Wednesday, February 27, 2008

War is ...

The “Clash in Cleveland” last night between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton failed to do much more than to amplify the finger-pointing and name-calling that has been the central theme of their opposition to one another since they both essentially say the same thing, only perhaps Obama says them more emphatically and eloquently. There was one element of their debate, however, that has me wondering if either of them is suited for the responsibilities of the office of the president and, more specifically, of the role as commander-in-chief.

The War in Iraq continues to be a point of great concern to Americans and rightly so. We live with the knowledge that the information we had in 2002 was faulty, but this is now 2008. We cannot un-ring a bell, so what choices do we have left? Obviously, to face the music now. Obama and Clinton continue to argue about 2002 and what may or may not have happened if Obama had been there and even though Hillary “admits” to having voted for authorization, she tries to wriggle from under that vote by insisting on having been misled even though reports suggest she never actually read the information that was provided to the Congress by the administration. And Obama, who was not in the US Senate in 2002, insists he would not have voted for the war authorization.

Let’s be real. It is unfair and unrealistic for Obama to use an issue he never had an active role in to make a point. Maybe he would not have voted for the authorization, but he cannot dismiss congressional action out of hand when he lacked any real information and was not there. Think about it: at the time when the US was reeling from a devastating attack that required a military response, Saddam Hussein was implicated in that attack. Now we know the information was flawed, but we didn’t know that then. What would Barack have done? If he would have rejected military options out of hand with the information given at the time (and I say it is impossible if irresponsible for him to speculate now), what does this say about his fitness as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces tomorrow if (or perhaps, when) the US is attacked again?

Hillary, on the other hand, cannot deny her vote of record back in 2002, but she seems to be relying on blame to suggest that because she had been misled (remember, she did not actually read the intelligence report), she voted as she did rather than step up now, responsibly, and acknowledge that she is very much a part of the reason why the US is at war in Iraq now and there is nothing she can say which will alter this fact. She cannot attempt to pretend that her mere one vote or lack of knowledge was inconsequential.

In my humble opinion given these circumstances, neither of these candidates is prepared to step in and responsibly fulfill the role of commander-in-chief “from day one”. And given the reality that this War on Terror is never going to go away, we have to have someone in charge as commander-in-chief who can and will take responsibility, consider all information responsibly, collect input from the experts, make a reasonable decision and then stand by it, right or wrong. This is not an electoral game, and these are not necessarily nations with whom we have this conflict. It is a world-wide network of clever criminals and murderers bent on eradicating western culture by any means. They cannot be negotiated with because there is no one single person or entity in charge. They will not go away.

We are, in essence, about to elect a war-time president; this is reality. Obama can sweet-talk until the cows come home and he can speak most eloquently and idealistically about how he will talk with other heads of state unconditionally, but he must also acknowledge this reality of war, its implications and its impact, and so far he has failed to demonstrate any genuine appreciation for what we face. Our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is incidental to this whole reality, and neither he nor Hillary seems willing or able to grasp this. These two persons combined are not ready to step in “from day one” to serve the nation in such a capacity until they are willing to talk responsibly about current reality and move out of 2002. Today is now. It is here, and it is demanding our serious attention. Like the terrorists and the war they have wrought, now will never go away.

Friday, February 22, 2008

3rd Sunday of Lent: Relevant Worship

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The United Methodist Book of Discipline specifically prohibits the ordination of practicing homosexuals to serve as clergy and also forbids the use of any United Methodist Church in which to hold any sort of ceremony by which homosexuals can be wed. To broaden the scope of the rule’s inclusion, no United Methodist church should be used to lend credibility or legitimacy to any such union since the Discipline holds forth that homosexual practice is “incompatible” with Christian teaching. This seems clear enough.

In spite of the perpetual conflict on this particular issue, we United Methodist Christians remain resolved to our common purpose: to make disciples of Christ. On this much, at least, we are in agreement. Exactly how to go about this mission, however, is up to each individual church according to its own resolve, its dedication to the task, and the resources it has available. And this is a good idea since each church is uniquely qualified to speak to its own demographics and what is needed in each area. It would be unfair and unrealistic for the General Conference, or even the Annual Conference, to dictate to each church what it must do and how it must go about doing it.

It may be only my imagination but every four years a few months before the General Conference convenes, this issue of homosexuality crops up in writings, on blogs, and in other discussions almost as if by design. Perhaps it is that some are staking their claim on one side or the other as early as possible, or maybe it is that many are hoping we can get it out of our systems before we come together so that a good, solid, productive Conference can be held.

