Sunday, July 05, 2015

Strength in Weakness

1 Kings 19:9b-12
2 Corinthians 7b-10
Mark 6:1-13

“To wish for nothing more than need demands is rest supreme, with simple food and dress to feed and clothe our bodies and to seek no more than is prescribed by nature’s wants.”  “The Spiritual Combat”, Prudentius (348AD-405AD)

There is the most incredible irony in this brief passage from Mark’s gospel that had not occurred to me before.  Verses 1-6 speak of Jesus’ limitations in that “He could do no deed of power …” (vs 5) even though there were apparently some He was able to heal; but the passage ends with Jesus being amazed at their unbelief” (vs 6).

Then we move into the second portion of the reading in which Jesus commissioned the Twelve to go out “two by two and gave them [presumably HIS] authority over unclean spirits” (vs 7).  The disciples were given explicit instructions on what to take with them and how to act; so apparently following Jesus’ careful instructions, “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them” (vs 13).

Can we not see the strange irony?  The Messiah Himself was working with His hands tied behind His back and was only able to heal a “few”, but His disciples were endowed with [Jesus’] authority over unclean spirits” (after all, whom else can even have that authority?) and were able to heal “many”.  How can it be that the One who inherently possesses that kind of Power can change the lives of only a few while those so endowed with that same Power were enabled to change the lives of many?

The first part of the reading gives us a clue, but it’s still a little hard to understand how the people can so easily reject a “home town boy” they have apparently known for most of His life, maybe having grown up with Him.  What is interesting in this context, however, is that the setting for this rejection may be found in a collection of ancient books known as “The Lost Books of the Bible”. 

In one particular “Lost” book entitled, “Thomas’ Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus”, Jesus is written of as a rather mischievous child who had to be checked by Joseph more than once.  Some of the stories would be far-fetched for the average Christian reader, of course, because we have been acclimated by Luke’s Gospel (2:41-51) to an ideal child who got into trouble with His parents only once, when He became separated from them in Jerusalem during Passover at the age of twelve years.  When the Boy was finally found, He was in the Temple involved in discussions with the teachers who were amazed at His understanding and His answers” (vss 46-47); perhaps much in the same way Jesus was amazed at unbelief in Nazareth.

So we Christians have a traditional understanding of an exceptional Boy who never got into mischief, who never gave His folks a hard time especially after the Jerusalem incident (“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to [His parents]”, vs 51) – a Babe who didn’t even cry in the manger, according to the popular Christmas hymn!  The One who was without sin (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We are still left to wonder how it could be that Jesus was being rejected by the hometown crowd while preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Even if we will not embrace or even acknowledge the extra-biblical accounts of “Lost Books”, there is still something amiss in a crowd that is being told of Good News, a crowd that has apparently seen or at least has heard about Jesus’ “deeds of power” (vs 2).  And yet this son of a carpenter who was a working man, son of Mary, brother of other local town folk, had somehow “offended” the hometown crowd (vs 3). 

Mark doesn’t give us a lot of background before Jesus is rejected by His hometown, but Matthew’s Gospel offers several parables in chapter 13 leading up to Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth.  This at least helps to explain how the crowd had such a hard time accepting Jesus in this new role as “rabbi” or teacher, having been the son of a carpenter, having been a working man Himself.  We are given no real account of Jesus’ education in the Gospels, though the “Lost Books” mention Jesus having been so instructed – but even then Joseph had been told by the rabbis that Jesus already knew the stuff they were trying to teach Him, including the Scripture! 

Whether of the Lost Books or the Bible we are more familiar with (as well as our own home-made traditions!), we’re left with the understanding that Jesus can be no less than what He was born to be.  If He is indeed “Emmanuel” (God with us), then what can it be that He does not or would not know?  How can we mere mortals amazethe Son of God?

Well, apparently just as the elders in Jerusalem were amazed at the wisdom of the Boy Wonder, even the Son of God is amazed at … unbelief”, whether “theirs” at Nazareth or ours in hometown Arkansas USAAnd perhaps it is that the Son of the Most High God, for all He has done and will do when He returns, is still somewhat restricted in what He fully desires to do today in the here-and-now – not because the evil one has Him ham-strung, but because The Church – His very Body - continues to struggle with taking Him at His Word.

