Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 18 December 2014

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of The Lord; make His paths straight’.”  Matthew 3:3

John the Baptizer was the designated one who would prepare the way for Messiah to come, not into the world (the angels made that announcement), but to come into our lives.  Preparation, then, became necessary – and still is necessary.  How do we go about making such preparations?  What is it we can do that will make a “path” appropriate for the King of kings to trod?

In His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus teaches many lessons not least of which is the power and necessity of forgiveness.  He not only requires that before we can offer our gifts to The Lord, we must first go and make peace with “those who have something against you” (5:23-24); Jesus also requires that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:15).

I wonder why these simple yet profound commandments of Christ do not get more traction in the Church (believe me, I struggle as well!).  We seem entirely too wrapped up in finding someone whom we can hold responsible for the anger that seems so prevalent in our culture today, and then justifying our anger as a legitimate excuse for not offering forgiveness.  We can even find a lot to be angry about that does not affect us directly.

Actor Stephen Collins has finally come clean regarding allegations made earlier that he had had inappropriate contact with underage girls some 20-30 years ago.  He is paying a terrible price for his sins (his professional acting career may be completely over) as he should, but many who have no real stake in his past indiscretions are chiming in with raw hatred as if they had been directly impacted by his acts.

Instead of finding reasons to be angry (very easily done), maybe we should be actively engaged in charitable acts, acts of justice and mercy that can actually transform lives (not so easily done).  The people of the Covenant have been given a great gift in the birth of Messiah.  Yet even though Jesus taught about the Kingdom of Heaven, He did not establish the Kingdom on earth.  He has taught us that He will return again for that final Act.  It is that time for which we must prepare.

The people of the Covenant have been given that charge to “prepare the way of The Lord”.  It is past time for us to get to it.  Let go of the past, stop trying to find people to blame for your misery, and look forward to the fulfillment of the Ultimate Promise: that of the fullness of Life in Christ when the Kingdom is finally and completely upon us. 

There is much to do to “prepare the way”.  Let the Church go about it as we celebrate that most Wondrous Gift of all – the empowerment to do this Great Thing!

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Thought for Wednesday 17 December 2014

“For Zion’s sake I will not hold My peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a lamp that burns.  The Gentiles shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory.  You shall be called by a new name which the mouth of The Lord will name.  You shall also be a crown of glory in the hand of The Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.  You shall no longer be termed Forsaken, nor shall your land any more be termed Desolate …”  Isaiah 62:1-4 NKJV

You’ve no doubt heard the story of how a frog can be placed into a pot of water at room temperature, but will not try to escape the pot as the water is slowly brought to a boil.  The increase in the water’s temperature is so gradual that the body (and mind!) is given time to acclimate until the boiling water begins to do its damage. 

Of course we cannot imagine this happening to us because it is impossible for us to comprehend such a thing unless we actually experience it ourselves.  We would like to believe we are smart enough to jump out of a pot of water that begins to boil, but this is part of what social science understands about “conditioning”.  Over a period of time we go through changes we hardly notice.  We fail to understand how easily we are conditioned over time.

Israel went through the same social conditioning.  They were taught about their own religion, of course (assuming they put forth the effort to be taught), but they were conditioned to the surrounding cultures they were previously supposed to have completely destroyed.  The Lord had assured Israel He would drive out all the “-ites” whose religious and social practices were detestable to The Lord, but this would happen only if Israel would faithfully follow The Lord’s instruction to the letter.  They did not, as we know, so there were remnants left of a culture The Lord knew would entice Israel.

This reality of how easily humans are conditioned is why St. Paul encouraged the Ephesians to “walk circumspectly” (5:15) – that is, “think” about things as we perceive them and take nothing for granted – to think about things through the Scriptures and The Lord.  If we only react or respond impulsively, then we will do what is pleasing to our physical senses with little thought toward what The Lord would ask of us, ultimately taking His love for granted.

Although we are not offered excuses, the reality of how easily we can be enticed will not stop The Lord from doing what He intends to do through Israel.  The Lord intends not only to bless Israel but to bless the Gentiles through Israel’s “righteousness”.  So maybe we can see how easily Israel had been “conditioned” away from The Lord so that through the Exile, The Lord would “recondition” His people back to Himself! 

Especially considering The Story about to unfold in the season of Advent, surely we can see the great lengths to which The Lord will go to redeem His people, release us from our self-imposed prisons and chains, and give us the Life He has intended for us since the beginning!  All we have to do is respond with our choices, our lives, our decisions – and The Lord will take care of the rest!

Let not another moment slip past.  Embrace the reality of this Love, and let the Holy Spirit teach us!  Lord, bless Your Church!  And come soon, Emmanuel!