Whatever the reasons, there are always the same tired arguments about what the Bible says (or implies, depending on one’s perspective), but every now and then someone comes forth with a new angle, some way to attempt to circumvent (and maybe even undermine) the Discipline’s prohibitions. What is dangerous about these attempts is that the Book of Discipline is our common purpose, our rules, our definition of who we are as United Methodists. The Discipline gives us our outlines, our “marching orders”, and our common ground. It essentially defines who we are as a United Methodist Body of Christ.

Now, you may ask, what does one have to do with another? There is a United Methodist Church in this country (which one and where it is are irrelevant points lest we demonize the pastor or the congregation) that has chosen to abide by the letter of the Discipline by not performing wedding ceremonies for homosexuals but will, instead, hold worship services in which to specifically recognize and honor, presumably, all committed relationships. In other words, this church will choose to abide by the letter of the Discipline by refraining from conducting actual wedding ceremonies but will, in my humble opinion, violate the spirit of the Discipline by incorporating such “recognition” and “honor” into their time of worship thereby attempting to legitimize these relationships within the context of worship of the Lord God.

Without getting into the specifics of what they hope to achieve and without becoming more redundant with my own objections, let me offer this. The very spirit of the “worship” time itself may be in danger of misguided focus by celebrating what the world seems to be demanding of us rather than what the Lord requires of us. And worship itself is that designated time in which we give all praise, glory, and honor not to our worldly desires but to the Lord our God and Him alone.

The Lord God commands that we love each other, and Jesus raises even that standard by commanding that we “... love one another as I have loved you …” (John 13:34) as evidence of our status as His disciples. However, it is also written in Deuteronomy 6:5 that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” which to me implies that our love must first be directed toward the Lord God himself. And the short answer to how this love toward God is defined is simple: we trust Him enough to obey Him even when we are unsure of something.

The common standard we Christians have, regardless of denomination, is the Bible. It is, according to doctrines and standards, the Word of the Lord Himself. When all else fails, this Word is the One we should fall back to. In and of itself the Word should settle all these man-made disputes, but it doesn’t seem to work that way because we have our own individual and collective expressions of what some particular passage means. I also think there are more disputes which arise out of our not-so-clear understanding of exactly what the word “worship” actually means to us relative to our understanding of the Lord. Therein, I think, lays part of our conflict.

I’m sure we’ve all heard several sermons on John 4 and the Samaritan woman at the well, and too many seem to focus not only on the woman’s many husbands but also on the fact that it is implied that she is living with yet another man who is not her husband. I think the proper focus, however, is much broader than what we get from such a narrow view because I think that whenever we focus so narrowly, we are searching for fault and ammunition to use against those with whom we have fundamental disagreements. There is not enough attention paid to what I think is the thrust of Jesus’ words.

“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
John 4:23-24

“… in spirit and truth”; not flesh.

So what is Jesus saying to this woman? He does not seem to have implicated her for anything. Unlike the adulterous woman who was brought before Jesus by a crowd of scribes and Pharisees (John 8:1-6), Jesus did not admonish the woman at the well to “… go, and sin no more” (John 8:11b). Instead, He spoke to her about the time coming, the time which actually seems to have already arrived, “when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth …” The central theme seems to be about “worship”, but what “worship” actually means, at least in this context, may escape us as we seek to understand Jesus’ words.

Webster’s defines “worship” in this way: “reverence offered to a divine being or supernatural power”, “a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual”; “extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem”.

Someone once said that it is within man’s nature to worship. That context raises two important questions: 1) what or whom do we worship, and 2) how does our worship reflect our understanding of the importance of our object of worship? For Christians who come together for a time of worship, it calls us to question not only how we spend this time together but how we spend time outside of this designated time of worship. When Jesus told the Samaritan woman that there would come a time when we will worship “in spirit and truth”, He did not seem to suggest that this worship should only take place in church.

It would seem, then, that everything we do and everything we say is an act of worship, but do our words and deeds express “extravagant respect” for the Lord, or is our focus of devotion more oriented toward this world and its offerings or demands? It is a profound question for Lent that requires, just as Lent is purposed, that we focus our time of devotion and prayer – as well as our words and deeds - toward that which is truly important to us and seek to worship during every waking moment “in spirit and truth”.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

For the Sake of Marriage

In Ybor City FL, pastor Paul Wirth issued a challenge to the married members of his congregation: have sex with your spouse every day for 30 (presumably consecutive) days. Lest we think this is some sort of “progressive” move in which members of a church’s congregation are bombarded with sex, there is actually a certain level of social genius in issuing a challenge to married couples to reconnect in the most intimate of ways. I’ve long preached (and I know I’m not the only one) that the marital relationship of husband/wife within a family structure must be the primary relationship and as such, requires intentional care.

