Sunday, December 31, 2006

Christmas is Over: Now What?

The celebrations are over, the last package’s wrappings are landfill, the decorations are about to come down if there are any still left hanging, some toys didn’t quite make the cut and are either now forgotten or broken, and soon the bills will start rolling in for those whose entire Christmas celebration was more a tribute to MasterCard. For all its trappings, however, most of us still come away from our Christmas celebrations with few regrets. We’ve been able to spend time with loved ones, some whom we may not see again until next year and some we may never see again. Even with the “morning after” credit card regret, there is always going to be something special about watching a child’s face light up when an unexpected gift is opened on Christmas morning, that special moment which makes us forget what we went through to acquire that particular gift.

Even still, something is not quite right. The very first sermon I ever delivered was on a Sunday following Christmas and I still remember thinking that if ever there was a raw deal for a new preacher, that would be it! How can Christmas be followed? Christmas is the BIGGIE, isn’t it? After a long year, whether good or bad, Christmas is the climax, isn’t it? I’ve since learned that it is probably best not to even try to preach Christmas. The Gospel accounts pretty much cover the ground, and there is not much left to say that hasn’t already been said. But I think I have also finally figured out why it is so difficult to follow Christmas for preachers and laity alike.

Just prior to Christmas we have our Advent count-down. We begin to focus not only on the birth of Messiah but also on His Second Coming. We teach and we preach to stand prepared just as John the Baptist admonishes us to “make straight the path” for the Lord’s coming. Four weeks (and often more!), three weeks, two weeks; the excitement mounts, the plays and cantata’s are rehearsed, prepared, and presented, the charity collections are in full swing and …. BOOM! We’re there.

After that, what next? Even as Advent is a time of preparation, we have a definitive count-down with a finite ending. We light one of five candles for the weekly count-down, and we reach the climax. It’s over. We’re done. That is, of course, until we begin to approach Lent. Then we begin anew yet another season of “preparation”, but this time the kids are not really as involved. They can more easily and readily embrace the “birth” of the Savior but to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure when anyone is fully prepared to accept the “death”.

It occurred to me as my family and I were driving home from my in-laws that the Church loses some much-needed momentum after Christmas. We Christians are a pretty self-contained bunch when it comes to our holy days. On Christmas should we be holed up at our homes or huddled in our churches, or should we not rather be living according to the dictum of John Wesley who insisted that the WORLD was his parish and that the Good News of the Gospel should be shared out where the masses are instead of inviting the masses to come to us where we are?

The momentum that builds during Advent provides this kind of spirit without fail every single year, and every single year with few exceptions we peter out about 12/27 and lose that precious momentum. I was never more acutely aware of this until a co-worker challenged the concept of “organized religion”. When questioned about her objections – and know that I have typically written off such persons as those who will reach for any excuse not to attend church – she pointed out that her perception and experience with “organized religion” has been more along the lines of forced beliefs and self-contained greed and exclusivity meaning that we are pretty good at ministering to ourselves and perhaps to one another, but we don’t really care to do much more than this. OUTSIDE the Christmas season, that is.

While I am almost certain that Luke’s very brief glimpse of Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:41-52) has some more profound lessons for us than what I can glean from it, the one thing that stands out to me, especially as it relates to the birth of Messiah, is that the Birth itself is a culmination of nothing. The Salvation story does not end at the manger. Jesus was born, of course, but He did not remain a “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes”; He grew up and He moved on. His upbringing, His education, His faith were all fed and nurtured and developed over time. His special gift was easily recognized by the elders in the Temple, but Jesus was still a child who had some growing up to do.

Then we get to see Jesus as a young man coming to John to be baptized. After this, He enters into His ministry which would necessarily include His encounter with the evil one, perhaps AKA “the world”, which He was able to endure by His abiding faith. Once this moment is conquered, Jesus selects His apostles and continues His ministry.

Is the momentum apparent? All the way up to the moment of His death, the only time His apostles kept to themselves was after Jesus was crucified and they were afraid. For the very first time their faith was tested and with perhaps the exception of John and the women including Mary, the followers of Jesus failed. They fled. And for three days - in the absence of Christ - until the Resurrection, all momentum of what He had begun was lost. Everything stopped. Is the connection apparent?

As we reflect on the full measure and infinite value of the Christian celebration of Christmas, we must not neglect to remember that just at a time when humanity should have been coming to the Lord, the Lord instead chose to come to US. He did not wait until the world would suddenly come to its senses and realize how alone we really are and how desperately we need Him. He watched us suffer long enough and came to us WHERE WE WERE THEN and surely where we are now.

How much more momentum do we require before the sleeping Church will awaken and realize that those who oppose our “organized religion” can see us more clearly than we can see ourselves? How much more momentum do we require before we realize that just as the Lord came to us when we needed Him the most, we AS HIS BODY must go where we are needed most? And not just at Christmas time but throughout the year.

The boy Jesus still had a lot to learn as a child; so did His parents and so do we. May we continue to find ourselves always and regardless of biological age as inquisitive 12-year-olds in the Temple seeking and searching and growing.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Magic of Christmas

The best recollections I have of Christmas are from my childhood, and I must honestly say that the only way church time really fit into the excitement of Christmas for me was when we went to midnight Mass. For me, it was quiet and reflective. I have distinct recollections of a sense of awe and wonderment during the Mass, the church seemed always much quieter than during a typical Sunday Mass, and of course there was virtually no life outside during that time since most folks were home in bed. I must also admit, however, that the hour-long Mass was a great way to kill some time before Christmas morning!

On Christmas morning there were the presents, and my parents usually went all out for us even though I learned years later that they really could not afford it. I cannot remember a Christmas in which I was ever disappointed for not having gotten what I asked for. And I also distinctly remember opening packages that said, “From SANTA to Michael” and not really caring much about Santa Claus or where the gift came from; I just wanted what was in the box!

Over the years and for a variety of reasons, I’ve grown somewhat cynical about Christmas. I still get a thrill from buying – hopefully – the “perfect gift” for those whom I love, and I am especially gratified to watch their faces light up when I realize I did well with my selection. But something has to happen before I can get very excited about Christmas anymore. That “something” can be almost anything, but it is the “something” which serves as a catalyst that helps me to remember what Christmas is all about.

Many are fond of saying that Christmas is “all about the children”. Others remind us that Christmas is about “family and friends”. The Church, of course, is always there to remind us that Christmas is about the Messiah. For different persons, Christmas can mean different things and not all necessarily good things. I remember an episode of the popular TV show M*A*S*H in which a soldier was brought to the hospital having been severely wounded in battle – on Christmas Day. Even though the situation was hopeless, the doctors worked tirelessly to try and keep the soldier alive until the day AFTER Christmas so that his family would not always remember Christmas as the day when their loved one was killed, but we all know that there are many in real life who have experienced tragedy even on Christmas Day.

But whatever Christmas is all about to any one of us, there is an element of magic that gives Christmas its special place in our hearts. It does not matter whether we are talking about the “magic” of the birth of the Savior or the “magical” myth of Santa Claus. There is a mystical, almost surreal quality about Christmas that makes us want to be a little friendlier, a little more generous. It is a time of year when many of us realize that we have an inherent need to believe in something whether it is belief in a God who presented Himself to man as the Holy Son, a jolly old elf who gives presents to all the little children, or humanity that has the potential to be good.

What happens to us, though, if we reach a point in our lives when we do more worrying about the holiday season than rejoicing? What happens when we reach a point in which this holiday season is nothing more than a day off from work? What happens when there is no more magic, no special something to look forward to, to embrace and to cherish? What happens when we finally realize that we’ve crossed the line into adulthood and Christmas no longer has that magical, mystical quality it once held special just for us?

All these questions may be answered very simply: we’ve grown up too much for our own good. As we grow physically, emotionally, and mentally we soon learn that there are few on this earth who will put their lives on hold for us, so we have to learn to take care of ourselves and depend on no one. We learn self-reliance, and soon the only “magic” we may care anything about is that of David Copperfield, my favorite illusionist. At this point Christmas is nothing more than a date on a calendar that falls between December 24 and December 26. For all intents and purposes, we have lost our sense of wonderment and awe, and we gain a level of cynicism which teaches us that no one really cares. We lose faith. And once faith is gone, it is difficult to regain.

There is profound wisdom in what Jesus offers to His disciples in Mark 10:15 that goes far beyond the moment: “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little children will never enter it.”

It may be that Jesus is acknowledging the difficulty some grown ups may have in grasping the concept of an “other worldly” kingdom, let alone such a place that may hold some level of attraction for us. It may be that Jesus is acknowledging that being a “grown up” is not that it’s cracked up to be. I know that I’ve tried to tell my children so many times, especially when my baby girls wanted to wear make up, not to be in such a big hurry to grow up for that reason alone. So much gets lost somewhere between adolescent and adulthood, and we are the poorer for it.

