Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 30 October 2014

“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”  Socrates

Defining truly moral behavior requires an objective viewpoint which drills down until there is a reasonable foundation independent of our opinions.  That is, what is right cannot be based strictly on what we may be feeling at a particular time.  Lust is a prime example.  Because there may be something (or someone!) we desire with extreme intensity, we can convince ourselves we are somehow entitled to it; and because we want it so badly, it just feels right irrespective of what the Bible may have to say about that particular thing.  Even if we can read an unambiguous biblical statement prohibiting such behavior, we are inclined to continue with that behavior with the conscious-salving statement: “God loves me anyway.”

This misses the entire point of Divine Love and our necessary response to that Love.  It is not about how much we can get from that Love.  Think about it.  Do we not warn our children to protect themselves from being “used” by friends?  So if we work so diligently to protect our children and then teach them to protect themselves from being exploited by others, should this standard not also apply to the One who has given us life?  Should we not be diligent in making sure we are not exploiting Divine Grace as an excuse to continue living and doing as we choose, according to our emotions and emotional responses?  Responses that are based not on reason but strictly on feelings?

The Lord set the standard long ago “in stone”, and it is a standard which has served the faithful for generations.  It is even written for us to know of what happens to a society that chooses to turn its back on that Standard so we may know how fragile society truly is when it functions strictly according to its collective “lust” – because in the end, our emotions (being entirely self-serving) will not only ignore the Divine Standard but will ultimately require that others be exploited to serve our emotional needs.  They will receive nothing in return nor do we care whether they do.

“Hold fast to what is good”, as it is written in the Scriptures for us to know.  But first we must know what is truly good.  Even Jesus denied His own “goodness” and pointed instead to the “One who is good”; our Father who is in heaven.

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Thought for Wednesday 29 October 2014

“Our Father in heaven, hollowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And do not lead us into temptation, but delivery us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”  Matthew 6:8b-13

The model prayer.  The ideal way, according to Jesus, by which we approach the Throne of Grace.  We know the prayer and can easily recite it (in Elizabethan English, of course), but do we really understand it? 

Before Jesus introduces the prayer itself, He is encouraging us to look more deeply within maybe to determine our real motives for the things we do.  He begins by speaking of acts of charity (6:1-4) and the need to keep it low key.  There is no need to get our picture in the paper doing some remarkable charitable thing lest we become more interested in the glory we receive (even if we try to mention The Lord in our acts!) rather than just doing it because it needs to be done and doing it without any fanfare.

Then Jesus moves into the prayer itself, and the guiding principle is pretty much the same.  There is no need to put on a big show with big and grand words in order to gain the attention and admiration of those around us.  Rather Jesus encourages us to “go into your room … and shut the door”.  In other words, shut out the busyness of life and living and give the Father your undivided attention.  Then with the assurance of the God who knows what we need before we ask, Jesus says to pray.

Prayer is perhaps the single, most intimate form of worship there can be because if we follow Jesus’ advice, there will be no one else involved in that moment.  Of course we must pray together and we offer prayers in worship and in other gatherings, but this is that moment Jesus is teaching that we can have with the Father, the Almighty, the Creator of all that is!  We can even be bogged down with the many “types” of prayers and when and where these are important, but Jesus seems to throw those categories out the window.  There is no need for a list, and there must be no fear or concern that we may forget someone or some thing.    

The ultimate act in prayer is worship.  The Lord is the center of our attention.  And in that private moment when the door is closed and the world is shut out, Jesus is also assuring us that our Father is listening.  When we give ourselves completely to The Lord, we can be assured that The Lord is giving Himself completely to us.

There is much more in this lesson than proper prayer format.  It is the whole of theology in that if we really want The Lord’s undivided attention, we must give The Lord our undivided attention.  Only then can we fully know of the Father’s will for our lives, our families, and our churches.

“Your Father already knows what you need”.  Would we dare to ask what the Father needs from us?