Pastor Wirth has reminded his congregation that life gets in the way all too often, and we respond to those barriers first as they present themselves because they are right in front of us. In the working world, these barriers may be all that stands between a spouse and unemployment. Kids have activities by the dozens, many of which had been initiated long ago to give kids a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of community, and to also learn how to have fun and learn something all at the same time. All good ideas, these, yet they pull parents in too many different directions at the same time. Stress comes as a result of all these attention-grabbing situations (and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg!), we get home to our beloved sanctuary, and all we want to do is crash.

In the midst of all this chaos is a relationship that is being neglected because it is taken for granted that this relationship will always exist. We learn to take our spouses for granted and pretty soon, they start getting those pangs of loneliness. We are social creatures by nature, so it stands to reason that this void created by neglect needs to be filled. This scenario does not always lead to adulterous relationships, but they do almost always spell trouble on many levels. Pastor Wirth also mentioned to his congregation the 50% divorce rate in this country (depending on which poll, some suggest the highest rate of divorce among evangelical born-agains!) that demands our attention. We cannot simply hope ours will not suffer a similar fate.

We would do well to pay attention to the finer points of what I think this pastor is trying to get across to his congregation. It is especially more so with couples who have been married a lot of years and are barely intimate 30 times in an entire year. Absent any sort of physical intimacy, they are reduced to not much more than roommates and fellow parents of common children.

There is a problem with this challenge: not everyone is physically capable. Does this mean ED therapy or other medical treatments so that it can become physically possible again? Or does it suggest that those who cannot enjoy a physical relationship with their spouses are doomed to such a meaningless, soul-less existence? Hardly.

The focus of Pastor Wirth’s challenge should not be contingent upon participants’ health and physical well-being and if it is, he has short-changed a huge portion of his congregation including those who have suffered some debilitating illness or injury by which such intimacy is no longer possible. What then? He would surely not suggest that these marriages are suddenly void of any real meaning because sex is not being enjoyed? What about those who are single or are engaged and about to be married? Does such a challenge suggest to these people that a genuine love relationship such as between husband and wife is not legitimate, meaningful, or purposeful unless sex is a part of it?

I suppose the pastor’s challenge could be misconstrued in any number of ways, but it does make a good point in how we deal with our married relationships and what we’ve come to expect from them and what we have come to expect from our spouses. To those for whom this challenge is physically possible, I say go to it; the sooner, the better. After a few days it may become drudgery, but that may well be the entire point. Regardless of what comes forward, time each day for this challenge must be carved out. And let the imagination run wild! But it is a discipline like almost anything else in which we are reminded daily that there is a relationship we must pay attention to. We cannot know if such a challenge will cause problems – I suppose this is possible – but if the focus of such a challenge is properly placed, we may be surprised to find that it has less to do with sex and more to do with reminding us all to DAILY see to the well-being of our spouses whether we feel like it or not, even whether we are angry with them or not, because this is – is it not? – what “love” really is?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

2nd Sunday of Lent - Rebirth: the language of Salvation

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Growing up Catholic, I still to this day don’t quite understand the concept of “getting saved” or being “born again”. This is not to say that spiritual growth is not a part of the Catholic journey of faith – it certainly is – but the approach, I suppose, is somewhat reserved (for lack of a better word) and perhaps a little more structured, and the faithful do not do “altar calls” except by way of Holy Communion, and this requires preparation.

The differences between Protestant and Catholic are neither good nor bad; they are what they are according to their own traditions, customs, and understandings of general concepts of doctrine. It always bothered me, however, when Protestant friends and even some adults would suggest that there was a special place in hell for Catholics because Catholics were not “saved” and could not be saved because they did not believe in being “born again”. I suppose this is a driving-force reason why I am so fascinated with other denominations and even other religions. It’s not that I think I’m eternally condemned and am on a quest for truth. It just is that I have a hard time embracing something that others seem so emphatic about, and it bothers me.

