Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Holy Week Thoughts, Wednesday 1 April 2015

Persecution: “a program or campaign to exterminate, drive away, or subjugate people based on their membership in a religious, ethnic, social, or racial group” (dictionary.com).

We know the word well and we see or read about Christians around the world who have suffered, and continue to suffer, a “campaign to exterminate”.  Just as we are with the life of Jesus, however, we are at a safe distance in the US and are well protected.  Oh, we like to try and claim persecution because of certain social standards being forced on us, but the reality is we have no idea what persecution actually feels like.  We are more accustomed to being “offended”.

We are encouraged, in the Letter to the Hebrews, to “consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (12:3). 

Note that the text does not encourage us to take up arms or prepare to fight.  Rather we are encouraged by the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to persevere in faithful discipleship.  We are encouraged by Jesus Himself who did not raise a hand in His own defense.  Note also that Jesus did not engage with Pilate in a theological debate nor did Jesus do much more even with the evil one in the wilderness but to not only quote the Scriptures but to remain steadfast in His sense of purpose according to the Scriptures.

As has been said before: if we think being a Christian is easy, we probably are not doing it right.  In a “progressive” world deceived by its own notions of enlightenment, standing firm in the faith and in accordance with what is written in the Scriptures is not going to be easy.  It will not get easier though by sanctification we are made stronger in the faith when we choose to persevere in faith, when we choose complete allegiance to the Great Shepherd who assured us He will lead the way to blessedness.

All this is to say we do not need to go looking for a fight.  It will come to us soon enough, and we will be severely tested.  This is why Scripture study, fasting, and a healthy prayer life are all necessary for the disciple.  We must not think we will never be challenged on our way to Calvary – if, in fact, we are headed to Calvary.  It can probably be said that the more faithful and determined we are, the more resistance we will encounter.

Stand firm in the faith.  You are in good company.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week Thoughts, Tuesday 31 March 2015

“The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of The Lord.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).

As we continue our Holy Week journey on the pathway of the Cross, we must accept the reality of common “myth” – especially as it relates to how Christians are perceived in the world today.  While we may attend our Holy Week worship services here and there, we typically keep our devotion relatively low key and in house. 

We are aware that our culture will only accept our Christian faith as long as we continue to keep it low key and out of sight.  That is, “those who are perishing” may be offended by the very presence of a church building, but they acknowledge the church’s right to exist.  What these “perishing ones” will not acknowledge or accept or respect is the Church’s duty to not be low key, to not be silent, to not be ‘set apart’ from the dominant culture.  As we see more and more in the public arena, the culture is demanding that the Church “get with the times”.

We cannot.  We must not “get with the times”, for the time in which we live is a passing time with a very short life (and attention!) span.  This is not necessarily to insert some apocalyptic warning about the End of Days, though there is that.  It is more to acknowledge so many passing “fads” that fade with time when people lose interest in favor of something newer, shinier, and with a little more excitement.  What is for now is good for now, but it will not last.  This is the reality of history.

The world understands “myth”.  There is the myth of Bigfoot, the myth of Loch Ness to name only two.  Yet these myths do not serve humanity nor do such myths speak to the human condition (unless that condition is “gullible”).  The “myth” of the Cross, however, goes far beyond some legendary story that serves no useful purpose.  This “myth” breaks into reality when the faithful live as though it is true.  The Story of Christ is “myth” only because discipleship has lost its substance.  This is not the fault of those who do not believe.  It is the failure of those who claim to believe but choose instead to live as though it is only a “myth”; a story that may be interesting but does not require anything of us.

The Cross becomes reality only when the Faithful live as though it is real.  It is not a Story which can be read from a safe distance; it is THE Story that defines life and living, every facet of our being and our doing.  The world which is “perishing” cannot understand what they do not see, and perhaps it is the failure of the Church that has become so enamored with social media that real (rather than virtual) relationships no longer exist.  Just post a “Jesus thing” on Facebook, and call it a day.