Or perhaps it is that because we are already comfortable with whatever it is we’ve settled for in the way of knowledge or what we choose to believe, any “messenger” who challenges our fond traditions – say, a messenger who lacks any acceptable-to-us credentials, such as denominational or political affiliation or nationality or gender or age or color or any other imperfections (at least in our eyes and minds) – is not a messenger worth listening to.  It could even be that we become a little too familiar with a messenger and his or her real imperfections to the point that we will no longer listen. 

Regardless, that messenger had better be plugged in to what his or her crowd already believes if he or she wishes to be taken seriously – which is impossible but apparently necessary - because anything outside the realm of what we have already established for ourselves as “fact” or even truth will be soundly rejected without having heard the first word.  Yet we remember it is perhaps The Lord Himself being rejected, not the messenger – as written in 1 Samuel 8, Luke 10, and 1 Thessalonians 4

But we cheat ourselves.  For our strength is not in whatever it is we’ve already settled for, however.  In matters of theology and biblical doctrine, reaching any “conclusion” as if it is settled is a profound weakness, and a spiritually debilitating one at that. 

No, our real strength comes only from our desperate need; as in our refusal to settle for “basic knowledge” (Hebrews 6) and our prayerful determination and never-ending quest for spiritual “perfection” for which we strive as though we may actually attain it in this life as the Divine Treasure it truly is.  Our real strength is to be found only when we admit we are not so strong after all.

None of this is to suggest we should believe everything we’re told, not at all.  We must still prayerfully discern between what is consistent with the whole Gospel (of course, this requires prayerful study in The Word) and what strikes at the heart of genuine faith, that exclusively God-given capacity to fully trust The Lord, the One we cannot see, not only with our immortal souls but also with our daily living in devoted and faithful obedience.  When we choose to live only with what we have chosen to believe based on our own desires, there is the inherent danger of trying to stand only on the strength we try to achieve on our own – which can be better translated as misplaced spiritual arrogance.

But when we fully surrender to the reality of The Lord and His mercy and fully submit ourselves to Him and His sovereignty, then we are enabled to stand on and in HIS STRENGTH – not our own.  Only then we will become formidable.  Only then can we even hope to become immortal. 


The Lord is not our “co-pilot” as if we may be in charge of our lives until we get into trouble or become incapacitated.  The Lord our God is THE Pilot in whom we must fully trust – and it must be more to us than a cheap slogan posted on social media, printed on money or on a bumper sticker!  Only in that will we find the Strength to endure and, ultimately, the Strength to overcome all we must face in the world today.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 30 June 2015

“I will call upon The lord, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies.”  Psalm 18:3

In the Bible and in our own lives, we can usually recount the times when we deliberately set out to “call upon The Lord”.  The psalmist seems to be at a pretty low point in life, but there are other instances of extreme joy when we feel so blessed we cannot help but to shout out to The Lord!  But what about those times in between the lows and the highs, say around 2pm on a Tuesday?  There is nothing special about Tuesday afternoon; it’s just another day, another afternoon of work.  What about then?

We typically run in cycles between the lows and the highs, but the drudgery of daily living can often just wear us down.  We go through the motions of our daily task without thinking much about The Lord at all.  It’s just life.

In the Scripture, however, we are constantly reminded of The Lord’s presence – even in the mundane; but because we are often so caught up in whatever is right in front of us, calling upon The Lord seems … out of place.  Unnecessary.  After all, this is our “real life”, right?  No need to get caught up in religion.  What will our co-workers or golf partners or fishing buddies think of us?

It seems to me that the many promises of the Bible get lost on us most of the time precisely because we have never really taken The Lord at His word; e.g., “I am with you always …”  We deliberately get caught up in gossip without fully realizing the depth of this Assurance.  We get lost in our anger whenever things do not go the way we intended, and fail to realize the breadth of this Assurance.  And we get bound up in the mundane things of “real life” without realizing His assurance is directly connected to any sort of life we can hope or expect to have.

Moses encouraged the people of Israel to be mindful of The Lord’s presence always: “You shall teach [the Law] to your children diligently, and shall talk of [the commandments, statutes, and ordinances] when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:7-9).  In other words, pick a moment of daily living when it would not be appropriate to give The Lord His due.

Israel was about to enter into “everyday living”, and Moses was concerned that mundane life would soon overtake them to the point of forgetfulness and taking each precious moment of life for granted.  Looking around, it is easy to see that the Church (the WHOLE Church) has become so complacent, taking Jesus’ life and Death for granted.  It is time to wake up, and see the glory of The Lord even in the mundane.  No need to wait for high points, and we certainly should not live in fear of the low points!  See Him now, right now!  “For I am with you always.”  This afternoon at 2pm, you have a Date!

