Monday, August 28, 2006

Right between the Eyes

"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." James 1:27

I think I've just about had my fill of talk radio. Driving home today from work I became so irritated and distressed at the same time that I honestly did not know what to do or what to think. When I think of talk radio, I think of some lively interaction between the caller and the host. This particular station has hosts who will either scream at the caller with whom they disagree or hang up, or both. They seem to want cheerleaders to call in and confirm that the bile spewing forth from their sewers is worthy of the airwaves or is of such thought-provoking substance worthy of serious discussion. Then of course I remembered that the only one forcing me to listen to this nonsense was me, so I changed the station ... forever.

Today's topic was the ongoing debate among Americans about whether or not Islam is a religion of peace. One caller insisted that he has studied the Koran and can say unequivocally that there is nothing "peaceful" about Islam though certain other statements he made reminded me of some other "scholars" who have used the "gotcha" method of "studying" Islam by taking single sentences from the Koran entirely out of its context. I'm sure glad we don't do that with the Bible.

I was waiting for the voice of reason to call in and call the history of Christianity to account for its message of "peace" throughout the Church's history, but then I remembered that reasonable persons gave up on this particular radio host long ago.

Yes, Jesus' message was - and still is - a message of peace, but Jesus is not the topic. In fact, I would come very near to saying that Jesus is not even the focus of the Church though He certainly should be. There is an awful lot of hate going around, and we have successfully directed the general public's focus to the "dangers" of Islam and come close to convincing feeble-minded folks that Islam, and its practitioners, is the root cause of all their problems. Can we really be convinced that these murderous thugs who consider themselves "jihadists" would not be doing what they do were it not for a single religion; in this case, Islam?

If any would dare to be honest, when was the last time we practiced our Christian religion according to the edict of James? When was the last time we as individuals did something specifically for someone in distress, particularly a widow or an orphan? I have to say that I cannot remember the last time I specifically did something for someone, a stranger who needed help, a widow struggling to live out the rest of her days with some semblance of dignity, an orphan who must surely struggle with his sense of self-worth. Oh, I've done little things here and there as long as it was not too much of a bother and it didn't require too much, but I honestly did those things because I needed it and not because someone was in need. There is a huge difference, but I am afraid too many of us cannot see it.

We decry those who practice some perverted form of religion and try to convince others that these criminals and their own brand of "religion" is the cause of everyone's misery, but we rarely look too closely to see if we give strangers any good reason to follow us. We don't challenge ourselves to see if our "religion" gives a widow hope for some dignity or an orphan some hope for tomorrow.

It is not enough to point out what's wrong with something else. What can we do to convince others of what is so "right" about our religion? Rather, what do we CARE to do?

Hurts, don't it?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Angels among Us

Psalm 34 Genesis 18:1-15

As I was driving home from work the other day, something triggered a thought of an old high school history teacher. During my high school days he seemed 10 feet tall to me though I learned years later at the Little Rock airport when we happened to bump into one another that he was actually smaller in stature than I remembered, but he was never a “small” man by any means! He was blessed with wisdom and an ability to convey that wisdom that can only come from enduring a lot of life’s experiences. The problem is that I didn’t fully realize what a wise man he was until years later.

I then remembered a girl who was in my class. We grew up together actually down the street from one another. She was always very studious and – at least I thought at the time – something of a snob. Yet while I was in the hospital when we were in school, she took the time to stop by, bring me class assignments and books, and even offered to help me (she was very well aware that I was a less-than-stellar student!). It was only years later when I was able to appreciate the enormity of the gesture although I strongly resented her taking away my excuses for not doing any school work!

The Bible speaks of angels here and there as what we picture in our minds as these heavenly, winged creatures of brilliant countenance who come directly to us from Heaven and serve as the “messengers” we have always believed them to be. There were the angels at the tomb who announced Jesus’ Resurrection. There were the angels who ministered to Jesus in the wilderness after His encounter with the evil one. There is Michael the archangel who does battle with Satan, and there is Gabriel the archangel who comes to Mary to announce that she had been chosen to give birth to the Son of God.