Being the natural cynic that I am, I watch others who seem overly enthusiastic about the Lord and I’m left to wonder whether I’ve somehow missed the boat or if they are trying to convince themselves – and others - that all is well with their souls. I certainly am not the judge of that nor should any of us consider that we have a place in making those calls for others. Yet I encounter far too many so often, even today, who are convinced that others are condemned for all time and are more than willing to make that known to any who will listen. I am also convinced now more than ever that these self-appointed “judges” are not reborn of the Spirit of YHWH. They may well have a spirit, but it could be somewhat less than holy.

So I’ve tried to consider how one might know. I will never forget the day when one of my children came to me after having attending a church service with a friend. When it came time for the “altar call”, my daughter felt as though the preacher were looking directly at her. He kept pointing and gesturing, and then he made a few strategically placed “hell” references, and she panicked. She did not know if she was “saved”, so she took out a little insurance policy and presented herself to the pastor. When she came home, she was more confused than before because she still did not know.

Nor do I. I don’t think it is as simple as getting touched by a preacher who has convinced us that we are condemned unless we come forward. There has to be more to it than that because the implications are much more profound than what may or may not have happened at that particular moment.

So is being “born again” evidenced by the absence of evil or by the presence of good? According to St. Paul, “presence” is going to be much more compelling than “absence”. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Galatians 5:22-23a

These are attributes which should be evident in the life of a Christian, whether one considers oneself “born again” or not, because one is not physically born a Christian even if born of Christian parents who are active in a Christian church. Being a Christian, for all practical purposes, involves a decision one must make after careful consideration because even Jesus encouraged potential followers to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28). And I’m not convinced that infant baptism changes this even though I believe infant baptism to be important to the life of the faithful. This requires faith to be able to appreciate the presence of YHWH and His hand in the Act. It is still evidence by faith, of course, because this Presence can only be “seen” with a willing heart (Hebrews 11:6).

To examine ourselves in search of the Holy Spirit of YHWH is to undergo an honest assessment of what it means to be a Christian … period. This examination is required to be ongoing and never ending because it requires that we look beyond the moment. Here is a little confession. I am still convinced that I lost my job due to internal political maneuvering. Now I could be wrong because I only know for a fact what I was told: that my position had been eliminated. But because I am still convinced somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind that I was a victim of foul play, I have more than a little bitterness in my soul. And this bitterness, dear friends, is not evidence of anything that is holy.

Whenever we look upon any human person and consider first their appearance, whether it be the way they are dressed or the color of their skin, we are showing evidence of something substantially less than holy even if we were to call ourselves “saved” or “born again”. Being that short-sighted, we are diminishing what the Lord meant when He spoke of our need to be born “of the Spirit” (John 3:8). It has to go much deeper and last much longer than a single event in a single moment of conviction.

Is it possible to become “unsaved”? For man to make this kind of call can be somewhat dangerous because we suggest that we know the mind of YHWH. If the Lord Himself is genuinely involved in a moment of conviction wherein we become convinced of our sinfulness and our need of redemption, how can any act or word or doctrine of man take this away?

“It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” Hebrews 6:4-6

Since it is impossible to crucify the Lord yet again, the writer of Hebrews seems to suggest that we get one shot at it. Yet there is even more to this than this one passage because this same writer refers often to the role of Christ as “priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”, which suggests what for us? It seems to me that if there is a priestly order, and there certainly was in the Hebrew tradition, then reckoning and atoning for our sins was then, and is now, an ongoing process because even as we are “born of the Spirit”, we remain human nonetheless.

We cannot speak of the Lord and of grace and mercy and, above all else, hope if we attempt to remove His ability and willingness to forgive. If evidence of the Spirit, as Paul wrote to the Galatians, is “longsuffering” (ie, “patience”), then we have to believe that this is more an attribute of the Lord Himself since He is the Spirit Himself. We must believe that He will give us more of a break than man ever will. This does not mean that we surrender to our own worldly attributes. It means that “rebirth” must necessarily be a process rather than a single event, just as the season of Lent is a process and not a single event.

There is more to man than what simply meets the eye because man is not capable of reading or judging the condition of the heart or the mind of another. Likewise, there is far more to the Lord God than man can ever fully comprehend because “they do not know the way of the Lord” (Jeremiah 5:4).

We can also take comfort in the words of Jesus Himself who proclaimed: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Give Her a Break!

Let me say from the beginning that I am not a Hillary Clinton supporter. There are too many of her policy ideas that I just don’t believe in and am pretty sure the government cannot afford them nor be held responsible for providing them. I am also very cautious about putting former president Clinton anywhere near the White House for a variety of reasons, none of which has any bearing on what I want to share here.