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Thought for Monday 29 June 2015

It’s always the same thing.  One guy says, “God’s not dead” (and yes, this is also a movie title), and suddenly the flood gates burst open with Christians declaring their allegiance … until an atheist/agnostic/internet troll demands, “Prove it”.  It makes me think of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day demanding “signs” (Matthew 12:38).  In that particular text Jesus refers to Jonah and his message to the people of Nineveh, the people who repented and turned to The Lord after hearing Jonah’s message.  The people of Nineveh, Jesus says, “will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah” (vs 41). 

What is it that makes a devout atheist demand a “sign”?  And what sort of “sign” would it take to make an atheist come around?  What sort of “sign” would push an agnostic off the fence?  Come to think of it, what kind of “sign” would bring complacent Christians around and back into the fellowship of the Church?  What sort of “sign” would convince Christians that being “saved” does not give us license to do as we please when we please?  That being “saved” does not make adultery, idolatry, lust, slander, hatefulness, vindictiveness, and vengeance somehow magically righteous? 

When the rich man died and was “in torments in Hades” (Luke 16:19-31), he begged Abraham to allow Lazarus, who had also died and was resting in the “bosom of Abraham”, to go back and warn his family about what awaits them (apparently his family was as selfish and uncaring as he).  Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (vs 29).  The formerly rich man insisted that nothing short of the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus would convince them, but Abraham replied, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead”.

Remember Jesus was telling that story.  More than simply imparting a parable, however, Jesus was indicating that even upon His own Resurrection there will still be many who will not believe.  If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will a resurrection get through to them.

In both instances (Jonah/Nineveh and Lazarus/rich man) Jesus points backward as the way forward for the people of faith.  What we need to know in order to serve Jesus and His Church faithfully is in the Law (not just the Ten Commandments) and the prophets, both of which Jesus came to fulfill/perfect.  That Law from which Jonah preached saved Nineveh.  That same Law, from which Jesus taught and which affirms that “the first will be last, and the last first”, saved Lazarus and condemned the rich man. 

So what is the “sign” we all desire?  And let’s face it; from time to time even the faithful would really like to have some kind of affirmation, some sort of validation for enduring this life, taking the punches we sometimes take!  Jesus teaches that a “sign” was given long ago and that if we are unwilling to believe that, there is likely nothing else – not even a resurrection – that will convince us. 

But what are we trying to be convinced of?  Or what are we trying to convince others about?  The plausibility of a living God?  Or the reality of a loving God? 

I think that question must be answered first before we can even begin to answer questions of unbelievers.

Blessings,

Michael

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The world is on fire - and all I have are matches

Leviticus 19:14-18
Romans 14:14-21
Mark 9:42-50

“A tree is known by its fruits; a man by his deeds.  A good deed is never lost.  He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”  St. Basil

“Looking to The Lord rather than to any crisis at hand is a timeless principle in Scripture”, says one systematic theology professor (Norman R. Gulley, “Focus on Christ, not the crisis”, Ministry: a journal for pastors, July / August 2015).  As one only example, he cites Judah’s King Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20) who was facing an overwhelming invading army.  Rather than make preparations for war, the king and all of Judah turned immediately to The Lord in prayer and fasting.  In part the king prayed: “If disaster comes upon us … we will stand before this temple and in Your presence (for Your Name is in this temple), and we will cry out to You in our affliction, and You will hear and save” (vs 9 NKJV).

Come what may, then, according to the prayer of the faithful, we will cast our gaze continually upon The Lord – in victory and in defeat, in success and in failure, in good times and in bad.  Come what may, O Lord, teach us to always look to You! 

This was the prayer of the faithful then, and it must become once again the prayer of the faithful now – because The Lord answered the nation’s prayer: “Do not be afraid nor dismayed because of this [approaching army], for the battle is not yours but The Lord’s” (vs 15).  Judah would still be required to face this crisis head-on, in faith, in person, and in reality; but they were also instructed, “Position yourselves, stand still, and see the salvation of The Lord, who is with you, O Judah!” (vs 17)

It seems lately we are jumping from one crisis to another, and Friday morning put icing on the cake.  The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-gender marriage, knocking down the last of the remaining 17 US states’ prohibitions; and Islamic terrorists entered into their holy month of Ramadan – which is supposed to be about fasting and repentance - with sweeping terror attacks around the world, urging the “faithful” to bring calamity on the “infidels”. 