Blessings,

Michael  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday 28 October 2014

“Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites who taught the people [the Book of the Law] said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep’.  For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then they were told, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of The Lord is your strength’.”  Nehemiah 8:9-10 NRSV

The priest Ezra was encouraged to bring forth the Book of the Law of Moses and read to the people, after which time would be a period of teaching and interpretation.  This was a period of reconstruction; Israel had endured a long period of exile because they had forgotten or outright ignored Torah and had dismissed the Covenant of The Lord.  They had convinced themselves they could do life better for themselves.  During this period, however, families were destroyed, the poor were marginalized in society or exploited for the gain of others, and widows and orphans had all but been forgotten.  In short, they lived as if there were no law, no God, no Covenant.  As it is written often in the book of Judges, “each did what was right in his own eyes”.

Having suffered the terrible consequences of their actions and having lost everything (including their identity as the people of The Lord), they were back home, rebuilding the Temple, and rebuilding their collective life as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  There was one thing still lacking: the Word of The Lord, the words of the Covenant that defined Israel as “a special treasure to [The Lord]” (Exodus 19:5).

Upon hearing these words of life, the people were cut to the heart!  They not only heard within these words their own indictments and judgments, they also heard within those same words the Promise only The Lord can make: “If you will return to Me … then you shall not be moved” (Jeremiah 4:1).  In this moment of repentance, the entire nation had once again discovered its identity and had rediscovered for themselves the faithfulness of The Lord.  They heard, once again, the “gospel” (the Good News) of The Lord!

In many ways the Church has failed the people of The Lord in trying to be all things to all people, attempting to sell a marketable product that is “new and improved” and more “user friendly”, and trying to convince everyone that all is well only because we call ourselves “Christians”.  It can be well with us, of course, and it can be well with the nation if the Church will rediscover herself in the light of the Whole Word, not just the carefully selected words that seem to promise us everything but asks and expects nothing of us.  Because of this epic failure, we have become a nation of exiles who have forgotten or outright ignored the Word and have watched families be destroyed, the poor being exploited for economic or political gain, and widows and orphans completely pushed aside.  The Church (that is, the congregation of the people of The Lord) has lived as if there were no law, no God, no Covenant; and for too many years we have done “what was right in our own eyes”.

We can do better.  Indeed we must because no one else is going to tell our “neighbors” there is a more excellent way.  We are baptized into this Covenant for a reason: to serve The Lord as a “kingdom of priests” ministering to a world overtaken by darkness.  It is long past time to get past the lie that we are “good people” and strive to become excellent ministers of the Gospel.  It is who we are called to be.  It is entirely up to us to determine whether this is who we will choose to be.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Thought for Monday 27 October 2014

“You are my portion, O Lord; I have said I would keep Your words.  I entreated Your favor with my whole heart; be merciful to me according to Your word.  I thought about my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies.  I made haste and did not delay to keep Your commandments.  The cords of the wicked have bound me, but I have not forgotten Your law.  At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You because of Your righteous judgments.  I am a companion of all who fear You, and of those you keep Your precepts.  The earth, O Lord, is full of Your mercy; teach me Your statutes.”  Psalm 119:57-64 NKJV

This portion of the psalm reminds me of a story I read recently that speculated about the spiritual foundation that compelled Abram to answer The Lord so readily when he was called to pack up and move to a new land.  It is difficult to believe Abram had no clue prior to that moment when he left the only world he likely knew.  There had to be something he was already well aware of, something he had discovered beyond himself.

It could not have been Torah, of course, because Abram was before that Covenant.  Could it then maybe have been Abram who “thought about my ways” and rationally considered there had to be more?  Jesus encourages us to “seek” in order to “find”; and it seems very unlikely we will find anything we are not seeking.  Abram likely lived in the midst of many “gods” people had created for themselves, “gods” that demanded human sacrifice or other practices that did not seem to be so uplifting, so life-enhancing.  So if we are witnessing “gods” that seem to do more harm than good, would we not seek something else?

If we dare to look more closely, we might see that Abram’s time was not much different from our own.  Though the “gods” of our time are not necessarily made of stone or wood, there is state-sanctioned human sacrifice.  There are also many other things – and persons – we will eagerly put ahead of The Lord.  Yet in doing so we rarely consider that these “gods” are designed by us to serve us – they’re not real!  We can claim to be “saved” and we can readily recite the “first and great commandment”, but this does not necessarily mean we have “thought about our ways” – not seriously.  It is much easier to proclaim John 3:16 and then go about our business. 