There are news reports and photos from yesterday in Lewiston ME where Senator Clinton was campaigning. At a National Guard armory, there is a photo of Mrs. Clinton wiping a tear from her eye after hearing a story told to her by a guardsman. Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that the story is not a happy one and may well be worthy of shedding tears.

There is no getting away from the notion that a president – as “leader of the free world”, as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, as the one who is now and will in the near future stare down rogue chiefs of state and terror leaders around the world – cannot weep. It is perceived as a sign of weakness especially by those who, like I, do not want Hillary Clinton to serve as the next president of the United States. You will just have to trust me when I say that Senator Clinton’s gender is irrelevant in my consideration.

Let’s be real, though, and give Senator Clinton a break. She’s already stuck with the “iron lady” tag (as well as a few other names that are not family-friendly) and she has been accused of many things not least of which is lack of compassion, but I think we are opposing her for all the wrong reasons.

I don’t agree with her policy statements or assessments, but I cannot – will not - stand against her for shedding a tear for a US soldier. I cannot see what is going on inside her head, and I am in no position to see or judge the condition of her heart. So I say to all who have a conscience: give her a break. She may well be all the things she has been accused of being and more, but she is still a human being worthy of such consideration. She is also a sitting US senator. If we want to teach our children how to respect our institutions, we must also teach them to show respect for those who serve the nation in such capacity.

Give her a break, please. If we must say something about Hillary Clinton, let it be said in prayer. It will go a lot further and will serve a far more noble cause.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

And So It Begins - 1st Sunday of Lent

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

“In the beginning …” begins the story of salvation. Many have suggested that the creation story of the Bible is actually the beginning of humanity as we know it. And as the arguments persist regarding creationism vs. evolution, I cannot help but to wonder if the Bible story is offering to us the beginning of a particular civilization rather than the “first man” or “first woman” such as Cro-Magnon or Neanderthal, the existence of which cannot be reasonably denied, the so-called “cave man”.

Civilization may not even be the appropriate term since it can probably be argued that “civilization”, at least according to some, may have already existed. “Culture” may come closer to describing what was intended to exist in Eden, and it would seem that a culture was beginning to take shape before the serpent introduced a “counter-culture” that was designed for and intended to be opposed to a culture which had really yet to be established. However, if it is true that any sort of culture or civilization existed before the time of Eden, then Eden itself may have been the “counter-culture”.

The “culture” which may have been envisioned for Eden was one of utopia, a perfect society in which all needs were to be provided for by the hand of YHWH. It was, in perhaps one word, “heaven” on earth. There were no worries, no cares, no concerns, no credit, no debt, no mortgages or taxes to be paid; just living. What may have been intended for later can only be speculated since the serpent made his move early on.

While it can be argued that it was the serpent (aka, the “evil one”) who disrupted this culture, the fact remains that Adam and Eve were completely and solely responsible for their own actions. They were deceived, of course, into believing that they would become “god-like” once they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but their sin, their mistake, was one of deliberate disobedience maybe because of pride itself; Eve even quoted what they had been told by the Lord, so she could not claim to have forgotten. They had perfection at their hands and yet by their own hands and the actions of their hearts, it was over … but not completely gone.

Maybe it was at the point of eviction from Eden that the salvation story begins even if it does not seem so. After all, we cannot believe that man was in need of redemption while existing in the Garden. It could not have gotten much better than it was. Somehow, though, it was not good enough.

Throughout all subsequent generations from Adam until the time of Jesus, man has been reaching for something that seemed just beyond his grasp. What we have been reaching for has been illusive, though, because even though we want utopia, we want that perfect society, we don’t quite know how to define it because we don’t quite know what it looks like or even what it should be like. And because we are unsure of what it is we are seeking, we reach. We reach, we strive, we contend, and we seek. We are looking for something that will help to bring meaning, fulfillment, and contentment to our lives. Always seeking, reaching, and striving will sooner or later take its toll, and we will still come up short of what we truly need as long as we seek it in this world.

Additionally, we tend to confuse “need” with “want”, and sometimes our desire for something can become so intense that we can easily rationalize that intensity with bona fide “need” even if we can reasonably put that intense desire into its proper perspective and come to realize that we can actually live without it. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

Even from the time of Eden it was the Lord who had knowledge of our actual “need” and He provided for those needs, but the blessing/curse of that gift of “free will” soon created a conflict in which “need” and “want” were at odds; a decision soon became required, and man made a bad decision.

