Tuesday, May 30, 2006

What Was Stephen Seeing?

Acts 7:55-60

What was it that the apostle Stephen was seeing when he told that angry crowd, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”? I’ve often wondered what sort of vision he was being granted as his life was about to end.

Stephen knew he was turning some screws a little too tight. What else was he going to do? He knew what needed to be said, and he seemed unafraid to say it. I still wonder what he was seeing.

It would easy to close our eyes and imagine the clouds parting just a bit, and suddenly a blinding ray of light appearing like after a storm and the sun peeking out. In fact, some might suggest that this is exactly what happened. Some suggest that Stephen didn’t really see Jesus at all, and we can’t say for sure that Stephen saw the Lord God Himself. Isn’t that kind of a stretch considering that John writes in the Gospel that “no one has seen God at any time”?

We have to remember also that Stephen never saw Jesus. Stephen’s time was after the Ascension. So what exactly was he looking at? Whatever it was, it overwhelmed him. It would seem that somehow he was looking at something, or SOMEONE, more glorious that anything he’d ever seen before. It was also such a vision that, as he was being literally beaten to death with rocks, he was still able to say, “Lord, forgive them.”

Do you ever wonder if you could ever be so gracious if you were being pelted with stones big enough to crush your head or break your bones? I don’t think this would be my first choice if I could choose the way I will leave this earth.

Still, Stephen had to have seen something, and he certainly must have known the risk he was taking. His message of redemption in Christ was still considered to be “blasphemous” according to the Law.

There is no way that a man, any man standing alone, could withstand such punishment. A normal person would be running for cover, cowering, instinctively covering himself in an effort to protect. It’s what any of us would do naturally without thinking. There are very few of us who would not flinch even just a tiny bit if we could see something flying toward our face! Still, Stephen must be seeing something pretty incredible.

Whatever it was, it is pretty clear in John’s Gospel that Philip wasn’t seeing the same thing. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” And Jesus seems almost incredulous at this statement! “Philip, what, or WHO, do you think you’ve been looking at all this time?” It is clear by what is written that the disciples are still completely clueless about what is happening in their lives, in their society, in their culture, and in history at this particular time. They seem to be looking for something “bigger”.

Thomas, the ever-present “doubting” Thomas has missed the boat as well. “Lord, we do not know where You are going. How can we know the way?”

What is everyone missing that Stephen seems to see so clearly?

Is it possible that sometimes we try so hard to see something that we completely look past whatever it is we are truly seeking in search of something MUCH BIGGER? It could very well be that when we have a mental vision of our expectations, the reality is not quite up to where we WANT it to be. In other words, we have likely built up in our minds a vision on such a grand scale that when we are finally confronted with the truth, it’s just not as magnanimous as we had hoped.

It’s not unlike what I and so many others have done with high school and college algebra. Whenever I looked at a problem, the answer SEEMED simple enough but I wanted to know more about where this particular formula had come from. Maybe it was a fair question, but all it did was make the work harder than it needed to be. The answer was right in front of me, but I was somehow looking for something much bigger.

Philip and Thomas are both obviously looking and searching much more deeply than they need to. The truth of what they seek is standing right in front of them, and they don’t see it. Or they don't want to see it.

If God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all one and the same, how is it that Stephen was able to see and describe two distinct, and apparently individual, Beings, being “filled with the Holy Spirit”, as it is written in Acts? And if God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one and the same, how is it that Philip and Thomas were looking directly at the Son but could not see the Father?

We can get caught up in trying to discern for ourselves the doctrine of the Holy Trinity if we want. However, I think it would miss the point of what it is that each of these disciples were seeing, or NOT seeing, and why. Could it be as simple as the difference between what we would LIKE to see against what we NEED to see?

Stephen is looking death in the face; he’s about to die, and he knows it. After all, the punishment for blasphemy is death, and Stephen must surely know that his message is considered by many to be blasphemy. The Gospel, the GOOD NEWS, however, dictates that he hold nothing back. Stephen is not seeking anything for HIS OWN SAKE – he is trying to offer the GOOD NEWS of salvation for anyone who will listen. And he is among a very hostile crowd.

Philip and Thomas, on the other hand, seem to be more concerned with how what Jesus is saying will affect THEM. “Show us the Father, and WE will be satisfied.” “Lord, WE do not know where You are going. How can WE know the way?”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty selfish, self-centered, and self-serving; at least, compared to Stephen and his situation. It seems to me that Philip and Thomas, and perhaps all the rest who are present, are more concerned with how all this affects THEM as a group or as individuals. There does not seem to be much thought as to how this will affect OTHERS outside the group, though an argument could be made that they are wondering how to share this message, I suppose.