These angels we are more familiar with even though we’ve never actually seen with our own eyes. There are other angels in our lives, however, who may not be in the same class as the angels created by the Lord God to serve as His messengers, but there are persons in our lives who are no less His messengers.

Coach Rainey, the high school history teacher and current Arkansas state representative, and Jo Carol, the classmate and now attorney, each had a profound impact on my life without my having been aware of it until many years later. Each had a message to me and to others about the importance of making the most of the God-given life that each of us is blessed with, and each one believed in hard work and achievement. There is hardly a way that anyone could convince me that the Lord did not have His hand in each of these encounters as well as so many others throughout my life.

The Genesis passage is a little problematic for a number of reasons. The chapter begins with telling the reader that “the Lord appeared to Abraham…” in the first verse. Then in verse two, “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby” who are presumably angels on a mission. Abraham immediately offered his hospitality to these three men who were, as we discover in the next chapters, on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. But the conversation seems to go back and forth between the three men speaking AND the Lord having a conversation with Abraham about Sarah’s impending pregnancy.

What was the writer trying to tell us about this encounter? Was Abraham dealing with angels? Is it significant to be mindful of the relationship between Abraham and the Lord, and then the relationship between Abraham and Lot and these men headed to Sodom? It almost appears to be a chance encounter with very little meaning until we move into verse sixteen and beyond. In fact, this chapter should probably be broken down into the two sections, the first dealing with the announcement of Sarah’s pregnancy and the second dealing with the three men and their apparent mission to protect Lot and his family from the impending doom of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The more I began seriously considering the angels who have crossed my path throughout my life, the more I have come to realize that there are probably more times in my past when I have been somewhat less than hospitable when these angels, human or otherwise, came into my life. Did Abraham immediately recognize these men as angels since the chapter tells us that the Lord had already appeared to him? And does it matter? Would Abraham have been as hospitable to these men otherwise? And since the Scripture does not actually spell it out, do we really know that these men were actually angels?

Here’s the rub. In the Genesis encounters, it is difficult to make the distinction between the Lord and the angels. In chapter 18 alone, we see that “The Lord appears…” and then suddenly there are these three men. And the dialogue that goes between Abraham, the Lord, and the three men does not make a distinction.

So what can we gather from this especially since New Testament theology does not seem to emphasis these messengers as much as in the Hebrew texts? After all, the “messenger” we encounter in the Gospels is the Christ. And just before Jesus is ascended into Heaven, He promises the “Helper”, the Holy Spirit, to guide us. Would this mean then that these heavenly beings, these angels, will not be needed until the Final Day?

I think it goes back to something I heard many years ago and have preached consistently since: that there are certainly such things as accidental pregnancies but that there is no such thing as an accidental life. If we believe the Lord God to be the all-power, all-knowing Being we’ve been taught to believe, then we must know that His will – as Jesus taught us to pray – must be done. And if that means we need to hear from someone to help keep us on track, then I think the Lord will whatever means are necessary to get our attention. If it is a class mate or a high school history teacher, then let it be so.

Each life is precious for this very reason. Are we in such a position as to be able to hear it for what it is? Do we demand something like a supernatural, earth-shattering “sign”, or are we willing and able to hear a “still, small voice”?

The Lord has something to say even today either TO us or THROUGH us. Must His messengers be only those with wings?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Through a Child's Eye

The Alps. My daughter took this photo while on tour. I'm also experimenting with adding some color to my blog. No telling how this is going to turn out.

Just Wondering

Depending on which report we read, there is estimated to be anywhere between 10 million and 12 million illegal aliens currently in the United States. Needless to say, that's quite a gap. I cannot help but to wonder that since these illegals are also known as "undocumented", how can we know how many are in the US? Who makes up these estimates and how do they come up with the numbers? And if they know enough to count even only 10 million and their presence is such a problem, then why not just go get them?

Just wondering.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Faulty Reasoning

What does the Wesleyan Quadrilateral mean to the rank-and-file Methodist Christian? I’ve run across two different pastors in the last couple of months who are using this emphasis to help explain grace, but there is also one highly questionable argument being made to somehow apply the principles of this Quadrilateral to justify the practice of homosexuality. I freely admit that the argument is lost on me.