All is not lost, however, as we move through the Advent season and quickly approach Christmas itself. There is still hope even as Jesus talks about the seeming hopelessness of those who are unable to look at life and faith through the lens of a child’s eye. “Let the little children come to Me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to SUCH AS THESE.”

Jesus is not quoted as having said that the kingdom of Heaven belongs ONLY to the little children, the biological ones. “The kingdom of God belongs to SUCH as these…” could well be a statement of hope even for those who biologically mature but who are also spiritually child-like in a perfect willingness to believe the best that is to come. There is no room in this statement for cynics unless we are willing to surrender something.

It’s funny that some fundamentalist Christians would suggest that teaching our children to believe in Santa Claus can be spiritually harmful when it seems to me that maybe we are teaching our children that there is something worth believing in, something “magical” that gives the true Spirit of Christmas an opportunity to move into our souls and teach us that being all grown up is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Merry Christmas to all.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Divine Activity

There are essentially two schools of thought as it pertains to theology, that which defines the relationship between the Lord and man. One suggests that the Almighty is far removed from humanity and does not get actively involved in our day-to-day activity. The other holds that the Lord is this huge cosmic force who manipulates nature and even the hearts and minds of mankind to achieve a particular end. Both have merit to a degree but like anything pertaining to the Lord and to the study of theology, neither can be definitively proved one way or the other.

To suggest that the Lord does not get directly involved with humanity is to dismiss so much by which the Lord has revealed Himself to us. We have the covenant with Noah, we have the Exodus, we have David being chosen as king out of all his older brothers, and we have Christmas. And lest we forget, we have the promise of the Holy Spirit to be with us as we endeavor to live and work and worship. Each of these and so many more instances shows us a God who is hardly removed from our lives. Yet there is rarely a day that passes in which we do not directly or indirectly witness evil in our midst. We see children starving around the world or being emotionally or physically abused in other ways, we see refugees running to escape the horrors of war, we see people even right here in America living under bridges for lack of other shelter. Those who witness such things and who lack faith ask what to them is a legitimate question: how can this “good” God allow such things to happen?

We must also remember that if we are talking about a God who is actively manipulating these cosmic forces by which man and nature are set to act in conflict with perhaps how we are predisposed to act, we are dismissing the concept - if REALITY - of free will. But if free will is indeed a reality, how can we read such a text as Exodus 7:3 in which Moses is fulfilling his calling to confront the pharaoh and work to get Israel released from her bondage and pharaoh is resisting because the Lord “hardened his heart”. By what is written, Moses has had a direct encounter with the Almighty and is doing what he was sent to do. Yet it would also seem that the Lord is manipulating the minds and hearts of man by intentionally “hardening” pharaoh’s heart thus making Moses’ journey even more difficult than it already was.

So what? Did the writer have a direct encounter in which he had inside knowledge of the intent and mind of the Lord, or was he reporting something that would simply be incidental? If pharaoh released the Hebrews, Egypt would suffer because a lot of work was being done for cheap. All pharaoh had to do was keep the Hebrew slaves well fed as any good rancher would do with his live stock. So did the Lord become actively involved with the mind of the pharaoh, or was the pharaoh simply of his own greedy mind and had made a free will decision to resist Moses’ call to release Israel? After all, he had a lot to lose!

Advent is a relatively constricted period of time in which we are called to prepare ourselves, but what are we to prepare for during this time aside from what we should be preparing for during the other eleven months of the year? In Advent we are encouraged to pray – are we to pray less during any other time? In Advent we are encouraged to fast – should we fast more than during any other time? In Advent we are encouraged to be generous with everything we have – are people only hungry or naked or homeless during the month of December?

John the Baptist calls on the people now just as he did during his own time to “make straight the path of the Lord”, to prepare for His coming. Well, we know that John and Jesus were about the same age, so John could not have been talking about the impending birth of the Messiah. We can also see from various texts in which John seems genuinely surprised when Jesus shows up even as he has proclaimed that “there is one coming after me Who is greater than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to loose…” We can’t say that John never saw it coming, yet he seemed somehow unprepared for the encounter, a DIRECT ENCOUNTER with the Divine which changed everything not only for himself but also for the entire human race.

The Lord is coming but not necessarily in early January which would necessitate that we prepare ourselves only in December. Let this be a time when we are mindful of the needs of those around us for the need is great. Let us be mindful that even if we cannot agree on the fundamental tenets of Advent, we can surely agree that preparation for that Day – whenever it may come – is a never-ending task that requires much but blesses in abundance and far beyond the day.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Working it Out

A thought occurred to me not long ago in class in which we were discussing education policy in the US and, specifically, in Arkansas. Not long ago the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that Arkansas education is neither adequate nor equitable. The ruling came as a result of a suit filed by a school district that was in academic and financial distress. To make a long story short, the court ruled that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional duties to educate Arkansas children.

As a result of this ruling, the state legislature convened to answer the shortfall. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything the legislature offered, there is one particular idea that is being tried in some school districts that does interest me: teacher bonuses for improved student performance on standardized tests.

The problem that some teachers and citizens see is that such a measure may compel some teachers to “teach to the test” rather than just fulfill their noble calling. Whether this idea will work in its present form or be modified in some way down the line remains to be seen. The general consensus of those who oppose this idea is that teachers are supposed to teach children HOW to think rather than WHAT to think, believing that test scores could do nothing but improve if students were just encouraged and taught how to use the mind the Lord gave them. In math and the sciences, there are certainly facts that must be known, but is it enough to just know that 2+2=4 or will this figure have greater success in serving a purpose if children are shown HOW and WHY 2+2=4?

The “thought” that crossed my mind in class is this: in the history of religion, perhaps in the history of mankind, teaching our children WHAT to think is what we’ve been doing all along, especially in religion. Most of us grew up with the familiar Bible stories and “how it was” and we’ve been taught about Jesus’ life and what He meant by the things He said, but I also think that we were – more often than not – told WHAT we should believe and what we should know. I, for one, do not remember ever being encouraged to engage a story and think for myself.

Is this a bad thing? How can we impart our knowledge without our biases? How can we teach our children about the Lord without slanting our observations toward what we believe to be true, confident that we are “right” and that anything which deviates from what we believe to be true is heresy? It may be nearly impossible because of the subject matter. There are some moral and spiritual absolutes that don’t leave much room for interpretation. Some things are wrong, have always been wrong, and will always be wrong.

What are the “absolutes” and who sets the standard? As a theological conservative, I used to see most things scriptural in a “black-and-white” context. Over time, however, I have learned to look at the texts a bit more broadly. My more liberal friends would call that “becoming enlightened”. I call it utter confusion. I have now reached a point in my spiritual development in which I actually envy some who seem stable in what they believe even though their seeming inflexibility is sometimes maddening.

At one time I thought I was loosing my faith; in some ways I still struggle. It is a gift, you know. We cannot know that the Lord even exists unless this knowledge is imparted to us by Divine means, by the Lord’s own good grace. This is to say, I can tell you that the Lord is and will always be but I cannot give you absolute proof which would leave no room for doubt; the Lord Himself would have to grant this to you. So it is a somewhat unsettling matter to consider that this gift has somehow been misused so much so that it is being withdrawn.

By such reasoning, it is possible to consider that maybe the reason so many come of age and choose to leave the Church is not because of “those hypocrites” or “that preacher” (some of the more popular excuses) but because the knowledge and the faith they believe to have once possessed turns out to be the faith and the knowledge that actually belongs to someone else. They were never fully able – or enabled – to embrace that knowledge or that faith because it never quite became their own. Why? It may be because they were taught WHAT to think and not HOW to think for themselves.

What does this mean for preachers and Sunday school teachers? Stop teaching? Modify what is being taught? And if so, in what way do we modify? Teachers and preachers are expected to make a point and help us draw certain conclusions, and the point would be somewhere along the lines of what is right and what is wrong. This is what we expect because our doctrines are geared toward this end. Doctrine teaches us what is and what isn’t. Do we need more evidence beyond conflicting Christian doctrine on, say, Baptism and Holy Communion to see that someone has to be wrong or that everyone is right but only to a degree?

One of my instructors maintains – in the realm of government policy development – that truth is relative to what we believe to be true up to that point in our lives and that the opposite of truth is in this context is “intent to deceive” which is to say that we don’t really possess the knowledge we think we do but we will argue to the point of obnoxiousness to try and convince others that we are “right”. How can this be so? It is because the knowledge that we think we have is knowledge that has been given to us but that we’ve not bothered to think through for ourselves. Depending on who presented the information or how it was presented or in what context will determine whether we will simply accept it as is without question, or we will look more deeply into it and draw our own conclusions.

Is this dangerous? I think it is potentially so especially when we are talking about the spiritual and educational well-being of our children. They need to know that there are some moral, spiritual, doctrinal, and social absolutes. This, I think, is foundational. It is something upon which to build, but it cannot and must not end there. Children have to be given the foundation as the starting point, but then they must also be taught how to reason through things. It is akin to defining the difference between simply memorizing a fact for no rhyme or reason or actually dealing with it, experiencing it, engaging it, and working through it. Which has the greater potential to stay with the student?

