Sunday, March 25, 2007

Nothing is as it seems

Not that I am eager for a chance to quote Rush Limbaugh, but he made a comment a few days ago on his radio broadcast that forced me to think more broadly, especially in terms of what we in the US know to be “poverty”. The US government has waged war against poverty for years and while it can be said that there are some stories of success, it seems more often than not that we might only be holding steady if not actually losing ground in some respects.

Mr. Limbaugh was talking along these lines when he stated that we in the US are severely lacking when it comes to poverty perspective. Even those who consider themselves poverty-stricken here and meet government poverty criteria in America cannot actually know what it means to be in severe poverty. When it comes to those who live in such areas where they either do not have access to or cannot afford utility services, for instance, I’m not so sure we could convince them that they are actually pretty well off compared to those who live as refugees in the far reaches of Sudan in a region called Darfur. There are other places around the world such as in Nigeria where it can be virtually impossible just to get a drink of clean water, something we Americans just cannot comprehend.

I suppose that when we consider our own level of misery, there has to be some perspective because we can believe that things are pretty bad for us but we cannot fully appreciate how things are for others. Those in the US who are poor (and we will only be kidding ourselves if we suggest they do not exist) are poor according to American standards they can readily see, but these same poor cannot see what is happening in other parts of the world where the level of misery is unimaginable to us. Of course I am also of the opinion that, in a nation where a farmer can actually go broke while people are going without food through no fault of their own, something is badly out of balance.

Conversely but with the same perspective, it is equally difficult to see blessings staring us in the face because often these blessings do not come to us in a form we can or will imagine. For instance, if we can imagine a blessing we’ve prayed for, it may come to us in a way not easily recognizable because it doesn’t look like what we had in mind.

Consider the “new thing” recorded in Isaiah that the Lord will be doing. This is a promise from the Lord so we can be confident that it is a done deal. The problem for Israel, however, is that this “new thing” will be exactly what they NEED but not necessarily what they desire. Could this “new thing” be the Christ who would come not as a desired warrior king but as a much needed prince of peace?

It is argumentative that this “new thing” is a direct reference to Jesus the Christ. To say such a thing might not be entirely incorrect, but that level of certainty may have come from a New Testament perspective and not necessarily a historical one. The Lord is talking to a nation in exile, and this exile has been self-imposed because of their lack of faith and their failure to keep themselves pure and segregated from the other nations. It is not an intermingling of the races but an intermingling of faith; the Jews had the one True God, the rest had multiple, lifeless, and yet demanding gods that required much; Jews lost sight of YHWH. The poisoning of Israel from such contamination may have as much to do with the conflict between desire and need as it does for us today.

Whether Isaiah’s prophecy is a direct reference to Jesus Himself is not nearly as important as understanding our Lenten time line and what is upon us. It is not long until Jesus will enter into Jerusalem and will be hailed as a conquering hero. Soon enough, however, those who blessed Him as He came into the city’s gate will be among the same ones who will curse Him and spit on Him and call for His murder. The blessing was before them, right under their noses, and they were blinded by their own selfish desires. They had no idea what their true need was, and I’m not sure we’re fully aware now.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What if I'm Wrong?

A situation that I believe should be a cause of great concern for the church came to my attention a few weeks ago. The precise nature of the situation is not nearly as relevant as my state of mind when I became aware. Though I would assess this particular situation as one that should never have taken place, I’ve been forced by the words of the Gospel to take a step back and reassess this situation and my reaction to it. This reassessment is not unlike what I have been forced to do in the past, for instance, with my stand on the death penalty.

Although I cannot say that I’ve ever been a strong proponent of the death penalty, I have generally remained silent because of the nature of the crimes for which the death penalty is prescribed and ordered. And if I allow my emotions to rule, I can easily expand the death penalty for a few other crimes as well. That the Mosaic Law is quite specific about the penalty for premeditated murder is not in question. My greater concern is our collective state of mind when we demand that this penalty be imposed, especially before the accused is even brought to trial. To wit, are we hungry for justice or are we thirsty for blood? The Scripture which speaks to this emotional state of mind is equally clear: “VENGEANCE IS MINE, says the Lord.”