Some time back I vowed not to waste my time writing anymore about the “issue” of homosexuality within the Church, but a recent comment by a layman forced me to reconsider offering another thought about the alleged “silence” of Jesus in the Gospels on this particular issue after the layman's comment simply was that Jesus never brought it up.

There are a couple of things wrong with this presumption. First of all, it is hard to imagine that what is contained within the synoptic Gospels is every single word ever uttered by Jesus and that if it is not recorded, Jesus never said it. This presumes an awful lot by suggesting that these relatively short books captured and recorded every single incident and moment in Jesus’ three years of public ministry. Such an argument would also suggest that Jesus had His own scribe who wrote down every single word He spoke. Not very realistic.

Secondly, what can we as Christians and as a Church say that we believe about the doctrine of the Trinity in general and Jesus in particular if we honestly believe that He never addressed the issue of homosexuality? If we make the argument that Jesus never said it, are we then denying God in three Persons? One and Same? Alpha and Omega? The Father and I are One?

If Jesus is the Word and was “in the beginning”, it would then stand to reason that Scripture speaks plainly about the abomination in the Hebrew texts, words attributed to the Lord God Himself when He makes His thoughts about men lying with men as with women abundantly clear. If Jesus was God in the flesh and God spoke these words to Moses in the Law and God manifested Himself in the person of the Son, then Jesus did speak directly to the issue of homosexuality in Leviticus.

Our tradition speaks of the eternal nature of the Lord who “does not change”, for me meaning that while we may attempt to justify our selfish and carnal nature by creating a “new” tradition pleasing only to ourselves, the Word of the Lord remains steadfastly unchanged. In a world that is constantly changing, this should be a source of great comfort for us that there is at least something we can count on to remain solid for all time, the foundation that never shifts with generations. Granting ourselves the authority to separate from such solidity speaks only of the reality of “free will” and not much more.

Experience and reason also speak to certain physical realities, namely that certain body parts were not designed for “input” (forgive my being so graphic). We speak of this grand “gift” of sex while failing to realize or acknowledge that the reality of sex is primarily for procreation, not recreation; we were meant to procreate. This is not to say that a husband and wife should feel guilty about enjoying the intimacy that comes from this very natural act or that a woman should be made to feel like less of a woman if she is unable to conceive, but speaking in the context of a “gift” can imply something to be less than holy. Careless rendering of such gifts has the potential of granting to us – by our own design – something entirely pleasing only to ourselves and very appealing to our selfish nature especially when we enable ourselves to remove the Divine will from it.

The Lord God will not be mocked. If we are kidding anyone, it is only ourselves.

Making Room

Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew 6:25-34

I cannot recall a time while growing up when I was ever excited about going to school. I hated school, and I just could not understand the kids who seemed to get so much out of it and actually ENJOY it! Some things were ok, I suppose, but I always had a hard time getting motivated enough to do my homework, study, and prepare for the next day. As a result, I was rarely prepared for tests which did nothing to alleviate my anxiety; in fact, it only made things worse. It was all so routine and mundane. Of course dealing with the routine and the mundane is part of the educational process. Young people have to learn that there is such a thing as “first things first”. The work has to be done before we can play.

Now that school is about to begin, I’m a little excited and nervous at the same time. I’m far enough along that most of the classes I have to take to finish my degree will be geared more toward those things which interest me, but there are still classes I will have to take that I’ve put off for so long.

I’m also more than a little concerned that I may be biting off more than I can chew. Attending classes four nights a week is going to leave very little room for much of anything else. With a full-time job, a part-time ministry, and a family with other activities, I’m going to be burning the candle at both ends.

Being too busy, though, is not my primary concern. A seminary instructor once said that our sense of theology is fed by whatever is primary in our lives. His concern was that seminary students spend too much time reading theology books and studying doctrines and not nearly enough time just reading, studying, and praying the Bible. In that sense, there is not enough focus on the Word of the Lord. Instead, the focus is placed on man’s concept and perspective of the Word and as a result, we can only see the Lord as others would have us to see Him.

