Sunday, June 25, 2017

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Numbers 27:15-23                                                                                                                   Philippians 4:6-9                                                                                                                                       John 3:25-30

“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning …” Ecclesiastes 7:8a

I’ve tried to take stock of the last four / nine years to hopefully share some brilliant insight or profound perspective.  I remember thinking when I got here that I should probably begin keeping a daily journal.  Now I wish I had!  Through it all, however, one thing has kept coming to mind: even on some of my very worst days, I could only think, “I got exactly what I asked for.  I just never knew what it looked like or felt like”.

To share only a glimpse of what I have observed, I offer the following:

First - Church Ministry is Full Time.  For the pastor and for the congregation.  There are few moments completely free from thoughts of the church and what the church could or should be doing.  Even while doing something as mundane as mowing the parsonage lawn, raking pine straw, or washing dishes, there are always thoughts and prayers and hopes and laughs and even some tears for the church as well as thoughts and ideas for sermons and Bible lessons – always trying to figure out how it all connects to “real life”.

Though being the pastor is the job for one person, the burdens must be shared as willfully as the joys.  Do you really pay a pastor to do for you what you would rather not be bothered with?  If so, can it biblically justified?  OR – as covenant people who are The Church – can we not rather appreciate our true strength when we share the burden of duty and responsibility as well as the joys?

Secondly - Church Ministry Never Was About Me.  At one time I was on the elder track pursuing full ordination, but I finally came to realize this may not be the track The Lord has set for me.  This decision to stop the pursuit struck at the heart and soul of who I once was – or thought I was.  And I was compelled to ask such questions as, Could I more faithfully serve the church as an elder as opposed to being a local pastor?  Would it make me more effective?  Would it make you more devoted to the missional life of the church if I were?  Would it make me, in the eyes of some, a “real” pastor?

To be sure, elders are more educated and education is always a good thing, something I will always pursue, but are elders more diligent only by virtue of their education and ordination?  Does the laying on of hands by the bishop make anyone more dutiful and mindful of the Great Commission?  Or are they only aware of their ordination?  Not to impugn the Order of the Elders, but I finally had to be serious about what The Lord would ask of me.  I also had to decide how elders’ orders would better equip me to do as I am called to do, or if those orders would change anything at all.

Over time it became less about “me” and my personal ambition – and more about the vocation which can in no way be confused with a job.  I discovered it never was about “me” nor is it about “you”.  No one of us should ever expect or demand to get “my way”.  We have no “rights”, no “personal privilege” to claim as members or as Christians. 

As the Body of Christ, we have only responsibilities which will always bring opportunities if we would just be willing to take a chance and drop “I / me” from the equation (“I” don’t feel like it; “I” don’t have time; it ain’t “my” thing”, etc).  It is always about The Lord and our place in Him which is the Church, the Body of Christ, the congregation, the community of saints and what we are all called to be in Christ.  It isn’t what we do or choose to do – it is (or should be) who we are.  And we can never stop being who we are.

Third - Church Ministry Is Covenant.  Among the many unique attributes of Wesleyan Methodism, we are a covenant people accountable to and for one another.  We do embrace a personal component of our spiritual journey such as in prayer and fasting, but on the whole and in the common Covenant by virtue of our baptism, we are a people – not persons.  We are never so strong as when we stand together in common purpose and help one another rather than try to hurt or keep out a few.

A covenant is more than a promise or a contract.  Covenants cannot be revoked any more than our being who we are can be revoked.  Covenants can be violated (and often are).  They can be ignored or denied, even defied – but never can a covenant be revoked.  It is why Jesus demands we “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:28) before we enter into covenant with Him and with one another.  Going back to doing only what we feel like doing as opposed to being true to who we really are”, and a personal desire to be ‘saved’ only for one’s own sake as opposed to a collective desire to live ‘justified’ in covenant accountability for the sake of spiritual perfection, this means someone should always be in your business!  No one should ever fall through the cracks and be lost or forgotten.  Our fellow disciples should be diligent not to “meddle” but to support and encourage.   

This means, of course, that one cannot simply join the church on the spur of an emotional moment.  A covenant relationship must be established, developed, and nurtured.  Covenant standards of doctrine and community expectations of behavior must be faithfully conveyed.  After “counting the cost” of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian, the covenant is to be embraced with the vows of membership.  Respect and honor and integrity within the one single mission of the Church: to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  It is never about burdens of “membership”; it is always about the sacred privilege of “discipleship” – loving and serving The Lord by loving and serving one another … even our enemies.

Finally - The Itinerant System of Pastoral Ministry is a lot like the old joke about Arkansas weather; if you don’t like the weather (or the pastor), just give it a minute and it will change.  For better or worse, it is always for the appointed season and the purpose for which the seasons or circumstances dictate.  Like the weather, however, we cannot wish it would change and stop being who we are and what we are called to do until it does change to suit us. 