Notice, also, that Philip and Thomas – and the rest – are in a relatively friendly environment. They are among like-minded friends. There is no danger for them in asking questions amongst themselves or freely speaking their minds.

To be fair, however, when we gather with friends and family, it is more likely that we are of one mind and not necessarily hostile toward others in that group nor do we feel threatened. If we felt any such threat at all, there is a good chance we just wouldn’t go. The decision not to go, however, would not likely be due to any sense of physical danger although I know of some family gatherings that ought to require armed security!

When we consider our calling as witnesses, however, how many of us can honestly say that we would willingly and voluntarily venture into hostile territory and into a hostile crowd? If you try to answer to yourself that you would not be afraid to do so, then my next question would then be, “Why then have you not done it?”

It is within our nature to survive. Our instincts are geared toward self-preservation. It’s just as I suggested about being stoned to death. How many do you know who would stand still for it? Not many, I would venture to say. I am pretty sure that I will not knowingly enter into “hostile” territory. Does this mean that I am afraid? Does it make me “smart”? Does this mean that I exercise good judgment?

These are things the WORLD would tell me. More specifically, these are things that WORLDLY Christians would tell me. “Why go in ASKING for trouble,” they would say.

But it might very well be that I would choose NOT to enter into hostile territory because I do not have the clear vision or sense of calling that Stephen had. This lack of clarity would explain why almost all the disciples abandoned Jesus when He was arrested.

There are vital ministries in which we do take care of one another. These ministries are relatively safe, and they are also necessary. Each of us needs some support from time to time, and there is no shame in asking for it or receiving it. Think about this, though: when was the last time you actually took a RISK for the sake of the Gospel? It’s easy to say that we are not all called to be missionaries. And I’ll grant you that those who serve as missionaries are a special breed, and my hat is off to them.

However, in celebrating the life and the calling of missionaries, are we simply using the “special calling” they seem to have as a means for excusing ourselves? And I’m not just talking about overseas missionaries; that need is indeed great. But is the need for the Gospel any less so in our own communities?

It seems to me that what we SEE – or NOT – will depend entirely on the risk we are willing to take for the cause of Christ.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day 2006

I watched the flag pass by one day,
it fluttered in the breeze.
A young Marine saluted it,
and then he stood at ease.
I looked at him in uniform so young,
so tall, so proud.
With hair cut square and eyes alert,
He'd stand out in any crowd.
I thought how many men like him
had fallen through the years.
How many died on foreign soil,
how many mothers' tears?
How many pilots' planes shot down?
How many died at sea?
How many foxholes were soldiers' graves?
No, freedom isn't free.
I heard the sound of Taps one night,
when everything was still.
I listened to the bugler play
and felt a sudden chill.
I wondered just how many times
That Taps had meant "Amen,"
When a flag had draped a coffin
of a brother or a friend.
I thought of all the children,
of the mothers and the wives,
of fathers, sons and husbands
with interrupted lives.
I thought about a graveyard
at the bottom of the sea,
of unmarked graves in Arlington.
No, freedom isn't free.
- Author unknown

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Exclusive Rights

Reading all that has been written about immigration and the rule of law from lay persons as well as “experts” in the fields of constitutional law and immigration, I have wondered what more could possibly be said. It would seem that every base has been covered: we want secure borders, we like low prices, we hate the poor being exploited for the sake of cheap lettuce but we like relatively inexpensive produce. We hate the undue burden placed on the welfare system by those illegal immigrants who happen to be pregnant when they cross the border and giving birth to US citizens before we’ve had a chance to deport them and their unborn children, we wonder “what part of ILLEGAL is misunderstood”, and we hate that members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are seemingly playing to the “immigrant crowd”. We want our nation of laws to be fair, but we hate the shameless way members of Congress seem to be delaying the inevitable while pandering for favor with minority voters.

What finally struck me as unique, however, was a letter written to a newspaper’s editor in which the writer had insisted that US laws are intended exclusively and specifically for US citizens. The writer had maintained that law and order and the protections afforded us by this same constitution was a privilege intended for those select few who could honestly call themselves US citizens.

Was the US Constitution, as well as the Declaration of Independence, designed and written to be an exclusive document to be applicable only to a specific people, or were these documents meant to serve as rules of law and order for a nation as well as documents of emancipation in which “ALL men (and not exclusively Americans) are created equal”? I happen to think we can be a nation of laws and maintain the integrity of that law while also recognizing that these documents serve a dual purpose. Not only are there rules of law defining our system of government as a means of protecting citizens from a heavy-handed dictatorship, but there are also rules defining the dignity of man and the sanctity of life regardless of citizenship status.

