Monday, July 28, 2008

Stating the Obvious

1 Kings 3:5-12
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

In 1 Kings 3 King Solomon’s reign is in its infancy. The first two chapters speak of the last days of King David and the advice he gave to Solomon about whom to trust, whom to watch, and whom to punish. After David’s death, King Solomon goes about “cleaning house” and, at least in his mind, administering justice according to his father’s advice. He also had to deal with an errant brother who had previously taken it upon himself to claim the throne of the kingdom when he learned that King David’s days were numbered. And here we thought our own “to-do” lists were overwhelming!

Sooner or later our lives will catch up with us if we refuse to slow down and think things through, but too often we run and rely on instinct and habit to get our “stuff” done. And while we may say there is no fair comparison between our “list” and King Solomon’s “list”, I will submit to you that even as Solomon’s “list” involved people’s lives, so do ours. It just is that we tend to get so caught up in our own private little world that we fail to take into account that every moment spent completely self-absorbed is another moment that could have perhaps been put to better use for the sake of the Kingdom. We may also reasonably come to the conclusion that our natural inclinations or instincts are not God-breathed and are not necessarily divinely inspired. Still, we go according to what seems right for the moment.

Solomon is obeying his father’s instructions in carrying out some perhaps questionable executions. The wisdom of Solomon’s rule thus far has been by the edge of the sword, and why not? King David was a righteous man and was faithful to the Lord to the very end as it is written, so following his advice would seem the thing to do. Nevertheless, as David’s life was coming to an end it had already been told to him that Adonijah – David’s son by a woman other than Bathsheba but still the eldest surviving son of the king nonetheless – had already proclaimed himself king which was not in keeping with what the Lord had shared with David as written in 1 Chronicles 22:9-13 which promised that David’s son, whose name shall be Solomon, will succeed him to rule AND build the Temple that King David had wanted to build.

Building a Temple dedicated to worship of the Lord God of Israel seemed perfectly right and good to King David, but he was a man of war. By his hand blood had been shed, and so it would not be fitting to the Lord that a man of war would build a temple dedicated to the Lord God. The desire that King David had was simply not enough. According to the word of the Lord, it was not time.

Isn’t it always the way, though, that after we have done all that we thought we needed to do, there is always something left over that REALLY needed to be done but was overlooked because we were running on “auto-pilot” just to hurry and finish? This almost seems to be what King Solomon has concluded, judging by the prayer he offers to the Lord when asked to name what he needs. Though Solomon will eventually have problems of his own as king, it is evident by his request at this stage in his life and reign that he does at least acknowledge his limitations as a human being and that he is going to need divine wisdom in order to govern the Lord’s “chosen” people, seeming to comprehend the task of “the chosen”.

Do we ever admit our short-comings and acknowledge the limitations of our own humanity often enough so as to humble ourselves before the Lord in asking for His help instead of running on instinct or just doing what feels right or blaming someone for our failure to do all we wanted – or thought we needed – to do? I admit that this is perhaps one of my biggest failures – among many, I’m sad to report!

It seems to me that the limitations of our humanity are exactly the reason why Jesus spoke so often of the Kingdom of Heaven in parables. It is along the same line as teaching a child that 2 + 2 = 4. It is not enough to simply know this to be true; one must also know WHY this is true, how such a conclusion is reached. Memorization may be a good thing on a certain level, but without the why’s and how’s of a particularly tough subject, the memorization will never be internalized nor personalized. It will never make sense and so will never be relevant in any real way except to maybe pass a math test.

So King Solomon’s prayer is a sincere prayer which recognizes that sound reasoning, rational thought, and divine guidance are all ingredients required of being able to minister to those who are entrusted to his care. It is no less so for those of us entrusted with the Good News of the New Covenant, but nothing will make sense to us until we think AND reason AND pray through it. Jesus is offering exactly that by speaking to His disciples in parables.