This is not who we are called to be.  If we are the Body of Christ Himself in the world today, there has to be more.  Yes, Jesus would probably use social media if He were walking with us today, but His message would be more like, “Meet Me in the Garden, and we’ll talk … but you need to show up”.  For Christ Jesus, in order to be the Great Shepherd and the Savior of the world, must be experienced face-to-face. 

This is why the Church exists.  Myths and legends have their place in American lore, but our Shepherd is very real.  He cannot be followed “virtually”, for this is what makes Him a “myth” in the minds of a “perishing” world.  When He is experienced first-hand through the power and the fellowship of the Church, He becomes the New Reality for those were once “perishing” but are soon “being saved” from the brink of the abyss.

This is our journey.  This is our Reality.  This indeed is our Life.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, March 30, 2015

Holy Week Thoughts, 30 March 2015

So begins Holy Week.  Depending on one’s tradition, it began on Sunday with a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) or with a closer look at the Last Supper (Passion Sunday).  Either way, we are compelled to look more closely than before.  We are called not to parrot “talking points” of particular doctrines.  Rather we are challenged to evaluate our spiritual growth from last year to this one.

Simply “believing” in a certain thing can enable us to acknowledge a certain reality, but our faith in The Lord’s Eternal Covenant - for which Messiah Jesus is the “mediator” (Hebrews 9:15) – calls forth from us much more than an intellectual ascent.  In looking more closely at the Triumphal Entry or the Last Supper, we are compelled not to simply look at the stories from a safe distance; we are challenged to insert ourselves into the stories and evaluate our lives from that perspective.

Would we be welcoming Jesus into our city?  Would we be the one who betrays Him?  To look at ourselves honestly within the context of the human condition (which is fickle, at best) is to decide whether we would welcome Him according to our own expectations and demands, and then turn so easily on Him when we learn He is not meeting our personal expectations. 

In both stories we see a group (whether the throng in Jerusalem, or the small group in the Upper Room) excited about the possibilities or confused about what it all means, people who had seen or had heard about Jesus, friends who had traveled with Him.  Only days later will we watch the throng turn on Him and the small group abandon Him. 

Why?  Why would we today do as they did then?  To say we would not dare do such a thing is, I think, to be less than honest about the reality of our humanness and our assimilation into a culture that demands “e-z credit”.  That is, we want what we think we are entitled to now, but we will probably balk when the bill comes due.  We want all the goodness of this life, failing to remember we are only passing through.  There is much of this life we will not be able to take with us when our time is over, including our personal wealth and our loved ones.

To answer the question, however, as to why we would more likely repeat the destructive cycle is to admit we will not relive the experience ourselves.  We have, in the name of grace, deemed it to be unnecessary “works” that do not profit the soul.  We are to simply bask in the glory of our redemption.  Remember it, yes.  Relive it?  Eh.

As we reflect on the final days of Jesus’ life and ministry on this earth, we must be committed to learning more about ourselves and our commitment to The Church, the Body of Christ, and our commitment to one another.  In the Jewish Haggadah (the telling of the Exodus story at the Passover Seder), the faithful and their families gathered are called to “see oneself as though one had gone forth from Egypt."  Though “Haggadah” means “telling”, through the Seder the faithful are actually reliving the Story itself.  The faithful are not merely remembering but are attempting to relive the drama and the sorrow so as to be able to see and appreciate the blessing.


So must we relive these final days as if we are following Christ all the way to the Cross, for indeed this is the way of the disciple – for in Christ’s death do we find the Fullness of Life.

Michael

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 17 March 2015

“Forever, O Lord, Your word is settled in Heaven.  Your faithfulness endures to all generations; You established the earth, and it abides.”  Psalm 119:89-90 NKJV

I saw a thing making its rounds on Facebook recently which stated, “The Bible does not need to be rewritten; it needs to be reread.”  What comes immediately to mind are those editors who would strive for gender-neutral and more fully-inclusive language – and yet many of these would still, strictly from memory and with no real thought, lift up “Our Father who art in Heaven …”  Some of these same self-declared editors would quote Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, St. Augustine, and many others verbatim but will also insist upon editing what is written in the Scriptures so as to make what is written in and for the ages somehow “less offensive”.