There is another down-side to this. More often than not, my prayer life is almost non-existent. This is because I find myself all too often reading the Bible only in search of information for a paper or a sermon. When this happens, much can be overlooked and the voice of the Lord speaking to me through Scripture is inaudible because my focus is on the paper or the sermon and not on what He would will for me to glean from the reading.

I look around and can clearly see that I am not the only one who has this problem. Each of us has things we have to do. Our jobs demand a great deal from us, and our families are no less taxing on our time. Then there are those dreaded “routine” and “mundane” things that have to be tended to such as paying the bills, doing the laundry and shopping. Somewhere in all that, we have to find time just to relax and unwind because as much as there are things we MUST do, there are surely as many things that we would LIKE to do.

We are pulled in too many different directions, doing the best we can to deal with everything and forgetting that the Lord is still there patiently waiting to see when – OR IF – we will ever get around to asking for some help.

This is not to say that the Lord is going to wave a magic wand and tie up all the loose ends of our lives once we finally go to Him for help. What the solution for any of us might be will depend entirely on what He will ask of us as individuals and not necessarily as a people.

Beyond those who are overly busy, there are those who are afraid to turn attention toward the Lord, being afraid of what He may actually ask. These are people who are not turning their backs on the Lord, at least not intentionally. In fact, these are the people who have no doubt that the Lord exists and no doubt that He calls to His faithful and that His voice is unmistakable. These people also know that His call is compelling and undeniable. Faith will draw them in toward what the Lord would require of them, and then the anxiety of not getting everything done will set in and once again, the Lord is pushed aside out of a sense of our fear of failing Him.

Listen to this passage from Mark 6:45-46 after Jesus had fed the five-thousand with only five loaves and two fishes: “Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away. And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray.”

Clearly even Jesus needed a break. Even in the midst of ministry, “down time” becomes necessary to pause, to reflect, to pray, and sometimes to “be still”. Especially in the midst of ministry, it becomes important to stop and remember why the ministry is even important in the first place! I’ve heard it said that we can sometimes become so wrapped up in our ministries that we completely lose sight of the Lord altogether and that our ministry soon becomes the “god” we seek to worship, the “works” we seek to please. I’m not sure I can find any fault in that statement.

There are two things that have to happen in order to correct our sense of priority. First and foremost must be the will to see to it. We have to want to stop and make time for the Lord. We have to have an inner desire to hear what He has to say, and we have to care enough to listen. Only He knows what we are missing out on when we don’t give Him the time and attention He deserves.

Secondly, we must believe in what Jesus teaches us about seeking the Kingdom of the Lord first and trust that when we make time for Him, He will help us to order our lives so that there is more than enough time to take care of the “routine” and the “mundane” as well as to give us time enough to enjoy the life that He has given us because this, too, is a divine gift.

Giving Him the time He needs to speak to us enables Him to bless and enrich our lives beyond measure, to give us everything we need and then some. Once we make room for the Holy Father, maybe we can then learn to count even the “mundane” and the “routine” among our many blessings to enjoy rather than being burdens to endure.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Deceptive Solutions

It was reported in the Wall Street Journal recently that efficient technology exists by which coal can be processed into liquid form. This liquid can then be piped to refineries and processed into gasoline and diesel. The problem with this technology is that it is prohibitively expensive with not enough promise of return on the investment. To combat this problem, there have been proposals introduced in the US Senate for tax incentives to help take the edge off the risk.

There is a bigger problem, though. It is said that there is roughly 41 years of oil, 65 years of natural gas, and 155 years worth of coal left in the world. This high number for coal is part of what is attracting interest in this process. The only "promise" I see in working to make this coal option somehow more attractive is that we can pass off this energy crisis on the future generations without actually dealing with it now but figuring out new ways to spend government money on bad ideas.

We know that renewal sources of energy must be the solution to our energy needs. While supplies are currently abundant, it is clear that there is a limit to how long this abundance will last regardless of what source of fossil fuels we use. And once it's gone, it's gone. Knowing this, why would we work so diligently to think of better ways to consume non-renewable sources when this will only push the problem out by a relatively few years?

Our need for energy will not go away, but our current resources will be gone soon enough. In the meantime, our Congress is very hostile toward the energy industry and is only serious about foreign sources of energy near election times. And the general public is even less concerned once the shock of price increases passes.

