Sunday, May 24, 2015

Christian Ethics and the Virtues of Faith, part 6: Fortitude"

Isaiah 53:1-9
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:1-15

“Fortitude is the guard and support of the other virtues.”  John Locke

Fortitude: courage in pain or adversity; bravery; endurance; resilience; moral fiber; strength of character, dedication to a difficult but necessary task … short word: guts.

St. Thomas Aquinas ranked fortitude as the third of the four cardinal virtues because he believed fortitude serves prudence and justice, the higher virtues. Prudence and justice are the virtues by which we decide what needs to be done; fortitude gives us the courage to do it.

Fortitude boils down to discipline and strength of purpose.  Mind and body, soul and spirit are all aligned to that sense of purpose – especially when we face danger.  Will the reward be worth the risk?  Is the task itself worth the potential risk if there is no appreciable, tangible reward?  Can the end be achieved by any other, less dangerous means? 

Fortitude is not about being stubborn or reckless, and fortitude as a virtue has nothing to do with personal achievement.  Fortitude must be prudent in taking so many questions into account before stepping off a ledge and into the unknown because fortitude is also not about intentional martyrdom.  I’m sure many prophets and martyrs had their questions, doubts, and misgivings before they entered into what was almost certain death for themselves, but their strong sense of purpose, informed from Above and from a life of disciplined faithfulness, pressed them forward.  The risks they faced were clear; the reward, not so much on their minds as was their purpose.

The profound difference can be seen between Christian martyrs who died incidentally doing what they felt called to do, and Islamic “martyrs” who die intentionally … and deliberately kill others in the process.

In John 15 Jesus had been pretty specific about the dangers the Church would face in moving forward – not merely existing silently.  It is especially important to remember Jesus is talking about those who are willing to take the Gospel into a world dominated by pharisaic Judaism.  That is, the religion of the day was dominated by a strict legal code, a lot of do’s and don’ts.  Faith really had no place in what Jesus had spent His ministry confronting, and that is what really got the religious elders stirred up.  Embracing and abiding by strict rules whether these rules are understood or not protects an existing hierarchy, a structure that serves nothing greater than itself.  The modern-day Church would do well to take note of this reality.

The religious elders of Jesus’ day had rights which they seemed to understand as privilege; and as long as they were able to keep the rank-and-file Jews in line, the pagan Romans had no real problem with Judaism.  What the religious leaders failed to realize, however, is that the rights they believed they were entitled to were not means of exercising and maintaining positions of privilege.  These rights, just as today, should have been understood as points of social responsibility – that is, responsibility to and for one another, as in “loving your neighbor as yourself” … as much a “commandment” as any of the “thou shalt not’s”. 

Being a religious leader in Jesus’ day did not require any real sense of fortitude because what the religious leaders served was themselves and the structure that protected them and preserved their positions of privilege.  As long as people obeyed the rules, all would be well.  The best one could aspire to within such a system is to one day hope to reach such a level of privilege while denying the responsibilities that go with these rights.  And again – the Church would do well to take note.

On this eve of Memorial Day 2015 I began to consider what this can mean to us today.  Not wishing to take away from those who want to honor all veterans who are – or were – willing to give their all to an ideal, it is nevertheless important (I think) to remember that being willing to die in the line of duty does not mean they wished to die on the field of battle so far from home.  But the difference between those who did give their all and we who did not is that they know the difference between privilege and duty, rights and responsibilities – and they proved it by their sacrifice.

While I might be willing to believe those who lost their lives on the battle field did so with no regrets, it is still perhaps important to remember most – if not all – of these heroes had every intention of and desire to one day come home to their loved ones.  Yet we come to understand fortitude in this way through the lives of these men and women who are gone but (hopefully) never forgotten: the task at hand (the “mission” for the military AND the Church), regardless of the imminent danger, always serves something much greater than the moment or the individual and must be carried out without fail.

Some gave so completely and purposefully of themselves so others could live to carry on the fight – AND one day go home.   President Reagan once gave a stirring tribute in which he quoted the diary of a WWI soldier named Martin Treptow.  He was KIA in France carrying messages.  On Treptow was found his personal diary in which was written “My Pledge”.  This stirring pledge spoke of the importance of this war and the ideals for which this war was being fought.  This pledge ended with these words: “I will fight cheerfully and do my utmost as if the whole issue of the struggle depended on me alone.”