We are about to enter into what is one of the Church’s most holy seasons. We are preparing to celebrate and commemorate the birth of the Messiah. And we enter into this season with more than a little anticipation and with certain expectations about what this season will bring, but how much thought do we give to such a statement as “heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Luke 21:33)?

Consider how much time and attention is devoted this year to customs and traditions and, yes, even TEACHINGS of man and compare this time against how much we spend with and for the Lord and His moment, that moment when Light entered into a very dark world in which we were hopelessly lost and were somehow found.

Merry Christmas, dear friends. This is my wish; this is my prayer.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Representation for Sale (though not cheap)

Michael Goodwin of the New York Daily News quotes Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer who is reflecting on the newly won Democratic majority in the Congress: "If we don't produce for people, we could blow it in 2008. The public is up for grabs. We still have a lot to do but if we succeed, the next election could provide a lock for a generation."

I have no problem with Senator Schumer believing that there is a lot to do; there is. It is a given that the nation's participating voters have had a gut full of far right ideology and perceived Republican absolutes and strong-arm tactics. Many have also expressed a concern that President Bush seems to believe that the War on Terror gives him more latitude than the Constitution or the people are willing to give. Right or wrong, this election did come with a mandate but not necessarily FOR Democrats. It was a message to members of Congress that their employment is tenuous.

The problem I have with Senator Schumer's statement is his perception of the "public" and "people". Are we really "up for grabs"? And as political "produce" goes, I am extremely disturbed at the implication that our support for either party is for sale to the highest bidder.

Time will tell, of course, but I am afraid that we have led our own representative Congress to believe that we want hand-outs when it is clear by the budget deficit and the national debt that we cannot afford much more. I expect there to be tax increases proposed to offset the budget deficit not necessarily because Democrats hold the majority but because for Congress it is much more politically expedient to raise taxes than to cut spending. For one thing, cutting spending means actually digging deep into a budget and facing facts and numbers. For another, emotions play much better to the constituents and "produce" far more politically favorable results.

There has been a lot of hand-holding and singing of "Kumbaya" among Democrats and Republicans, so we should not hold out much hope for anything of any real substance being addressed in this lame-duck session of Congress. However, once the Democrats take the bridge and exercise some of that new-found power, it is anyone's guess what this next session will "produce". I think, however, that it is going to be very expensive for the taxpayers.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

I never quite understood the term, “to look a gift horse in the mouth”, until I looked it up on line. Having virtually no knowledge about livestock, I never knew that the age of a horse could be determined by looking into its mouth. How this particular saying came to its current use by such a comparison is anyone’s guess, but my understanding has always been that it is considered poor form to receive a gift and question its intent or usefulness or the gift-giver’s ulterior motive, if any. I suppose that’s part of the reason why I hate to be asked what I want on any particular gift-giving occasion. It’s not that I expect that anyone who knows me should be able to know what I want, and I certainly do not want anyone thinking that I EXPECT a gift at all. It is that I’ve always believed that any gift given, regardless of its perceived, inherent, or cash, value should be received by anyone “as is” with a mind toward another old saying, “it’s the thought that counts.”


In the continued journey through the Law, and specifically the so-called “Ten Commandments”, we have moved through the Lord’s introduction of Himself and the expectations He has of His people. And even though there are many who view the remainder of these “Ten” rather negatively, it is my intent to show the grace and the mercy which comes from these “thou shalt not’s” not because I think we need to search for an angle but because of the incredible gift which has come to us from Above through these words.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
Exodus 20:8-11 NKJV

So can this be received as a gift when it seems to be presented as a commandment, an absolute? According to Scripture, the penalty for its violation is death. It is funny to me (and I am among the guilty though still trying to work it out) to listen to those who insist that these are not the ten “SUGGESTIONS” while they feast on Sunday at a restaurant where all the “servants”, male and female, are working diligently to try and keep up with the Sunday “church crowd”. As with the others, this particular commandment has the potential to go far beyond the mere words that are written on a page.

Jesus was challenged often on what the true meaning of Sabbath really was in the context of pharisaic teaching, and Paul comes very near to suggesting that these words are meaningless to us now since we are in Christ. “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” Colossians 2:16, 17 NKJV

I respectfully take exception to what Paul suggests or at the very least, I take exception to our common interpretation that our New Covenant seems to disregard or conflict the Old. “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.” Exodus 31:12-14 NKJV

Do we live in such a “new” economy that refraining from work of all kinds is just not realistic? And if this is true, has the Lord relented from His command that we rest? If so, who then is authorized to speak this new word? I work for a trucking company which operates 24/7. It might seem unrealistic that the company should just cease operations for a full day, yet the law restricts the number of hours drivers may operate in a defined period of time. This same law even mandates a day off when too many hours have been used though the law does not demand that all drivers shut down at the same time. There isn’t enough parking space in the entire nation to accommodate that kind of mandate!

Farmers and ranchers have the same type of challenge, especially at harvest time. What is realistic for them? I said earlier that I know very little about livestock, but I do know they need to be fed. Is Sunday a day in which livestock can go without being fed? These are not pets. For the most part, they have to be maintained so that come market time, a fair price can be had. For the farmer and harvest time, that fair market price fluctuates sometimes so wildly that if they are not in a position to sell, they could lose fuel money which is substantial. However, it is written in Exodus 34:21 that “six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.” There does not seem to be an exception; there is only reality.

There are more retail stores and restaurants open than closed on Sunday now. What would happen to our economy or to our lives if the MALL were closed on Sunday? What would people do with their time, for heaven’s sake? The retailers would take a big hit for sure, and those who need the extra hours might take it on the chin come payday for losing a days’ work. The state would even take a big hickey over lost revenue from sales taxes paid.

But what would we really be losing and not gaining if we were to have the courage and the faith to live according to the written Word? How much of an adjustment would become necessary so that there wouldn’t be a recession? I think it’s already happening at Christmas time where people may not be so inclined to spend so much money. Somewhere adjustments have to be made, but the bigger question is whether or not we have the faith to see it through.

I don’t think the economy will run us over if we fail to go an entire day without spending any money, and I don’t think our lives will be ruined if we spend an entire day with our families just relaxing. Of course this is all easy for me to say since I don’t have much money and I hate shopping anyway. If there is indeed such a thing as the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, I should like to believe that the PUNISHMENT phase of that particular state would be perpetual shopping!

However, it is not the shopping in and of itself that is the problem. The problem is with those who are compelled to work because of our demands. And work in and of itself is not necessarily the problem. It is, I think, rather a compulsion to do something that we may well need a REST from because what some might consider to be “work” is actually “leisure” for others such as working in the yard, which I happen to enjoy - sometimes. This, I think, is the key to what the Lord’s word in this is all about.

As with any of the Commandments, our first approach must be as it is when we approach this list in the first place. We must recognize the Divine Wisdom that is contained within each one. Examining each of these with such a perspective can help us to get beyond the “thou shalt not” that may come from an angry, vengeful, distant, and self-serving god (or the men who wrote it) and see that there is a God in Heaven whom Jesus called “Father”.

We must also realize that even in our individuality, there is still a commonality in which mankind – which would imply ALL – was created in the Image of our Creator. As such, the Divine Wisdom which calls out to us from these words is the Wisdom which knows of our limitations. This Creator, this Divine Designer, knew then just as He knows now that the human body and mind have limited capacity to function before we become so overwhelmed that we simply “crash”.

A wise Father knows best. We are to obey this commandment as a sign of a Covenant made by the Holy Father, a Covenant that – like all the others – distinguishes us from the rest of the world. It is a day of rest. It is a day, a HOLY day, of worship. It is a day of respite from the busyness of the world so that we can focus on our Holy Father and regenerate our own spiritual batteries. It is a day of Sabbath, of rest. It is a day of focus.

It is a day of renewal.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Darren McFadden-isms

The Arkansas Razorback football program is on a roll. After a pretty rough start against Southern Cal, Arkansas has moved on to an impressive 9-1 record with reasonable expectations of two more SEC West conference wins. Maybe not national title stuff considering the major contenders out there, but it's good enough for us.

Riding on this season's high is talk of running back Darren McFadden's potential Heisman candidacy. Whether he makes the final rounds is not so important to us: he's still ours as are they all. But after Saturday's decisive win against Tennessee and McFadden's exceptional performance, I share with you some -isms (author unknown) for those die-hard Darren McFadden fans.