The whole purpose of Lent is to prepare. It is a time of reflection and introspection. It is a time in which we examine our lives and our ministries, and it should be an honest assessment of what we are because of Whose we are. To be completely honest with self will be difficult and, perhaps, painful because we can easily see ourselves partaking of the forbidden Fruit of the Tree because we lack vision and maybe even faith.

It is entirely appropriate to examine Eden and Jesus’ time in the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent. Both were created in Godly Perfection, and both faced a challenge of temptation. Both had the “escape hatch”, but only One chose to remain faithful and obedient; and make no mistake – it was a free will choice and not a compulsion. Only One chose to live by the Word which sustains us and nurtures us. It is the Word which gives us the strength to look beyond mere self and see a much bigger picture. It is the Word which shows us the way Home.

Let this be for us a season of Lent like no other, a time when we will finally be enabled to resist the “Tree” which appears pleasing but is actually a means by which we are separated from the Holy One who has, since the time of Adam, continually reached out to provide, to comfort, to heal, to sustain. Let this be the season when we finally and completely reach back … and hold on tight.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Container - Ash Wednesday 2008

One of the (many!) defining differences between orthodox Christianity and Gnostic Christianity is the understanding of what is required of Christians toward salvation. The common factor of grace, which is commonly understood to be YHWH’s unmerited favor and mercy, remains. Requirements of a life lived worthy of Christ, according to orthodoxy, seems focused on suffering which is rejected by Gnostics. To them, it is incomprehensible that a “loving” God would require misery and suffering of His faithful as a means by which salvation is achieved.

Some of the biggest churches in the United States today are non-denominational churches whose pastors and teachers seem intent on preaching “happy” theology, insisting that the God of mercy and grace is a “happy” God who wants His faithful to be happy maybe because happy people are fulfilled people, and fulfilled people may be better Christian witnesses. People are flocking to these churches in droves because a “happy” message seems to be what they want. I don’t see a real problem with this notion on the surface, but I do see a colossal failure in another sense. The failure is restricted, in my humble opinion, to what we perceive as “suffering” and how we equate “suffering” with “misery”. Therein, I think, is the fundamental problem.

Another difference between orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism centers on our understanding of the difference between our mortal bodies and our immortal souls. On the surface there is little to disagree with because orthodox Christians do understand that our physical bodies will one day expire but until then, we strive to do the best we can with what we have. Gnostics focus on the spiritual existence as the primary focus and seem to believe that orthodox Christianity puts too much emphasis on the physical in its insistence upon suffering as a must. Though these are somewhat related, the conflict still seems to focus on the difference in perspective.

No one wants to go through life unhappy, and few of us like to witness misery. Indeed, the idea that the Lord requires, let alone DESIRES our misery may be one of the reasons why orthodox Christianity is experiencing a slide in membership in favor of “spiritual” Christians who reject such teachings and thus reject denominational church membership. The desire for salvation is as intense, as well it should be, but such a simplistic understanding may fall more in line with a “something for nothing” mentality that speaks volumes toward our consumer mentality, get-rich-quick schemes that more and more people are falling victim to, and easy credit that has produced a market system which is overwhelmed and beginning to show signs of extreme stress and, maybe, potential collapse.

Resolving these problems will not be an overnight solution because these problems were not arrived at overnight. By the same token, moving from sinner to saint is going to require much more from us than to simply say, “I’m sorry” or to merely call ourselves “Christian”. This is not to say that we are not forgiven when we truly repent and seek this forgiveness but we must repent … and many simply don’t want to because being repentant means making a physical and mental change from one lifestyle to another, from one system of thoughts and beliefs to another. It is a process that requires effort and sacrifice. It is a process that is inherently conflicting.

Sacrifice and “suffering”, however, seem to be the sticking points where too many get hung up. After all, being “happy” means doing what is pleasing to us and, well, the Lord wants us to be “happy”, yes? Is this not what “feel good” theology is all about? Living life to its fullest potential which will lead to prosperity, health, and …. Happiness? From my own perspective, the only ones getting very happy are the TV preachers who are making millions selling a false, or at least misleading, product that has a very weak basis in biblical merit. They are merely marketing a consumer product that people want while ignoring what many actually need.

The whole purpose of Ash Wednesday is in direct conflict with “feel good” theology which is focused on this life; its purpose and intent is to remind us of something far more lasting and enduring than anything “feel good” theology will ever produce. Ash Wednesday is also an extreme challenge that pushes us outside our physical presence – which is mortal and finite - and demands attention to the life that will endure far beyond the grave – which is immortal and infinite.