The psalmist, however, is trying to point out the rationality of Torah, The Lord’s instruction, Israel’s story; and the many failures Israel encountered when they tried to go it alone in demanding their independence.  Even in the many stories within The Story, there are those encounters with The Eternal One which reveals His presence.  And the favor found in the sight of the Almighty is that favor which reveals our complete trust in Him – by embracing His words and seeking greater meaning rather than seeking New Testament excuses to distance ourselves from those words.

We will not always know where The Lord will take us when we give ourselves completely to Him, but this is pretty much the point of faith; trusting The Lord completely so as to obey Him completely – even if we do not fully understand – and trusting that the greater purpose beyond ourselves will be served. 

Blessings,

Michael

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Everybody's fine ... sort of

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Revelation 3:1-6
Matthew 23:31-39

"I'm a good person, so I don't need the Church."  So says the "fool" (Psalm 14:1).

This will have been the fourth revision or downright re-write of a sermon I have been struggling to prepare.  I often think I have my own good ideas about a sermon topic, and there is so much going on in the world that it would be impossible not to have some kind of idea about how The Lord speaks to us today.  Whether it is a strong message of hope for the future through the delighted laughter of children who have found some new thing or a message of judgment through the anguished cries of other children confronted once again with an empty plate, The Lord speaks to us - the Church.  The Bible is not written for those who do not care about its content.

The challenges we face today seem overwhelming ... that is, of course, if we are fully engaged with the world we live in.  If we isolate ourselves from that world and try to pretend our own little corner of the world is doing just fine, then everything will seem just fine.  Our lives, however (that is, the people of the Church), are not defined strictly by what we merely acknowledge - as in a Creed.  Our lives are defined by what we choose to engage in - and HOW we will engage. 

If we choose to engage only in what is pleasing to self ... well, that pretty much says it all.  It is this lie which convinces us "everybody's fine".  "I'm fine, you're fine, and therefore everyone else must be fine.  And if they are not fine, they have only themselves to blame.  Not my fault; not my problem."  It is the greatest lie perpetuated by the people of the Church that makes American Christianity so "easy" - and laughable - because our faith has been reduced to little more than personal comfort, personal security, personal happiness, personal salvation.  And if we can take one extra step, we can convince ourselves of the greatest lie of all: "Well, I'm a good person."

How "good" can we be if we know there is hunger right in our own community, and we do not lift a finger to help?

Like the Holy Spirit, however, it is not enough to simply acknowledge this reality of Divine Presence.  We must engage.  So I must admit that in the past few weeks I have been running on my own fumes in trying to put things together and have not fully engaged in meaningful prayer time; the kind of prayer time that will give me real fuel to "move", much more than mere fumes that allow me to putter in idle.

Would it make a difference?  I spend plenty of time in study of the Scriptures, though it can easily be said there is always a need for more time in the Word.  Yet if more time is given to the study of The Word and nothing comes from that time but more knowledge or the satisfaction of having spent some time with friends or having covered yet another chapter, what has been accomplished if we do not "move"; if we do not take the Word to heart?  If we look up a passage just to prove a point or if we avoid passages that make us uncomfortable, what is it we truly seek?

It has occurred to me this past week that high school and college literature teachers spend substantial time in the study of what they will offer to their classes, but they do not need the help of the Holy Spirit to find deeper meaning in Shakespeare.  Yet at the end of each class session, good teachers wonder if all the work and time they put into preparing for the class made one bit of difference to their students.  More often than not, they will come to the same conclusion many preachers do; that only the students who care will get anything out of the effort.  If they are not "seeking" anything, they will not "find" anything (Matthew 7:7). 

Neither will we. 

Everything we do and everything we are is predicated on what Jesus calls "the first and great commandment".  Evidence of our embrace of and belief in the "first" is fulfilled in the "second commandment which is like the first".  We are to love The Lord and our neighbor as ourselves.  But if this love is expressed only in mere words as nothing more than a memorized Bible passage, then we are the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6): "You have a name of being alive, but you are dead."  A church which does not embrace the reality of Divine commandments and the fruit produced by our faithfulness cannot even claim the status of the "lukewarm" church in Laodicea!   We cannot be spat out of the mouth of The Lord because we are already dead.