This is not, however, about crime and punishment nor is the parable of the prodigal son which Jesus shares (Luke 15:11-32) with Pharisees, scribes, and His disciples. It is an insight and perspective of the Lord’s mind and how He sees and, ultimately, receives us. Perhaps more than this, the parable is a challenge for us to strive to look at the world, our fellow man, and our place in it through His eyes and not our own.

If we were to encounter “the prodigal son” in the present day - and I’m sure we all have in one form or fashion - we would see a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, party-hardy kind of guy whose sole purpose in life is to have fun, feed his own carnal desires, and give no thought to anyone other than himself. And in the deep recesses of our minds, we would be pretty sure that this man is on the fast-track straight to Hades. For the most part, we would write him off as hopeless and not worthy of our time or attention.

Now how would we see and receive this same person if we had seen him through his father’s eyes? Broken in spirit and in flesh, with seeming remorse only because he ran out of money and was going hungry, we would be inclined to suggest that he was getting his just desserts. We would be pretty sure in our minds that, eventually, he might be able to pull himself up by his own boot straps, but he would have to do it on his own or with the help of his family or others who might care.

Ah, but this is not at all what his father is seeing. In the parable, we encounter a father who likely has not forgotten his beloved son, perhaps a father who has been or may still be in mourning. We encounter a father who was probably well aware of everything his son had been up to. After all, when the “good” son objected to all the attention being paid to the prodigal son, the father seemed unfazed at the points the “good” son was bringing forth. The father knew. Without a doubt, he knew. Somehow none of it mattered. To the father, what had happened in the past had nothing to do with the here-and-now. Even more to the point, it did not seem to matter what it was that brought the son to his doorstep. What was important was that the son had come home. He was ALIVE again!

It would be reasonable to believe that if the prodigal son had not run out of money, he would not have come back to his father. Why would he? He was living high on the hog, and the world was his oyster. It was not until he was out of money, the country he was living in was enduring a famine, and he was reduced to slopping hogs that seemed to be eating better than he when he finally “came to himself”.

Of course a father’s love is going to be far more enduring, patient, and long-suffering for his own child than that of a stranger who knows nothing, but I think there is a point to Jesus telling this parable that is even more profound than that of teaching us about the Father’s EAGERNESS to forgive. It seems to even go much further than simply our Holy Father’s desired relationship with His creation. It is also about our being able and willing, perhaps, to understand that those who are at their worst seemingly by their own choice are now or once were someone’s child.

King David suffered through something similar with his son Absalom though Absalom’s life ended before any reconciliation could take place. This is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful stories throughout Scripture that speaks volumes about a father’s love for his own and was perhaps somehow deliberate in its telling or recording or happenstance so that we could better appreciate how the Lord feels about humanity and provides to us as well a bit of a perspective about how He feels when we meet our untimely end without ever being reconciled to Him.

In 2 Samuel 18 is the story in which Absalom rises up in rebellion against his father, King David. And even as King David was forced to flee for his safety, he still ordered his commanders that no harm should come to Absalom. In the end, however, Absalom was killed in battle by the king’s men. Rather than celebrate a victory, the king went into mourning: “if only I had died in your place, O my son Absalom.”

Of course King David was mourning for his son as a father would, but I’ve always wondered if this is not an expression of how our Holy Father feels whenever we are in a state of rebellion against Him and meet our end without ever having reconciled ourselves to Him. How many have we written off as hopeless, failing to realize that there is our Father in Heaven who is in mourning for the very person we dismiss? And in chapter 19 when the people could see King David mourning for his son, they were not pleased! How could he feel anything but loathing for someone who sought to destroy him? Though there certainly was a connection, was it any of their business how King David felt about his own son, his own flesh?

Once the prodigal son took his share of the estate and left, the father knew that no good would come of it but he must have also surely known that there was really nothing he could do to stop the destruction. He gave the boy his share of the inheritance and set him free to do with it what he pleased. It was the BOY who nearly met his own destruction by his own hand until he came to his senses and returned home.