The bishop and the appointive Cabinet work and pray diligently to ascertain the needs of every local church, and they do their best to match pastors equipped to meet those needs.  They may not always get it right (according to any church or individual), but they always do it faithfully and with the best of intentions for the sole purpose of “making disciples”.  Always.

Never is a pastor appointed to a church to do alone what the church must determine to do for itself and for the community it serves as a matter of principle, as a matter of calling, and as a matter of mission.  The role of the pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) … not to do the ministry for them, but with them.

This Body of Christ is the living, breathing, loving Presence of Christ The Word Himself in the community, but it can be no stronger than its weakest member and no more loving than its most hate-filled member.  It is not only about how much you care for, like, and look after one another; it is entirely about how much you are willing to care for and look after the community.  YOU are the Presence of Christ in McNeil / Magnolia.  With the pastor, regardless of who that pastor is, YOU are always the Gospel of The Lord. 

The Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, and I know there are some who will not let those mistakes and misjudgments go.  It grieves me deeply that these will not let them go.  Like you and them, I will continue making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them.  I pray, however, that you will not hold my mistakes against my successor or the DS or the Conference.  I also pray you will one day find it in your heart to forgive me as I have forgiven you and as The Lord offers forgiveness to us all.  For just as Jesus taught us, only when we forgive will we ever find forgiveness and peace of mind, heart, and soul.  Only then can we live fully as the Redeemed of The Lord set free from bondage to hate, spitefulness, vindictiveness, sin, and death.  Only then can we finally become who we are created to be. 

We are the Body of Christ in the world today.  Apart from who we are and what we are called to faithfully do, there is no hope for the community we are called to serve.  It's who we are.  It is who we must become.  To the Glory of the Almighty and Everlasting Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Trinity Sunday 2017: And so it goes

11 June 2017 

Isaiah 65:1-10
Romans 10:14-21
Matthew 28:16-20

“The devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place should be half-awakened and then left to themselves to fall asleep again.”  John Wesley

St. Augustine of Hippo once questioned the newness of Jesus’ “new commandment … to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) in light of the ancient commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  He pointed out that even though Jesus referred to it as a “new command”, it may be more appropriate for us to think of a renewed spirit of love and hospitality in active discipleship rather than a brand-spanking-new commandment.

When Israel was called together as a nation, it was to be a divinely appointed “priestly nation” – not individual priests but the “chosen status” of a whole people who would testify to this amazing God not merely by their existence but, rather, by the purpose of their existence. 

This purpose would be expressed not only in the written Torah (“law”) but in the lives of those who understand what Torah means.  More than memorizing the words, The Word itself would become ingrained into their souls, into the fullness of their being – the Torah written on hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone.  Their collective life as The Nation of YHWH’s Chosen would be their very identity – not as a matter of individual privilege but as of collective duty and responsibility.

So given that Israel was intended as a “witness to the nations” (Isaiah 43:10) – yes, even to those nasty Gentiles – what is so new about the Great Commission?  Though we read it as a new charge to the soon-to-be-called ekklesia (church, congregation), the mission remains essentially the same.  It is, and has always been, our Father’s intent that all would turn from their wickedness and be saved (Ezekiel 18:23). 

After the Exile, however, when the people of YHWH were returned to their homeland to rebuild and reclaim their identity, it may be said they tended to turn a little too inwardly and had become a little too exclusive; they were not so much about “mission” as about “survival”.  When the people confessed their unfaithfulness after Ezra’s prayer and confession for the nation, it was determined that foreign-born wives and their children would be sent away as a means of atonement.  “Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said.  So they swore” (Ezra 10:5).

Harsh.  Cold.  Incomprehensible.  Yet it was a command of YHWH Ezra had recalled in his prayer: “We have forsaken Your commandments, which you commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands … therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, never seek their peace or prosperity (Dt 7:2,3) …” (Ezra 9:10-12).

Full repentance meant they would not only stop doing what they had done to break covenant with YHWH, they began to undo all that had been done.  They attempted to go back to square one.  Maybe for the sake of Israel’s purity, the pendulum swung too far. 

It must be said, however, that the essence of Israel’s very being never changed.  They were still to be “set apart” from the nations not to the point of exclusivity but for the purpose of calling the nations to a much better life; the worship of the One, True God that did not involve child sacrifice, temple prostitutes, or laws subject only to the whims of a culture.

So what was so revolutionary about the Great Commission?  And what is so radical about it now that it is only a passage in the Bible that has been robbed of much of its meaning in favor of individual salvation?  And how have we – as individuals who call ourselves “members” of the Body of Christ, the Church – somehow decided it doesn’t mean “me”?  Especially when we reason to ourselves and to others that we don’t know or keep company with any non-Christians, that “all my friends are Christians”?  Such statements do not speak of faithfulness; rather they affirm the failure of the Church to live into its purpose.