  • Darren McFadden's calendar goes straight from March 31 to April 2; no one fools Darren McFadden
  • Leading hand sanitizers claim they can kill 99.9 percent of germs. Darren McFadden can kill 100 percent of whatever he wants
  • Darren McFadden counted to infinity - twice
  • Darren McFadden's tears cure cancer. Too bad Darren McFadden has never cried
  • Darren McFadden was originally cast as the main character in the hit TV show "24" but was replaced by the producers when he managed to kill every terrorist and save the day in 12 minutes, 37 seconds
  • Darren McFadden can speak braille
  • Darren McFadden died 10 years ago, but the Grim Reaper can't get the courage to tell him
  • Superman owns a pair of Darren McFadden pajamas
  • Darren McFadden puts the "laughter" in "slaughter"
  • Darren McFadden does not sleep; he waits
  • Darren McFadden owns the greatest poker face of all time. It helped him win the 1983 World Series of Poker despite holding only a joker, a "Get of out jail free" Monopoly card, a 2 of clubs, 7 of spades, and a green #4 card from the game Uno
  • Darren McFadden can slam revolving doors
  • Darren McFadden sleeps with a night light not because Darren McFadden is afraid of the dark but because the dark is afraid of Darren McFadden
  • Once a cobra bit Darren McFadden. After 5 days of excruciating pain, the cobra died
  • Before the Boogeyman goes to bed, he checks his closet and under his bed for Darren McFadden
  • Giraffes were created when Darren McFadden uppercut a horse
  • When Darren McFadden exercises, the machine gets stronger
  • Ghosts are actually caused by Darren McFadden killing people faster than Death can process them
  • Darren McFadden is the only person on the planet who can kick you in the back of the face
  • Darren McFadden does not use pick up lines; he says "now"
  • Darren McFadden plays Russian Roulette with a fully loaded revolver ... and wins
  • Darren McFadden once punched a man in the soul
  • If you can see Darren McFadden, he can see you. If you cannot see Darren McFadden, you may be only seconds away from death
  • Darren McFadden did that to Michael Jackson's face
  • The chief export of Darren McFadden is pain
  • A handicap parking sign does not signify that this spot is for handicapped drivers. It is actually a warning that the spot belongs to Darren McFadden and that you will be handicapped if you park there
  • Darren McFadden was once the FBI's chief negotiator. His job involved calling up criminals and saying, "This is Darren McFadden"
  • The most honorable way to die is to take a bullet for Darren McFadden. This amuses Darren McFadden because he is bulletproof
  • On Neil Armstrong's second step on the moon, he found a note which read, "Darren McFadden was here"
  • A unicorn once kicked Darren McFadden. That is why unicorns no longer exist
  • Darren McFadden used to beat the snot out of his shadow because it was following too closely. It now stands a safe 30 feet behind him
  • Darren McFadden does not read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What's in a Name?

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7 NKJV

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare

What does the commandment mean when it refers to using the name of the Lord God in vain? To do anything in vain is to act toward no particular end like our continued prayer that our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who have made the ultimate sacrifice will not have died “in vain”; that is, for nothing. We need to believe that their sacrifice has meant something; so, too, must it be when we choose to invoke the name of the Almighty. There should be a good reason for mentioning His name, and the reason cannot be for selfish gain.

There are certain traditions – some say superstitions – that forbid that His name be spoken or even written. Often there are references to “YHWH” which is not pronounceable even though we call it “Yahweh”, and there are some rabbis who will write out only “G-d”. The simplest reason for a refusal to mention His name is that He is utterly holy, and no human tongue is worthy to speak His name.

I must admit that I have difficulty with the simple English translation, or transliteration, “God”. In my mind, such a reference infers too much familiarity though I cannot find fault with others who do make such a reference. I see no disrespect intended and throughout the Bible, this is the common reference.

What is interesting about His “name”, however, is that I’m not so sure anyone really knows what His proper name is. He certainly has many titles, but does He have a “name” as you and I have names by which we are identified? And if we did know His name, would there be such thing as a prohibition against using His name aloud? According to some traditions, yes. So if we cannot speak or write His holy name or even pronounce it, how can we be accused of misusing His name or using it “in vain”?

Using such reasoning, how can the use of the word (or name) “God” as a prefix to a particular swear word be considered to be a misuse; that is, if His name is not “God”? This particular point is arguable on many levels so far beyond my scholarship that I won’t even try to go there. Suffice it to say, I think such a narrow interpretation does not serve us well and does little to help us to understand what is at risk because of the written statement that those who do misuse His holy name will be held accountable for such misuse. Like other points of the Law, we would do ourselves no favors by seeking the narrowest or simplest explanation and then choosing to move along as having settled the matter.

To be sure, this particular commandment coming so early in the “list” serves a purpose. We have already been introduced to the Lord as the One who delivered a nation from captivity and we have been put on notice that we are not to create carved or “graven” images in a feeble effort to make for ourselves a “god” that might be pleasing to our sight. So now we are being advised that because the Almighty is holy, His name must be invoked with nothing less than profound respect. The passage seems clear enough that He does indeed have a name. If we then know it, we must be careful about how we choose to use it.

One approach to addressing this particular commandment might be to consider the continual conflicts that arose between Jesus and the Pharisees. I think we can agree that the Pharisees were a pious bunch, very religious, very devout, but also very misguided in their interpretations – AND ENFORCEMENT – of the Law. Looking carefully at many of the discussions or arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, it would be easy to conclude that perhaps it was that even with noble intentions, the pharisaic interpretation of the Law served more to suppress a people than to free them. And we should know that when the Law was presented to Moses and then to Israel, it was presented to a freed people. So it would stand to reason that this commandment has not lost such a particular flavor that has somehow between Sinai and now become a means by which to suppress or enslave anyone, especially in the name of the Holy God of Israel.

So as a freed people who have been redeemed by this very God, how can we make best use of this particular passage? And we must, as a redeemed people, understand that surely this commandment itself has not been written “in vain”. It means something to us; it must. Otherwise the Law itself has been reduced to nothing more than a “buffet” line of choices we can accept or reject depending on our level of understanding and/or willingness to obey. This commandment, as all others, requires our attention.

The most notable violation throughout the world today is the radical Islamist who carries out his acts of terror in the name of “Allah”. In Arabic, this means “God” which infers the one living and true God of all creation. These terrorists have every intention of making the world to live in genuine fear but to what end? They need to be feared, and this is very much a reason why they want all the media coverage they can possibly get. Do you remember the videos that were floating around on some Arabic websites in which captured westerners were beheaded? It was meant to invoke fear. Who wants to die at all, let alone die in such a horrific manner?

But to do such a thing in the name of our Lord, let alone any “god”, would naturally beg the question: what “god” would demand such a thing of his followers and for what purpose? Reaching back to the time in which the Law was given, the Israelites were about to move into a land that was inhabited by pagans, some of whose religious practices required human sacrifice. These were the “gods”, as I shared earlier, that are extremely self-serving. A human sacrifice accomplishes nothing more than to drive people away or worse, subject them to nothing more than suppressive, oppressive, abject, senseless, soul-wrenching fear.

The name we are to invoke is a name that does not seek fear but, rather, respect. The Lord God of all creation, the God and Father of Jesus the Christ, will accept no less. So the use of His name must move toward this particular end, to glorify that holy name and give Him the opportunity to work in the lives of others as we profess to have had Him work in our own.

Think about the political battles we have endured in this country, sometimes suffering the invocation of the Lord as a means by which to force others to live according to standards we have adopted for ourselves. The so-called “religious right” has been in the forefront of some major political battles in an effort to design a society or a culture that would be more pleasing to them, and I have to say that in some ways I am probably as guilty as I have shared in the past about my beliefs on homosexuality and abortion, just to name two particular social issues.

Is secular legislation the answer, though? Some insist that this is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Ok, so what exactly does this mean? And where is it written in Holy Scripture that we are called to legislate and force adherence to our understanding of moral standards rather than live as an example and act according to these same moral standards? Is it good use of the Lord’s name and reputation to try and “beat” others into submission for the sake of the Gospel, the GOOD NEWS that we have been redeemed? The Crusades and the Inquisition are two moments in human history that would suggest that such efforts will always fail miserably unless one’s goal is to do harm. How ironic it is that we would choose to use the very freedom we have been granted and attempt to enslave others according to our own interpretation of what is good and right!

Something occurred to me during a recent policy process class session when we were discussing the civil rights era. I had never considered the underlying conflict that virtually embodied the struggle for civil rights but it seems to me that Dr. King, a Christian preacher who helped lead the struggle for equality according to principles taught by Christ Himself, was in conflict with others who believed that our Holy Father commanded that the races not mix. I also happen to believe that it is highly significant that because of Dr. King’s Christian leadership, the movement was successful even though I also believe that we still have a long way to go – just not by secular legislation. It might seem, then, that this struggle for HUMAN rights was a good use of the Lord’s name. Notice, however, that Dr. King rarely invokes the Lord by name but, rather, by principle … and by action.

It must also be considered by the faithful that a violation of any of these ordinances or commandments as presented to us in the Torah is a misuse of His name. We live and work and worship in public, and friends and acquaintances typically know that we are Christians. How much good use of His name is there when we are known as Christians only by the churches we attend rather than by the lives we choose to lead?