Yet these editors are not the only ones who distort what is written.  The Christians who claim to love Jesus but are willfully ignorant of what is written in the Gospels about our Lord do a grave disservice to what is written for us to know, and betray what has been handed down through the ages for the good of the Church – the whole body of believers.  These are the ones who do not “seek” at all, choosing instead to make it up according to what makes sense to them in any given circumstances.

The stink of this, however, is that most of us are guilty to one degree or another of trying to edit the Scriptures to fit our own lives rather than to adjust our own lives in accordance with what is written for our well-being.  We have become a little too independent for our own good.  The damage is not strictly what we are doing to ourselves in our pride or willful ignorance; it is the lasting damage we do to our children, our grandchildren, and our unbelieving neighbors when they hear us claim the Christian faith but watch us distort (or edit) what is actually written and “settled in Heaven”.

Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23).  Jesus, speaking as the “Word which became flesh and dwelt among us” is teaching in accordance to the same Word which “is settled in Heaven”.  Yet we dare to suggest we can somehow make the Eternal Word more relevant today by denying 2000 years of sound doctrine.  It is little wonder we watch the TV news with horror and disgust while lamenting a “lost generation”!  

Jesus assures His followers that if we will “seek, we shall find”.  If we do not bother to seek, however, we will find nothing.  Without Christ we already have nothing – there is no need to look for more of “nothing” in a world that does not know The Word.  Let us diligently search together for that which “is settled in Heaven” and will “endure to all generations”.  The Bible has not become outdated or irrelevant to our time and generation; we’ve just become a little too big for our spiritual britches!

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Thought for Monday 16 March 2015

“Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come to You.  Do not hide Your face from me in the day of my trouble.  Incline Your ear to me; in the day that I call, answer me speedily.”  Psalm 102:1-2

If anything, this psalm indicates a proper form of prayer especially for those who have had a bad day; a day when nothing seemed to go right, and no friends seemed available at all.  The psalmist goes on about the misery he is enduring, and the enemies who seem to have him surrounded.  In short, the psalmist appears to be at the end of his rope!

As for a proper form of prayer, however, I do not suggest this psalm should be memorized.  Rather our time of devotion for joy or for lamentation should include a full and honest assessment of the day.  Count the many blessings we enjoy, or go through the list of those things that are hurting us.  Either way, the faithful must not get to a point of a blanket generalization.  Recall the sorrow, remember the hurt feelings, relive the joyful moments – and let The Lord come into that time of devotion and walk us through it!

Once we are able to do this, to recount ALL the bad and ALL the good things we experience, we will learn how to let The Lord experience them with us.  In the end we will not lament that The Lord had “hid His face”.  We will instead discover He was there the whole time, that it was we who had let go and tried to go it alone.  Much like the study of the Scriptures can be confusing and overwhelming if we try to bring human understanding to it, we also discover that seeking human resources to human problems will always come up short even if some source of comfort may have been found in any particular moment.

As we have been exploring The Lord’s Prayer these past few weeks in worship, hopefully we will soon discover that each word written in the Scriptures requires our attention and full devotion – including the psalms in which we share the prayers of those who went before us.  We learn from their experiences that if we will take the time to work through the sorrow, the misery, and the grief life often brings, we will draw the inevitable conclusion: You, O Lord, “will not forsake” Your faithful ones.

Blessings,

Michael

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Forgiven is Forgiving: The Lord's Prayer, part V

Isaiah 1:14-20
Colossians 3:12-17
Mark 11:22-26

“To forgive is [for you] to set a prisoner free and [then] discover you yourself were the prisoner.”  Laurence Stern, 18th-century Anglican clergy

“Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  Matthew 6:12 NRSV

Christian theology is impossible to understand if taken in ‘sound bites’ (bumper sticker slogans and Bible verses removed from context).  Jesus’ statement in Mark’s Gospel is a case in point: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”  11:24 

Who has not prayed for things that have nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven or the Church?  Personal wealth?  A particular job?  A certain love?  Healthy children?  The sparing of a loved one’s life?  An argument can be made that the Kingdom could shine in such circumstances, but it is doubtful we would even care about the Kingdom or the Church since our initial prayer request was made for purely self-serving reasons; no evil purpose as we understand evil, but no Kingdom purpose, either.  Still, Jesus does not offer a caveat here.  In fact there seems to be no condition at all except to “believe you have received it”.