The Great Commission would have been revolutionary to a small band of Israelites who were about to be pushed way outside their homeland, from their friends and from their comfort zones.   It would also be radical to modern-day Christians who might reason that “all nations” have been made aware of Jesus but have rejected discipleship as a way of life and living.  In other words, the burden of the Commission has been met by the Church; it is “the nations” which have failed to respond adequately. 

Not quite.  There is some truth to that, but not quite.

Much like the radical, post-Exile days of the Ezra period in Israel, perhaps the Church has taken a similar approach in light of the constant challenges from the outside, some insidious challenges even from within.  Though we are not deliberately sending people away, maybe we have drawn a little into ourselves for some sense of protection from the outside, some measure of doctrinal security, or just keeping people we don’t “like” out. 

Maybe we have become so concerned with the wrong “yeast” permeating “our” church that we no longer have a sense of being the Body of Christ at all.  Just a meeting house filled with generic, cultural “Christians” with no real sense of direction, no real sense of purpose, and no real sense of identity as a community of disciples.

Yet when we get a little too full of a radical orthodoxy that demands rigid adherence to a certain creed or when we demand that admittance into a particular body requires the recitation of a certain prayer or baptism done only a certain way – and when we align our religious identity with national politics – we’ve gone too far inward and have lost any sort of momentum we may have once had.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating that we disavow our orthodoxy (system of beliefs) since I am probably among the most rigid of orthodox Christians and preachers.  But when we “make disciples” as our Lord has commanded His Church, what is wrong with receiving – or at least inviting – persons who are not quite “all in” at first but are at least willing to hear, to listen? 

Jesus requires we first “make disciples” – notably, not converts.  How?  By first living in such a way – individually and collectively - that the Gospel and our Christian identity are unmistakable.  This goes far beyond simply being our culture’s – or our own - notion of a “good person”.  It means a radical giving of ourselves as Jesus gave so completely of Himself way beyond only those we happen to “like”.  It means being disciples ourselves (which can in no way be confused with “generic, cultural Christian”), faithfully following and constantly learning from the Word, sitting at Jesus’ feet with an open ear and a willing and eager heart.

The Great Commission is the very heartbeat of the Church, not the “programs” nor the facilities.  It is the only Vital Sign of a church alive in the Spirit.  It is the only evidence of Pentecost ever having taken place.  It is the only evidence that the Body of Christ is the Reality rather than only a theory or a mere choice.

But The Great Commission is not exclusively a thing the world must respond to.  Rather it is the thing the Church must first engage while trusting the Holy Spirit to evoke responses.  It is the way by which any program of any particular church must be measured as to effectiveness – “making disciples”.  There is no other reason for our existence, for it is the soul of the Church, its true – its only - identity.

The Great Commission is itself the “rivers of living water” and the “narrow gate” through which all must enter.  It is not a story to be modified to accommodate any culture for the sake of its sensibilities but is, rather, the “old, old story” that is good for the ages. 

First things first, however, “The Story” itself must be learned before it can be told.  Not “my” story or “your” story; THE Story.  The narrative into which we are all invited, the narrative which has been since the Beginning.  Then will we know we are truly alive and well.  Then will others believe us.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Spiritual Warfare

“We live as human beings, but we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4 NRSV).

“Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God so you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:12-13 NRSV).

“Do not fear [those who oppose you; forces of evil], for it is The Lord your God who fights for you” (Deuteronomy 3:22 NRSV).

Living in fear, constant fear, is not living – not really – because as much as we may believe we are taking responsible measures for the safety and security of our ourselves and our families, the hard truth is we are adjusting our lives according to our fears.  We are arming ourselves according to our fears.  We are choosing not to go to certain places or to certain events according to our fears.  We think we are exercising our freedom to do as we please, but in reality we are doing according to what frightens us most.

Many would claim to “believe” still, but faith – really, fully trusting The Lord – is not as easy as “believing” a concept, most especially something conceived of on our terms.  Yet living fully into The Word requires a certain measure of “fear” (call it “intense respect”) in being uncertain of how things will turn out even as we learn to trust fully in the Promises of The Word. 

This isn’t about choosing whether to carry weapons nor is it about taking foolish chances to “put The Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16; Luke 4:12).  It is entirely about whether we are prepared to live fully into The Word; The Word which became flesh, The Word which heals, The Word that saves, The Word that challenges us to exist beyond ourselves and any given moment.  It is the difference in “believing” and fully “trusting” that The Lord really is fighting for us. 

