Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 9/25/14

“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit.  Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.”  Psalm 51:12-13

On the surface it would appear the psalmist is trying to make a deal with The Lord; IF you restore me, I will pass it on.  Of course there is more to it, but the prayer upholds a central tenet of faith: we cannot know of this remarkable gift until it is granted from Above.  The compelling nature of this gift, however, does not allow us to disengage from the world or to take this gift as strictly “personal”.  It is personal in the beginning, of course, but it is at the same time to serve a Divine purpose.  The Spirit moves us to teach others.

This does not mean we become judges by which we impose spiritual sentencing nor does it allow that we can simply point fingers at those behaviors we find questionable.  Rather it demands that we reach first for the higher standard within ourselves and order our lives in such a way that people learn not from our empty words but by our substantial actions.  That is, they learn by the way we live and act and interact with the world.  And the lesson learned can be good and uplifting – or – it can be negative and demoralizing.  The nature of the lesson offered through the lives we lead will then determine whether sinners will even care to be “converted” to The Lord.

Israel was set apart from the beginning not to lead privileged lives but to serve as a “priestly” nation to serve The Lord by witnessing to the rest of the world.  I think it is the “witnessing” that confuses most of us because we have come to believe this act requires preaching in any venue or telling people about The Lord and how they must come to be saved.  There is that, of course, but like a successful fruit-producing garden, there is much more that must happen before the “seed” is finally planted.  The “soil” must first be prepared to receive the “seed”.

We prepare the soil by our living, by our daily habits, by our conversations.  Telling people about Jesus while acting like a jerk by mistreating or slandering others will win no hearts for the Kingdom.  But we must also remember that to be “upheld by the generous Spirit” is to be given a new, circumcised heart upon which Torah (we mistakenly call it “law”) is written; that is, the ways of God become our ways and the love of God becomes our love.  This is holiness at its best, and it must be our lifelong pursuit.  Then transgressors will care to be taught, and sinners will want to be converted by what they see and experience through us.

Maybe our question for today from The Lord would be: Can I trust you to share this remarkable gift, or will you mistakenly believe it was meant only for you?

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Thought for Rosh HaShanah 2014

Blessing for the sanctification of the Day:
“Praise to You, Adonai (Lord) our God, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has chosen us from all the peoples, hallowing us with mitzvot (commandment). In Your love, Adonai our God, You have given us this Day of Remembrance, to hear the sound of the Shofar, to unite in worship, and to recall the Exodus from Egypt. For You have chosen us from all the peoples, consecrating us to Your service, and Your word is truth eternal. Praised is the Sovereign God, Sovereign of all the world, who hallows the House of Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”
Rosh Hashana begins at sundown this evening (Wednesday the 24th) to signify not only the New Year in the month in which Israel was called out of Egypt but to also begin the ten-day preparation period of prayer, self-examination, and repentance leading to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Oct 3).  For most of us, it will be just another day.  Perhaps a day of blessing, perhaps a day of extreme spiritual challenges, or maybe a day in which our lives will be profoundly affected and radically changed.

This is the essence of the High Holy Days for Israel.  The periods of fasting and praying and inward reflection and repentance are precisely because those who have fallen short of The Lord’s expectations earnestly seek to make one simple resolution: to draw closer to God by drawing closer to one another.  Faithfulness is much more than simply believing something; faithfulness is a determination to more actively and purposefully pursue holiness of heart and mind and soul through faithful living and obedient faith.

Whether we can connect in a real way to Jewish heritage and history (their story IS our story because it is Christ’s story!), it is always a good practice to reflect inwardly, keep a prayer journal, think about all those we have encountered throughout the day, and evaluate those encounters according to how Jesus would direct our day – and then decide whether those we met actually met Christ through us … or not.

It’s a pretty high standard, of course, but it is no less than Christ gave of Himself for us.  To give fully of ourselves is to hold nothing back from our Lord and our neighbor, and it is truly the greatest gift we can offer back to the One who gave us life.

Shanah Tovah, ya’ll!  (Have a good year)

Michael

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday, 23 September 2014

“When I kept silent [regarding sin], my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long.  For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer.  I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden.  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’, and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Psalm 32:2b-5

The single, most challenging event of my youth was making my “first confession” (I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church).  It was made clear in our instruction that to simply acknowledge one’s sinful nature did not go far enough.  To understand fully the depth of our transgressions, we had to go item by item, sin by sin, and confess these sins by stating why we understood them to be sins.  We had to come face-to-face with our short-comings.