When we invoke His name, it speaks volumes about our understanding of His nature when the context of our use of His name is taken into consideration. Is our life one of selfishness or selflessness? Is our life one of vengeance or justice? When we work within our own society and within our own system of government, are we trying to force a certain standard only because this particular standard would be more pleasing to us, or are we genuinely concerned about the moral well-being of those who do not believe as we believe or act as we act or live as we live? Do we have an ulterior motive when we call upon, or invoke, His holy name?

We must always try to be openly aware of the Lord’s presence in our lives, and we must know that our personal opinions or desires are not always the Lord’s. Everything we do matters not only in the eyes of others who know us as the Lord’s own; it also matters to the Lord who wants the unbelievers as much as He wanted us. Our use of His holy name without careful consideration of His will and His desire – and not our own – will have everything to do with the success – or failure – of our endeavors.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

There Can Be Only One

Psalm 119:25-32 Act 17:16-34

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” Exodus 20:2

Last week was the beginning of a series in which I intend to explore the Mosaic Law. And even though I began with our popular notion of “Ten Commandments” and will seek to explore each one in some depth, my prayer is that we can broaden the scope of our understanding so that we may begin to understand more of how the Lord has revealed Himself and why.

A pretext to all of this must be the life of Moses and how the Exodus came to be. It would not serve us well to jump into these so-called “Ten Commandments”, especially since these Ten are considered by some to be rather negative – “you shall NOT” – without a better understanding of how the Israelites got here. Besides, I think that the commandments, if examined more closely and prayerfully, will reveal more of what we can do rather than what we cannot do.

We know that Moses was born a Hebrew and we know that his mother placed him into a basket and floated him on the river since the pharaoh had decreed that Hebrew sons were to be destroyed by Egyptian midwives once born because the Hebrew nation was becoming great enough in number to be considered a national security threat.

Moses was rescued by the pharaoh’s daughter out of the river and raised as her son. He lived as an Egyptian until he was forced to flee for his life after striking and killing an Egyptian task master who was beating a Hebrew slave mercilessly. Moses wound up in Midian where he married, had a son, and began to live the life of a stock herder, tending to his father-in-law’s flock. Soon it was that the Lord called out to Moses and decreed that Moses would be the one who would lead this Exodus.

Why Moses? Even Moses himself questioned the Lord. Up to this time there had been no apparent knowledge that there was such a One as a Supreme God though we can reasonably assume that Moses had at least some knowledge of gods the Egyptians worshipped. So starting from nothing, the Lord makes Himself known to Moses in Exodus 4 by turning Moses’ shepherd staff into a serpent and making Moses’ hand leprous and then healing it. Moses then tried to protest that he was no eloquent speaker and would lack the ability to convince pharaoh to release the slaves, so the Lord told Moses that his brother Aaron would be his “spokesman” for this purpose. In the end, Moses was given his marching orders.

What I think Moses did not realize until much later was that his life from the very beginning was a divine plan already in motion. The Bible does not give us any idea how many Hebrew boys were killed by the midwives, but we do know that the midwives “feared God” and would not do it. Still, it is reasonable to assume that at least some children lost their lives right after birth in pharaoh’s vain attempt to control the slaves and their great numbers.

Notice the relationships that are being used. First of the all, the Lord has to establish Himself with Moses. Secondly, Moses already has a relationship back in Egypt not only with the Hebrews but also with the house of the pharaoh. It seems to me that if established relationships were not necessary, the Lord could have simply struck the Egyptian nation dead and the Hebrews could either take over the land themselves or just leave. What might have come from such a move? It would be impossible to say for sure, but we could be pretty sure that even with our fundamental knowledge of how relationships work in our own lives, this sweeping act may have accomplished very little in establishing the nation of Israel as the Lord’s own.

We must also be mindful of the fact that the time from Joseph until now is about 400 years. The Lord heard their cries as it is written, but there is no mention that the people cried out specifically to the Lord. But the Lord identifies them as “My people” so even though the people may have forgotten over the generations, the Lord has not. Now was the time to re-establish a relationship with Israel and reveal Himself once again.

Speculating about the 400 years of divine “silence” would be useless since there is nothing for us to fill the void with. For our purposes, however, we would need to consider that it is possible – in fact, very likely - that when life is running on an even keel as it may have been for Israel during much of this period and we are content with our lives, we tend to not have such a need for the Lord. We may offer Him a little prayer here and there and we will certainly offer Him our prayers while in church like we’re supposed to, but beyond that the silence might be as profound as this biblical period of apparent silence from the Lord.

It could also be just as easy to surmise that the Israelites in Egypt were exposed to Egyptian “gods” and were maybe even actively involved in the worship. If this were true, it would also provide a little relational background when Israel can see by their own lives and “sorrow” that these gods serve no useful purpose especially to those who need mercy the most. If these “gods” were real at all, they were only good for those whose lives were already in order. These were not merciful “gods”; they were self-serving “gods” if “gods” at all.

It is typical of human nature, however, that when things are not going so well and life tends to reach beyond our control, it is then when we need help. Suddenly we are able to remember childhood prayers and then just as suddenly, the Lord once again has a prominent place in our lives. That is, until things get back to normal.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor serve them. Exodus 20:4-5a

I suppose in many ways when we think of “foreign” gods, we might think in terms of statues. Many Protestants do not understand the use of statues in Catholic churches and have even maligned Catholicism in such a way as to infer “statue worship” in the Catholic Mass as “bowing down to them”, but this is far too narrow an interpretation – let alone application – of what this commandment speaks to us about today.

Irene Rubin is a political theorist who suggests that in the absence of any written policy, a conceived budget becomes the stated policy. That is to say, wherever the money is being directed and in what sums is a determining factor of what is considered important. In the United States, 60% of the federal budget is allocated to Social Security, Medicare, and federal and military retirement benefits. So even if there are written policies in place, it would be clear by the federal budget that old-age protection is what we seem to value most.

Consider our own spending priorities since money is a determining factor for most of us as to what we can or cannot do. Where does the lion’s share of our household budget go? What is most important to us? Or perhaps more telling, what are we most afraid of?

Or consider a life that is spiraling out of control as drugs, alcohol, and even sex as well as money are used as agents by which we seek to provide for ourselves some level of comfort that we can reasonably control. For most of the poor souls who suffer from such addictions, something is severely lacking in their lives and they will reach out for whatever is most convenient or handy in a vain effort to find some sort of fulfillment.

In the end we do know that no person and no single thing that is offered by this world can sustain us for long. As Jesus teaches us, thieves steal, moths eat, and rust destroys. And for those who have witnessed the death of a loved one, we even know that sooner or later all life in this world comes to an end.

Consider, however, that at a time when the American church shows to be in seemingly steady decline, United Methodist Reporter editor Robin Russell reports from Mozambique that even though the poorest of the poor in that nation have little to invest in the Church and the Church has seemingly invested little, Christianity in that tiny nation is thriving! Why is this?

Could it be possible that as they have so little, they are better able to appreciate the little things and be more susceptible to the Spirit working in their lives? Could it be that our American church is declining because we are distracted by the “gods” of this world that – at best – can only offer fleeting comfort? And that as soon as the “good” wears off from one, we move easily to the next worldly – and temporary! – “god” that will offer us whatever comfort we desire for the moment?

There is only One who is eternal, constant, and never-changing. The faith that Jesus teaches about that is built on a solid foundation is the faith that will sustain us in good times and bad. There is no mention whatsoever in the Bible in which we are promised riches, fame, fortune, and unending happiness and carnal satisfaction. In fact, we are virtually guaranteed a life of suffering IF we are faithful to the calling of the Lord.

The text clearly states that the Lord God is a JEALOUS God, but it is very important to understand that He didn’t just show up one day and make this proclamation. He has offered Himself to Israel through the hands of Moses to show them – AND EGYPT – who He is over a period of time and through a series of events. A relationship of trust was necessary to be established.

The carnal “gods” of this world which we encounter almost daily are never satisfied and will devour anything put forth, and nothing but emptiness, heart-ache, loneliness, brokenness, and pain will come forth from these “relationships”. These worldly, carnal “gods” are not “jealous”; they are SELFISH and self-serving. No good will come from such relationships primarily because there is nothing stable about them. These are not eternal, constant, and never-changing but are, rather, for-the-moment, intermittent, and EVER-changing from moment to moment and from generation to generation.

So even though the Lord God is a “jealous” God, there must be a sense of contentment and fulfillment that comes from serving YHWH because the satisfaction and fulfillment from such a relationship can never be taken from us by thieves, rust, or moths, and the service He expects from us is toward one another, the kind of service that gives life rather than destroys it.

“You will have no other Gods before me.” This is not a threat or an ultimatum. It is a promise and a blessing.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Are there really only ten?