It is short-sighted and immoral to suggest that the dignity of the human person is protected only by US law and meant exclusively for US citizens. We have become US citizens ONLY by choices our parents made. Had we been born in, say, Mexico, would we be clamoring for a chance to cross the Rio Grande and find a better life in the US? What sort of claim do we have on this nation beyond the fact that our mothers gave birth to us here?

The Torah constantly reminds us that we are subject to the ultimate authority of YHWH and that part of our obligation as citizens is to welcome the stranger as one of our own since we were “once strangers in a strange land”.

Still, a nation must control its borders but according to the principles of our immigrant past, what must we protect ourselves from? Yes, 9/11 changed our perceptions about almost everything foreign, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that those responsible for that dreadful day were in this country legally.

I was shaken from a complacent “sleep” when I was reminded by a letter writer of the immortal words on the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flameis the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame, "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Perhaps it is for the sake of American principles and ideals that we must rethink what it means to be “one nation under God”.

The Height of Arrogance

Louisiana congressman William Jefferson is in trouble with the law (I do not distinguish his party affiliation because it is completely irrelevant). It appears that because of testimony from others, Mr. Jefferson became the target of a Justice Department investigation during which Mr. Jefferson was recorded taking bribes. In light of this evidence, a warrant was issued and Mr. Jefferson’s congressional office was searched and some items seized. It must also be remembered that part of what was recorded was Mr. Jefferson receiving a large amount of cash, some of which was found hidden in his freezer at home.

Prominent members of the Congress have expressed their collective concern over the FBI’s search of Mr. Jefferson’s congressional office. It seems there is some well-intentioned but misguided tradition by which the executive branch of the government cannot do such a thing to the legislative branch. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (again, party affiliation completely irrelevant) declared the search of Mr. Jefferson’s office to be “unconstitutional”; constitutional experts seem to disagree.

While the “hands-off” tradition between branches of the government is probably a good idea to some degree, this particular search involved all three branches: a judge (judicial) issued a search warrant to the FBI (executive) to search a congressman’s (legislative) office. Politics being what it is, there is a reason why laws exist to protect legislators from being harassed, manipulated, intimidated, or detained by the executive branch on not only the federal level but state levels as well.

Legislators are “we the people”. They are “us”. Instead of everyone going to the state capital to represent our concerns, we choose someone to attend in our stead. It is all part of the checks and balances system which exists within our system of government. One branch of the government cannot hold sway over another branch without due process. This is one of many very good reasons why judges should not be subject to the will of the people by popular vote.

Aside from political consideration between branches of the US government, however, there is also a reason why members of Congress should be concerned about what is happening. The current US president has an extremely low approval rating at this time. The approval rating of the US Congress is even lower. An argument can be made that the low congressional rating is a result of Republicans being in the majority, but this sort of argument would only go as far as partisan voters’ minds. In the end, there seems to be a general mistrust and suspicion of the Congress by the American people, and partisan politics cannot be blamed as the sole culprit.

The public’s mistrust of the Congress can be traced back to the term limits proposals that were enacted in some states as well as other proposals which were attempted at the federal level. That effort failed but not without great cost to former House Speaker Tom Foley. He was a leading opponent of citizen’s efforts to impose term limits on the federal level. Even though the measure was declared unconstitutional (it is) by the judicial branch, the voters reacted to what was perceived at the time as the very height of arrogance. The will of the people clashed with the will of a seemingly arrogant politician who seemed to suggest that the Congress does not have to answer to the voting public. The voters of Washington state, who denied Mr. Foley another term in office, reminded him that the Congress does in fact answer to the voters.

There may be legitimate legal concerns about Mr. Jefferson’s office having been searched and, we presume, documents relevant to the investigation seized, but these legal concerns must be traced to the branch of government responsible for creating laws, the Congress (legislative). The executive branch (FBI) is responsible for enforcing these same laws, and the judicial branch (the judge who issued the search warrant) is responsible for interpreting these laws.

The only “legitimate” concern that members of Congress should have at this point is that they are being reminded that they are not above the laws they created and that they are, indeed, “of the people”. The very essence of arrogance is to suggest that the search of an office of a member of Congress who is under investigation is not allowed under some misguided rules that are not specifically addressed in the US Constitution.

At this point, Mr. Jefferson may not be the only member of Congress who is in trouble with the law.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Gotta Wonder

This evening the new American Idol, Taylor Hicks, was crowned. More remarkable was the fact that 63 million votes were tallied and ready less than 24 hours later. The host of the show made mention that this is more votes than for any US president in history. What he failed to mention was that in presidential elections, we are (typically) only allowed to vote ONCE. I seriously doubt that 63 individuals voted in that election. (My wife and I were unable to vote because our 11-year-old daughter was playing softball, and she is the only one who knows how to text the vote!)