It was not easy not only because it was a very small parish (there was no way the priest could not know who we were!) but because we were forced to evaluate each transgression and how these adversely affected our relationship with the Lord, with the Church, and with one another.  It is probably the hardest lesson I can recall because the experience did not let me off with a slap on the wrist after a bland confession; the discipline of the Church demanded that I come completely clean. 

I confess to you, dear reader, that I did not come completely clean with the priest because there were just some things I was unwilling to say aloud.  Then I continued to carry THAT burden which ultimately drove the point of confession home!

Believe what you will about the Roman Catholic confessional, but the stricter point was not about the power or the authority of the priest to grant absolution (one priest said that we could fool him and even ourselves, but we could not fool God!); it was about coming to understand the destructive nature of sin in general and each transgression specifically.  There was no “magic pill” offered by which a simple prayer or a priestly benediction made all the sin go away.  It was coming to appreciate the depth of sorrow while in the Divine Presence and being endowed with the confidence of faith to know that while forgiveness is indeed only a prayer’s breath away, there can be no forgiveness if there is no genuine sorrow.  Indeed, why would we ask forgiveness for what we are not sorry about??

To confess that we are “sinners saved by grace through faith” is a thoughtless declaration that may salve the individual conscience, but it does little else except to suggest to others that our Lord pays no more mind to our sins once we are “saved”.  Quite the contrary, “whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” (John 3:36b).  For those who claim to know the Truth, the bar has been raised; “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

We take too much for granted in refusing to confront the ugliness of our actions, our thoughtless and often destructive words, our failure to take time to evaluate each day in our prayers, and resolving to do better the next day.  It is not easy, nor should it be, to come clean before The Lord, but we have the assurance of forgiveness when we are completely honest with ourselves, with one another, and with The Lord.  That assurance does not come in spite of our sins but, rather, because of our confession to Him and our earnest prayer to be released from these overwhelming burdens.  Then our “vitality” which was once the “drought of summer” will become the “rains of spring” when we are infused with new life!

Blessings,

Michael 

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Thought

“The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them and said, ‘Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will be no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’”  Matthew 18:1-3

A Jewish friend recently shared with me that Christianity’s near obsession with “getting to heaven” is a very strange thing to observe especially when it is so easily observed that we pay no mind to cursing one another, ignoring one another, slandering one another, and distancing ourselves almost completely from the fellowship of the Church.  While his observation may seem a little shallow, the point is made that we seem so caught up in getting our own “ticket punched” that we will trample over anyone who may get in our way! 

In this very short passage from Matthew’s gospel, it is not enough to note the use of the term “converted” while ignoring the greater point Jesus is making.  What does it mean for us to “become as little children”?  To have the faith of a child is to be free of the encumbrances of this world since a child has yet to take on debt or get caught up in the so-called “rat race” for bigger and better things or to hoard as much money as he can so that he will live well in his old age.  To believe as a child can believe is to be free of the conditions we often place on just about anything before we are willing to accept it.  We generally require proof that a thing we are asked to accept is all it is billed to be.

In this passage, however, Jesus “called a child to Him”.  What we see is a Divine invitation and a child willing to accept the invitation without question.  We may be able to read into the text and believe Jesus was at least familiar enough that the child would come without hesitation, but we would also miss the point because Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

Many have been “converted” (by human standards, at least; proper dogmatic formulas we require to be followed), but the Church continues to dwindle in numbers.  Many claim to have been “saved” but continue to live as though they are more closely aligned with the evil one.  And far too many of us have been made to so fear the “boogie man” that strangers do not stand a chance with us, so closed we have become to any who do not live or look or act like we do.  Sad to say an election year brings out the very worst in us all, believers and non-believers alike (and we wonder why our children become so hate-filled).

Before we can get too caught up in our “conversion”, we must look more carefully at how we treat one another.  It is not faith we lack; it is humility.  We are not humble when we speak the Holy Name, we are not humble when we enter into a church’s sanctuary (assuming we even do), we are not humble when it comes to our money or our possessions, and we are not humble when we encounter those with whom we have disagreements – especially disagreements about religion or politics!  In each of these scenarios, we are being “called” as Jesus “called” the child.  How we respond speaks volumes about our “humility” or our sense of “conversion”.

Blessings,

Michael

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