We have been "talking" about taking care of our energy needs for over 30 years. Pushing it out another 155 years will not diminish the need to be more aggressive and innovative about finding new - and renewable - sources of energy. It will only ensure that those who complain the loudest about "foreign" oil around election time will be elected and re-elected until the next generation gets stuck with the problem.

What will we care? We'll be dead.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Fathers Grief

2 Sam 18:5-33
Luke 15

I remember a movie I saw years ago – and I don’t recall the name of the movie or even exactly how long ago it was – in which the parents had three children and a seemingly normal life. They had a nice home and nice cars and lived in a pretty nice neighborhood. From all appearances, they were living the good life. There was only one thing wrong with this picture-perfect portrait of the all-American family: the oldest of the three kids, a son, was in bad shape.

This oldest child had turned to drugs and alcohol, he stayed out till all hours, he was intensely disrespectful to his parents and downright abusive toward his siblings. By all accounts, this kid was completely out of control.

The parents were giving the boy a great deal of attention in trying to understand what was causing his abusive and destructive behavior. They even tried discipline, but it only made things worse. Doctors, counselors, and psychologists were telling the parents that all the boy needed was a little latitude and a lot of love, that he was just trying to ‘find himself’. So the parents gave him free reign to pretty much do as he pleased.

The problem with all the attention being paid to the eldest child was that the other children were feeling neglected. They could see that their brother was in trouble and they could see that he needed help, but they did not understand – could not understand – why this PROBLEM CHILD was being as bad as he was being and was still being given this wide range in which he only got worse instead of better. The ‘good’ kids just could not understand how it could be that while they played by the rules and kept up with their school work and chores, this ‘bad’ kid was free to come and go as he pleased.

Oftentimes a parent’s love is blind. We see our children through our own eyes and are not always able to see that there may be problems. We always want to believe that we’ve done our best to raise decent human beings and that our hard work, efforts, and sacrifices will pay off in our children’s lives. More often than not, though, others can see problems more clearly because their perspective is not shaded like a parent’s is.

This old movie came to mind as I reread the story of King David’s rebellious son. Absalom was openly fighting against the king, and David was even forced to flee from the wrath of his own son. And yet the warrior king would not turn a hand against his own flesh and blood even at the potential risk of an entire kingdom. In fact, David’s direct orders were to spare the boy.

As blinded as we can be about potential problems with our own children, we can be equally blinded against the “big picture” when our own children are somehow involved and this is where David found himself. I cannot help but to wonder if the well-being of the nation ever crossed his mind as he was running from his own son. As king, David’s responsibilities toward the nation and especially to the Lord God could not be ignored, yet David’s primary concern was not for the nation or for himself. He was worried about what might happen to Absalom.

Did he maybe hope that Absalom would eventually realize the error of his way and repent on his own? We can be pretty sure that the only fear David had was for the life of his son, so we cannot say David was running because he was afraid to confront Absalom. And he certainly could not have been afraid of losing his kingdom because of the Lord’s covenant. The welfare of the kingdom may never even have crossed his mind. So what, then, can a story such as this tell us? We would be pretty sure that the nation of Israel would endure, and we obviously see that Absalom lost his life.

Among all the arguments about the accuracy of the Bible and whether or not the stories can be “literally” true, I still believe that the Lord had to have had a hand in it all. And if we can believe such a thing, we must surely believe that every story has a byline from the Lord God himself and a message to His people. And His people are those who trust Him and believe in His promises.

It seems to me that the underlying theme of the story of Absalom’s death and David’s grief is a relational theme that exists between the Holy Father of all and His “rebellious” children who seem to fight against Him at every opportunity. It may well be that the Lord wanted us to see for all time how our rebellion against Him and His will for our lives affects Him.

It is not easy to “see” the Lord as One capable of emotion but I think that if He is a God of love at all, then He must certainly be capable of showing emotion. We can easily see from the Exodus stories that He is quite capable of anger, but that certainly cannot be all there is to such a One as He. There has to be more, and I think the entire 15th chapter of Luke shows us the portrait of a Heavenly Father who feels what we would know as “emotional” pain when we are separated from Him BY OUR OWN CHOICE and complete elation when we are reconciled to Him, again BY OUR OWN CHOICE.