Exodus 34:11-26 Psalm 119:1-24 Matthew 5:17-20

What do we really know about the so-called “Ten Commandments”? For instance, how did it become established that there is even such a document which only contains “ten” commandments? Actually, the phrase “ten commandments” is in the Hebrew text, but it is not associated with the better-known passages of Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. Rather, the biblical ten are found in Exodus 34:11-26. I wonder why it is that this seemingly genuine “ten commandments” has not gotten the press that these other two have?

It is a popular notion among Christians that we had even begun to argue about the appropriate posting of these Ten Commandments in public places, namely court houses and school houses. The reasoning behind each is relatively sound: the Torah is the first established social “order”. It is the foundation for what our legal system entails today. The Law is designed and intended to bring order out of chaos, and this is precisely the purpose of our contemporary criminal justice system.

And even though many would be hesitant to suggest that our faith is reduced to nothing more than a simple list of do’s and don’ts, there is in addition to a social order also a moral order. Having children in our public schools exposed to these “ten” commandments arguably might help to bring about some positive changes for young people if they are exposed to sound, moral teachings, but even the best of moral teachings cannot go far without teachers, specifically adults who order their lives in such a way as to honor these commandments. At the very least, there can be no real harm unless we would care to argue the finer and secular constitutional points about state vs. religion.

Perhaps the reason the passage from Exodus 34 does not resonate with Christians is that it seems to emphasize what would be considered exclusively Jewish practices. Yet even in light of the singular presence of the phrase “ten commandments” in Exodus 34:28, do we then acknowledge that for as long as we have insisted upon Exodus 20 to be “THE LAW” that we have been wrong for so long? Or do we acknowledge the reality that in the Jewish tradition, the Torah (which actually means “direction” or “instruction”) contains far more than only ten commandments?

Here is a little bit of Bible trivia: which is the first commandment? If you guessed, “You shall have no other gods before Me”, you would be correct only in accordance with what has been taught over time. If, however, we consider that the first five books of the Bible comprise what we know as “Torah” or “Law” (aka, “Pentateuch”) and that every word spoken by the Lord should be considered a “commandment”, then the very first recorded commandment would necessarily be, “Let there be light” because it was spoken and “there was light”. Thus it is that this particular commandment is one of only a few for which it can be said that perfect obedience was the end result.

My only point is this: that we not try to package and condense our religion according to traditions that have no basis or foundation in fact or faith. The only thing that separates what is commonly referred to as the “Ten Commandments” in Exodus 20 is a literary break in the story. After the “10th” commandment against covetousness, chapter 20 ends with the people being afraid when they see the lightening and hear the thunder coming from the mountain.

Exodus 21 then begins with, “These are the laws you are to set before them [the Israelites]”. After this is the law established and categorized according to how it is written and laid out. It should be clear that there is certainly more for Israel - and us - to know than only ten commandments even though it is written that Moses only carried two stone tablets (could it be that rather than focusing on the set number of “stone” tablets, we would do well to consider that these commandments are “written in stone”?).

There is a clear social order by which a nation is shown how to establish itself and to also set itself apart from the other nations especially in what is offered in Exodus 34. Without the Law, Israel is nothing more than a nomadic people aimlessly wandering in the wilderness with no clear established order, no real cohesive national identity, and certainly no sense of purpose. If anything, these “Ten Commandments” serve as a preamble or an outline of what is to come.

This in no way is a suggestion that these “ten” can be summarily dismissed as insignificant. It should only serve as a reminder that while children’s Bible study classes consist of a lot of memorization – which is important – it is equally important to move beyond the simple “1-2-3” of early childhood Christian education and delve more deeply into the Word of the Lord which is much more profound that one thru ten. For instance, is it more important to know “which” commandment is “You shall not steal”, or can this single commandment stand on its own without being relegated to an ordered “list” that can only be applicable according to its ranking?

What I intend to explore in the coming weeks is a systematic approach to an exploration of the Law and hopefully demonstrate that what some try to relegate to antiquity status is as relevant for us today as it was for the nation of Israel then. Jesus and the apostles quoted the Law constantly. Jesus even specifically mentions to the rich young man in Mark 10 the significance of only a few of these commandments to a life in pursuit of righteousness, but He then takes it a step further. Jesus goes beyond the written Law itself and yet summarizes the Law at the same time. The summary? It’s not about the individual. “Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang ALL the Law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they all shall know Me…” Jeremiah 31:33-34

But the passage in Jeremiah does not suggest that the Lord is suddenly going to “posses” us one day and eliminate our capacity to think for ourselves and respond according to that which is most important to us. Instead, it seems that Jeremiah is offering the Lord’s promise toward those who make a commitment to live the Word, feel the Word, breath the Word, and “do” the Word as James encourages us to do. Perhaps it is that there will finally come a day when we are so consumed with the Word that as it is written upon our hearts and firmly within our minds that we have finally reached a point when our understanding of our Lord will qualify and quantify every single thing we do and every single word we speak. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Jeremiah 31:34b

Worshipping “in spirit and in truth”, as Jesus teaches us, should come to be more than a conscientious and deliberate act as a particular situation might warrant; it should come to be the very essence of our being. It is that level of spiritual perfection that John Wesley encouraged his students to strive for in daily living and practical application of the Word of the Lord. It is this never-ending quest for perfection that will put the Holy Father first in every situation, in every thought, in every deed. “Then will they know that you love Me, when you obey My commandments.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Perpetual Fruit

Exodus 20:1-17 Matthew 7:15-20

I had a visit the other day from a Jehovah’s Witness. He stopped by, as by my experiences is usual, to hand off a tract and go about his business. Although I’ve heard of others who have had unpleasant experiences with some, including my wife, I have never been challenged, threatened with hell fire, or preached to. They all, like this fellow, hand me some reading material and are on their way.

I cannot say that I know much about Jehovah’s Witnesses although my very first experience with a practitioner was not very nice. It happened to be a co-worker in Dallas who was extremely pointed and downright rude with me when I asked her to sign a birthday card for a co-worker. It turns out they don’t do birthdays or any other holidays. And when she was done being pretty darn mean, I wondered if it was that everyone was supposed to be born knowing what she thought she knew to be true.

Oddly enough, the most interesting thing about JW’s is that their contemporary practices and beliefs look a lot like the 1st and 2nd century church. They are very simplistic, they are far removed from the contemporary culture, and their beliefs are firmly grounded in Holy Scripture. They don’t have the equivalent of our Book of Discipline to my knowledge nor a particular catechism, a system of teaching doctrine. They do not participate in government on any level and, as far as I know, they don’t vote. Military service is also not an option for the genuine JW.

Today, however, the JW along with the Mormons are looked upon with more than a little suspicion. It is almost a reflex that if they approach the door, we are already geared for battle. We are pretty sure they are going to attempt to convert us, and we are going to do our level best to knock them off their “holy” perches. Isn’t it strange how they are the ones most often associated with door-to-door evangelism and yet we mock them as not being “real” Christians because their beliefs are considered to be “strange” even as we know very little about them and won’t even let them talk to us? I suppose they have just found it easier to hand off their materials, wish the recipient a nice day, and move along as has happened - at least with me - in each encounter.

It was interesting that the tract this brother handed off to me was along the lines of what has been on my mind these past days. Every election year things get rather heated, and the name-calling and mud-slinging seems to get worse with each passing year. We have politicians who are desperately trying to present themselves as our last great hope if we ever want to live decent lives in safety and comfort. And if any of us has a particular gripe or concern, you can believe that the politician will be right there with us agreeing with everything and “sharing our pain”.

It gets worse when churches sponsor political candidates and initiatives or allow them to speak to a congregation from the pulpit. It can also be very dangerous for church “spokespersons” to speak or write publicly – ostensibly in the name of that particular body - about any particular political issue or candidate. For my way of thinking, this practice is at the very least legally questionable.

The tract that the JW brother offered to me was about false religion. It begins: “What is false religion? Are you distressed about crimes committed in the name of religion? Do the warfare, terrorism, and corruption perpetrated by those who claim to serve God offend your sense of justice? Why does religion seem to be at the root of so many problems?”

“The fault lies not with all religion but with ‘false’ religion. A widely respected religious figure, Jesus Christ, indicated that false religion produces bad works, just as a ‘rotten tree produces worthless fruit.’ What fruit does false religion yield?”

Our own UM Book of Discipline lines out what we believe, what we do, and how we should go about doing it. The Catholic Church has its catechism which teaches the faithful about church doctrine and why the church teaches a particular thing. I have never considered either of these as tools of a “false religion”, but it would seem that the JW might suggest that anything outside of the Bible can be misleading because these systems are strictly man’s own understanding of the Holy. These are how we try to make sense out of things which can sometimes seem to make no sense at all. Like the Bible, however, these are records that are perpetuated from generation to generation. Unlike the catechism, however, the Book of Discipline is modified every four years however slightly.