These parables may not make sense right off the bat, but they require that we think through them and pray through them. Even before that, we need a time of prayer and reflection so that divine wisdom may be imparted to us. I don’t know that it will “just happen”. The answer to any prayer will come only in the Lord’s time and not our own - which we readily acknowledge when we’re not in any big hurry - but we also have to be ready and willing to receive what is offered to us regardless of the answer or advice.

I think maybe this is the very reason why prayer is the single, most difficult of all the spiritual disciplines, to pray without speaking a word so that answers and guidance can be received. Even more difficult than this, however, is the acquisition of a willing heart enabled to hear an answer we did not wish for.

Being a disciple of Christ is no easy thing. It is not for the faint-hearted or the weak-minded. This is partly why I take exception to those who dismiss Christianity as a “crutch” for the weak-minded who cannot or will not deal with “real life”. There is nothing weak about being enabled to swallow pride, admit limitations, and lean toward the Lord for help BEFORE we insert foot in mouth or otherwise make fools of ourselves. Sometimes silence is the better option, but our instincts will not always allow for that, will they?

Reading Scripture is important for spiritual growth, but scripture is nothing more than ancient literature if there is no divine wisdom to help guide us toward the ultimate Truth. And this should be the struggle of every disciple, young or old, because if we ever reach a point when we come to believe that we have it all figured out, it is then when we will stop growing and will actually move backward, “for My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

Pray that we never “figure it out”. Amen

Friday, July 25, 2008

Victims ... or ambassadors

Something occurred to me as I was driving this afternoon while listening to American Family Radio. There was a report of some school (I’m afraid I perked up only after most of the details had already been given) that had written policies governing the dissemination of religion-related materials such as Bible School invitations. One particular church followed the rules to the letter, but the assistant superintendent of the schools decided against allowing the invitations to be distributed, citing – of course – church/state issues. And – of course – someone has his or her nose out of joint as a result and – of course – is claiming “persecution” or, at the very least, unconstitutional behavior.

Considering that this particular issue has numerous sub-issues, I am going to attempt to address only a couple as I see them in hopes that other Christians may be able to come to terms with the fact that there will always be obstacles slowing our journey. Whether these obstacles are results of the evil one’s direct intervention or the plain ignorance and fear of man, it matters little to the disciple who is serious about the work of the Gospel and feels unfairly burdened.

Even if a public school district has consulted with legal experts (a major expense) about how to properly deal with religious issues, there is always the potential for a lawsuit which will, more often than not, require more legal guidance (more expense). At a time when many public school districts are struggling financially, a decision to forego even a potential lawsuit is fiscally responsible … and the potential seems always to exist. If such unnecessary expenditures can be avoided, by all means avoid them. The money is better spent for teacher salaries, supplies, bus fuel, etc. And in today’s climate when everyone and his brother-in-law is trying to claim “victim” status to one degree or another, it is best for a public school district to stay out of the religion business altogether.

For Christians to claim “victim” status, however, is beneath contempt. In the United States, it is perfectly – and physically - safe to be a Christian and worship openly, but there are laws in this country which exist for historically sound reasons. Even by the wording of the Constitution, this is a decidedly secular – if neutral – government. The state is prohibited from taking sides or even getting involved at all. That having been said, then, it must be understood by Christians that even as we can claim US citizenship by birth or oath, we are unmistakably - and foremost - citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven by virtue of rebirth. In this country and in this world we are ambassadors, foreign dignitaries charged with the responsibility of abiding by and respecting the laws of our host nation. And if this nation’s laws say that there is a distinctive line between church and state that must not be crossed, then so be it.

Make no mistake. I am not defending those who seem to seek out opportunities to be “offended” by religion; I think it is much ado about nothing and that those who make such claims are only seeking their fifteen minutes of fame. I think it is a little ridiculous to claim harm on any level by seeing Christian literature passed around at a public school or hearing a prayer, for instance, at a public school football game. However, these people are still constitutionally protected from religionists who attempt to force feed their beliefs on a public that, regardless of sharing a belief in the New Covenant, simply may not see things exactly the way these religionists think they should. Therein lays the harm.