It occurred to me, however, that as much as Christians are “accused” by unbelievers for being more about what we are against rather than standing up for what we believe in, actually trusting The Lord, crises have enormous potential for not only challenging our faith and our beliefs but also for refining our faith in daring us to draw closer to The Lord rather than to try and set traps of our own making for the wolves at the door – traps we and our loved ones could just as easily fall into. 

It may well be the “beginning of the end” as so many doomsday prophets are fond of saying, but that is not our business nor does it pertain to our mission and our purpose for being the Church.  Just as Judah was compelled by The Lord’s blessing to position themselves to face the impending crisis of invasion, they were equally compelled to “stand still” and let The Lord do what The Lord will do – not to their own satisfaction but to The Glory of The Lord.

The psalmist writes, “Be still, and know I am The Lord.  I will be honored by every nation, and I will be honored throughout the world” (46:10 NIV).  An interesting translation of that same verse in the New American Standard Bible reads: “Cease striving …” Another translation from the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads: “Stop your fighting …” Still another reads: “Let go [of your concerns] …” (God’s Word translation).

In the end the message is the same: Let Me be The Lord, let Me be the Almighty and Eternal, let Me be Large and in Charge.  TRUST ME.

St. Paul encourages us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:14-15).  In other words, our business is taking care of and looking out for our “neighbors”.  In this, then, the Law of The Lord is admonishing us to do those things that are within our power to do; but to those things over which we have no control whatsoever, we must not try to gain any measure of control – lest we end up doing more harm than good.

As in the case of Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), the zealous and devoted workers can clearly see the “weeds” invading the good “wheat” and are ready and willing to go jerk out those “weeds” lest they spread.  The master, however, tempers their enthusiasm by pointing out that in the early stages of development, it is often hard to tell the difference between the good wheat and the weeds.  Once the wheat is fully grown, then the “harvesters” will take care of the weeds – when the time is right.  When The Lord declares the Time to be right.

It’s a pretty tall order for us to hold our tongues and refrain from actions we believe to be appropriate and necessary.  It is especially hard to “turn the other cheek”, “bless” those who mistreat us, and resist returning an evil act with yet another evil act – especially as we justify our aggressive responses biblically.  In our burning passion for righteousness, we do not often see this only perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred we and our children and our children’s children have become all too familiar – and entirely too comfortable – with!

We must not ignore what is actually happening in our responses; not what we hope will happen.  To perpetuate the cycles of evil not only makes things worse instead of better, it also places that dreaded and cursed “stumbling block before the little ones” (Mark 9:42).  Not only the children but also the new Christians “young” in the faith who are watching us for direction and inspiration. 

Whenever we take strong and aggressive measures to fight against something – especially something over which we have no control and no right to control – we deny The Lord His own sovereignty over such overwhelming matters AND we teach the “little ones” that to “be still” and let The Lord be The Lord is not the American Way.

We face the “fires” of our culture with only more matches – and maybe a little gasoline for good measure ... and in so doing, our lack of faith is being exposed.

There can be no denying St. Paul’s writing is specifically referring to the issue of clean and unclean food; but we must also not deny that the principle to which Paul is appealing is much broader than its application toward what is fit to eat and what is not.  He is asking, What are we teaching people, believers and unbelievers alike?  What is it exactly that we are testifying to?

That terrorists are a threat to our safety and national security?  That same-gender marriage is a threat to the Church, to religious liberty, and to the stability of the institution of marriage itself?  Or can more be done by “standing still” and trusting The Lord to be The Lord?  Like, say, testify to the Truth of the Holy Scripture as it is written and as it is being revealed

Like when Jesus told His disciples the world would hate them, can we not see our Lord was telling the Truth?  Like when Jesus taught that His faithful would have a hard row to hoe, can we not now see that He was telling us the Truth?  Like when St. Paul said a time of apostasy and sacrilege would come to pass, when many will trade the Truth for a lie, can we not see that he was teaching the Truth?