As we continue in our Lenten journey, let us be mindful of the knowledge that we had also been given our share of the inheritance and set free. Humanity was also on the road to spiritual ruin until a Father’s Love intervened and made it possible for us to find our way Home. A door had been opened so that once we come to our senses, we can be assured that we will be greeted with open arms, clothed with the finest robe, and a feast set before us – with no questions asked. And if us, then surely others.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Question of Propriety

Yesterday a wedding took place. Before thinking that weddings take place all the time and that this is routine, I might point out that the bride is now a bride for the third time, a product of two divorces. The groom hooked up with his new bride while he was still married to another woman, and they established a residence together before he was divorced. During this time their children were presented to this new life together as “normal”.

The groom moved from the church his family attended and began attending another church not far away in the same town of the same denomination, the church his new girlfriend also attends. He has since become a member of that new church, and the pastor performed the wedding ceremony. Exactly how much this pastor knew of how their relationship came to be is not known to me, but I have a difficult time believing that if he had conducted premarital counseling sessions with these people he could not have discovered that by any description, this was and is an adulterous relationship.

While some may argue that he was merely performing the duties of his ministerial office and that the judgment to withhold his services is his alone, I would suggest that his greater responsibility would have been to refuse to perform the ceremony and tell them precisely why he would refuse. The greater duty of his office would be to administer the Word of the Lord to the entire congregation; instead, he offered to this couple and to his congregation the word of the world and our society which has grown more and more accepting of divorce and adultery.

This bothers me on a profound level because while I serve a small congregation as a part-time local pastor, my family is very much involved in the ministries of this church as is the couple who just got married. The congregation seems to have accepted this couple as legitimate while my perspective maintains that they are still in an adulterous relationship and that their marriage should be null and void in the eyes of the church and that their relationship is a means of "leaven" by which the entire congregation or those who are weak in the faith can be caused to stumble.

I recognize that there are many divorced and remarried Christians, including many of the clergy, but where is the line by which we determine that we will defend the integrity of the Scriptures no matter the cost? Or am I missing something that by the presence of the pastor, that which was once adulterous is now sanctified and holy?

It is my contention that this pastor has committed a grave disservice to this congregation by showing very publicly that if one is not satisfied with one’s spouse, one can “test the waters” while married, get another spouse if it works out, and then come and be blessed. This, to me, is a very bastardized and perverted concept that should be very foreign to the church especially since is it a direct reflection of worldly values, of the same world we should strive to reject.

Divorce is a reality, and I firmly believe that there are some divorces which are justified such as when abuse is present or when one partner continually violates the sanctity of the marriage bed by sleeping with others. Whether they are free to remarry according to Scripture may be the point of contention even though St. Paul suggests to the Corinthians that if the non-believer walks away, the believer is free to remarry. This is the premise of the Catholic practice of annulment, to make a determination of whether a holy union ever existed.

I am not suggesting that those who choose to end their marriages are forever condemned. I recognize that there are details of broken relationships that I am not qualified to address on any level. This particular relationship, however, is blatant because these persons are personally known to me, and this separation has been extremely contentious (I will refrain from other details to avoid naming the persons involved).

I do ask for a little perspective. There must be a dividing line by which we and those to whom we minister can tell the difference between that sanctified life which Christ calls us to and the life of this world we are challenged to reject.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Festival of Purim: It's the little things

Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

According to the Jewish calendar, today is the festival of Purim which began at sundown yesterday and will end, I believe, at sundown today. Unlike so many other festivals, Purim is more of an occasion to celebrate. Christie Storm of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette writes that “this isn’t a solemn, ashes-on-the-forehead holy day – it’s more like a Jewish Mardi Gras that celebrates God’s deliverance.”