And this, my friends, is the heart and soul of the Christian faith.  It is the whole Church called forward to bring the light of the Gospel to a world enveloped in darkness, but even the strength of the Church is diminished and in danger of being lost when rank-and-file Christians leave the battle to the elders.  The privilege of the Great Commission has nothing to do with our declared “right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. 

It has to do with the fortitude to understand that even “personal salvation” comes with no rights, no privileges, and no personal expectations.  In fact I might go so far as to suggest being a Christian means we have to make a choice between being an American citizen privileged with protection by a legal, man-made document – OR – being a disciple of Christ charged with making disciples who will then make disciples themselves.

Fortitude, in the case of a committed disciple, comes with something else.  Though fortitude is a virtue developed through discipline and a strong sense of purpose, Jesus also assures us that for all the adversity we will certainly face when we are faithful to Him, the Father has sent the Advocate, the Holy Spirit.  The Blessed Spirit came to not only awaken the Church from its nightmare of having lost Jesus to the hands of men with evil intentions, the Spirit also came to strengthen the Church for a purpose far beyond any preserved structure or sense of individual privilege.

If there is to be a great awakening in the Church today, a revival of Spirit and Truth, there must first be a Church willing to be awakened.  We have not only Memorial Day to remind us there is always something greater than self to serve, but we also have the biblical “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith – those who, like our Lord Jesus, showed us the ONLY PATH we are to follow.

Only when we find and reconnect to that Path will we finally be able to move forward – and only when we are fully on board with the reality that it is not about “us”.  It is now and has always been about The Covenant come to life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Let us have the “guts” to admit that so we may finally and fully go about The Lord’s Business.


Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 21 May 2015

On this day in 1940, a special Nazi unit carried out its mission, executing more than 1,500 hospital patients in East Prussia.  Mentally ill patients from throughout East Prussia had been transferred to the district of Soldau, also in East Prussia. A special military unit, basically a hit squad, carried out its agenda and killed the patients over an 18-day period, one small part of the larger Nazi program to exterminate everyone deemed “unfit” by its ideology. After the murders, the unit reported back to headquarters in Berlin that the patients had been “successfully evacuated.”  Source: History.com

History is not always interesting, but it is always useful because it gives us insight into a people, a culture.  The Nazi regime was decidedly cruel in its quest for a “master race”, exterminating all who were deemed unfit.  It was not only the Jews who suffered this incredible Holocaust; anyone who did not fit a preconceived mold of adequacy, who were deemed useless by this blood-thirsty regime were mercilessly executed.

These “useless” people, however, were not all summarily executed.  Many suffered through medical experiments conducted by the Nazis, human guinea pigs who were forced to endure extreme heat, extreme cold, and exploratory surgery with no anesthesia – to name only a few of the ruthless experiments to test human endurance.  Drugs and other chemical concoctions were also tested on these victims to determine their effects on humans.

These mental patients actually got off pretty easily compared to many who were not immediately executed, the thousands who died very slow, very painful deaths.  All the victims of the Holocaust were not deemed merely “unfit”; they were considered “sub-human”, not worthy of any real consideration.  Thankfully, after a long and costly war, this regime was defeated and many were convicted of crimes against humanity and executed.  To this day there are still Nazi hunters searching the globe for those who managed to escape from Germany after the war.

In our modern-day “culture of death” we are allowing history to repeat itself.  Though our government is not summarily executing persons who have been deemed “unfit”, our government and our culture have decided that some lives are not worthy of sacred respect.  Whether through abortion or euthanasia, we have convinced ourselves that “death with dignity” is a noble endeavor worthy of our time, our consideration, and our resources.  Taxpayers are compelled to contribute to these “social experiments” one way or the other, and too many are actually ok with it.  It is called “misappropriated compassion” in that we have convinced ourselves we are doing a good thing by deciding for ourselves the measure of “quality of life”.

Let us not be deceived.  We are in the midst of a culture that long ago crossed an ethical line.  It isn’t about “choice”, for most of these victims are compelled to endure (against their will) these merciless and misappropriated acts. "Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Numbers 35:33).