It is often that many pastors and churches wonder if what we do has any sort of positive effect on people because it is not always readily apparent that we matter one way or the other except for those who attend services. The book of Acts speaks of THOUSANDS who came to believe, and we just don’t see much of that in our little corner of the world. So it can be pretty disheartening to work hard to present something positive to the community and not have the community respond in overwhelming numbers as “THOUSANDS”.

Yet Luke records stories as told by Jesus that help us to remember that even as “THOUSANDS” came to believe as a result of the work and evangelism of the apostles, each individual counted as “one”. And then “one” more, etc. In other words, the new converts were not counted as “THOUSANDS” as a whole necessarily but, rather, as “THOUSANDS” of “one” at a time. And as each “one” came forward and turned his or her heart over to the Lord, the whole of the kingdom of Heaven “REJOICED”.

The parable of the “lost son” is a lot like that old movie I mentioned before except that the “lost son” simply chose to leave his home rather than stay and fight. Yet the parental mentality remains the same in us as in the Holy Father: repent and be welcomed home with no questions asked. And there will be a celebration the likes of which we may never have seen before!

As for the children who always lived and played by the rules, the love and the promise of the Father who was once grief-stricken over the loss of “only one” child offers this: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was DEAD and is alive again! He was lost and is now found.” Luke 15:31-32

For the kingdom of Heaven, it is enough that only “one” chooses to come forward.

Religious War and Secular Peace

One of two ideas must be true of the Lebanese army: it is incapable of confronting Hezbollah and controlling its own land and borders, or it is unwilling to do so. The latter would implicate Lebanon as a conspirator with Hezbollah and its senseless attacks on Israel thus changing the face of the current conflict since the fight has not necessarily been with Lebanon though it is on Lebanese soil. The former would require UN intervention since Lebanon would be tacitly considered a non-nation, a no-man’s land in which security and cease fire is not possible.

Perhaps a third consideration would be that Syria still exercises substantial influence in Lebanese politics even if its own army has been withdrawn (though not removed) from the land. Regardless of circumstances, Israel has a national security problem that has been thrust upon her. Considering the influence Hezbollah has in southern Lebanon among the Lebanese people and in the Lebanese parliament, there may actually be little difference between these two, possibly three, scenarios though surely the Lebanese people would not willfully wish this misery upon themselves.

For Israel, this is old hat though it may well be getting a little too old for the Israeli people. It is irrelevant whether modern Israel is the “chosen” biblical Israelite people or if the fight is against a “Zionist” secular state and not necessarily against the “Jews”, as some have tried to argue. A nation, biblical or not, that was in the process of withdrawing from disputed territories on one border for the sake of peace has been fired upon from another border and is left with no option other than to defend itself.

If Hezbollah is, in fact, an extension of the will of the government of Lebanon (itself likely still a puppet government of Syria), does this change the face or the nature of the conflict? Would Israel then be expected to somehow adjust its approach? As it is, Israel has taken as much precaution as is strategically feasible under the circumstances to avoid unnecessary Lebanese civilian casualties while knowing that its enemy is one who hides behind the skirts of its women and the innocence of its children and does not wear the uniform of a nation’s army, leaving Israel with few military options.

In continuing debates and discussions toward a solution, it must never be forgotten or dismissed or brushed aside that Lebanese innocents are being caught in cross fire certainly by Hezbollah design (for the sake of propaganda) just as Israeli civilians are being caught in cross hairs as intentional targets, also by Hezbollah design, even as they try to maintain that their fight is only with the Israeli government and not necessarily against the Israeli people. Deliberately targeting civilian areas makes this point moot although the world seems not to take such notice.

In light of recent events in England and the revelation of what was about to transpire, the world may finally be able to see what Israel has known all along: civilian death and destruction is the whole of Islamist (though not necessarily Islamic) intent. But to what end? There is a bastardized form of religion that has attempted to hide itself behind Islam but has in fact created a whole new religion that has effectively created for the world its “third” war. It must be obvious by now that there are no border disputes involved and no legitimate governments to hold accountable though governments are directly involved.