Meanwhile back in Arkansas, one county had some trouble with their new voting machines and ended up having to hand-count each ballot; they were expected to finish up sometime this evening. Not being real handy with numbers, I am still going to jump out on a limb and guess that the votes in that county will come in somewhere UNDER 63 million votes.

Even still, why is it that Hollywood and one accounting firm can tabulate this many votes in less than 24 hours but a government cannot manage a mid-term election vote tally? Is it the machines? Is it technology? Is it the expense of machines and technology? Or could it be that this accounting firm was under the gun of perhaps not being paid until the vote was final AND under threat of never again getting a chance to work for this TV show? Hmmm.

Just wondering.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


John Battern encountered a difficult situation and asked a question that actually has profound implications far beyond his host’s back yard and as I was leaving him a comment on his post, I was reminded of a situation only a few days ago as I was driving across town.

I am a listener of talk radio, and in my listening area the station is extremely conservative. On this particular day, the talk was centered around Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s comment that our aversion to illegal immigration may have more to do with our prejudices than with our concern about the law.

Just about the time the radio host was blasting the governor about HIS prejudiced comments, the driver in front of me rolled down his window and tossed his cigarette butt onto the street. Now I have no idea about the politics of the person who committed this crime, but my own prejudiced mind took in the older model pick up truck and the general appearance of the offender and came to the conclusion that this person could well be amongst that crowd that “don’t want no damn Mexicans coming into OUR country, but that don’t make me no bigot”. I know, I know; the Lord loves him, too.

Still, the loudest and most prevalent objections to illegal immigration that have been so eloquently stated come from those who cry out, “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”

Tossing even a tiny cigarette butt onto the street is littering, pure and simple. And in Arkansas, littering is a crime. In all states, there are posted speed limits and even though state police usually don’t seem to bother with we who choose to go “just a tad” over the speed limit, the bottom line is that the law places a definitive limit on how fast we are allowed to drive on our streets and highways.

That “everyone does it” as the common argument does not make any of these acts any less a violation of a prescribed law, and yet we are clear in our objections that “we ain’t no damn bigots; we’se law-abidin’ citizens”.

This all goes beyond what we think and what we do and what we believe. It moves into the lives of our children whose futures we influence by what we teach them and how we teach them. By word does not have the same impact as by deed; children watch much better than they listen, and they learn by both.

In John’s case, a keg of beer was being served at a party for high school graduates at the home of a parent. What sort of message does this convey to those young people? And what would it say if a concerned neighbor had bothered to call the police and report that minors were being served alcohol and the parents had been taken away in handcuffs? You can argue that the kids would have just been drinking somewhere else, but that makes this offense no more right. The law is the law, yes? On private property? So? Beating one’s spouse or abusing one’s children even on private property is still illegal. There is no imminent domain in this case in which parents can provide alcohol to the class of 2006 and be exempt from the law that prohibits such acts.

If we are going to be honest about obeying the law, let’s at least look to ourselves and our own communities and our future generation of law breakers or law abiders (entirely our choice!) before we begin to worry about “them damn Mexicans”.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Choosing Priorities

John 14:1-11

I will be the first to admit that I absolutely LOVED The Da Vinci Code! I read the book a couple of years ago shortly after it first came out and literally could not put it down until I was finished. I found the story to be put together very well and the plot line very exciting. I will also admit that some items in the book gave me more to think about than my comfort zone at the time would allow.

Now that the movie has been released, I am not yet sure if I will go see it because I am afraid that it will not be as good as the book was for me. Through it all, however, I have never doubted that the whole story is ***FICTION***. Oh, there were a few trouble spots in the story line that forced me to go back more than once in the book to try and find the place where I might have missed something. You see, the author does use some historic pieces here and there that are used as nothing more than reference points. And there are some acknowledgments of past conflicts between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism that can get the reader bogged down. Other than that, however, the story is entirely made up.

Prior to the release of the movie, church folks from all over have gotten more and more excited about what “harm” the movie might do to the Church and Christianity in general. In this the so-called church “leaders” have virtually insulted the masses – sort of like politicians – by suggesting that we cannot think for ourselves and must be “protected”.

Now I will grant you that the Church as a whole has been far too silent for far too long about some moral and social issues, and I also believe that the Church as a whole has come dangerously close to surrendering to society and our secular culture in a misguided effort to appease some. So maybe it is that these church folks who are trying to “protect” us from The Da Vinci Code are just a little too late, having surrendered a measure of credibility long ago, to speak of what is “right” and what is “wrong” now.