We are not doing a good thing by our acts or our silence.  We are polluting our land, and it is difficult (if not impossible) to make a case for Divine Grace when we show no effort or even intention to repent of these crimes against humanity, these crimes against Divine Creation.  It is ironic that many cannot read the book of Numbers without seeing a bloodthirsty God, and yet it was this God who exposed our own bloodlust, the same bloodlust we lift up today in the name of liberty, in the name of “choice”.

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).  It is long past time to awaken from this nightmare.


Michael

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 20 May 2015

“Fear not, for I am with you.  Be not dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you; yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.”  Isaiah 41:10 NKJV

The people of Israel had every right to be afraid.  They had lost everything, and their future as a nation, as a people, was uncertain.  In some ways it may be the same fear the Church has today.  Much has been written about the decline of Christianity and the rise of the so-called “nones” since the latest Pew Research poll was released.  There had been a lot of wringing of hands long before this poll put numbers on what we can already clearly see but, perhaps more importantly, there has not been nearly enough concern – or at least concern in the right direction.

The key to what will lead the Church out of this wasteland of uncertainty is found not only in Isaiah but in the prophets as a whole.  The statement preceding the passage above clues us in: “You are My servant, I have chosen you and have not cast you away” (vs 9).  Long before the Exile the people of Israel knew exactly what they wanted, but their real problem was they had no clue what they really needed.  The harsh reality of their fall was that they were too concerned about personal desires and not nearly concerned enough (or at all) about the needs of the greater community

It is the same problem we face today.  The community of the church does not exist for our personal satisfaction nor did Israel exist so individuals could personally benefit without concern for others, including strangers and foreigners and the poor, the widows and the orphans.  These marginalized persons are the ones who cried out to The Lord for relief, for mercy; and it was The Lord who withdrew His hand from those who withheld their own mercy and care for their “neighbors”.

The key for church growth is not in new PR techniques or programs or jazzed-up worship.  Like a temporary diet that will produce temporary results, these things we try because they sound good to us may produce immediate results but will soon fade when we reach a particular goal and lose interest. 

It will take a complete turn-about (repentance).  It’s not entirely about telling The Lord how sorry we are (confession) and then making no effort to turn about.  It is about the Promise made only to those who earnestly seek the Face of God.  Like my friend, JD Walt, recently stated: “Discipleship is not about preparing for Eternal Life; discipleship is about practicing Eternal Life”.  We make a deliberate choice to live now as we believe living in the Kingdom will be: only those willing to serve The Lord will be there; those willing only to serve themselves will not be.  It really is that simple, and there are too many verses of Scripture backing that statement to list here.

Only those willing to follow Me and serve Me will I strengthen and help and uphold, says The Lord through the prophet.  So let us resolve to turn back to The Lord.  It will require more than memorizing a few verses of Scripture or a Creed or a prayer.  It will be long, hard work – but our God assures us He will show us the way out of our self-imposed exile and into the Life for which we have been called and for which we are being prepared.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 19 May 2015

“Remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh – who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands – that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  Ephesians 2:11-13 NKJV

One of my favorite metaphors told to me by an elder of the Church helped to explain how we can so easily feel disconnected from The Lord, when the world begins to bear down on us, and we feel the emptiness of our emotional pain.  The elder pointed out that often we can walk while holding hands with a loved one and soon get to a point at which we no longer feel our hand being held.  When we reach that point of being connected without feeling that connection, we need only to tighten our grip to remind ourselves we are still very much connected.

It doesn't matter whether one is a new convert or has been raised in the Church.  Everyone experiences that loneliness and sensation of being disconnected from time to time, and the reason is often as simple as allowing the world to convince us we have no real value except in “utility” – that is, we are only as valuable and desirable as we are useful to someone. 

We all have a need to be desired, to be wanted, to feel useful and of value; and it is so easy to get caught up in our loneliness to the point that we convince ourselves no one really cares.  It happens (too often) even in the Church, the one place on this earth that is called to be “set apart” from the rest of the world, the very Body of Christ in the world!  This does not necessarily mean the whole Church is corrupted beyond redemption, however.  It means there is a whole body of Christians who have forgotten who they are.