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday 16 December 2014

A pious and beloved but poorly dressed Chasidic rabbi took a lengthy train ride to teach Torah in a town far away. The well-to-do passenger seated next to him subjected him to insult and verbal abuse for most of the ride. When the train finally reached its destination, the rabbi was greeted at the station by thousands of excited disciples, anxious to learn at his feet. The disrespectful passenger looked mortified as he saw the scene unfold. "I'm so ashamed," he said. "I had no idea who you were. Please accept my apologies." The rabbi turned to him and said, "Don't apologize to me. Apologize to the anonymous nobody you sat next to on the train. When you insulted me, you did so because in your eyes, I was a nobody."
(Chasidic tale, adapted from Erica Brown's retelling)

“Whatever you do to the least of these, you do also to Me.” 

So says our Lord.  Isn’t it funny that a person’s appearance can (and often will) affect how we will treat them?  By their dress and demeanor and race, we make snap judgments all the time about the worthiness of a person and determine (too often) that such a person who is not up to our standards has no value and is not deserving of any semblance of human dignity.

We make these snap decisions all the time because we have been conditioned (rather than taught) to do so.  In part we do so for safety’s sake, but too often we do so for entirely the wrong reasons.  We too easily forget that Jesus taught us better so that when we do what we so easily do, we disappoint and perhaps anger the Very One who gave us the Life we often misuse and abuse; the same Life belonging to someone else we determine to have no real value, yet the same person for whom Jesus also died.

Let us remember that even those who have been sentenced to prison for the most heinous crimes still do, in the eyes of our Lord, have sacred value.  It is the same Divine Love our Lord extended at the Cross.  It is not a special kind of love reserved only for a few who choose to embrace it; it is the universal standard of Love extended to all of humanity irrespective of whether they will accept or reject it, whether they deserve it or not.  And that, dear friends, is the standard by which we are commanded to order our lives.  Anything less than our absolute best is not worthy of the title “Christian”.

We must reach deeper and try harder.  It is too easy to take our redemption for granted; and in doing so, we alienate so many who might otherwise find the nerve and the courage to join us on this remarkable journey we call “discipleship”.  It will all be worth it in the end.
Blessings,

Michael

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Thought for Monday 15 December 2014

“Instead of your shame you shall have double honor, and instead of confusion they will rejoice in their portion.  Therefore in their land they shall possess double; everlasting joy shall be theirs.”  Isaiah 61:7 NKJV

Not only was this the Promise to Israel in the midst of their exile, it is also the Promise to the people of the Holy Church who will endure this life with faith, with gratitude, and with a sense of holy purpose.  As Israel was being reminded of their “chosen” status as a “priestly nation”, so must the Holy Church reconnect to her source of Life so that our purpose may be found, embraced, and lived.

There is no better time to do so than during the season of Advent.  Just as the shepherds came to see upon the news of the birth of Messiah – and then went to tell – so must the Church rediscover the real joy of this blessed season; the privilege to “see”, and then the joy to “tell”.  Sadly, however, this is the time of year when we go a little overboard in telling our children about Santa Claus, more so than we tell them about the Messiah; and there are few among us who are not guilty to some degree.  We need only to look at the trouble many go to so their children can sit on Santa’s knee, but will not go to that much trouble to bring their children to Christ through the Church.

It is not enough to tell our children that Jesus was born; we must teach them how this wondrous story came about … and why.  Santa will not bring our children closer to Jesus, so we should probably stop trying to make Santa fit into the story.  It’s been fun, I will admit, but it may be that the generations of the past who were raised on a benevolent Santa who fulfills all wishes are those generations that have walked away from the Church, having connected the Santa “myth” with a Christ “myth”.  Talk about “confusion”!!  We have created a generation (or two) of agnostics!!!

Let us help our neighbors and our children get past the confusion of this life and the conflicting messages.  Let us tell them the Truth, the full Truth, the only Truth – because as it is so often said, if we do not teach our children how and why to follow The Lord, the world will fill their heads with “visions of sugar plums” and teach them not to.

Looking at the world we have created for ourselves, maybe it is time for us to grow up ourselves and stop the fantasies.  Israel was trying to have its cake and eat it, too; and this “confusion” led to their downfall as subsequent generations were not told The real Story.  Yet those who sought the Truth and worked to reconnect to that Truth were given this Promise of “everlasting joy” rather than seasonal bliss about a magical elf who brings the desires of the heart to good little children – but clearly ignores others with greater needs than a new Xbox.

Hold fast to what is good and true and right.  We are not “Santa people”; we are the Church, the Body of Christ.  There is no confusion in that.