It is also about coming to realize the evil we face in this world is not about opposing “blood and flesh”, thugs and terrorists; it is about the “cosmic” battle between Good and evil which has been raging since Paradise was lost.  Adam surrendered to his own desires, to his own fears in trusting the word of another human only because that human told him what he wished to hear.  He was assured by this human (Eve) that it is possible to be in Paradise and in the world at the same time.  It was no less a “test” than what we face daily. 

We have not fully trusted The Lord to show us the way.  We have refused to allow The Word to guide us through the “narrow gate”, preferring the “wide path” and expecting Jesus to follow us.  We have reached up for the “fruit” that is causing the downfall of many whose intentions were good, even perhaps noble. 

If we are to understand, however, that what we face is not simply a world gone mad but only a new chapter in the same book of madness and that The Author of this book still intends a certain outcome, maybe we can find some peace in fearless evangelism.  Not merely existing, but really living the Life we are all called to live.  In the big, fat middle of this “Spiritual Warfare”, we can live the Life we’ve been called to live because the really hard stuff is Being Taken Care Of. 

Even Jesus “did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), but the sword is His to wield.  Trust in this, and then we can really live!


Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost 2017: Dust in the Wind

John 7:37-39
1 Corinthians 12:1-12
Acts 2:1-21

“We cannot give what we do not possess.  This means we cannot express the Holy Spirit in a meaningful way if we ourselves are not close to the Spirit.”  Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI

I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment's gone.  All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity … Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea.  All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see … Don't hang on.  Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.
It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy.  Dust in the wind …
“Dust in the Wind”, Kansas

Sometimes I wonder how much religion is intentionally infused into secular music.  John Denver was one who often expressed a profound sense of the spiritual in his music, but I cannot say it was intentional on his part or interpretation on my part. 

Yet when it comes to the movement of the Holy Spirit, though we still possess the free will to decide for ourselves how to discern what is being revealed, the freedom in choosing how to respond must be consistent with The Word, for it is the Spirit “whom the Father will send in My Name, [Who] will teach you everything AND remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Jesus is The Word which became Flesh, and The Word tells us there is more.  There is that which breathes Life into The Word – the Spirit.  So hymns that express such notions as “Just give me Jesus” or “Jesus is all the world to me” may require a closer look.  The Word is only a component of the Living God; His Spirit speaks The Word to the Church today.

Before this Blessed Day was upon the disciples, Jesus had already made them aware that “rivers of living water” will flow from them in accordance with how The Lord will so move (John 7:38).  In this will the attributes of discipleship serve us well and prepare us for what is to come and what will be asked of us; those attributes, as shared last week, being a willingness, an eagerness to constantly “seek”, to “ask”, and to “knock” – with the understanding it will be The Lord, and not our own interpretations, who will provide the “living water” to others through our faithfulness.

We must seriously consider that much more is to be discerned from what The Spirit is bringing to us.  It will be, I think, entirely about “rivers of living water” flowing from a transformed heart.  That is, what comes from us will encourage and build up others rather than try to tear them down because they don’t act like us or believe like us or do as we think they should.  In other words, the Spirit will bless, but the flesh will curse; The Spirit will love, but the flesh will judge; The Spirit will bring life, but the flesh is condemned to death.

This is part of the reason why the Kansas song, “Dust in the wind”, came to mind as I was reading and thinking about what to share on this Day.   “All we do [on our own] crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see”.  Thinking too highly of ourselves as if what we do by our own hands will have any sort of lasting impact … if it’s just us … we choosing to do a certain thing only because it seemed like a good idea at the time but does nothing for others – or is very selective in the ‘others’ we will allow - in The Lord’s Name.

Really paying attention to what actually happened to the disciples on that Day means much more than that men of free will were being “possessed” by the Spirit but, rather, were joyously “responding” to the Spirit by outward expression even to those who did not share a common language.  Not the gibberish of “tongue-speaking” as we’ve commonly come to understand it, but recognized languages spoken to foreigners, strangers.  Hearing The Word spoken directly to them by willing men overjoyed that yet another Promise had been fulfilled – proving to them all the more that all Jesus taught them was – is - True.

More than only what happened to the disciples, however, is what happened to others who were equally touched.  As a result of the works of the apostles being so moved by The Spirit, “awe came upon everyone” (Acts 2:43).  These many were so moved by that same Spirit that they sold all they had to ensure no one would do without.  They were filled with such joy that there was not much left for them to do but to live fully into the Gift.

Many have questioned whether this event really even happened.  At the very least, there are still questions about whether it happened just as it is written.  Where we become confused, however, is in questioning the reality of the Event rather than understanding the Event as a means rather than as The End.