Socially- and self-aware Christians will pray often for forgiveness; because it truly can be said that at the end of any given day, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, there is always something we need to be forgiven for – a harsh thought, a cross word, repeating gossip or unsubstantiated rumors, denying a stranger a charitable request.  Yet if we “have no doubt in [our] hearts … [our forgiveness] will be done.” 

Well, not exactly.  The one thing we Christians are pretty good at is embracing and talking about (but not necessarily sharing) The Lord’s “unconditional love” … for me.  My personal Savior is eager, waiting, and willing to forgive … ME … so much so that I don’t really even need to ask since The Lord’s love “for me” is unconditional.  And since Jesus’ blood is our Atonement, there is nothing we need to atone for.  Taking something that clearly is not mine?  No need to confess or return it since that may create more problems for “me”.  All is forgiven.

Well, not quite.  Jesus throws a curve: “If you stand praying, forgive if you have anything against anyone – so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (vs 25-26 NRSV).  In NKJV it is written: “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive you.”

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus denies our offering of a gift to The Lord: “If you remember someone has something against you (knowing you’ve deliberately set out to hurt someone), leave your gift [at the altar], go make peace, and then come back to offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Either way, it seems clear that no matter how deeply we believe in and desire (or expect) our own forgiveness, Jesus does not let us off the hook so easily.  As with most other of the commandments of the Law, not only does Jesus not “do away with the Law” (Matthew 5:17) – He raises the bar on the standards of the Law! 

It is no longer simply “committing” adultery as a purely physical act that violates The Lord’s Moral Law; it is thinking lustful thoughts!  It is no longer simply murder as the literal taking of another life; it is having a genuine hatred in one’s heart for another.  We still have “enemies”, but we are now compelled to pray for and bless these potential friends!

It has been said: “If you find Christianity easy, you have not found Christ.”  Because if Jesus is the perfection and the example of what the Moral Law calls from us – and He must be – there can be nothing easy about it.  Wholly possible, but not easy.  And forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us – even when they have not apologized or made a move to make it right – is the single most difficult challenge we face as Christians, as humans! 

Can it be said, then, that The Lord finds it difficult to forgive us when we are acting unforgivably or unrepentantly?  Judging by Jesus’ words, it appears we create a barrier within ourselves that can actually prohibit Divine forgiveness – “forgive … so that your Father may also forgive you”.  So it may be our intentional and deliberate refusal to forgive others creates a less-than-fertile field in which no good seed can be planted, let alone grow.  Jesus says we have to do this thing for others so that another, much greater thing can be done for us.

Actually it IS said that if we will not forgive others, The Lord will not forgive us.  “Will”.  That small but powerful word which indicates not a capacity but an allowance.  We have it within us by the power of the Holy Spirit to do impossible things (our spiritual capacity) like “move a mountain” or even love an enemy; but a stubborn and closed mind, a willful pride, a heart of stone, an arrogant faith will not allow us to do what must be done.  We have the capacity, but we will (freely choose) not to exercise that capacity.  Thus in our deliberate refusal, we spiritually hobble ourselves by indicating we do not care for The Lord’s forgiveness since we do not care to forgive others.  We remain in our own self-imposed “prison”.

Yet we often have the gall to declare, “Christians are not perfect; only forgiven.”  This cheap “bumper sticker slogan” is a blatant denial of Jesus’ commandment to pursue “perfection” (Matthew 5:48), and is also a defiance of Jesus’ admonition that if it is truly forgiveness we seek, it is forgiveness we must offer.  “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect”.