Yet Jesus seems pretty clear in Matthew’s passage about what constitutes “false religion” even if He does not make a specific reference to “religion” itself. Yet what else could it be? Because the fruit to which Jesus refers is manifest fruit worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, it becomes necessary to think in terms of religion and faith. The problem with the term “religion”, however, is that it is not necessarily equated with terms of faith anymore than politics is equated with “good government” even though politics and government in general have become synonymous. Either way, good and positive results of our labors is expected and in spite of what some may tell us, we cannot separate our life of faith and religion from our public life in the political process. Our necessary fruit “production”, according to Jesus, is not seasonal from which we can take a break.

In light of verses 4-6 in the reading from Exodus, it would also appear that what we do now and what we teach our children and others will affect the “fruit harvest” for generations to come.

I think maybe the Exodus passage has been misunderstood or misrepresented by far too many who wonder how a God of “love” could be so spiteful. After all, to be held accountable for the behavior of past generations is about as fair as our generation now to be held accountable for the sin of the practice of slavery. We were not even there and so were not part of the process by which the buying and selling of human beings amounted to nothing more than the buying and selling of live stock. So why does the Lord seem intent on holding future generations responsible for the sins of generations past?

I don’t think this is the proper application. In the context of what Jesus is talking about, it would seem to me that what the Law is referring to is precisely the “fruit” to which Jesus refers. If we do not teach well, then generations to come will be the poorer for our failure.

It is not unlike the cycle of violence and abuse in the home that moves from generation to generation. If one is abused and neglected at home as a child, the cycle is too often carried forth from that generation and into the next because for the victim, it is the norm. It is what has been taught and learned. It is what they know to be true even as they can painfully recall the hurt and the harm done to them. It is still a mystery to me how these victims can be so mindful of the pain, the fear, and degradation they endured at the hands of abusive parents and instead of learning from that, they learn instead to perpetuate the violence.

But what about individual responsibility? Just as it is not fair to be held responsible for something over which we had no control, it is also not fair for those who live well and do good that those who do not are given an alibi because of their past. Our society has moved in such a direction in which we claim to understand that they have come by their harmful behavior at least honestly, but the cycle of pain is perpetuated because those who are guilty of such behavior do their level best to assign blame to the past.

Consider the case of former Florida congressman Mark Foley and the ensuing page scandal. When this adult congressman’s behavior was revealed, he resigned his congressional seat. He then checked himself into rehab for alcoholism and revealed that he had been abused as a teenager by a clergyman.

Whether any of this can be proved to be true is not directly relevant although alcohol has the potential to render any reasonable person “unreasonable”. Before he can ever hope to be “cured” from whatever it is that ails him, however, Mr. Foley is going to have to step forward and accept responsibility for his own behavior and not seek to lay blame elsewhere.

Notice, however, the “light at the end of the tunnel” in verse 6 of Exodus: “…but showing love to a THOUSAND generations of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Notice the contrast between the judgment against the “third and fourth generation” and the “thousand generations … who love Me.”

The wisdom of the Spirit of the Lord God insists that these cycles of negativity can and must be broken for the sake of future generations, for the sake of the “fruit” to which Jesus refers. Even though there is a definitive reference to sins of the past perpetuating into the future, there is still the element of hope. The determining factor will be whether we accept the judgment from the past or the hope for the future.


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Differences in Political Ideology

"Government is like a baby: an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other end." Ronald Reagan

US Senator Blanche Lincoln, D-AR, was recently speaking in Philadelphia to a group of professional women and compared the United States under the Bush administration to a child who had not been to school for years: "They would be so far behind. They would need so much remediation."

If Blanche Lincoln is the voice of the Democratic party and the Democrats manage to take control of the Congress this election year, I think we better hold on to our hats because if we thought President Clinton pushed through the biggest tax increase in US history during his tenure, I think "we ain't seen nothin' yet".

This attitude is not unlike Senator Lincoln's recent vote to allow minors to be transported across state lines by a non-parental adult (thankfully, the measure failed) to obtain an abortion. Ms. Lincoln failed to acknowledge that this "adult" could be the father of that minor child's baby but, hey, who knows better about what people need than the US government?

At one time there were many conservative Christians who believed that the 2000 presidential race had enormous implications as to what our government would allow, demand, advocate, or remove. I wonder if this election is not somewhat more ominous if the Democrats believe that somewhere, someone or something is due for some "remediation".

Monday, October 16, 2006


I know that I have sworn not to listen to any more talk radio but, Lord help me, I still do. I have it on during the morning commute because it is mostly news with only moderate commentary from the hosts. In the afternoon commute, however, that host is just not a nice person. And speaking as a conservative person, this conservative radio host is looney!

Recently the host took the necessary classes to prepare for applying for a concealed-carry permit, and he has been on the band wagon to encourage everyone to follow suit. It is his contention that the only way we are ever going to be safe is if we are all carrying weapons.

Today the conversation centered around the recent spate of school shootings and whether or not teachers should not only be allowed but actually required to carry weapons, maintaining that these shootings might not have happened if the shooters had known beforehand of the potential risk of a "strapped" teacher or perhaps a well-armed teacher might have been able to save a life or two.

One caller claimed to be a public school teacher who was absolutely opposed to teachers carrying weapons, but he was also "absolutely" supportive of the concealed carry law. This conflict, of course, trapped him. He just did not feel that armed teachers are conducive to a positive learning environment and as he also pointed out, not everyone should be allowed to carry weapons. The law has its own limitations and requirements and it must also be pointed out that if one could not qualify to carry a weapon under the radio host's idea, then one could not serve as a teacher.

As a former Marine, I have had extensive weapons training but not nearly as much as the average police officer. What I do remember most from all that training is that it has to be constant for one to be proficient, and it is not all a simple matter of pulling the trigger and hitting what is being aimed at. There is a mentality that must be able to tell the difference between an uncomfortable situation and a genuine threat. Simply meeting the one-time requirements to earn the concealed-carry permit is just not enough.

I know some who make time to go to firing ranges and shoot regularly. In fact, I used to enjoy it myself. Over the years, though, I've gotten away from it and could not say for sure how I would react if I were to be carrying a weapon and was confronted with a situation that would require a snap judgment on my part. That judgment would literally be a matter of life or death. "Shoot to wound" can only be properly applied by a well-trained police officer who undergoes such situational training on a consistent basis. Run-of-the-mill citizens do not have this kind of time.

Even when Peter's intentions were admirable, Jesus reminded him to sheath that sword for "those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword". Did He mean that someone might accidentally be killed by an error in judgment, or did He mean that we would perhaps sacrfice the well-being of our souls to protect our "stuff" or even our loved ones?

The school shootings require our attention and there are reasonable options for having armed police officers on campuses. Arming every teacher, however, is inviting trouble. How can we declare a school zone to be "weapons free" while demanding that every adult citizen carry a weapon while on campus?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The True Measure of Wealth

How rich is rich? What is the depth and breadth of wealth? At what level of affluence do we finally reach the point of difficulty to which Jesus refers as it pertains to entering into the kingdom of Heaven? And when Jesus refers to the “hundred times” returns on our “investment” both in this life AND in the life to come, is He trying to make us a deal? In other words, is He appealing to our own sense of need in suggesting that the only way He can get us to be generous with others is by offering a reward in return for our generosity? Does Jesus not believe that we are capable of giving generously for its own sake?

This passage from Mark in the lectionary could not have come at a more appropriate time. It is no wonder that many believe that as the lectionary calendar rolls around for its own time, there was divine guidance so that the Lord could speak to us right where we are and just when we need it most.

The Amish community suffered its worst tragedy that I know of when a crazed man entered into a tiny school house in Lancaster County PA and murdered six innocent children for no reason other than that, according to a suicide note, he was angry with God for the death of his own child in 1997. There were also other sinister motives mentioned, but these have no relevance to what I would like to share. The experience was horrifying enough without trying to create more than what really happened. The bottom line is that innocent children lost their lives for no reason other than that they were children and, perhaps, pretty easy targets considering the community in which they lived.

In the end – even in the midst of evil - the world has been shown a truer portrait of what the life of faith should more closely reflect when the Amish attended the funeral of the shooter and are now actively involved in helping to raise money for the shooter’s family. There have been no public statements decrying the government or seeking to place blame on anyone or anything. The Amish community – as simply as they live their lives – is doing nothing truly extraordinary, at least according to the simple lives they choose to lead. This is what they do every single day. This is how they live. In my mind’s eye, they are the epitome of true wealth and true grace and are freely giving of each. The world, and especially the Christian world, would do well to pay attention.

Consider the context of this tragedy as it relates to another tragedy some 2000 years ago. In the midst of evil, Someone – in fact, the One who was the very target of this evil – prayed for the forgiveness of the evil doers, “for they know not what they do.”

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The rich young man approaches Jesus with a burning question and certainly an ulterior motive but walks away extremely disappointed in learning that the way of Christ is much more than simply refraining from evil acts. He also learns that as much as “not doing”, we are also called to “do” perhaps especially on behalf of the poor. As much as I have maintained that tithing is not exclusively focused on dollars and cents, I also do not think that what Jesus is referring to has as much to do with our material riches than with the condition of our hearts. And probably far more often than not, the condition of our hearts is firmly defined – if not confined – by dollars and cents.