It is the aftermath which is so compelling.  A great, rushing wind, tongues as of fire resting on shoulders, and relatively uneducated men suddenly speaking languages previously unknown to them – all very difficult for us to grasp.  These elements of the Event all have meaning unto themselves, but they are not worthy of such attention as to decide for ourselves whether this Event actually took place just as we read it. 

But when St. Paul described this very Day (even if he was not directly referring to this Day) in terms of the aftermath, we find a consistent pattern of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) – all described as “fruits of the Spirit”.  

So even St. Paul would not find himself so bogged down in the elements of the Event more than he would teach about the aftermath in giving his audience an understanding of what the Event was intended to bring forth to and for the Church.   “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).

Whether the band, Kansas, had it in mind or not, “Dust in the wind” is a theological expression of our cultural reality; we are “dust” to which we will return.  In the Spirit, however, the “Wind” blows where it will, but we cannot know where we will be taken.  We may only be sure that we will either be moved by the Wind – or blown completely away into nothingness.

Embrace the Spirit, dear friends, for the Spirit of the Living God knows the Way into the Truth which leads to Everlasting Life.  There is no other.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ascension Sunday 2017: The Awakening of the Soul

Acts 1:1-11  
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."  Jesus, “Gospel of Thomas”

The “Gospel of Thomas” is among a collection of books from what is known as the “Nag Hammadi Library”, named for the Egyptian town near a cave in which this collection was discovered in 1945.  The story goes that these Gnostic books were hidden for the sake of preservation during a time in the late 3rd, early 4th-century during which St. Athanasius had declared war on any writings not found in the established and authorized scriptural canon. 

I have read some of the “Gospel of Thomas”, and the only objection I have is it is only a collection of sayings of Jesus, many of which can be found in the Gospel accounts we are more familiar with.  What is lacking in these “sayings” is context.  We do not know the whole story. 

This is one of the many challenges the Church faces; quoting the Scriptures without understanding, or at least acknowledging, the context from which a particular verse came.  Lacking appropriate context is how we can quote the Bible and completely change the meaning of a text to fit whatever narrative we are comfortable with.  Such a practice does not challenge us to climb.  To the contrary, it convinces us to settle.

There is also another saying.  “Once the soul awakens, the search begins and [we] can never go back.  From then on, [we] are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let [us] linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial [or subjective] fulfillment.  The Eternal makes [us] urgent.  [We] are loath to let compromise or [even] the threat of danger hold [us] back from striving toward the summit of fulfillment” ~ John O'Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom 

As we shared last week, it is the Eternal, the Everlasting we seek and which will only be found in The Eternal Word.  We’ve had more than enough of the doctrinal cotton candy which has made us fat with knowledge and lazy in false comfort but very weak in faith; and I say “weak in faith” not because we do not claim to believe something but because perhaps we have learned to believe the wrong things, the things which may satisfy our “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) but will do nothing for our troubled souls.  It is the very thing St. Athanasius believed he was guarding against in the early days of the Church.

The problem with Gnosticism, as the early Church Fathers saw it, is that too much emphasis is placed on knowledge and not enough attention given to faith.  The difference is that knowledge is something we can acquire by our own efforts, but faith is a Divine Gift given from Above.  Some may suggest the measure of faith is in coming to know something for which we lack any tangible evidence, but that may be putting inappropriate weight on the passage in the Letter to the Hebrews in which it is written, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

That is, we do not know what is “hoped for” and we do not know of “things not seen”, yet we trust that what has been revealed to us so far is only an indication of even greater things to come.  So it is often said that within us all is an unspoken yearning for something we innately desire; to be in fellowship with our Creator.  So it stands to reason that if this much is true, then there is something within us that seeks to be set free.  As it is written, “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32).  The Truth we will come to know … only if we choose to strive for it, to reach up for the “summit of fulfillment”.

Sometimes we think we know a little too much to the point that this sense of absolutes in knowledge tends to make us a little too arrogant for the humility sufficient to keep our souls burning with desire.  This is because once we think we possess absolute knowledge, we become less dependent on our Creator, the very Source of our being, and more dependent on our own minds, our own knowledge, acquired by our own means.  We no longer hope for what we think we have already attained.  The search, such as it may have been, ends prematurely because what we ultimately hope for – our own Ascension – is still beyond our grasp ... because we chose to settle for “good enough”.

Yet our Ascension will be the only point at which we will finally be completely freed from all worldly encumbrances, all chains and shackles of cultural norms and inappropriate temptations which bind us and prevent us from living fully into the Life to which we are called and for which we are created. 

So it cannot be enough for us to know Jesus has ascended into Heaven, and it is not enough to know Jesus “will come in the same way you saw Him go into Heaven” (Acts 1:11).  There must be room for faith.  There must be room for wonder, for mystery … for awe; for whatever it is that is within us already can only be awakened by a sense of astonishment that is never settled, never quite comfortable, and always thirsty for that which does not pass with each popular fad but is consistently upward and always assures us we are on the right path. 