“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in Me.”

For those who may have been left confused about the premise of the book, Jesus has a word of encouragement. “Do not be alarmed”, He is saying. There is a core truth. Even back then Jesus was comforting His disciples because He knew full well that there will be moments of doubt about His mission, His ministry, and even His divinity. And Gnosticism challenges the divinity of Jesus as the Christ. What we are facing today with all the confusion about this novel is nothing new. I don’t believe for one moment that this book or movie poses any significant threat to the Church or to orthodox Christianity in general.

If there is any threat to the teachings of the Church as a whole, I assure you that the threat comes from within. In John 14:15, Jesus calls on His followers to prove their love for Him by obeying His commandments. Now we can speculate about WHICH commandments Jesus may be referring to and we can also speculate about the true definition of “love”, but what we cannot do is challenge what He means by this unless we are willing to admit that we are more “Gnostic” than we are “orthodox” because to challenge such a statement as this is to challenge the divinity of the Christ Himself.

When questioned about the “greatest” commandment of them all, Jesus responds in Matthew 22:37: “You shall love the Lord 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.”

So it would seem that before we worry too much about what Dan Brown says, we might want to pay a little more attention to what Jesus is saying. Some might suggest that Dan Brown’s novel threatens the credibility of the Gospels. I say to you AGAIN that the threat to the Gospel – the GOOD NEWS – of Christ comes from we who consistently fail to live up to the very high standards that Jesus established.

The Church in its rich and storied history has a lot to be pleased with – and much to be ashamed of. The Church’s past is filled with men of power who ordered others killed because they didn’t think “right” or worship “right” or believe “right”. Thankfully, this is all in the past.

Or is it?

Contrary to what others have said, Dan Brown makes no remarkable “claims” to truth. As a writer, he set out to write a book that would sell and make him a living; he’s done that and THEN some. As for historic “claims”, it is a matter of pure speculation. He makes it clear in the beginning that his is a book of PURE FICTION and nothing more.

Jesus, on the other hand, does make some rather remarkable claims and He refers to Himself as “THE TRUTH” as well as “the way” and “the life”. In 1 John 5:6 it is written: “This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus the Christ; not only by water but by water and blood. And it is the SPIRIT who bears witness because the SPIRIT is TRUTH.”

My dear friends, do not let church folks tell you what you should be afraid of or what you should be mindful of unless they are telling you to BELIEVE the SPIRIT. As it is written: “IF we receive the witness of MEN, the witness of God is GREATER; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son.”

The PEACE, the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE of Christ Jesus be with you now and forever.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

So What If Jesus Was Married?

Christian history has never been as interesting to so many as it is now with the phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code. With the movie soon to be released, those who are not inclined to read books will likely go see what all the hoo-haa is about. What they will find is an incredibly exciting and well-written story probably very well-played by the talented Tom Hanks. Anything beyond that will merely be icing on the cake. But why the interest in Christianity now? And more to the point, why are church people all over the country so bent out of shape over “heretical” fiction (is there such a thing?)?

Catholics have been advised by the Church to avoid reading the book or seeing the movie because of the negative light shed upon the secretive Catholic organization Opus Dei, about which very little is known, and the Catholic Church in general. Christians in general have been discouraged from indulging merely because of the premised “secret” marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and other “inaccuracies” that might mislead those who are perhaps weak in the faith. All in all, the protests from various Christian groups have helped this book break publishing records even as they have protested its contents.

Considering much of what is considered to be symbolic in the Bible, it is interesting that Christians would protest so vehemently the notion that Jesus as a man, divine though He was, could have possibly been married during His time on this earth. If all things remained the same with the exception of a wedding, would Jesus’ message be any less valued or valuable? Would His authority somehow be diminished if it were to be discovered that such a thing could have actually been possible? Would the divinity of Christ somehow take a “hit” if He were to have sullied Himself with such a worldly institution?

But wait. Marriage as taught by the Catholic Church is not a “worldly” institution, and in most Protestant doctrines it is taught as a “holy ordinance”. It is held as a sacrament of Christ’s holy Church, a gift from the Lord God. If we are encouraged to marry, how could the possibility of Jesus having been married somehow change the nature of His divinity?

By far too many traditions and teachings, Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as a prostitute by some Christian fundamentalists even though there is no correlation mentioned in the Bible between “prostitute” and Mary. This is also part of the “conspiracy” in Dan Brown’s novel that the Church had "fictionally" worked diligently to suppress. It must also be considered then to have implications far beyond merely what we know or have faith to believe to be true.