I am not going to tell you we are living in the Last Days, my friends, for that is not my call … nor is it yours.  What I can tell you is that what we are seeing is what our Lord told us we would see.  We are now first-hand witnesses to The Truth which we can now easily prove to be True!  And if our Lord was telling us the Truth about these things which have come to pass, can we not also take Him at His Word that when the smoke is cleared and the sheep and goats are separated, that the faithful will find themselves on the Right Side of The Lord?  YES!

Our world is not falling apart, for this is not “our” world.  We are merely passing through on our mission.  Our Lord has shown time and again that He is good for His own Word.  While it may seem a hopeless and dark time for the Church, surely we can see now that something more is being revealed.  It is not now a better time for threats “before it is too late”. 

Rather it is time now to see that what is written in the Scripture is not some fairy tale!  More than threats to unbelievers is the Promise to all who would trust The Lord completely by taking Him at His Word!  We are seeing the Truth laid out before us, and it is a great and wondrous Gift to “be still, and see the salvation of The Lord” who will fight these insurmountable battles for Himself … and for us – if we will let Him!

It is time to put down the “matches” of our anger and the “gasoline” of our despair lest we burn ourselves and other innocent persons.  It is time to put on the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-18) and stand firm in our faith and in His righteousness.  “For the battle is not yours but The Lord’s – who is with you” … even until the end of the age.”


It is time to “position ourselves and be still”; for the Truth is being revealed to us - one crisis at a time.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 25 June 2015

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falls.”  Luke 11:17 NKJV

Watching and reading the continuing controversy of the old Confederate Battle Flag in light of last week’s horrific shooting in Charleston SC, it occurs to me that we are not so much mindful of the eternal Word of The Lord revealed in Christ as we are our own individual agendas and personal demands.  We are also perhaps not so mindful of who we really are – especially as so many insist we are a “Christian nation founded on Christian principles”.

The Stars and Bars represented an ideal that, unfortunately, divided a nation and pushed it to war, brother against brother.  We can insist upon “state’s rights” in the heritage of the Confederacy and the flag that represents it, but we cannot deny that these few states insisted upon their own sovereignty as it pertained to their insisted-upon “right” to buy and sell human beings who had been kidnapped from their homelands, captured and forcibly removed from their own sovereignty.

The Stars and Stripes also represent an ideal, but that ideal has been less than ideal throughout the course of this nation’s history.  Under the Stars and Stripes, slavery was condoned.  Under the Stars and Stripes, the genocide of Native Americans was practiced as a matter of official US government policy.

Yet under the Stars and Stripes came the Emancipation Proclamation.  Under the Stars and Stripes finally came the understanding that “all are [truly] created equal”.  Under the Stars and Stripes, women were recognized as possessing the right to vote.  Under the Stars and Stripes, the Civil Rights Movement opened our eyes – if not our hearts.  Under the Stars and Stripes, the tyranny of Nazi Fascism and Japanese Imperialism was turned back and soundly defeated, surrendering to the ideal of the Stars and Stripes “without condition”.

A house united can do remarkable things, and a nation united in Christ can do miraculous things; but a “kingdom divided against itself” represented only by a piece of cloth but personified by hearts of stone will soon bring “desolation” upon itself.  And the reason Jesus brings this to our attention, I think, is within the reality that while we are individual beings, we are more predominantly communal beings created in the Divine Image.  We have families, we have churches and synagogues, and we live in communities in which the well-being of the whole community depends on our ability and willingness to see to the well-being of others.  If we are only concerned about ourselves and our own rights with no mind or heart toward the rights of others, the “house” (such as it is) cannot help but to fall.

The heritage of a mighty nation as the United States must not be defined strictly by the past, for it can truly be said our past as a nation is not so pretty or noble.  Rather the heritage, whether of Stars and Stripes or Stars and Bars, informs our present and directs our future.  If we are the “Christian nation” we proclaim ourselves to be, we must embrace the Christian elements of the Holy Scripture in which it is written, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  We must not focus on “if it is possible” and look for reasons to be hateful or vindictive, however, for our Lord Jesus commanded that we never “return evil for evil”.

“Why do you worry about clothing [or a piece of cloth]? … Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and [all you can possibly need] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:28, 33).  As many have said, “Let the Main Thing be the Main Thing always”.  Not the crisis at hand, but Christ always – the Eternal Word of the Living God!