We kid ourselves when we become convinced that some prayer we said so long ago is enough to carry us for the rest of our lives, for even in our justification before the Lord we do not stop being human!  Often we feel disconnected because we do not make the effort to reconnect, and then we become embittered when the Church does not stop to call on us.  There again, a collection of humans who have the same problem we think is overwhelming us – and they, too, may be hoping someone will call on them to remind them they are of infinite value.

Without exception each of us is in danger of forgetting The Lord has not left us, especially when we take for granted that our hand is still being held.  Maybe we all need to squeeze a little tighter, for we have “been brought near by the blood of Christ”!  The world cannot change this reality, but that same world would prefer you and I forget it and “get real”.

We must not allow the world or even Christians “in name only” convince us we have no value unless that value is directly connected to our usefulness to them.  That is their curse to live with.  Our blessing is the knowledge we need only to squeeze a little harder, seek out others of the faithful, and completely disconnect ourselves from the “users” of the world and even those in the Church.  Only then will we realize The Lord was there the whole time.

Blessings,

Michael 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 14 May 2015

“Thus says The Lord, ‘Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from The Lord.  They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes.  They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” 

Blessed are those who trust in The Lord, whose trust is The Lord.  They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.  It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’.”  Jeremiah 17:5-8 NRSV

The threat of exile was hanging over Judah as the Babylonian Empire grew stronger.  Judah was so desperate to protect itself from the imminent threat that they had made an alliance with Egypt for help rather than turn to The Lord (ironic, huh?).  The result?  Egypt’s promise of help fell through, and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. 

More than the destruction of the homeland, however, we witness in the exile of both the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) a loss of identity.  Through the worst of times The Lord preserved remnants of His Covenant, determined to maintain an inheritance of the promise made to Abraham long ago.  Yet the splintered nation, by its actions and determination to “trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength”, fell in pieces until the whole was no more.  They were so blinded by their own ambitions, their own desires, their own fears that they were unable to “see when relief [might] come”. 

How this lesson can be useful to the Church today is in understanding that the deterioration of the divided kingdoms did not happen overnight.  It was over a period of years the nation became increasingly dependent on its own resources, its own devices to face the growing threats.  Even as the threats grew and the prophets preached in both kingdoms, the people were so overwhelmed with paranoia (and maybe even with the arrogance of their status as “chosen” people) that they refused to believe the prophets who were sent to them by The Lord to call them back to Him.

It is a frightening thing to consider how easily (and virtually without notice) such cultural conditioning can reach such a fevered pitch that The Lord becomes incidental to our lives and our living that we cannot be bothered to worship together, to pray together, to work and serve together – for whatever reason, whatever excuse – with hardly no notice.  Has the Church in America become so arrogant in some sense of salvation entitlement that we refuse to believe we cannot also fall?  Have we become so dependent on “mere mortals” and “mere flesh” that we have convinced ourselves that no one (no One?) can or will save us besides ourselves and our own resources; perhaps some “magic pill” that will solve all our problems with no effort on our part?

Even for Judah at its worst, however, The Lord still reached out and offered protection and blessing to those “whose trust IS The Lord”.  No fear, no failure.  Yet the people of The Lord needed to be hit over the head with a skillet before they would finally wake up.  They had to be hurt before they could be helped.  By then it was too late, and all they had placed their trust in was gone – including their identity as The Lord’s “chosen”.

Pray that the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faithful will soon awaken before the deterioration we are witnessing before our eyes becomes total destruction.

Lord, have mercy!

Michael 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Thought for Wednesday 13 May 2015

“Jesus said, ‘How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the Kingdom of God.  It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.’  His disciples were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved?’  Jesus replied, ‘ With humans it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible!’”  Mark 10:24-27 NKJV

Recall that this passage follows the encounter Jesus had with the “rich young ruler” who inquired of Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”  After the young man had affirmed his commitment to the commandments, which Jesus still holds as necessary, Jesus told him he must sell all his possessions, give to the poor, then take up the cross and follow Him.  The young man walked away, of course, “for he had great possessions”.

Also notice that the disciples were probably not wealthy measured against the “young ruler”, and yet they were astounded that a refusal to give up possessions, great or small, stood between themselves and Paradise!  “Who then can be saved?”  It would seem that even with what little they may have had, they recognized and maybe even shared the young ruler’s sorrow and dismay!