The festival of Purim comes from the book of Esther even though there is no divine mandate to observe any such festival. Mordecai established and ordained the festival: “Mordecai instructed them to observe these as days of feasting and gladness, and sending delicacies to one another, and gifts to the poor.” Esther 9:22

The compulsion to celebrate Purim comes from grateful hearts cognizant of the Lord’s deliverance. The Jews are about to be obliterated by King Ahasuerus at the word of royal adviser Haman because Mordecai refused to bow down to him; he would worship only the Lord God and no other. Without getting into the whole story – which is a very good one, by the way – Esther saves the day, the Jews are spared, and Haman himself is put to death by the king.

What is significant about the festival is that the Lord Himself is not mentioned in the book of Esther. In fact, it is said to be the only book in the entire Bible in which the Lord God is not mentioned. So why, then, is Purim so significant especially in celebrating the Lord’s deliverance? There is no widespread call to the people to offer a sacrifice to the Lord as a prayer for deliverance, though Esther advises all the Jews to fast in her behalf while she and her maids will do likewise. She is about the enter into the presence of the king without being summoned, the penalty for which is death. Yet the people are spared seemingly because of Esther’s unwavering courage. Esther can certainly be upheld as a positive role model in the story, but there is a much more profound acknowledgement in the festival.

The Jewish tradition celebrates Purim in the subtle day-to-day presence of the Lord God in our lives without our awareness or even our acknowledgement. All too often we can move along in our lives being completely unaware of the Lord’s presence because we do not take the time to acknowledge His majesty in the simplest of things, things we often take for granted. Maybe it is that Purim is yet another spiritual discipline designed not only to give glory where glory is due but to also teach us to be more mindful and intentional about where the Lord fits into our lives such as in the miracle of drawing a breath without effort or thought.

Lent is typically referred to as a time of sorrow, a time to be more serious about acknowledging the sin that so permeates our lives, the sin which separates us from the Lord, and I believe this all to be part and parcel of the spiritual discipline necessary to fully appreciate the Sacrifice made in our behalf. Yet even in the midst of such sorrow we must also be mindful that even as we may feel a separation from the Lord, He is still there whether we acknowledge Him or not.

Consider the reading from Luke 13:34: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!”

How is such a lamentation possible? I don’t think Jesus could have been talking about His own life and ministry because there does not seem to be a shortage of people coming to Him begging for mercy, asking to be healed. With the exception of the chief priests, the Pharisees, and the scribes, there are hundreds of people coming to Jesus; they like what they are hearing and seeing! The Divine Presence is glaring and obvious. So how can it be that Jesus is talking about the “here and now” when He laments about how so many were unwilling when He tried to gather them to Himself?

He must surely be speaking of the prophets of the past who were sent to the people of Israel, a stubborn people who were consistently turning away from the Lord and falling in love with the world, thus rejecting the Law and the Lord even as they may have not been aware of active and deliberate rejection. It is the same trap many of us fall into so easily. Even when Jesus was confronted in the wilderness with the evil one, the temptation of the bread after a 40-day fast was so subtle and not even inherently sinful in itself. After all, food is a gift given to us to nourish and strengthen our physical bodies.

The act of eating the bread itself may not have posed a spiritual problem. The source of the bread, however, and the context of time in which it was offered was indeed a spiritual problem. This time for Jesus had been designated as a time of preparation, a time devoted solely to the Lord God Himself. It was the sacrifice Jesus was willing to make and devote to the Holy Father. To have accepted the bread would have been to profane the sanctity of the moment and the sacrifice.

Even as we are in the season of Lent, a time when we acknowledge the impending Passion of the Christ and our part in it, we must also be aware that whether we fast and pray or not, the Lord is still present in our lives, more often than not in the most subtle ways, so subtle that perhaps it is that if we do not take time to have quiet in our busy lives, we may never notice.

It is in the simplest and yet the most profound of gifts we enjoy; the gift of life. Science can explain it, but we cannot fully comprehend the miracle of birth, the miracle of breath, the miracle of waking up each day as a gift. It is a gift that is all too often taken for granted and sometimes even a gift that is cursed by we who fail to acknowledge the Divine miracle it truly is. How subtle the majesty of the Lord God of Life.