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Thought for Tuesday 23 June 2015

“Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God, but exhort one another daily while it is called ‘Today’, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”  Hebrews 3:12-13 NKJV

Mutual accountability is a very hard concept for probably most Christians, and it has become more difficult in a society that loves to quote the Bible (“judge not”) but does not understand the “God breathed” element of the Holy Scripture.  It may also be said that we find it difficult to tell the difference between “judging” and “discerning”.  To “judge” is to render a final decision as if we know all we need to know; to “discern” is to know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, that which is “God-breathed” and that which is determined by the dominant culture.

What is more difficult to understand about mutual accountability (especially for those who are being challenged or called on their less-than-godly actions or words) is the depth of love required to call someone to account.  We know we risk what we believe to be valued friendships, but how much of a friend can we consider ourselves to be if we refuse to call a friend on his or her behavior that is demeaning and damaging to the Church and to their souls, challenging their gossip and hateful, hurtful words?  How much love can we be said to have for a friend if we can clearly see them running toward the edge of a cliff but do nothing to stop them before they fall into the abyss?

The truth is that whatever ‘love’ we may think we are feeling is actually ‘love’ directed at ourselves.  That is, we are unwilling to make an uncomfortable situation not because we don’t want a friend to feel badly but because we don’t want to feel badly ourselves.  It cannot be said we ‘love’ our friends or family members if we are unwilling to protect their immortal souls but are more concerned with our own feelings.

When we are among unchurched friends, we typically shy away from discussions about religion in general and The Lord specifically because we do not want to make our unchurched friends uncomfortable, but this cannot be construed as ‘love’ if we do not want to offer to them what we believe has given depth and meaning to our own lives.  This, too, is a form of self-love in that we are more concerned about how we will be personally affected, how we might alienate someone who will no longer want to spend time with us.

The Church today has gotten entirely too wrapped up in trying to be so ‘relevant’ to the unbelieving culture that we have freely surrendered our capacity to be faithful to The Lord and His Church.  We want to be ‘liked’, we want to be ‘popular’, we want people to invite us to their homes and their parties.  We don’t want to be considered a ‘downer’ or a Jesus freak.

Jesus assures us of many things, good things, things of life and joy and peace; but Jesus also assures us that being faithful to Him will bring dissension and conflict even among family and friends, and even loneliness and despair – IF we are too wrapped up in our own little world and not fully connected to Him and His Church, His Body, the “ekklesia”, His faithful.  It is a tall order for many of us because, frankly, Jesus is not so real to us.  He is a comfortable Sunday concept, but even this idea is not quite so clear when we consider how easily we can be swayed to not attend worship and Bible study and prayer gatherings.  The truth is we do not want Jesus ‘Today’; we only want Him at our deathbed.

But ‘Today’ is the only Day we can count on.  ‘Today’ is the only certainty we have in this world, in this life.  We are not promised ‘Tomorrow’, so ‘Today’ is our moment, our opportunity to turn things around for our families, our friends, our children, our grandchildren.  If we really want them to understand the fullness of life in faith, we must be living and breathing the reality of that faith and the joy it brings.  Faith and religion must never become incidental to us, our lives, and our daily choices.  Our faith and our religion must always be primary to everything else.  It is everything else which must become incidental.

We must learn to redirect our attention, redirect our focus, and be unapologetic for being faithful to The Lord, and for this we need our friends, our true friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ; for in all of Eternity and whatever that may mean, The Lord is all we have.  He is our ‘Today’, and only He can assure our ‘Tomorrow’.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Thought for Monday 22 June 2015

“When you come to serve The Lord, prepare yourself for testing.  Set your heart right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity.  Cling to Him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous.”  Sirach 2:1-3 (The Apocrypha)

It has long been known that turning to The Lord and giving our lives over to Him will bring challenges.  When we make that decision to repent of an old life, even those who were once considered our friends may well turn against us.  The more determined we are to serve The Lord and Him alone, the more temptations we will face because in our old life those temptations were just a part of who we once were and what we once did.

To be tested by The Lord, however, does not mean we will face obstacles for their own sake.  Rather we are being prepared for even more obstacles that will certainly come.  The test is not an attempt to hold us back.  The test is to help us to grow stronger so that as we face even greater obstacles, we will be prepared and enabled to overcome them.

Sometimes it is hard to decide whether we are being tested by The Lord or by the culture that considers “godliness as an abomination” (Sirach 1:25b).  What we must understand is that transformation from our old selves to the New Creation in Christ means there will be challenges and growing pangs.  Like ancient Israel in the wilderness, it will seem much easier to turn back to the old life when we functioned more by instinct – always going for what pleases us - than by purposeful decisions after thoughtful consideration and deciding we are better off without those temptations.