It is that which cannot be taken from us, cannot rust or rot, and whose meaning is not determined by a popular vote, a strong opinion, a cultural norm, or a US Supreme Court ruling.  It is that which always ascends upward and never settles for parallel and certainly never descends.  Adam was created to ascend upward but when he became distracted by even the created order perverted by a sense of personal gain and personal pleasure or just wanting to “go along to get along”, so began his descent.  As he could have been sustained by The Word, he had been judged by The Word for seeking knowledge instead of living in faith.  He was judged by the very Word which had yet to become flesh but was, as it is written, “in the beginning with God”.

A Catholic writer (Douglas Farrow) pointed out that “the Ascension is a political statement: Jesus is the True Ruler, enthroned as King above the earth. ‘Let the rulers of this world, together with those who are ruled, be placed on notice.  And let the people of The Lord take heart and rejoice!’ (Wisdom of Solomon).  He who reigns on high has told us we are his Body on earth.” 

So Jesus’s Ascension isn’t even a religious event with a spiritual significance, though it must be regarded as a Holy Day of Obligation.  Rather, the Ascension fulfills the human vocation to become The Father’s Prince ruling The Father’s universe - and we as “co-heirs” to that very Throne (Romans 8:17) … if we follow Him faithfully upward.

All of this becomes more and more clear for the soul which finally awakens to the Truth and acknowledges that what is within us is the hunger and the thirst for righteousness, for salvation, for some measure of knowledge that there is more but with the assurance of faith that our seemingly never-ending quest will never be in vain and will always be satisfied.  “Seek, and you will find.  Ask, and it will be answered.  Knock, and the door will be opened for you.” 

From this moment, let us never again “settle”.  Let us never again allow our friends and families and neighbors to “settle”.  Let us strive to awaken what is already within us so we may awaken the entire neighborhood, the entire town, the entire world!  Because even though there is something to know, we must have the faith enough to realize there is even more and there will always be more than what is before us. 

It is within us not to merely exist but to really live well and faithfully.  No preacher can awaken the Church; he or she can only sound the alarm.  Only the Church can choose to awaken to what is already within.  And when the Church is fully awake, so will the community it serves awaken.  Only then will we continue to ascend to the “summit of fulfillment”.  Only then will we really live in Christ the Eternal Word.  For now and forever.  Amen.

Monday, May 08, 2017

For and Against: the deception of Unity

7 May 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter   

Acts 2:42-47     
1 Peter 2:18-25
John 10:1-10                                                                                                                                  

“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  Mark 3:25

So says our Lord also taught, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40), indicating perhaps that as allegiance to Christ goes, there can be no middle ground, no kinda/sorta; we are for Him or against Him. 

To proclaim full allegiance to Christ, however, must go beyond a baptismal or confirmation vow; and this allegiance far exceeds what is expressed in any written creed.  The reason is simple: allegiance to Christ involves much more than only an expressed common belief in the Person of Jesus or the concept of a strictly “personal” relationship with Christ that involves no other.

After all the dancing around and making hay of the latest UM Judicial Council ruling which no one seems completely satisfied with, it occurred to me the underlying issue is not at all about a particular social topic.  Social topics are more often distractions, incidental to the whole of who we really are. No, the issue we are confronted with is fidelity.  But fidelity to what?  Or to Whom? 

One “side” says faithfulness to the UM Book of Discipline (BOD) is of the utmost importance since it is what defines us as United Methodist Christians; the BOD is our common covenant of accountability, heritage, and doctrine.  The BOD is not scriptural, however, but is an expression of what we believe to be true and righteous according to scriptural principles.

The other “side” claims the BOD should evolve as humanity evolves.  Ironically, both “sides” claim the authority of the Bible and allegiance to Christ.  The problem we seem to be having is that few of us possess the sufficient humility to admit that when it comes to Truth, we are probably more aligned with Pontius Pilate who, in the very face of Truth, still asked the troubling question, “What is truth?”

Our Lord did not claim to be telling the truth or representing the truth; He said, “I AM the … Truth”.  Our sense of being in any semblance of unity must be found first in this simple yet profound declaration.  Our commonality, however, cannot be found in our agreement that Jesus actually said this.  Rather we can only be truly united in seeking to understand what Jesus actually meant. 

Our opinions do not wield the same power.  That we all “believe” Jesus, even as far apart as we may be on any given issue, still does not quite reach the level of wisdom we all lack, desperately need, but fail to seek.  As “doctrinally” or even as “politically” correct as we may smugly claim or think ourselves to be, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that we are further from the Truth than we would admit, further from the Truth than we are actually aware. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus draws us into a conversation that requires some real thought in faithful engagement (John 10:1-10).  First we must realize our Lord is speaking to an entire people – NOT to any particular person.  When Jesus refers to calling out His sheep “by name”, He is not speaking of “Billy” or “Betty”; He is referring to Israel, the entire congregation. 