The world is at war, and it does not seem to notice.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Blog is a Terrible Thing to Waste

The linked story on Fox News tells a story that I had never seriously considered before now. Even though we in the Methodist Blogosphere certainly have our political opinions, we tend to focus more on theology than on politics. Speaking for myself, I never considered much outside the Methodist blogroll for no particular reason except for limited time to do much surfing, but what few political blogs I have read have been so hateful that I just don't care to waste my time. I have little use for Bush-haters or Clinton-haters, finding most of these verbally violent persons to be little more than angry little people with little minds and nothing much to say that is of any real consequence.

This story on Fox News, however, indicates that bloggers hold a lot more sway in public opinion than many of us realize. It is a certain measure of power that few can handle, and this seems obvious by reading some of the biting comments from the left and from the right. I wonder if any of us realizes the awesome responsibility we unwittingly take upon ourselves when we sign on to the blogosphere, never really being sure of who is reading what we think we have to say. I wonder if we even care.

Of course we want to be read; otherwise we would not be posting on the Internet. I, for one, am still hoping to one day be "discovered" and sydicated (I'll hold my breath now), so I have every intention of offering my best although I certainly have my lazy days. But I cannot honestly say that I consider who outside of the Methodist blog roll may actually be reading what I choose to share. That is, until now.

It matters what we write, and it matters what we think. It is ok to be able to share our opinions about political races and candidates, but it is not ok to take personal swipes at individuals or try to insinuate or create something that just isn't there. Of course there are many who simply do not care. They mean to be as inciteful and as hateful as they can possibly be and are not the least bit concerned about the potential harm that can come as a result. I freely admit that I never gave my postings this much thought before now.

It is clear that public opinion, whether by letters to editors of the local papers or by blog, matters and people are influenced by what is written. Unfortunately it would seem that the most hateful ones are the ones that get the most press and the most attention. Even still, what we write is going to be read by someone somewhere at some time. And if our dear readers are searching for information or opinion, they are open to suggestion and can be influenced positively or negatively.

Whether we like it or not, ours is now an enormous duty not only to ourselves but to every potential reader who may stumble across our blogs. We must consider the good (or the harm) that we can do merely by the words we choose.

Have peace. Lord knows it's needed.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Question of Faith

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
John 6:24-35

One of the most difficult classes I ever had was a theology class entitled, “Pastor as Interpreter of the Bible” and to be perfectly honest, to this day I’m not sure that this was an appropriate title for the class. Instead, it should have been something like, “Theological stuff that is out there that you will have to deal with sooner or later”. There were only two books we were assigned to read, and one particular author was the sole writer of one book and was co-author of the other. The reason this particular author is significant is because in some Christians circles, he is known as “heretic”.

The author’s name is not nearly as important as some of the ideas he espouses such as challenging the validity of the Immaculate Conception or the Virgin Birth or even the miracle of the loaves and the fishes as recorded in the Bible. He challenges the notion that any of these stories could actually be literally true and yet he defends the “profound truth” that is contained in these stories as well as many others, and in one of his books he challenges his readers to consider the perspective they bring to a Bible story as reading the story through a particular “lens”, some of these lenses being shaped and defined by the nature and even the depth of our faith as well as by our environment, upbringing, and experiences in life.

This is significant to the perspective that I want to share with you because when I entered into this particular class, I came with my own beliefs. I do not recall ever challenging the “truth” of the Bible or any of its stories, but I do recall having some general questions about who, what, when, where, how, why. These are the sorts of questions – some call them ‘doubts’ – that I would hope everyone reads anything with because these questions indicate an engaged reader. That is to say, we are not just reading the words but are actively involved with the writer’s story and working to comprehend what is being read.

In the end the class, the instructor, and the books we were required to read forced me to ask myself not just whether the biblical stories were true as written but, more importantly, why I believed them to be true. What made the class so difficult was that I found that in many cases, I believed the stories of the Bible because I had been taught since childhood that I was supposed to believe them – AND IN A PARTICULAR WAY - and not necessarily because I had actively engaged the Bible and the Holy Spirit; I simply accepted it, and that was pretty much the end of it. The sweet and blessed faith of a child.