What if Mary was in fact a prostitute and Jesus married her after He had exorcised the seven demons? What would this say about the nature of the relationship between Christ and his people? Though there are many who would fight to the death any notion of such a relationship, there is a much bigger picture that must be considered. What could be derived from the knowledge of such a relationship? How could modern man possibly fathom such a union, and what would it take for disciples to swallow such a proposition?

There are many references in the New Testament of Christ the Bridegroom and His Church the bride. Jesus broke bread with sinners and tax collectors, a gathering that Pharisees and scribes tried to use as ammunition against Jesus, considering these people to be unclean and certainly not worthy of being in the presence of the Lord Himself. Yet Jesus preached all along that He did not come to condemn the world but, rather, to save us. He reminded any who would listen that those who are well are not in need of a physician. In all this, what is Christ saying to the world?

Could such a relationship between a woman like Mary, prostitute or not but formerly unclean in any case, and Jesus tell us something more about the spiritual relationship between Christ and His Church? It would speak volumes if the church were to acknowledge that we are a congregation of sinners rather than saints. It would be a voluminous message to those who live in a dark world and languish in despair. It would be a message that there is hope for a world in need of salvation and that Jesus Himself would still sit down to break bread with us as “worthy” of our invitation to have Him enter into our lives and our homes.

I do not know that Jesus was married anymore than I know that He was not. What I do know deep within the recesses of my being is that the Lord God chose to reach out to a world seemingly without hope to give us hope. Does it make me a gnostic if I were to believe that Jesus could have been married? Does it make me a heretic somehow if I were to acknowledge that there is more that I don't know than that I do know? Do I somehow not fit in with mainstream, orthodox Christianity if I believe that the LIFE of Christ Jesus was - and is - as significant to me as a disciple as His death and that His life, however spent, is supposed to be the model upon which I am to build my own life?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Getting Through the Day

It was reported in today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the youth pastor from Warren (AR) United Methodist Church was arrested for using the Internet to arrange intimate encounters with minors. He is 33 years old; the child was "under 16". He has been charged with attempted sexual assault and Internet stalking of a child. He was arrested at his home, and his laptop was seized from the CHURCH OFFICE and sent to the state's crime lab for analysis. Police declined to say whether the youth pastor and the girl knew each other from church, but they did say the child was NOT assaulted.

....... **** long pause ****.......

It was also reported today that the treasurer for the Arkansas Conference confessed to the bishop that he had been diverting Conference funds for his personal use. He was immediately terminated and has promised full cooperation, including restitution. The article did not say how much money was taken, and the bishop has yet to decide whether there will be criminal charges.

.......***** another cup of coffee *****........

Sometimes there are no words. In fact, I cannot say for sure right now that I even have emotions. I don't feel a thing. These stories are cropping up in the news seemingly more frequently than ever before (or are these just the stories I happen to notice?).

How easy it is to be tempted without fully realizing or appreciating the destruction that lies in wait! We who call ourselves "believers" or "disciples" do not realize how easy we make it for hecklers to turn up their noses at the Best News Ever all the while laughing at us for being no different from they who are equally tempted by money and flesh. I also wonder the level of faith that ever existed in one who can so easily be taken right out from under the Lord's nose (in a manner of speaking, of course). Of course I would hope that the former youth pastor was at least smart enough not to .... oh, who are we kidding?

We ARE held to a higher standard than what the world would expect. We do not surrender to man's whims even as we are ridiculed for being "narrow-minded", "bigoted", etc. But when we demand that our church more accurately reflect the values of contemporary society, contemporary society is precisely what we will get. "You reap what you sow."

Being a diversified church means no more than coming from different backgrounds, different cultures, different races, different nationalities. The personality of Christ's Holy Church is losing her moral authority because she has become a thing of this world and not of the next. We are fighting our own battles from within because the evil one has been invited in.

You want to talk about love? First tell me what it means. "Agape" love, the kind of love Jesus supposedly had for His people. Tell me what it means. Tell me because I really want to know.

For my perspective, love means direct confrontations with danger. Just as I do with my own children, if they violate the rules of our home or our standards of behavior, they will pay a price and immediate correction will be expected. There are no long, drawn-out discussions about the "diversity" of opinions. My wife and I are of like mind, and our rules reign supreme in our household. Telling the children WHY what they do is harmful or dangerous is also part of the teaching process but, of course, you can virtually HEAR the eyes rolling while the "discussion" is going on.

