine Mercy) that serves Divine Purpose, and Torah records this development within a spirit of grace not as restrictive but as defining; for, indeed, Torah is much more than just ‘Ten Commandments’ thought of primarily as “thou shalt not”.  At no time, however, is grace ever imparted to The Lord’s people as ‘excuses’ for which our own purposes are served.

Torah, then, can be understood as defining a people (specifically Israel) not strictly based on what one cannot do but, rather, based on what one is called to be.  We must not receive any portion of the Word of The Lord as restrictive or condemning lest we come to believe in a petty, arbitrary, and vindictive God who just cannot wait for a  chance to clobber someone.  We are reading the story of a God who could not wait for a chance to redeem and lift up a people to be all they are created and called to be.  This is our Holy Father’s story, thus it is our story; a story we must never forget.

Blessings,

Michael