Jesus never imposed Himself on anyone. If He was asked a question, He answered it. If He was called upon to have mercy and heal, He showed mercy and healed. He was never without compassion for those who wallowed in their ignorance, but He could not really help anyone who did not want help. And if He was asked to leave a place, He would leave (Mark 5:17-18) just as He had advised His disciples to do (Matthew 10:14).

There is plenty of injustice in the world, but a Christian group being denied permission to distribute Bible School invitations at a public school does not quite meet the criteria of “unjust” when there will always exist alternatives such as going door-to-door or doing mass mailings and advertising. Obstacles only challenge us to go around them, but our journey must still continue because the obstacle itself was not, and perhaps is not, the ultimate goal. And if we cannot go one way around this obstacle but we are sure we are headed in the right direction, then we must choose to go another way. Let us be mindful, however, that allegiance to Jesus and the New Covenant is a decision that individuals must make freely and without compulsion. Shoving religion down someone’s throat is not only not within our “rights” but is a direct violation of another’s legitimate rights.

This is not who we are, and it is not who we are called to be or what we are called to do. Many will seek us out sooner or later and they may come calling as a result of our faithfulness, but they will never come to Christ if He is presented to them as an unreasonable and demanding task-master or iron-fisted ruler. We have rights, you know, and we rejected one king some 230 years ago who attempted to usurp the rights of man. Another equally unreasonable and demanding king will not likely fare much better.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rolling the Dice ... for Vice

Arkansas voters will once again go to the polls and decide whether a state-wide lottery should be allowed. We’ve been down this road before more than once. Still, those who would suggest that gambling is somehow going to be the saving grace of education in Arkansas are going to give it another shot, but this time it is the duly elected lieutenant governor of Arkansas who is behind the push. This may be a new twist that could complicate things for voters because a state constitutional officer is working tirelessly to influence the vote. He is perfectly within his right to do so as a resident of the state, but it almost seems an unfair advantage when an official of the state throws his weight behind something.

I would like to believe that voters are not that easily swayed, but it is difficult to think otherwise when so many officials run virtually unopposed in state and even national contests secure in the knowledge that voters tend to lean toward familiar names and faces rather than to go into the depths of any particular issue or pay attention to voting records. It has often been said that if one can get elected on the first go-round, reelection is virtually assured unless a felony charge enters into the picture. It is a sad state of affairs when perfectly qualified individuals choose not to run, being aware of the futility of such an endeavor.

Politics and public officials aside, gambling in any form as a means of state revenue puts a great deal of faith in the weaknesses and fears of man. Especially during such economic times as what we are currently enduring, these weaknesses are exposed in such ways of desperation that those who are afraid of tomorrow - and the potential for job and home loss - are willing to risk what should be devoted to a savings account choose instead a “pie in the sky” empty promise of a big, fat “maybe”. There may well be some available college scholarship money in the future as a result should this measure pass, but it is the “here and now” that is being put at risk. This is no investment for the future; it is a waste of resources now.

Arkansans need a stable job market and opportunities to earn their own way; they don’t need games of chance which do nothing more than to take from an already-challenged pocketbook. Arkansas’ elected officials should be devoting their time and the state’s currently plentiful resources to such endeavors as those which led to Conway landing a huge opportunity with Hewlett-Packard and its 1,200 future jobs. These are the kinds of public policies that give Arkansans real opportunities for education and advancement. These are the kinds of public policies that promote honest labor, hard work, and a real shot at the so-called “American Dream”. These are the kinds of public policies citizens have every right to expect from elected officials. Instead, we have apparently surrendered to elected officials who make promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled, and other opportunities may be lost because the lieutenant governor of the state wants a lottery instead of a manufacturer or other major employers.