What would you think if I suggested to you that the true miracle of the loaves and the fishes was not what Jesus did with the bread and the fish but, rather, what Jesus was able to do with the hearts and minds of so many “seekers” (there is no real indication that these thousands were actually “disciples”, but they were curious enough to follow Jesus around in an effort to learn more)? In other words, Jesus didn’t wiggle His nose to make more bread and fish magically appear. Instead, because of the words spoken and lessons taught by Jesus, the hearts of many were so opened that they were perhaps willing to share what little they had by taking only what they needed and passing the remainder on to the next person who maybe had none. Would this make the story any less true? Of course the story tells us that leftovers were collected, but the story does not tell us where these leftovers came from. It has always simply been presumed that the bread and the fishes were multiplied; it does not tell us where the food came from.

Now I’m not asking anyone to believe what I believe or to agree with everything I say; this is not my point. It is also not a matter of whether I really believe what I just offered, but I will offer this as well: my perspective on this story does not in any way diminish the power of Christ to transform and to “feed” those who would choose to follow Him. The only thing it does do is to upset those who have always accepted the story as written and have come to believe it a certain way because it has been expected of us.

The single most dangerous and precarious level of faith to posses is that certain faith which has been handed down from generation to generation by the words and ideals of man. That is to say, we learn to believe it not because we have been engaged in conversation (aka, ‘prayer’) with the Lord but have been more concerned about believing what we have been told to believe by preachers who have threatened us in the past with hell fire and brimstone.

The challenge, however, is to see the difference between man’s words (“believe, OR ELSE!”) and Jesus’ words (“He who comes to Me will never go hungry…”). Which conversation would be more easily engaged? One offers the reader (or listener) an ultimatum; the other offers the reader (or prayor) a choice without threats. But which one would also require faith to answer? I’ll give you a hint: the other requires only fear.

But how much faith do we need? In Matthew 17 is the story of a man whose son was possessed by demons. He brought his son to Jesus after Jesus’ disciples failed to heal the boy. Jesus drove out the demon and His disciples asked how it was that they were not able to do so. Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’, and it will move. Nothing is impossible for you.”

Now remember that in Matthew 13 is where Jesus refers to the mustard seed as the very smallest of seeds. In Jesus’ admonishment to the disciples in chapter 17, they have “so little” faith. So how much faith is too little? Or how little faith is not enough? And how can it be measured?

We all struggle with our faith from time to time. In some ways I think it is healthy because the struggles force us to ask questions. And if we are curious enough, we will begin our quest to know more. And when that happens, when we are genuinely “seeking”, then there is the promise from Jesus that we “will find”. But what happens when we have our struggles, maybe even our doubts about certain things theological and we stumble across such passages as Hebrews 11:6 in which it is written; “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that he exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.”

But the epistle of James says that “even demons believe”, so simply acknowledging His existence is not enough. What’s going on here? How are we supposed to know what it all means and what is expected from us? Life is going to throw us a curve from time to time, and we are going to respond the best way we know how. More often than not, our response to whatever curve is thrown is not going to be “faith-based”. We will respond according to our experiences.

It is not enough to have the faith to “move mountains” because moving mountains will have little to do with what the Lord calls us to do and to be. Testing His power and willingness to prove a point to us is also not enough because putting the LORD to the test is a clear indication of a LACK of faith. It would be as if He must somehow prove Himself to us.

For many, the greatest test of faith is in coming to believe it all to be possible. Not just that it is possible that there is one supreme God in Heaven and that He gave His Son for our benefit but that it is possible to be loved in such measure. Many of us cannot fathom the depth of such love. Many among us cannot comprehend the reality that the Lord is capable of such love and that we are somehow WORTHY in His eyes of such a love.

We are not strangers to sin, and we are aware of the power that sin has in our lives. We are painfully aware of the destructive nature of sin, and we know that in some form or fashion we have been violated by sin. It then becomes a matter of recognizing a HOLY God who cannot allow sin in His presence but is still somehow willing to take it upon Himself for no reason other than that we are loved.

“My grace is sufficient.” That, my dear friends, is enough.