And what is most important, I think, in looking more deeply into what is being expressed, is to know our God’s anointed One is The Standard.  At this point of discovery, He has not granted to any individual the right to decide for himself or herself what is most important.  The call is still, “Follow Me”.  To my knowledge, and as far as the Scriptures go, that call has yet to change.

“I am the sheepfold”.  “I am the gate”.  “I am the shepherd”, our Lord says.  So what is most important in all this is the simple Truth: I am taking you somewhere and I am the only One who can get you there.  But it is still not to a place where we are free to decide for ourselves what is most important, not to a place where we get to decide who can or who cannot be a part of the larger body, certainly not to a place where we get to decide what is good and what is evil.  Our Lord spells these things out for us not just in the Gospels but throughout the entire biblical narrative.  He decides.

Yet these are not arbitrary decisions our Lord makes on a case-by-case basis.  What is right or wrong, what is good or evil, who is in and who is out has long been declared.  Unity in Truth is found in the Word; the Word spoken, the Word declared, the Word Made Flesh.  NOT in our individual opinions.

In all this, we are called together not “personally” but corporately; not as persons but as a people called by a common Name and subject only to One.  Early 20th-century preacher and author A.W. Tozer once wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become 'unity' conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”  The Pursuit of God

In our most profound disagreements, the reason schism is a very real and constant threat to the Church is that we pick issues and then pick Jesus – not to determine whether we are still near Him but, rather, to use Him to back up our opinions.  And it fails when, as we think ourselves to be united to those who share our beliefs, we lose our sense of unity in Truth because we are not in tune with Him first.

We must all admit we are in need of a serious tuning, even the most righteous and pious among us.  The piano is a good analogy because even an inanimate piano must be tuned annually.  We, however, may need a retuning a little more often because of how easily we can be distracted without even realizing it. 

We may attend worship regularly and we may even attend a Bible study class, but often those things can become for us mere habits rather than earnest and purposeful practices of discipleship because of our lack of proper focus.  When was the last time we actually and actively sought The Truth instead of defending our own concept of Truth?

Our Father knows us well, certainly better than we think we know ourselves.  It is He who has made reconciliation to Him possible through Christ our Lord, the Living Word.  It is He who had sent the Shepherd to show us the Way, and it is He who is present among us even today by His Blessed Spirit. 

And when we focus FIRST on Him – just as Jesus teaches us to “seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” – and when our neighbors and friends and fellow disciples seek to focus FIRST on Him rather than on one another, then and only then may we find the unity we claim to seek and desperately need.

By worldly standards, it is an impossible task.  With our God and Father, however, “nothing is impossible”.  Let us stand first in that Truth.  Only then will the “Truth set us free”.  Free from the tyranny of social cliques, free from the tyranny of popular opinion.  Our Lord set us free so we may follow Him and only Him.  Let it be as He wills.  Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Outcome of Faith

Acts 2:22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

“You are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  1 Peter 1:9

In his book, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a man lost in a desert, dying for lack of water.  He came upon a weather-beaten, broken-down old shack that at least provided a little shade from the desert sun.  Looking around, he saw a pump, an old and rusted water pump coming from the ground.  He crawled over, grabbed the handle, and began to pump up and down – but nothing came out.

He staggered back.  Filled with deep disappointment, he looked around and saw an old jug behind the pipe running up from the ground.  There was a message scratched on the jug which read, “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug.  Be sure to refill the jug before you leave”.

Popping the cork from the jug, he sure enough found it filled with water, but now he was faced with a decision that would certainly change his life.  If he drank the water, he would surely live.  If he followed the instructions and poured all the water into a rusty ol’ pump that looked like it had not been touched in years, he may have wasted the good water he had in hand and desperately needed.  If it worked, though, he could have all the water he could ever want.

After thinking about it for a time, he reluctantly poured all the water into the pump.  Grabbing the handle, he began to pump.  No water, though.  Not at first.  Eventually there came a trickle, then a steady stream and finally a full-on gush of fresh, cool water!  He filled the jug and drank it.  Over and over, he drank his fill.

He then filled the jug for the next traveler.  He filled it to the top, put the cork back in, and added this note: “Believe me, it really works.  You have to give it all away before you can get anything back”.

We could wish that faith were not quite so challenging, but then it wouldn’t be faith.  The truth is we cannot really know or even understand faith until it is put to the test.  That is, we cannot really know what our faith is made of until we endure some traumatic experience.  The testing of our faith could even be as innocuous – but no less insidious – as allowing ourselves to become engaged in a malicious conversation about someone … you know, gossip.