Ash Wednesday begins a process not unlike cleaning out the refrigerator or any other storage container. These containers cannot be wished clean; they have to be examined and scrubbed. The old stuff will need to be tossed out lest their consumption make us sick. This process will necessarily require that we examine the differences between our worldly desires and our genuine needs. It may not be a pleasant process but it is a process, and it is necessary.

The only thing unpleasant about “suffering” is the conflict which is created when we place too much emphasis on self-pleasing endeavors that sustain our physical, mortal being. The imposition of the ashes demands suffering in this sense: our physical bodies are but mere dust. We can take reasonable care, and we should, but it is not the life that will endure beyond the grave. We are not required to make peace with mortality. “Suffering” merely requires that we focus less on self.

Let us remove from our “containers” the impurities which cause illness and death. Let us create for the Lord new space within these tired, old containers and enter into the season of Lent with a renewed sense of being, purposed for other-than-self existence, to give all glory where glory is due: to God the Father, the Almighty.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Transfiguration: evidence of Divine Presence

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

One of my favorite TV shows of all time has to be M*A*S*H which is set during the Korean War and features a medical unit near the front line of the fighting. There is a lot of good comedy in the series, but there are also some very dramatic moments. In a recent episode, Father Mulcahey the chaplain was about to receive a visit from a Cardinal who was touring Korea. And because this Cardinal was a particularly well-known figure, Father Mulcahey wanted everything to be in order as evidence of his effective ministry as the camp’s spiritual leader. When he didn’t get everything he wanted when he wanted it, he got rather persnickety with the people of the camp with his seemingly excessive demands.

The Cardinal was to be the celebrant at the Sunday service, and Father Mulcahey was to be given the honor of introducing the Cardinal. However, a crisis had developed on Saturday night due to a soldier having been diagnosed with leukemia during a routine blood test, and Father Mulcahey had stayed up all night with the soldier to visit with and console him. Because he had gotten so wrapped up in where he was needed, Father Mulcahey had lost track of time and was late for the service where the Cardinal and most of the camp were all waiting.

Father Mulcahey showed up in his bath robe looking disheveled and was obviously and admittedly not as prepared as he would like to have been. Rather than try to remember the sermon he had been preparing, he chose instead to tell the story of what had happened during the course of the previous few days in his rather self-centered preparations for the Cardinal’s visit in wanting everything just so in his vain effort to impress the Cardinal. He then pretty much slam-dunked himself and his apparent lack of humility as well as his selfishness when he was confronted with the other man’s imminent demise due to leukemia. He had come to realize how self-centered he had been and was reminded about how fragile and short life is. He was also reminded that the Lord did not put us on this earth so that we could look good for visiting dignitaries; we were put here so that the Lord’s presence could be evident in the eyes of the last, the least, and the lost.

The Transfiguration is among the most difficult topics for me to address primarily because I tend to over-think it. For instance, Jesus orders Peter, James, and John to “tell no one of the vision …” until after He has been raised from the grave. There is another element that makes the passage a little more difficult to comprehend: how did the three disciples know they were looking at Moses and Elijah? Additionally, throughout the Gospels whenever the disciples did not fully understand something such as many of Jesus’ parables, they asked questions that were usually answered by Jesus. It would seem to me that the Transfiguration would raise a whole host of questions, but Peter only offered to build three dwellings.

That Moses would represent the Law and that Elijah would represent the Prophecy is pretty simple to appreciate since Jesus makes it known early in Matthew 5:17 that He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, but does such an appreciation fully address what it was that could obviously wait until after the Resurrection?

Offering to build dwellings for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus would indicate that perhaps Peter at least thought he was fully aware of what he and the others were witnessing: the completeness, the wholeness of the Lord God in the Law and the Prophets through the complete manifestation of His glory in the Son, and They were all coming to claim all of creation as the Kingdom of Heaven. Even still, Peter was missing some important element because Jesus seemed to indicate that Peter’s willingness to build permanent dwellings on earth for each of these was premature, that it was not the right time and, perhaps, not the right place.

Like the baptism of Jesus, however, I think the message of the Transfiguration must go much deeper than a mere doctrinal prescription of how man thinks things ought to be. The image that was before the disciples was not like any image that is comprehensible to the human mind – they were seeing Jesus in a whole new form as well as looking at Elijah and Moses! I think maybe that Jesus finding it necessary to comfort the three was an indication that they clearly could not comprehend what they had seen; this notion may also help to explain why Jesus had ordered the disciples to keep quiet about it. After all, if they were unable to understand it, how could they possibly explain it to others?