The reality of these challenges, however, always reminds us of our need for the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faithful.  Our need is always for fellow disciples who are prepared and willing to help us to endure the storms we will certainly face – and to hold us accountable to a life of faith.  This is the strength of the fellowship and is part of why the Church was called forth.

Hold fast to what pleases The Lord, for “fidelity and humility are His delight” (Sirach 1:27b).  His Wisdom alone will reveal our next steps.

Blessings,

Michael

A Method (ist) to our Madness

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
1 Peter 1:10-23
Matthew 22:34-40

“As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.  So that whatsoever these opinions are, whether right or wrong, they are no distinguishing marks of a Methodist.”  John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist”

The common joke about and perhaps among largely uninformed Methodists is the presumed lack of defining doctrine.  It is (or once was) a running joke that it is easy to be a Methodist because we can believe whatever we wish!

This notion may be an allusion to John Wesley’s “think and let think” observation, but Wesley was generally referring to anything that did not “strike at the root of Christianity”.  So it cannot be said that Methodists don’t believe anything – OR – that Methodists believe anything or everything.  This may be true of some who identify as Methodist, but it is not the mark or the character of a Methodist.

Our doctrinal heritage distinguishes us in that we do not “look like” Catholics OR Protestants even though we share much with both.  Our heritage does not make us better or worse than any other denomination, and it certainly does not make us closer to “right” or further from “wrong”.  Being Methodist does not exclusively bring us closer nor does it push us further away from the Truth itself which is claimed exclusively by Christ alone.

In the early days of the movement (and it is a MOVE-ment!), “Methodist” was a term of distinction … but not in a good way.  It was a derogatory term that did distinguish those early disciples of John Wesley who had approached the priest to help them to discover a more disciplined and purposeful approach to discipleship and spiritual growth.  There was no existing “method” involved (at least in their eyes); it was enough to simply “believe” and show up for church.  They were hungry for more, they knew in their hearts there was more to be had, and they wanted it.

It is fair to say, then, that a “method” was born from this encounter – not from Wesley’s answer but, rather, from the hunger of those who were seeking!  This, my dear friends and fellow Methodists, is our heritage - born of spiritual hunger rather than opinions!

We must not misunderstand what is implied in “method”, however, lest we lose sight of the unique nature of the relationship we are to pursue within that “method”.  We must not be trying to become “holier than thou”.  Like the married relationship, we know (or should know) that active engagement in that relationship EVERY*SINGLE*DAY is of the utmost importance.  We must not take for granted that our spouses will just love us for simply being there, and we should not take a whole lot of comfort in what can often be the empty and habitual words, “I love you”.  The engagement in the relationship requires effort and devotion and DOING and sacrifice lest that relationship disintegrate into nothingness.  This active engagement is the very heart and heart BEAT of the Methodist movement.

It might also be noted that the beginning of decline in Methodism came when Methodism stopped being a “movement” and became more of an “institution” of brick and mortar and social respectability, when its foundation became concrete rather than Christ Jesus.

Of course “brand name” in denominations does not have the impact it once had.  In the so-called “good ol’ days” Methodists went to Methodist churches, Catholics went to Catholic churches, and Baptists went to Baptist churches.  The churches were full because it was the socially acceptable, responsible, and expected thing to do; to take the family to church on Sunday. 

But it might also be said there was truly nothing else to do on Sundays.  Blue laws in some states discouraged or prohibited buying and selling on Sunday, particularly products that promoted vice or labor.  Pot lucks and family gatherings after worship (rather than instead of worship) were the norm, children played in the yard, and adults drank lemonade and iced tea on the front porch. 

The “good ol’ days”, very idyllic, very Norman Rockwell … and more likely than not, the “faithful” had no real doctrinal knowledge and did not want any.  For them it was enough to simply “believe”, go to church, and then completely disengage until the next Sunday.

But a funny thing happened over the years.  As the kids grew up and began to ask more in-depth questions about the Bible stories they were taught in Sunday school, they were – more often than not – being told (in a nutshell), “It’s in the Bible and just needs to be believed”.  It wasn’t an untruthful answer, of course, but the kids were asking “why” questions rather than “what” questions.  And they were asking because they were unable to make the stories of the Bible connect in a real way.  So in an understanding of the Church’s God-given and Christ-directed duty to the faithful, the children (and likely also their parents) were not being adequately “fed”.