Blessings,

Michael

Sunday, December 14, 2014

3rd Sunday of Advent: News we can use

Isaiah 61:1-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:19-28

“Because [Israel’s] shame was double and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy will be theirs.”  Isaiah 61:7

Isaiah’s words give me pause to consider the “lot” of the Church in our society much in the same way we should consider the “lot” of Israel in Isaiah’s context.  Depending upon whom we ask, of course, and what we consider of the Church’s past and present, there is plenty to be ashamed of.  Scandals and schisms have come and gone, and churches such as Westboro Baptist in Topeka KS get all the headlines and virtually "define" Christianity for the masses – and there will likely be more - but hospitals and schools and orphanages and shelters and soup kitchens and food pantries have sprung to life and served thousands in need by the hands of the Church whenever the Church has been faithful to Her calling. 

Isaiah’s writings are directed at a less-than-faithful people who had squandered their calling, their divinely appointed role as a “priestly” nation, a holy people set apart for YHWH’s purposes.  Yet in the face of Israel’s squandering of their holy calling, YHWH nevertheless remains faithful … not to Israel, per say, but to the Holy Covenant YHWH established with Israel.

Israel cannot avoid the “shame” and “dishonor” they brought upon themselves by denying YHWH’s true love: “justice” (Isaiah 61:8).  It is the same “shame” and “dishonor” the Church shares with Israel when the Church fails not only to speak up in the name of “justice” but fails also to act in the name of “justice”.  It is one thing to demand justice through legislation; it is another thing altogether to demand acts of justice from someone else – even a government agency – when we are unwilling to perform these acts of justice and mercy ourselves.

That’s the quandary the Church faces daily.  We can easily see through the lens of the New Covenant and the Great Commission that there is much to be done besides to simply exist as a building and hope people will get the message and maybe show up for worship, yet we are easily overwhelmed when the problems we are painfully aware of simply seem too big for us to handle – especially when the demands of our own lives require virtually all of our time and attention and energy.  The Advent season and the unreasonable demands we voluntarily impose upon ourselves – demands that often have little or nothing do to with the mission of the Church - make getting and staying properly focused on the Covenant even more challenging.

But this is entirely the purpose of Advent, a penitential season in which we are called to reflect and return; return to and embrace the Covenant, return to and embrace the Great Commission.  The birth of Messiah is a good place to start, but not in the way we have grown accustomed to.  Christmas is not, in and of itself, the sole focus of Advent.  As it has been said so many times before, Messiah will not be “born again”, and yet He will come again "to judge the living and the dead".  But what we have allowed Christmas to become in the Church is no help, for we have oriented ourselves to the fullness of the Advent season to be completed – over and done - on December 25. 

Yet within the reality and the hope of the New Covenant and the Great Commission, that blessed and holy Day on which humanity was so fully touched, is only the beginning.  Upon the news and remembrance of this Wondrous Day when "the Word became flesh", we take on the role of the shepherds who came to see – and then went to tell (Luke 2:17)!

Isaiah was speaking into the current reality of the Exile.  The book itself is filled with plenty of curses that would come as a result of faithlessness, but we cannot allow ourselves to become confused between “belief” as only an intellectual acknowledgement and earnest “faith” that calls us beyond ourselves and transforms our souls and lives.  We must not allow ourselves to be convinced that Israel had stopped “believing” and that this lack of "belief" somehow brought about the demise of a once-great nation.  Rather we must affirm an understanding that the faithlessness of Israel – the "faithlessness" of a “believing” and “chosen” people - was made manifest in their collective disobedience

They knew right from wrong – and they chose “wrong” over “right” ... in their actions and in their spiritual complacency.  It was not so much that they actively sought to do harm to their neighbors; it was more that they ignored their neighbors, the "widows and orphans" in distress.

As much as they had endured by their own failures which all but invited invading armies, however, YHWH chose to approach His beloved in the midst of their exile so they would know they had not been forgotten.  And this is that portion of Advent in which, during what should be a season of penitence and prayer and preparation for the Church, we are invited to look up from our own exile, see through the tears of our sorrow, and hear the Promise which is before us.  This is the purpose and the focus of Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent; “gaudete” being Latin for “rejoice”.  And the message from YHWH is this: I have not forgotten My Covenant.

As it was with Israel, YHWH may well be doing this very thing for the Church today.  We may, as individuals and as individual churches, believe all is well; but the collective Body of Christ (which should be our greater concern) is taking quite a beating – and will continue to take a beating for as long as we continue on our current course.  And it may get worse before it gets better as YHWH expects so much from His Body the Church (“To whom much has been given, much will be required”, Luke 12:48).  So the Church must be shaken from its complacency and realize its own desires and demands are not necessarily the Will of YHWH. 