I pray that Arkansans are not fooled by what may or may not come as a result of a lottery, but isn’t this the rub: what may or may not come? We are already at risk with an economy that has gone sour and will not recover anytime soon, folks losing their jobs and homes, and oil at record prices with no sign of abating anytime soon. In the midst of this reality, the lieutenant governor of our fair state wants us to put our faith in gaming.

Lest there be any confusion, this is not a purely religious objection though I would submit that the Lord has more in mind for what He has entrusted to us than risking money purely for selfish gain. Those who can least afford to gamble will, according to statistics, be the major players in this game of chance. The money spent can be put to better use in interest-bearing savings or checking accounts and held for the sure thing instead of a one-in-a-billion chance of winning. The risk is, indeed, far greater than the reward that will most likely, according to reasonable odds, never come.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Considering the Cost

Isaiah 44:6-8
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

I’ve often wondered if suffering is a requisite part of the Christian salvation story. It is easy to see that Jesus endured unspeakable pain on His way to Calvary, but was it a necessary, rather than an incidental, part of the Passion and did this pain in any way help to facilitate His Resurrection? I seem to recall reading from one of Billy Graham’s books in which he expressed regret for not having suffered “enough” in this life, but I also recall that both Rev. Graham and his wife made tremendous sacrifices all their married life in efforts to support his ministry. Considering the enormous success of his world-wide efforts to promote the cause of Christ, I would suggest that Rev. Graham and his family gave plenty of themselves and their time and energy that must have surely resulted in some measure of “pain”.

Biblical writers, especially St. Paul, are pretty clear that as we “share” in the suffering of Christ, we also share in the hope of the Resurrection of Christ. In other words, as we live in the totality of Christ in this life, including His pain and suffering, so shall we also live in the totality of Christ in the life to come. Such ideals of living don’t necessarily involve physical pain, but it does not mean that we should not strive for higher ideals to the best of our ability regardless of the risk. But I don’t think it means we should intentionally go looking for pain and misery.

So could suffering be subjective to what path we may choose to follow in our spiritual life and faith journey? It could if there is some measure of our discipleship, and thus our lives, that we would choose to withhold when the pressure of conflict intensifies and we find ourselves confronted with the apparent – and plentiful – ugliness of this world. The “cost” of our discipleship, our loyalty to the Lord, could come to require more than we are willing or able to bear.

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it – lest, after he has laid the foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’.” Luke 14:26-30

It seems to me that suffering as we understand it does serve a purpose, but it should not be discounted as suffering for its own sake or as merely “incidental” to a certain harsh reality, evidence of the broken world in which we live, a portrait of the destructive nature and power of sin itself, and the conflict which is inherent when “good” and “evil” are in the same realm. Instead it must be, in the words of my dear friend and fellow pastor, Rev. John Farthing, “the inevitable corollary of radical discipleship”. The suffering Jesus endured was the direct result of this inherent conflict within the “corollary of radical discipleship” which will always exist when good (or Light) enters into the realm of bad (or Darkness), and we give of ourselves completely and hold nothing back – like Jesus.

The suffering to which St. Paul refers in Romans is better brought to life as we “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) It is during this fellowship when we endure and bear the suffering WITH, and not because of, the “last”, the “least”, and the “lost”, those who have by some form or fashion become marginalized in our society and have been mistreated by too many, those who have lost their faith due to the utter and unspeakable pain of neglect and loneliness, and those who are suffering from genuine persecution for their faith.

It is a mistake to believe that happiness and contentment should be a source of guilt as if we are not suffering enough, and I don’t know that Paul is demanding that we go out and seek misery more than he is warning us that pain and suffering will find us sooner or later … get this … ACCORDING TO THE LEVEL OF OUR FAITHFULNESS, according to our will and ability to “take up our cross” – NEVER MINDING the cost or risk to ourselves - and follow Christ.