John 21:14-17: “Do you love Me?  Then feed My lambs … tend My sheep … feed My sheep.”  Over the course of time, the Church tried to do this very thing through coherent and meaningful doctrine; the human response to the Divine Mystery.

Doctrine can be a tricky thing, though.  It seems doctrine has done more to divide the Church into denominations rather than define the Church Universal as one Body because of the implication that if “this” is the doctrine of the Church, we must believe it – and not everyone did or even could because they were given the “what” rather than the “why”.  Still being told a series of “stories” rather than THE Story.

Yet there is the Mystery of the Revelation in Christ which requires a human response.  Sometimes there are no words sufficient to express our response, so we struggle.  Sometimes the struggle becomes so overwhelming that we just quit.  Like the sad and regrettable dissolution of so many marriages in our “it’s-all-about-me” culture, it becomes easier to simply walk away. 

Still others choose to explore and dig deeper.  We ask questions and seek answers.  And when we do not find the answers we’re looking for (or find no answers at all), we make something up that makes sense to us.  And we “adjust” our opinions over time as we mature (but not necessarily in the faith) and somehow convince ourselves we are that much closer to The Truth – or worse, that we have arrived and that our journey is somehow complete.

But Wesley’s understanding of the “Character of a Methodist” had nothing to do with drawing any definitive conclusions except for perhaps one: “We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith AND practice.”  Yes, our Methodist understanding of the written word in both First and New Testaments is that all we need for salvation is written for us to know.  However, to simply arrive at the conclusion of “saved by faith alone” misses the mark of what Wesley understood about an enduring and progressive relationship with the Lord in sanctifying grace.

To the belief of “saved by faith alone”, Wesley answered, “You do not understand the terms.  By salvation it is meant holiness of heart and life”.   Wesley (and ultimately Methodism) rejected the notion of any religious “silver bullet” or doctrinal “magic pill” that defined salvation even as he maintained that faith alone does breed and give rise and strength and meaning and purpose to “holiness of heart and life” that included a broad understanding of The Torah, what we Christians shallowly refer to as “The Law”.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Do we then overthrow the Law by this faith?  Certainly not!  On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (3:31 NRSV).

Yet the “Character of a Methodist” is also not defined strictly by our observance of and strict obedience to The Law as a list of “rules”.

What, then, is the “Character of a Methodist”?  What can we expect or hope to gain from such disciplined devotion to worship, the Sacraments, the study of Scripture, fasting and prayer, and fellowship in and with the Church, the “ekklesia”, the congregation of the faithful?  Wesley’s answer: “A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit given unto him, one who loves the Lord his God will all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.  God is the joy of [the Methodist’s] heart and the desire of [the Methodist’s] soul which is constantly crying out, ‘Whom have I in heaven but You, O Lord!  And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You, My God and my All!  You are the strength of my heart, and my portion forever”.

The whole of religious faith, then, and the genuine “Character of a Methodist” is in the reality of the “Greatest Commandment” that is within us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  We must be head-over-heels in love with our God and Father in order for Him to be our All-in-all!   This depth of love can only be realized and appreciated for what it is through daily, active engagement.

This love is comforting but is never comfortable.  It is love that is personal AND at the same time publicly professing in outward daily living.  It is love that is both sacrificial and satisfying.  It is love which lifts up others FROM their own self-imposed hell rather than leaving them affirmed in their sins.  It is love which leaves nothing undone and nothing unsaid.  And it is love felt and appreciated only when expressed outwardly – “shed abroad” from within the depth of one’s soul.

It is the “yoke” of Christ Jesus we bear gladly, the burden that is lightened only by our willingness to share in that burden.  It is love which is evidenced only by our eagerness and enthusiasm and faithfulness to a greater and higher ideal than one’s own.

If this love does not exist within you in this moment and in this hour, then TODAY “is the day The Lord has made” … just for you.  So you may look up from the depth of your sorrows, from the chains of your past, from the burdens of your discontent and doubt.  It is love and redemption which is offered to you today and each day when we as The Body of Christ are willing to sing His Praises and Bless His Holy Name! 


This is the “Character of the Methodist”, for this is the character of the Cross of Christ Jesus.  Amen.