Not much gets done for the sake of “justice” (which goes beyond mere ‘law and order’, by the way) when we are concerned only with ourselves, and our “outreach” is strictly limited only to those we like – or who look like us and act the way we think they should.  In other words, we don’t want to endure the hard and often uncomfortable and painful work of “making” disciples; we prefer to “recruit” new church members who are already so oriented and will be much more useful to us.  

In the middle of this spiritual complacency, however, our Lord (through the disciplined seasons of the Church, including Advent) reminds us that as disappointed as He may be in us, He has not stopped loving us and has not completely given up on us.  It then falls to us to respond to that reality in a real and socially tangible way – not simply take it for granted that He loves "me", and then call it "good".

We have heard these past couple of weeks the ominous warnings of YHWH’s return when the Final Judgment will be rendered.  Like Israel’s “chosen” status, we have confused our “redemption” and YHWH’s enduring mercy as an “excuse” to continue as before.  We have convinced ourselves that “repentance” is strictly for the non-believer; and this simply is not true, for the non-believer has no real concept of "repentance".  They only know loneliness and isolation - and very often, a judgmental Church.

On Gaudete Sunday, however, we are given a wondrous Gift.  We are reminded of a divinely appointed status which must be reclaimed and re-embraced!  It will not make us “perfect” – but it will remind us of who we truly are … and Whose we are when we learn and discipline ourselves to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes 5:16-18).  It is that Holy Embrace of Divine Will in which we are assured we will find once again that special status conferred on us as when we were baptized: “You are My beloved”; “and everlasting joy will be yours.”


Glory and honor to the Most High God – and peace to His people on earth!  Amen.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Thought for Monday 8 December 2014

“[The Lord] humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know; that [The Lord] might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone, but shall live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of The Lord.”  Deuteronomy 8:3 NKJV

It almost never fails that when bad things happen, or when things simply do not go the way we want or expect, we think “the devil is out to get me”.  It rarely seems to occur to us that sometimes stuff happens that we have no control over, and it may even be safe to say we never think maybe The Lord is trying to get our attention.  Our contemporary theology has become so cheap and easy that we all but demand prosperity (on our terms); and when it does not come about as we desire, it must be the devil’s fault. 

Worse than this, however, is how we have allowed cheap grace to become so much a part of our theology that others who do not know The Lord become convinced that a) there is no God, or b) the devil has more sway over us and our lives (when we give the evil one any credit whatsoever).  Either way, the sovereignty of The Lord is challenged with each careless word.

So we must back up a bit and see that even The Lord’s “most cherished possession” (Israel) had to be “humbled” not so The Lord could get His jollies, but so that Israel will come to know that we “shall not live by bread alone” (that is, the world’s goods).  The world’s possessions will never give us what we need most.  In fact it can be easily said that the more of the world’s goods we have, the more we desire.  “Enough” is not in our vocabulary.

Especially during this time of year as we busy ourselves with so much holiday prepping and shopping, even as we try to claim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, the reality is that Jesus is an afterthought – and the world can see that through careless Christians.  If Jesus can so easily be put in the “back seat”, so can “every word that proceeds from the mouth of The Lord” – for Jesus is “the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us”.

Instead of resolving to make this the “best Christmas ever”, resolve instead to give real meaning to this Holy Day we should more busily prepare in our hearts to commemorate.  That glorious day when the lowliest of them all, the ones who had nothing to give, the shepherds, were the very first to be made aware that the Messiah had come, that the Promise had been fulfilled.  Let us embrace the “Word made flesh” as if our lives depend on it – because our well-being does indeed depend on how eagerly we embrace The Word.

Blessings,

Michael

Sunday, December 07, 2014

7 December 2014 - 2nd Sunday of Advent - Christ the Way

“This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not being, but becoming.  All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified to gleam.”  Martin Luther

Martin Luther’s observation gives us every reason to maintain a proper level of humility when we are reminded that our Lord Jesus is “The Way; no one comes to the Father but by Me.” 

Our Lord made this bold proclamation, and the Church has since been struggling to understand it universally.  That is to say, Jesus meant one thing; we as individuals have taken great liberty to allow it to mean different things to different people. 

On the surface there is no dispute; the Messiah leads us to the Father.  This is why He came.  The disputes arise when we try to define individually what it means (or what we would rather it mean) to embrace Christ as The Way; that is, to define the whole of our being in Him – as He requires that we “abide in” Him as He “abides in” the Father (John 15:9-10). 