It is not unlike the night Jesus was arrested and Peter was confronted by accusers (“YOU WERE WITH HIM”). Peter had a choice to make, and his level of suffering had everything to do with his choice. Out of a sense of overwhelming fear, Peter “dropped” his cross and fled for safety thus avoiding perhaps the same fate and suffering as Jesus … for the moment, anyway. His conscience bothered him, of course, but notice that the “WORLD” left him alone even as he fled “into the world” and away from Christ.

Where does this leave us? In the middle of good things and in America where it is relatively safe to be a Christian, we must exercise our faith just like we “should” exercise our muscles so that when we need them - and I think Jesus and Paul are saying we will if we are faithful – our faith will be in good shape to perform. Otherwise, our choice might be to flee when we are called upon or “accused” of being one of Jesus’ disciples. And where can we flee? Into the world that may offer temporary – but NEVER-lasting - comfort and away from the spirit of righteousness borne of a life in faith, a life in and with Christ.

The true cost of discipleship is complete and total vulnerability. It means that when we love and give of ourselves totally and completely, without hesitation or reservation, we will be exposed for what we truly are: disciples of the Risen Christ in a world ruled by the prince of darkness, remembering that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the Glory about to be revealed to us …” Amen.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lord, Grant Us Peace

One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And one of my favorite scenes is toward the end when Mother Superior is talking to Maria and quotes Psalm 121 as Maria is hiding with her new family from the Nazis. If you recall, the Nazis had just taken over Austria and were trying to force Maria’s husband, Capt. Von Trapp, to serve in the German navy. The family was trying to escape into Switzerland because Capt. Von Trapp wanted nothing to do with the Third Reich.

I suppose there is always a time in our daily lives and routines when we are trying to escape from something. You probably remember the old Calgon bath oil commercials in which the woman was just about overwhelmed with household chores, phones ringing, kids screaming and running about, dogs barking, and errands that still needed to be done. The woman would finally get to the end of her rope and shout, “CALGON, TAKE ME AWAY!!”, and then she would run off to soak in a hot bubble bath.

Or consider the young family now being hit from all sides by rising energy, food, and college tuition prices as well as the potential job loss which may be just around the corner. Or even the retired folks living on fixed incomes trying to make ends meet with rising medicine prices IN ADDITION to the other costs which keep going up … up … up.

Some folks turn to their congressman or shake their fist at the president, even we Christians. Things are hard and we are more than a little shaken by not knowing exactly what may be just around the bend. We don’t like things in our lives being so completely out of control, but we also know that these problems as well as many others are beyond our control. When we talk about a WORLD economy, we know it’s getting pretty big and will only get bigger. Who can stick their finger in the dike and plug the hole like the little Dutch boy, and how much good will it do??

When we reach the end of our rope, however, it is then when we should pray for … what? Pray for an economic miracle? Pray that Congress will be able to do something about it all? Pray that any MAN may have the answer to all our problems?

No, my dear friends, we do not. We pray for faith; just faith, especially when we are afraid because fear itself can be evidence of a faith that is lacking. It is faith that will help us turn to the Scripture in good times AND bad to find such soothing words as this Psalm to calm our fears. I also have to say that even though I don’t typically refer to the KJV, this particular Psalm will not work any other way. There is a poetic flow that speaks of a sense of peace and serenity that can only be useful to us if it is Heaven-sent. Such words of poetry and beauty remind us of a divine love so incomprehensible that sometimes there are no words … just peace. And it is this peace which is the “help” we so desperately need.

The Lord is the One willing and able to give us what we truly need. We will deal with life as it comes to us and do the best we can with His grace and strength, but it will always be His grace and strength that will calm our nerves and remind us that we are never alone when we are with and in Him through Christ. It is the Good News of the Gospel of Christ, and it is Peace in this life and Hope in the Life that is to come. Amen.

The Word ... for what it is

Isaiah 55:6-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-23

Several years ago I took a class in Old Testament Interpretation that took me by more than a little surprise. It’s not as if I had never heard of the Hebrew Scriptures, but I had never had a teacher to challenge me to read the texts without my Christian perspective such as the people of the day obviously had. What they were getting was what was written specifically for them in the context of their own contemporary setting. This is not to suggest that what was written in the past has no relevance for us – NOT AT ALL!! – but context is everything in understanding what was offered and under what circumstances so that it may become relevant for us today.