It is telling for us to be asked how our future looks, and the first thing we will do is check our bank statements and investment portfolios, our Social Security estimate statements, and our pension funds.  Only then can we decide whether our future is secure.  It would appear, then, that this is exactly the mindset of the disciples when they considered that salvation for anyone was just this side of impossible because though they may not have had the “great possessions” of the young ruler, they had perhaps enough to consider themselves “comfortable”.

Jesus teaches that the measure of personal security may well be the “impossible” standard because we are asking the wrong question.  It is not, “What must I do to be saved?”, which is entirely self-serving and antithetical to Kingdom standards.  Rather, it may be more accurate to say, “What must I do to serve the Kingdom?”  The commandments are important in the life of faith, and Jesus affirms this.  Our obedience is the ultimate expression of our trust in The Lord’s Providence, even when we do not fully understand the commandments.  We trust that The Lord will show us the way.  That is faith, which has nothing to do with our intellectual capacity to believe something.  Yet there is much more asked of us than to merely refrain from harmful acts. 

Our embrace of what we think of as our possessions as our own is our curse, our albatross, the “mill stone” hung around our necks.  But when we understand what we have been entrusted with as tools of the Kingdom, the “impossible” standard is suddenly not so insurmountable.  Suddenly what was once “impossible” becomes entirely possible all because we trust not our possessions but our God. 

It is about asking the right questions.  It was not strictly the potential loss of possessions that compelled the young ruler to walk away.  It was the reality that possessions and salvation and life in the Kingdom are not strictly about “me”.  When we learn to ask the right questions, only then may we expect to find the right answers.  Then we will find the reason to drop everything, take up the cross, and follow Jesus.  Only then will a life of faith finally have meaning and purpose.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Thought for Monday 11 May 2015

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.  For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”  Matthew 18:10-11 NKJV

The “little ones” could be referring to new believers as easily as literal children, though child seems more likely given the overall context of chapter 18 (vs 2, vs 4, vs 5).  Yet we should also understand that a new believer, regardless of age, must be considered somewhat vulnerable, even gullible, depending on what they think they are looking for or have found.  If new believers in their prayers and confession have truly submitted themselves to The Lord, this makes them as vulnerable as a little child in that they are willing to trust and follow and learn.  And this defines our capacity to love: our willingness to trust, our willingness to be vulnerable to someone else.

This is the reason Jesus is adamant about their need for protection.  Maybe this passage, coupled with Psalm 91:11-12, gave rise to the idea of “guardian angels” charged with protecting us; celestial beings who “see the face of My Father” and report directly to the Throne of Mercy those who are being mistreated in any way. 

It’s a nice idea and may well be true, but I think it misses Jesus’ greater point in what He is trying to teach His disciples.  How easy it would be to simply turn over our responsibility and care for these “little ones” to angels so we can go on about our own business!  Yet we see through the overall context that Jesus is not calling out individuals to warn them they are on their own and strictly at the mercy of these angels.  Remember Jesus is actually building an “ekklesia”, a congregation, a community – what we now call the Church; the Body of Christ that should be always at its best in receiving “little ones” on a regular, ongoing basis.  The Church should be a “revolving door” of new believers coming in and disciples going out into the world to “make disciples”.

Like our own children, however, there is no magic moment that will suddenly make them ready for the harsh world they will face.  They must be taught.  They must be built up in responsible doctrine and encouraged in their newfound faith to understand and deal with what they are about to face.  Yet they should never be made so comfortable that they never want to leave!

So the “angels” Jesus refers to could very well be the celestial beings who do have direct audience with The Lord, but our Lord could also be referring to the more mature disciples of The Church who take their responsibility, their privilege to make disciples very seriously.  Perhaps these, too, have such direct access to The Throne in their prayers – especially when seeking guidance to teach and to train AND to report to The Lord those who abuse His beloved, the “lost” whom the Son of Man came to save.

Mature believers may not be celestial beings with supernatural power, but you and I are no less responsible for the care, the education, and the well-being of the “little ones”.  This is what we sign up for when we take our vows at baptism, at confirmation, at bar or bat mitzvah, and when we freely choose to call ourselves “members” of any “ekklesia”.  We get direct access to Glory, and we get to raise up new disciples.  I think we will never find the real meaning of life until we find ourselves involved in Real Life in Christ, in the Covenant, and in the community of faith.

Blessings,

Michael