There are clearly spiritual enemies we must keep a safe distance from, those who have repeatedly by word and deed declared themselves to be enemies of the Gospel and the Church – even those “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who insist on their Christian faith in spite of their unholy vindictiveness.  So if there are those we are to keep a safe distance from due to their deliberate hostility to the Word of The Lord, how are we any less hostile to The Word if we defy that Word and deny its applicability to us?

In the end it must be said and acknowledged that to be a “forgiven” person, one must become a “forgiving” person - for these are two sides of the same coin.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, the depth of The Lord’s Prayer involves much more than merely saying the words.  This Prayer must become for us the deepest expression of our own inmost desire – in this case, not only to be forgiven but to also be given a heart willing to forgive that which we had previously declared unforgivable.  We must never bring that curse upon ourselves.

Before The Lord’s Prayer can mean anything to us at all, we must be able and willing to understand, embrace, and abide by its deepest meaning; and the only way to come to this level of spirituality is to dig deeply, ask constantly, seek fervently, and knock incessantly.  It is the assurance of our Lord that forgiveness can be found when we find it within us to forgive, no matter the harm or the depth of the wound.  There are far greater things being offered to us than whatever perverted satisfaction we may think we gain from holding a grudge.  Now is the time to find out what it is.


“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Let it be so, Lord.  Amen.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 12 March 2015

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, and plead for the widow.”  Isaiah 1:16-17 NKJV

Just prior to this proclamation and affirmation of the Law of Moses, the prophet handed down some rather harsh words that seemed to declare the Law void: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle.  I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs and goats” (Isaiah 1:11).  On the one hand the Law speaks very plainly; on the other, not so much.  After all, these sacrifices had been commanded by The Lord, but now The Lord is saying “enough”.  What gives?

The religious practices of the faithful have no meaning to The Lord if the “faithful” are unwilling to have and show any care or concern for their “neighbors”.  Even those who today boldly proclaim that “I know The Lord loves me and has forgiven me” without looking deeply within may be speaking prematurely – or kidding themselves – if they hold something against someone else.  That is, someone had done them harm for which they refuse to forgive – and yet declare themselves forgiven. 

It’s a nice thought, but there is no biblical justification for it.  In fact the very words of Jesus deny this sentiment: “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours” (Matthew 6:15).

Someone once said forgiveness is only for the strong and the brave; that it is the weakness of cowards and fools who refuse to forgive others.  Though we may not consider ourselves cowards or fools, we must still acknowledge that forgiving someone who has harmed us or facing someone we have harmed is perhaps the hardest thing of all.  We have to get over our pride, stand on our own two feet, admit our wrong done, and face the reality that we are not as perfect or always right as we might like to pretend.  Forgiving someone who does not deserve to be forgiven (at least in our eyes) makes us seem weak and vulnerable.

It takes no effort or thought or strength to hold a grudge, but it takes godly strength to “cease to do evil, learn to do good”; to “seek justice, rebuke an oppressor”, or plead and advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves.  All these things, however, are required of us from The Lord if we expect to find and receive forgiveness for our own past.  Christians are fond of saying, “We don’t have to do anything to receive The Lord’s love”.  While there is a kernel of truth in that The Lord made Himself vulnerable for us at the Cross “while we were still sinners”, it is not even close to true that we have to do nothing!  We are indeed commanded to do … for those who cannot do for themselves.  It is our doing that helps others to understand and believe the Good News, not our empty words or religious practices!

Our relationship with The Lord began with forgiveness, but our relationship with the people of the Church (and Christ!) continues and grows even stronger as we forgive those who have harmed us – and actively seek forgiveness from those we have harmed.  It means we seek the well-being of others before we worry about ourselves.  If we refuse to believe this takes real strength, it may be because we’ve not really tried it!

Let go of those things holding you back.  Offer forgiveness.  Beg forgiveness.  Use the spiritual backbone we’ve all been given, and stand tall in the name of the One who stood tall for us – even as He made Himself completely vulnerable.  The Bible says there is no greater love than this.  Surely we can agree there is no greater show of strength than this.

Blessings,

Michael