I always think about the hard choice facing Abraham when The Lord called upon him to sacrifice his beloved Isaac.  That is a test we cannot begin to wrap our minds around and is, in fact, one of those times when we may be relieved to think maybe many Bible stories – especially this one! – should not be read literally but should be thought through with a little more serious time and contemplation than to think, “better him than me!  I could never do such a thing.”  Or to be completely honest with ourselves and declare, “I would never do such a thing!” 

Faith is hard.  Unfortunately, faith is also grossly misunderstood.  Like love itself, faith is not at all about how we may feel at any given time; it is more about what we are willing to do even when we would rather not.  This is what distinguishes faith from mere belief. 

It is easy to believe something to be true, especially if what we believe promises us some personal benefit without cost or effort.  Faith, however, has much more substance and is about much more than just “me” or “me and Jesus”.  Faith is about a willingness to heed our God and His Word – that is, His Son - and obey and follow Him ... even if we do not fully understand … or agree.  Especially when the cost, the risk may seem to be more than we could bear or when His Word challenges us to rise above our cultural or even personal standards.  You know, turning the other cheek, actively praying for our enemies, and other such “nonsense”.

It is not unlike the exchange between the Risen Christ and Peter (John 21:15-19).  Jesus had asked Peter over and over, “Do you love Me?”  Peter answered over and over, “You know I love You”.  After each answer, Peter’s spoken love for Jesus compelled Jesus to respond, “If you love Me, feed My lambs”, “if you love Me, tend My sheep”, and “If you love Me, feed My sheep”.

It was not enough for Peter to simply say, “Yes, Lord, I love you”.  It was not even enough for Peter to call upon Jesus to look within his heart so Jesus could “see” Peter’s love for Him.  It was not about only Peter and Jesus; it was about Peter’s need to understand Word and Deed are not mutually exclusive; that saying it was not as good or even the same as doing it, that claiming “Jesus knows what’s in my heart” is insufficient as genuine faith goes.

It’s hard to understand what really held “doubting Thomas” back.  Maybe he was still living with and running in the same fear that drove him and the others into hiding when Jesus was arrested.  Maybe he was still dealing with the anger of such a profound let-down; “believing” Jesus was the Promised One who would save Israel but never quite understanding all Jesus had tried to teach them about the real enemy we still face.  Or maybe he was just plain angry that this God whom he was challenged to trust did not deliver – at least, not on his terms.

When Thomas was finally blessed with the real Presence of the Risen Christ and was finally assured of the certainty of the Resurrection, everything changed for Thomas.  His eyes were finally opened when our Lord challenged Thomas to “reach out your hand” and literally touch the New Reality.  And even though Thomas spoke into this Reality with “my Lord and my God”, Jesus still maintained that believing only with one’s eyes – as the proof the religious leaders had demanded with “signs” – was not enough, was not quite the same as the faith which is fully prepared to trust enough to act even when physical proof is lacking.

We are facing so many problems within the Church universal and specifically within the United Methodist Church.  We are blaming so many for diminishing the witness and the integrity of the Church and we usually attach some social “hot button” issue to those whom we believe should bear the greater burden of the Church’s failure.

In the end, however, we may need to acknowledge that the Church’s failure is not in what the Church chooses to believe.  Rather it may be the Church’s collective failure to fully trust enough to act that may be at the core of all our short-comings.  It is easy for us to pretend “that issue” the Commission on a Way Forward is dealing with is the one single issue that is dividing the Church - until we stop to consider this “one issue” and all its residual sub-issues are only symptomatic of a much greater and more insidious threat to the well-being of the Church and its witness.

Ultimately it may be precisely our failure to act within a particular, divinely ordained pattern that is preventing the greater Church – and many individual churches – from breaking the cultural molds we’ve fallen victim to.  How to act, however, is not quite the challenge until first things really do come first.  Recall in Matthew 17:14-21 that the disciples were unable to drive out a demon.  Jesus had already chided them for their lack of faith but when they asked Jesus specifically why they had been unable to cast out this demon Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting”.

The “outcome of our faith” has everything to do with what we are willing to first put in, but we are assured there is great power to be found in what we choose to do and how we choose to go about it.  If not much is coming our way in terms of what we believe to be good and true and right, we must consider what we are – or are not – putting in.  Like the man at the well in the desert who expected water before he was aware of and willing to follow the instructions.

Our Lord assures us there is much to be gained for what we are willing to give of ourselves.  It is written, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).

Let us pray we learn to let go of what we only think we possess as our own – especially as it pertains to Truth.  Only then will we begin to see and embrace the genuine “outcome of our faith”.  Then will we know the genuine power of faith.  And then may we finally begin to really live!  Amen.