"Wake up", The Lord says, "and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of My God.  Remember what you have received and heard; obey it and repent." 

"I have not found your works perfect in the sight of My God."  "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."  "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

There can be no more stinging indictment than the reality of Messiah's direct words NOT to unbelievers who won't act right - but to believers who claim to act right!  To believers who claim to have been saved but give nothing back to The Lord (love the Lord your God) or to neighbor (love your neighbor as yourself)!  "You are already dead", says The Lord.

Even though the indictment has been served, the sentence has yet to be carried out.  It is a little too shallow to say the sentence was finally and completely carried out at the Cross because this is the Resurrected Christ speaking through the Revelation!  This is the POST- Resurrection Church that is being addressed. 

The Eternal Light is pulling out all the stops to break through the darkness which has overwhelmed us; actually the darkness we have embraced!  "Obey Me".  "Repent".  Or perhaps the most grief-stricken statement I think our Lord has ever made: "How often I have desired to gather [you] together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and YOU WERE NOT WILLING!"  Because we have convinced ourselves we are "good people", "saved people", and that "everybody's fine".

Someone once said if compromise could be portrayed by color, the color would be gray.  Dear friends, in The Lord there is no compromise.  If we try to convince ourselves we are "good people" strictly by our own or by our culture's constantly shifting standards, we are only trying to keep The Lord at a safe distance and yet within easy reach "just in case" things go badly.  The only one who is convinced we are "good" is ourselves.  Maybe some other fool can be fooled by our empty words, but The Lord is no one's fool.

Rather than simply give up on us and hand us over to the judgment we seem to be begging for, He continually reaches out through the written Word and the Church through the few "who have not soiled their clothes, who are walking with The Lord"!  He has not closed the door just yet, but we cannot ignore His ominous warning that if we do not awaken from our spiritual slumber, we will not see Him coming.

We must not run to the altar only to save ourselves.  Rather we must run to the altar to offer ourselves so we may "be about our Father's business" as the boy Jesus was when His parents found Him in the Temple.  That business is mercy, justice, and love.  "Everybody is NOT fine", so it is time for us to get "about our Father's business". 

"If you conquer, you will be clothed ... in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the Book of Life; I will confess your name before My Father and His angels.  If anyone has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church!"


All honor and glory to the Most High God.  Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 23 October 2014

“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.  There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know the witness which he witnesses of Me is true.  You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.  Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved.”  John 5:31-34 NKJV

I think I am about to cause a lot of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ with what I am about to share, but I think it has become necessary in order to appreciate the fullness of The Eternal One without trying to break The Lord into manageable pieces. 

There is nothing wrong with proclaiming Messiah, of course.  John [the Baptizer] did, and people came from all around to prepare themselves.  There is nothing wrong with embracing Messiah; Jesus Himself lamented that people ran away from Him to their own “desolation” rather than to come under the cover of His mercy (Matthew 23:37-38). 

The problem we seem to have today is similar to a problem which existed in the early Church prior to the 4th century Council of Nicaea whose sole purpose was to finally and completely define the nature of Messiah.  Whole movements had sprung after the apostolic period from varying and conflicting beliefs in an “Old Testament God” and a “New Testament God”, the merciful NT God being the One who could be defined by Messiah.  Yet there were still substantial efforts made to completely separate Jesus from the Almighty, the Father being “without form”.

Jesus, more than once, makes a clear distinction between Himself and The Father, and His efforts seem directed toward His sole mission to point people to the Father rather than to Himself.  Over time we have all but made Jesus a “god” in His own right, failing to defining Him within the doctrine of the Trinity, the fullness of The Lord in the Father AND the Son AND the Holy Spirit.  If we listen carefully today, Jesus has been made into a magician who can be “hired” or “summoned at will” – OR – He is our reason not to hope but to excuse ourselves from Torah, the statutes and ordinances of The Lord.  These are the things Jesus came to “fulfill” (that is, to perfect), not to do away with (Matthew 5:17-18).  Yet by His authority we remove ourselves from the challenges of discipleship, we distance ourselves from the fellowship of the Church, and we absolutely reject the authority of the Church – all in the name of Jesus!  “There is nothing new under the sun”, says the teacher (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11) We’ve been here before.