My point is simply this: we the church CANNOT, MUST NOT become a reflection of society or of our contemporary culture. We CANNOT, MUST NOT succumb to the enormous temptations that exist in this world. Christ's Holy Church MUST ALWAYS stand as a sanctuary AGAINST contemporary culture, or she will cease being Christ's church. As it is right now, the church - or what is left of it - is becoming more and more like "culturally relevant". That is to say, the church is working its fingers to the bone giving in to a society that, like children, will take and take and take until there is nothing left to take. The one essential - genuine respect - will be absent. This must be earned, and it cannot be earned by being complacent or by being unable to stand on sound principles. If the church cannot or will not stand on moral principles, it cannot exercise moral authority. Once this is gone, there is nothing left to separate the sheep from the goats.

The only thing that gets me through days like this when all seems lost is only in knowing that He will one day put an end to it. In the meantime, I can only pray His mercy on others just as I continue to pray mercy for myself.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lest We Be Judged

There is a man I know who recently left his wife for another woman and now attends church with his new love. It must be known that this man's wife is an active member of one church, and it is highly unlikely that she has been involved in any sort of extramarital affair though it is clear that this man is now. To complicate matters, he attends church pretty regularly with his new "friend". I don't know if they have plans to marry anytime soon, but I have to admit that I am extremely uncomfortable with the prospect that they may one day choose to do so or that the pastor of their church will allow it to happen, if not actually officiate.

The UM Judicial Council ruled that a pastor has broad "power" (and I hesitate to use that word) to decide who may or may not join a church, depending upon the new parishioner's understanding of what church membership actually entails. Rather than "power", I think "responsibility" or "duty" or "obligation" would be more appropriate words to use in the case of a pastor who would deny membership or nuptials under certain circumstances. In fact, "duty" would be more appropriate for the pastor to deny this man any active role in the life of this new church lest this man come to believe that what he has done can somehow be justified.

Who has a duty to speak up in such a case? Would it be appropriate for me to contact this pastor and make him aware of this man's new life? After all, we each have obligations toward one another. Is it right to allow this man to believe that what he has done, and is doing, is somehow ok? Like back in my drinking days when I chose alcohol over my own family (is this any less cheating?) and nearly destroyed my life and my family, this man's spiritual well-being may be in jeopardy. If I am truly a disciple of Christ and if I truly possess Christ-like love in my heart, should I not be disturbed that this man is poisoning not only himself but his new "friend" and perhaps his own children who are witnesses to this new relationship? Are they being somehow taught that what he has done is acceptable?

As I have stated so often in writings and in sermons (as quoting Fr. Corapi of EWTN), genuine, biblical, agape love is not an emotion; it is an intentional act of the will such as Jesus' refusal to back away from His crucifixion. His prayer at Gethsemane indicates very much a Man who did not cherish this "cup" that He asked to be removed from Him; He did not want to do this thing. However, a love that can only come from a divine heart somehow knew that this coming series of events was not about Him as an individual; it was about the love of the Almighty Father for an entire world of persons. "Self" chose others.

We all suffer to one extent or another, and in some cases it is ok to pursue other options such as a new job. A marriage, however, is another story. Our culture, our society, would tend toward telling this man that the Lord wants him to be happy and if he has been unhappy in his marriage, then he should do whatever it takes to regain his own happiness. Our scripture, however, says something entirely different. It is not ok to leave hearth and home in pursuit of worldly desires. The Bible makes this abundantly clear; our churches do not.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Politics in Law

For the last few years, voters and politicians alike have shown their extreme concern about judges with a “political” agenda serving time on any bench. Equal time has been spent by conservatives and liberals alike about judges who “legislate” from the bench. In simple terms, if we disagree with a judge’s decision, that judge must have “an agenda”.

Arkansas Appellate Court Judge Wendell Griffen and Roger Harrod are both running for open seats on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Both men are CAMPAIGNING openly with political agendas of their own, and we are left wondering how either can possibly not enter into a court room with prejudices already firming in place? Appointees for US Supreme Court seats are loathe to speak too freely during confirmation hearings about issues that may come before the Supreme Court, giving a more reasonable response that it would be unfair to judge any case based on general notions rather than on the finer legal points pertaining to each case.

What is a voter to do, then, when candidates for a state Supreme Court seat work to garner our support not by touting their legal experiences but rather by telling us what they think? Here is the twist: Judge Griffen is being investigated by the state’s judicial commission for violating the state’s code of judicial conduct, which requires that a candidate to judicial office “maintain the dignity appropriate to judicial office.”

So he’s running for office and he is speaking to issues about which he is passionate and he has to get out in front of voters who will ultimately decide whether he can have the state Supreme Court seat, and he is being “investigated” for somehow diminishing the dignity of the office?

I grow very tired of hearing Judge Griffen tell me (a voter) how bad things are for black Americans and how President Bush is responsible for Hurricane Katrina and how the president must have, by design, made it hard for all those (black Americans) who refused to leave to get out once New Orleans was virtually under water. This man has a spike in his boot about just about anything relative to conservative issues and religion in general and “whitey”. However, is he not free to speak up?