If you’ve not already seen it, I highly recommend the movie, “The Last Sin Eater”. It is set in 19th century Appalachia in which Welsh immigrants settled. The Sin Eater was a man who had been designated by a casting of lots to come only during burials which were always conducted at night. No one was allowed to cast eyes upon the Sin Eater as he came to accept a gift of bread and wine laid upon the body of the deceased on a shawl. The Sin Eater would take the gifts, eat and drink, and then offer this mournful prayer: “Who will take away MY sins?”

The main character of the movie, an 11-year-old girl called Callie, had a difficult relationship with her mother due to the untimely death of her 5-year-old sister for which she blamed herself. She was determined to find the Sin Eater who lived up in the mountains away from the community so that he could take away her awful sin. Throughout this ordeal the relationship between her and her mother seemed to be one in which mom really did seem to hold Callie responsible for her sister’s death.

When Callie finally caught up with and found the Sin Eater, she convinced him that she needed her sin taken from her before her death because she could not bear the overwhelming burden. When the Sin Eater told her that he could only perform his duty at burial, she swore that this would be her next step if that’s what it would take. Upon hearing this, the Sin Eater agreed to perform for her the next day. The next day came and the Sin Eater did his deed while Callie lay with the bread and wine on a shawl upon her chest with her eyes tightly shut, but she felt no different once the Sin Eater had finished. She still had her sin upon her!

Shortly thereafter, Callie happened upon a stranger near a creek whom she had actually met a few days before when she about to cast herself off the same tree bridge her younger sister had fallen from when she was killed. The stranger got to Callie just as she was about to fall and had asked her what could possibly be so bad in such a young life to do this terrible thing, but she ran away.

At the second meeting the stranger invited her to sit with him and eat while he spoke to her. Their conversation finally turned to the sin which so haunted her, and she told the stranger of her visit to the Sin Eater who was unable to take this awful sin from her. The stranger turned out to be an evangelist who spoke with her about the ORIGINAL SIN EATER who had come some 1800 years before to take away sin. It was not long before Callie was able to embrace this New Reality, and she had proclaimed to her imaginary friend who had come to her earlier that “it no longer hurt” after she had been made aware of THE Sin Eater.

It turned out that the community “boss” was the son of a very mean man who had helped the Welsh get settled in the cove by slaughtering the Indians who were already settled there. This very mean man, upon his death bed, needed a “sin eater” to take away the overwhelming burden that was now his as he lay near death. The Sin Eater who hid in the mountains had been deceived into believing that it had been the “will of God” that he serve the community in this capacity. It was not until an elderly woman who was a child when this massacre took place decided to come forward that this practice of using an earthly “sin eater” ended.

I will stop short of the ending so as not to ruin it. Needless to say, the ending was everything it should have been, but the message that came from it was even more powerful. It may be a message that has a parallel with the Transfiguration.

The disciples who had witnessed this phenomenon on the holy mountain could not have possibly been able to fully understand or appreciate what was before them, and would likely not be able to until after the Resurrection when they would then be able to see the resurrected Christ in all His glory. Peter’s willingness to build dwellings for each of the Three seemed good TO HIM to do, but he and the others were not ready for the true meaning of the Transfiguration.

The message of eternal life lay in the Transfiguration by the witness of Moses whose grave was unknown (Deut 34:6) and by Elijah who had been taken up from this world into Heaven by a “chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2:11), personified by the Glorified Christ whose wholeness of the Lord God was attested to by the Voice which had been heard by Peter, James, and John on the holy mountain. I don’t think they would have been able to fully comprehend the meaning of the Transfiguration if they had run off half-cocked and make something up that seemed to make sense to them but would still come up short of what subsequent generations would need to know.

The Transfiguration was the evidence that was needed then, and is by many needed now, to remind us that we are not alone. The world comes crushing in around us, and we need to know that we’ve not been forgotten, not been forsaken. But it also seems to me that the other necessary parallel in the Transfiguration that helps it to make more sense is that one must be walking with Jesus in order to not only witness such a thing but, more importantly, to embrace it and appreciate it for what it is: Emmanuel – God with us.

We are about to enter into the season of Lent. It is time for renewal and revival not only in the Church but, perhaps more relevantly, in our communities. It is time for us to reconnect with The Sin Eater so that we may go about our work of making disciples and not be overburdened with the drudgery of daily living but with a sense of freedom like no other. If we feel like we are missing that now, I can think of no better time than during Lent to reconnect, to experience for ourselves the New Reality that always was, is, and is to come.