There can be no real discussion about Jesus if there is no full connection to The Father, and there can be no abiding appreciation for The Father if we cannot acknowledge His Presence in His Spirit.  Above all else, we must take great care that this popular notion that “the Christian God is named ‘Jesus’” be put away finally and completely because the theological truth is Jesus has no meaning apart from Torah.  He teaches from the Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures which testify to The Father alone.  He is “the Word which became flesh”.

There is nothing wrong with holding on to Jesus as long as we recognize He is not baby-sitting us; He is leading us. He is not our “co-pilot”; He is the Pilot who is taking us somewhere.  Maybe if we could dispense with the “bumper sticker theology” and rubber wrist bands, we might actually get somewhere!

We must not look for theological “sound bites”.  We must get the whole story, for only then will we know the whole story.  Then we will realize The Story is all about The Father – and all roads lead home.

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Thought for Wednesday 22 October 2014

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30 NKJV

The first thought to cross my mind as I was reviewing this reading was what has been written by others: If you are finding Christianity to be ‘easy’, you’re not doing it right.  This is to say, Christianity is counter-cultural; it does not fit with how we have generally been conditioned and oriented toward the so-called “American Dream”.  Christianity does not fit into our social circles because, more often than not, our social circles do not involve discussions about religion and faith (we just don’t talk about Jesus, but we will likely talk about others who are not present!), AND our social circles are not generally open to persons we do not know – or like.  We go to church on Sunday, though, and if we have a little extra to give, we might toss a token into the collection plate.  Yet we do not deliberately make room for guests; and if an unknown guest does come, we might toss them a tepid smile but little else.  We do not practice tithing or sacrificial giving of time and talents because, frankly, there are other things much more important to us than the Church.

So, sure, in this we find Christianity very easy because it does not seem to ask or require anything of us.  While this may be true that the Church has stopped asking (don’t want to lose any members, you know, the church being ‘theirs’ and all), Christ has left us with His teachings; and if we dare to be honest with ourselves and remain true to what is actually written in the Scriptures instead of embracing fond sayings that have no real scriptural basis, we will discover faith and discipleship to be the most difficult things there can be because Jesus Himself does not let us off the hook – not if we want to claim His Name.  Oh, we can fool others into believing we are Christians, but Christ Himself is not so easily fooled.

Jesus, on the other hand, is painfully aware of how difficult it is to walk by faith rather than by sight; He knows better than any.  This is why He offers this respite in the midst of the struggles we face in our daily living – AND – in our spiritual journey (assuming we are ‘doing it right’).  He knows.  He has watched us chase the “American Dream” which has pretty much remained a nightmare for so many, and He has seen us ‘chase our tails’ and never quite reach it.  It’s cute when we watch puppies do this, but we would probably not think ourselves so cute if we could actually see how we struggle to make material prosperity and faith align.

Still, there is a catch to this passage.  Jesus is not offering to magically make the broken pieces of our lives come together.  He is not offering a winning lottery ticket, and He will not smite Publisher’s Clearinghouse if they don’t show up at our door.  He is also not offering to leave us to wallow in the so-called “life” we’ve carved out for ourselves.  “Come to Me”, the Savior says.  This means we finally realize how we’ve struggled against the wind, how we’ve finally realized that without living for something greater than self, the only thing we have to look forward to is our own funeral.  OR if we have been ‘doing Christianity right’, how the world has cursed us and mocked us and laughed at us and called us ‘fools’.  What Jesus is offering is to teach us; that is, prove to us that nothing done in His Name is ever done in vain.  Yet claiming His Name but offering Him nothing in return is indeed using His Name for vain purposes.

“Come to Me”, the Shepherd says … on My terms, in My way, and according to My truth.  Then – and only then – will we find true “rest for your souls”.

Blessings,

Michael