I worked through the class and took more than my share of “hits” on one paper I wrote because there were many subtle, though unintentional, New Testament references peppered throughout the paper. I passed the course, but I came away probably more confused than educated. Still it was a good exercise in reading something and taking from it its own message based on its own historical and theological perspective and setting as well as reading it for what is actually there instead of trying to read INTO IT something that is not.

Isaiah addresses Judah during the Babylonian exile. The southern kingdom had been overthrown though it was not what had been intended. King Ahaz turned to help from Assyria in fending off an attack from Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel (aka, Ephraim). Long story made short, Judah was sent into exile and the Assyrians ruled the kingdom.

In this setting, then, and in light of what Isaiah has to offer Judah is probably the best way to approach the reading in understanding that even as Judah endured hardship by the hands of man, the Lord God was still ultimately in control because He granted to them exactly what they had asked for: help from man at the expense of their national identity.

And just like the people of Judah, we also have to sometimes take our own spiritual lumps. In Judah’s case, it was probably a mistake for King Ahaz to align himself with a foreign nation sort of like when we rely on man instead of the Lord to get us through difficult times such as now in our economy as we expect the presidential and other candidates to promise AND DELIVER economic miracles. Taking these lumps, however, does not mean that the grace of the Lord will not still shine. The question will be whether we are willing to see it.

Through Isaiah, the Lord makes it clear that He is not much for idle talk. The Word which comes from Him is for a purpose and when that Word comes to us from Above, it will not stop until it serves its divine purpose, like rain replenishing the earth. What this may mean for us is that the potential exists that we can waste what has been offered for us to use, and the Lord will move it to someone else who will make better use of His Holy Word. It is not unlike the Parable of the Talents (Matthew25:14-30) in which the third servant who had been entrusted with only one talent had it taken from him and given to the other who had made good use of what had been entrusted to him. The servant who wasted what little he had ended up with nothing and was “thrown into the outer darkness ...” (Matthew 25:30)

To the exiles the Word of the Lord which came to them through Isaiah was the word of encouragement and grace, not condemnation as “I told you so”. The people of Judah were already down so it would not serve the purpose of the Lord God to continue beating and kicking them. They needed more than a good “chewing out”; they needed to know that what they had endured served a purpose. They, like we, needed to know that within the Word of the Lord is enduring Hope and a Promise for a future.

Jesus warns His disciples, however, that even as the Word of the Lord is sown there are still challenges that require us not to simply read the Bible but to PRAY the Bible and internalize what is offered to us so that the Word becomes the essence of who we are and what we are to our community and the world. Beyond this, then, it is also incumbent upon us to live the Word so that it becomes our nature. When we are then strengthened by the Word, we can venture out into the world that is hostile to the Word and SHOW the world the goodness of the Word and the Life which springs forth from it.

Though Jesus’ parable warns of the dangers and temptations of this world and the obstacles which are inherent to the world, it seems also clear that the “path” to which He refers is our path. This path goes into the world and meets a hostile world right where it is. This Word does not make demands, it does not judge or condemn or insist that the world come to us or meet us on our terms. Instead, we are called to meet the world right where it is at any given time and place. By the light of Christ which should shine in and through us, we are able to light the path and show the world the way out.

We are essentially the Lord’s “rescue party”, and the Word of the Lord is our tool belt. And like a rescue party, we go to the scene of distress rather than wait safely from a distance until those in distress somehow manage to find their way out. It is the life perfected in Jesus who came to mankind - in mankind’s world, in mankind’s image, and even on mankind’s terms – to show humanity the way out.