The judicial commission gets to decide how far an appellate judge can go in speaking up in public. Is this fair? Would we be better off somehow if all judges; regardless of local, state, or federal level; were to be appointed by the mayor or the governor or the president? We seem to have a problem with judges getting a lifetime appointment, but we now seem to have a problem with potential justices (and sitting judges) speaking out loud from beyond the bench as if they are not entitled to their own human prejudices and frailties and failures.

We just can’t seem to make up our minds.

A Fit of Irony

Arkansas Appellate Court Judge Wendell Griffen has been making waves for quite some time. By all accounts, he is articulate, well-educated, charismatic, out-spoken, and not afraid to speak his mind. When the University of Arkansas fired basketball coach Nolan Richardson, Judge Griffen was at the forefront of the supposed fight over whether or not Mr. Richardson was mistreated by the University. Coach Richardson was fired for speaking his mind out loud.

In most other circumstances, skin color or race would have little to do with what I offer to you today. However, it must be said that these two particular gentlemen have been most outspoken about the continuing struggle of African-Americans and how mistreated blacks in general. Both gentlemen happen to be black.

Why is the color of their skin relevant? Because both men are loud, obnoxious, and unafraid to speak up. In politics, in law, in religion, tact is everything. There is always a more appropriate time and place to speak up, and the audience must be considered in all circumstances. But what makes these two gentlemen unique in their “struggle” against white society is the mere fact that both men are well-educated, very influential, and extremely successful in their endeavors. So it begs the question: if things are so bad for black Americans, how did they (and so many others) manage to make it?

Could it possibly be because they both determined long ago that they may actually have to work hard to achieve all they intended to achieve? Could it possibly be that they are successful because they actually worked for, and earned, their own achievements?

My being white precludes me from knowing too much about what it must have been like to grow up black in America, so I acknowledge that I lack a certain perspective. Having said this, however, I recall former Oklahoma congressman J.C. Watts (a black man) saying that he was not the least bit interested in someone “insulting” him by suggesting that standards must be lowered to accommodate him or any other black person who is willing to work hard to achieve a goal. Looking at Judge Griffen and Coach Richardson and hearing Mr. Watts, what is left for me to know? All three gentlemen are proof positive that the “system” some have professed to struggle against is the same “system” that worked for them and for countless others who chose not to feel sorry for themselves but chose instead to buckle down and do whatever it takes to achieve their goals and live their own dreams.

It takes sheer hard work and determination to become a successful basketball coach (Mr. Richardson was, and can be still) or a judge or a congressman. None of these things come easily regardless of the color of one’s skin. So they struggled and achieved. Why would they suggest that others coming after them work any less hard for the same goals?

Unreasonable Expectations

It's been a pretty tough week for me, so I've neglected my writing. In fact, I've neglected almost everything, choosing instead to draw up to myself and have a pity party. The reasons are not as important as my reactions to the circumstances that caused my distress. Suffice it to say, this has been the least productive week possibly of my entire life.

Numbers 11 is a piece of work in which the Israelites once again complain to Moses that the manna they receive abundantly and without any effort is no longer good enough for their nourishment; they want meat. It is no longer enough that they are being sustained and that their genuine needs are being met. They have desires, and they are beginning to remember (yet again) how "good" things were when they lived in bondage in Egypt. They recall all the different foods that were available to them, not realizing that they were being sustained like so much livestock.

(There could be a whole other thought about how food and eating should not be taken as some kind of recreational sport, but that is for another time.)

In the end, the Israelites get quail virtually thrust upon them and judgement soon follows due to their ungrateful hearts and lack of faith. They choke on the meat they thought they could not live without.

This is where I am now, dear reader. I have suffered some personal and professional setbacks and I have spent the week complaining that what I want is not coming to fruition, so there must be this grand conspiracy to "get" me. While this may be true, it is the aftermath of reacting to such circumstances that define the condition of the heart and soul. The "manna" that has been in my life in such abundance has suddenly become tiresome and is no longer good enough.

Though I still have a lot more to do in my efforts to "get over it", I am well on my way to being more aware of the blessings that are in my life in no small measure. I am being given all I could possibly "need", and then some. Why is it not good enough? I fear it is because I am wrapped far too tightly in my flesh and have neglected my spiritual needs which are substantial.

Count your blessings, dear readers. If we were to take stock of all the good in our lives and focus more on what we have rather than on what we think we lack, we could more easily see the majesty of the Lord in our lives just as surely as we can see Him in a fiery sunset.

He is there, and He is now.