“I am The Way to the Father; as it may also be said, “I am The Way of the Father”.  What does this mean to us as The Church, as The Body of Christ Himself?  To look at the statement more holistically (all-encompassing), we will find not only The Way to the Father as we are “becoming” - but also The Way of the Father in living from day to day – being Christ in the world today by always becoming better than we currently are AND showing others The Way.

Therefore there must be more to it than a one-time prayer of confession.  The Way transcends baptism.  The Way must also involve much more than memorizing a particular creed or any Bible verse.  The Way even goes beyond worship, beyond offering a tithe, and even beyond participating in the Supper of The Lord.  All these practices are necessary to be fed, to learn and grow in faith and in love, to support the life and mission of the Church, and to pay homage to our God; but these acts in themselves do not speak exclusively to what it means to acknowledge Christ as The Way.  There is more; much more than any single event.

We began this Advent season last Sunday celebrating Christ as our Hope, not only to celebrate the newborn “Babe” who brought Light into a dark world but also to prepare ourselves for the Risen Christ who will return to “judge the living and the dead”, who will end the suffering and misery we know all too well, who will “wipe away every tear”, who will restore justice, who will bring the Kingdom forth – when all else has failed?  “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15a).

Now we are in the second Sunday of Advent, and the theme is Christ The Way.  So to be able to embrace the Hope that is Christ our Lord, we are compelled to explore more fully The Way of our Lord, what The Way looks like, and what The Way means for The Church – and what it can mean for those who do not yet believe. 

The people of the Church must learn to get past individual interpretations and strive to work together with holy purpose to ascertain The Way for us and for the community we are called to serve, and how we will as a Body “repent” from our individualistic desires consumerist demands, and with some sense of unity define for the world enslaved in darkness The Way of Christ.

The Baptizer prepared The Way for Jesus by calling the people to a baptism of repentance.  Jesus also proclaimed the message of repentance as the necessary means by which The Way will be found through the Gospel of The Lord, but even the call to repentance is only one piece of the luggage which must be carefully unpacked so as to draw closer to the full meaning of Christ The Way.  If Christ is The Way, we must look more carefully at The Way He went – as opposed to The Way we have been going for so long; The Way of the declining Church.

Pastor and writer Jonathan Dobson wrote an interesting piece not long ago (Church Leaders.com) in which he challenged the historic Church’s notion of “evangelism”; that is, what sharing the Message really means AND what it looks like.  Dobson wrote, “What can we do to be more believable to an inoculated, indifferent, and at times, antagonistic society?”

It seems as though he has determined we have already “said” all we can say.  Now we have to become “believable”.

He wrote, “I actually know someone who was asked this very question [about how to gain eternal life]. But instead of telling the person how to get eternal life, he avoided it by asking a question in return. He had the evangelistic ball all teed up, and didn’t even answer the question!”

Dobson goes on to say, “You’ll probably think of him as an evangelistic failure, especially after I tell you what he did next. Instead of inviting the seeker to repent and believe in the gospel—to have faith—this so-called evangelist told him he needed to do good works (serve the poor) before getting eternal life! Now he’s a failure not only by evangelistic standards but also by Reformed standards.”

The “evangelist” to whom the writer is referring is none other than Jesus Himself!  Jesus did not say, “You must accept Me as your personal Lord and Savior”, as has become the Reformed Tradition’s mantra.  Jesus goes farther and deeper to define what it means to call Him “Lord”; what it looks like to embrace “The Word made Flesh” as The Way of salvation itself: embrace the commandments not as a list of rules but as The Way of living. 

It is indeed written in Mark’s Gospel (1:15, as it is written elsewhere) that Jesus began His ministry in Galilee with this proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News!” 

Repentance involves much more than to simply confess our sins.  Even to proclaim belief engenders so much more from us than to say, “I believe it to be so”.  Rather that faith must be made manifest in a real way not only for the sake of the continued Mission of the Church but also for the believability of that Mission and the Gospel that informs us and ultimately compels us to look up from our navel gazing!  This requires a real investment of all who claim the Name – and an abiding Trust that we are “doing” right things rather than worrying about merely “believing” right things.

As it is so often said, people do not believe what we say; but they will believe what we do.  And frankly, The Way we will actually come to believe the Gospel as the Good News it is, is to actually DO the Gospel in the community. 


It is what Martin Luther believed to be the heart of the Christian community; the essence of “becoming” in plain sight for all to see, for all to believe.  When we embrace The Way of Christ as our own way, so will others who yearn for the Truth to be revealed to them.  And this, my dear friends, will be enough to get us back on track.  To the glory of God the Father and Christ the Word – and by the power of the Holy Spirit, may we all say, “Amen!”