The rich man in the story is presumed to have much material wealth, depending on the translation, and walks away from Jesus after having been told that if he wants to inherit eternal life, he must give up everything he owns on behalf of the poor and ultimately become poor himself. It is not a stand-alone deal, however. Jesus says in verse 21 that when the man gives up his worldly treasure, he will reap divine treasure. It is clear, however, that material wealth is what the man equates with material comfort – but only in this life. He is not able to see much further than his own day-to-day existence, and it is equally clear that he was seeking a simpler and personally pleasing answer than to actually make any kind of sacrifice. It would seem that the man would not have minded very much if Jesus had told him that his worldly wealth could somehow be used to purchase the eternal life he was seeking. In fact, he probably would have preferred it. I doubt, however, that the man expected that it would cost him everything he owned even in return for riches not yet seen.

But how do we define the kind of wealth that Jesus refers to as that which can hinder us from entering into the kingdom of heaven? What do we consider to be “great” wealth such as what Mark refers to? Is it not all relative? In terms of those who live below the poverty line here in the United States, I would be considered possessing of “great” wealth. We have a nice home, three cars, a motorcycle, AND good health though this cannot be measured in dollars and cents except for perhaps the health insurance we are fortunate enough to have. By relative measure, we have “great” wealth but then according to US standards and measures, we are only “middle class”. Compared to the Walton family, we are “poor”.

So whom is Jesus referring to as those who will have “difficulty” entering into the kingdom of heaven? Do I have a better shot at it than the Walton family? After all, my “riches” cannot be adequately measured according to their “riches”. My cars are not classified as “luxury”, and my motorcycle is not a Harley. And the third car we own – Chelsea’s – had over 300,000 miles on it when we bought it. So since we don’t have “great” wealth, at least compared to the Walton family, will I be measured by the same standard since we don’t share similar standards of wealth?

You bet I will, and so will anyone else; even the Amish. Because I believe Jesus is talking about more than just material possessions, our standard of measure cannot be relative to others because we will not be judged according to the standards of others. Yet the Amish, who seem to care very little for the trappings of this life and appear to have little – at least according to our societal standards – are giving much more than our own society would expect of them especially in the face of such evil.

It may seem simple enough to us. After all, the shooter’s wife and children had nothing to do with this man going off the deep end. And in the face of it all, the Amish have more to be bitter about than what is evident. Yet their seemingly few material possessions and intentionally simplistic lifestyle directed more toward focus on the Lord and His will has enabled them to respond in such a way that is completely foreign to our culture. Then again, the Amish intentionally distance themselves from our culture, don’t they?

It would appear to me that in terms of true wealth, the Amish have us all beat hands down. They have great wealth and are not afraid to use it.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Wanna-be Amish

There have been several excellent pieces written by UM bloggers, editorialists, and others about how the Amish in Lancaster County PA were able to forgive the shooter who murdered their children in school so much so as to even attend his funeral. Such is the portrait of grace to which we should all aspire. Maybe much of this was written in response to Westboro Baptist's intent to "protest" at the children's funeral as a contrast to what genuine Christianity looks like. Either way, it was good to see and the Lord was indeed glorified by the sheer poetry of their grace.

Compare the Amish response to such a tragedy to a typical American social response when children are hurt. Those who do such harm are regarded as nothing more than "monsters" who are condemned in the harshest language possible - all before a trial has even begun! Once the accused has had his (or her) photo published, it's all over for them. They are guilty before they set foot in a court room.

This attitude toward those who are accused of heinous crimes violates two fundamental principles: a constitutional guarantee of being presumed innocent until proven guilty, and Christ's call to love our enemies. Why is it that the Amish are the only ones who seem to get it?

I cannot help but to think that perhaps their simple life style has much to do with an ability to be more spiritually focused and not so consumed with the trappings of this world. We with our cars and boats and homes and jobs and schools and ambitions and desperate climbs up the corporate ladder and designer clothes and ....

Of course we hurt when we are threatened; even more so when we perceive danger for our children. And perhaps it is a natural response to anger when our young may be in trouble but judging by such comparisons, it is clear that we all have a long way to go before we can come close to being compared with Jesus. It is no small wonder that the general public seems to view Christianity with more than a little suspicion especially when such groups as Westboro enter into the fray.

For what it may have been worth, I sort of wish the Westboro people had gone through with their lame "threat" to protest (what the heck was there to "protest" anyway??) the Amish funerals. More than the Patriot Guard riders, the Amish - with their quiet, unassuming way and Christ-like demeanor - would have surely put the Westboro people in their place ... without uttering a single word.

Then again, maybe it is not necessarily the Westboro people who need to pay attention to the Amish.

Expectations of a Pastor

The Arkansas UMC has a very good e-mail network through which news, commentary, prayer requests, and so much other very good information passes. It is a very good way to stay in touch and share ideas.

Often there are also requests for information and ideas about what works, what doesn't, Sunday school ideas and PPR information. Today a brother submitted a request for any kind of PPR information that spells out a congregation's "expectations" of a pastor, sort of a job description. In turn, he also asked whether anyone had information about a congregational "job description" perhaps as in what the pastor may reasonably expect in return.

Does such a thing exist? Should such a thing exist? To a degree, of course, a pastor does indeed answer to his or her congregation but not to such an extent that a job description would become necessary. True? The pastor essentially answers to the DS, the bishop, and the cabinet. The expectations of a pastor are pretty much already in place, are they not?

On the flip side, if a PPR committee were to submit to a new pastor what he or she could come to expect from a congregation, what might such a document look like? And would the PPR be able to assure the pastor that the congregation would truly be willing to live up to these expectations?

Overall, the request was such as I had never heard of before. I've been a part-time local pastor since 1999 and I have yet to see any such thing in a charge conference packet. My evaluation comes with annual sit-downs with the DS and with the DCOM with some feedback from the congregation and, I suppose, some expectations but certainly no independent "list" of what the local church "expects" from its pastor.

Is there such a thing?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Morality, Philosophy, and Taxes

The race for the Arkansas governor’s open seat has produced some interesting questions that boil down not to what is right or wrong but more a question of opposing philosophies and beliefs about the role of government. The questions for me have become even more interesting in light of my enrollment in a political science program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) and being exposed to political processes I had never before considered.

In the 2000 presidential debates, I recall President Bush making a statement that his views and Vice President Al Gore’s views were nothing more than a conflict in personal and political philosophy about government’s proper role in daily life.

In one of my texts for a policy processes class, the author makes the statement that never in the history of the United States has the government been more active in the lives of ordinary Americans and I could not help but to wonder if it is because Americans are demanding more from the government or if politicians are offering more to Americans for the sake of political campaigns. For my way of thinking, it has become a vicious cycle that will only expand unless or until Americans tighten their belts and government officials stop pandering to the whims of particular segments of the population.

In Arkansas there is a growing demand that the sales tax on groceries be eliminated. For those who oppose this tax, the argument is primarily that it is a regressive tax that hurts the poor who are forced to pay more for their food, a necessity of life, on an extremely limited budget. In light of Arkansas’ current projected budget surplus in excess of $700 million dollars, it would appear that the time is right to seriously consider ending this unfair tax.

One gubernatorial candidate insists that as governor, he will work to end the tax on food. Arkansas can afford it according to budget estimates, and Arkansas cannot afford NOT to end this “immoral” tax. The other candidate insists that it would be “irresponsible” to end the tax without careful consideration of what budget forecasts might suggest a few years down the road. He maintains that there are somehow greater needs for the state which would require expanded state spending and MAYBE a gradual repeal.

Like Mr. Bush said six years ago, it boils down to a difference in philosophy and our belief about government’s proper role in society. Even beyond the tax on food, there is another tax which I consider being extremely unfair and downright immoral and that is the “personal property tax”. Consider that the purchases we make require money left over after taxes have already been withheld from our pay. Then we pay a sales tax on the purchase itself. Then we pay a tax for the privilege of owning said property, be it our homes (another necessity) or cars or boats or other items. In addition to these taxes, we pay fees to license some of this property. We then pay taxes on subsequent purchases we make to maintain and operate this property.

The philosophical difference in how each tax is viewed depends on what the government promises in return and our own expectations. Have we, as a society, become so dependent on government services and campaign promises that that we are taxing ourselves into oblivion? It would seem so.

What do we expect from our government? Do we as a society believe government exists to help us when we fail? Do we expect government to provide for us when we cannot or will not provide for ourselves? Is it moral to expect the government to take care of social situations where the Church might be better equipped? Is it moral to pass off to the government what should be the more proper role of the Church not to proselytize but to offer Christ’s hand to those who have “fallen but can’t get up”?

Those who suggest "evil" at the thought of government tax cuts which might jeopardize certain social programs are also the ones most vocal about the so-called "separation of church and state". I ask: what church in favor of what "church"?