I suppose in many ways we are still a people in exile but like Judah, we are still being cared for, looked after, and encouraged. We have not been forgotten or forsaken. It is only fitting and right that we should remember that we are equipped with the Word – AS IT IS – to light the path for other exiles and those who may be lost. We GO TO THEM instead of waiting for them to come to us. Just like Jesus, the Word made flesh who came to His own, but His own did not recognize Him. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.

This is the light of Life and the Word of the Lord …. And it is what it is now and forever. Amen.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Reconciliation: Imagine the Possibilities

Genesis 18:16-33
1 Peter 2:4-17
Matthew 6:5-15

Have you ever considered the very real possibility that your pastor may be “demon possessed”? It could be true. I don’t know about other fellow pastors but in my case, there are some issues that still often cloud my judgment and cause me to do or be or act or speak or even think in a manner that is not consistent with the life of a disciple of Christ. I mean well but I can see and feel these demons that are within me. I sense that I have the power to at least suppress these demons, but a total defeat and eradication is going to require something far more substantial, something that will transcend my will to let it go. Until I reach that point when I can turn it loose, however, I will have no real sense of peace because the struggle will continue to eat at me from within, taking a tiny piece of my soul with each bite.

I suspect that my demons are probably some of the very same demons many have done battle with in the past to one degree or another and may be entangled with in conflict even now. These are the demons of bitterness that continually draw us backward in time to a place where we feel we had been cheated or wronged in some way, real or imagined. These places are where we got hurt, for instance, by people we trusted but who ultimately betrayed our trust. Whenever I allow myself to dwell on these “demons” I sometimes become so angry that my mind ceases to think rationally, and these fantasies begin playing in my mind in which the tables are turned and I’m in a position of authority and power from which I can do real harm to those who harmed me. All too often, the demons win as I virtually bury my “enemies” in their own sorrow and misery.

This is not a place where Christians belong yet I know that I am not alone. Failure to understand the destructive nature of such bitterness and what it can bring and how easily and quickly it can grow as it festers like an open wound is a failure to recognize our own limitations and our genuine need for healing. In my own case, I recognize that if I do not repent of it and work harder at suppressing these demons and these irrational fits of anger, I will soon be judged by my chosen allegiance to them and the harm they can do.

Now it is easy to say that we should simply turn these things over to the Lord and He will make it all go away, but I don’t know that it is that simple. This is not to diminish the power of the Almighty; rather, it is a statement acknowledging the free will of man. Regardless of such situations and how they came to be, we still have choices to make and ultimately it comes down to this: we can live in reconciliation and peace of mind or we can die with the demons that seek to destroy us.

This does not mean that we can easily forget what happened, but I want you to consider this. I am a man blessed beyond measure in spite of my failure to be the kind of godly man I set out to be. I lost my secular job in January from a company I had faithfully served for 15 years. When I was given a small severance and unceremoniously dumped, my heart was broken and I also suffered a certain identity crisis.

Long story made short, look at where I am now. I still have my family, I am still in reasonably good health, and I am now in the privileged position of serving as a pastor and enjoying getting to my congregation. Is this the life of a man who has been forever cursed? Yet if I so choose, I can stay in the past where my heart and my spirit had been broken and where I will eat myself alive in bitterness and anger over something I perceived – but still cannot change - and where I will NEVER know what really happened. Either way, my new charge is nowhere to be found in my past.

I know that there have been “issues” in the past at just about every church I’ve been affiliated with, and I am also aware that there are still residual hurt feelings and suspicions as a result of these “issues” that still affect how some feel about and relate to others. I know that many are dismayed that choose to leave a fellowship and go somewhere else. I hate it as well, but I also recognize that even within the Body of Christ there is a certain dynamic that mandates change. It does not always seem good, but it’s not always bad! Even if we think we have somehow been weakened by what has happened in the past, the weakness of man can still be the manifest strength of the Lord God – that is, IF we are willing to do something.

And that is: FORGIVE so that we may be FORGIVEN as it is written. Now some might suggest that we forgive and “forget”, but I submit to you that “forgetting” amounts to little more than a vain effort to suppress. Like my demons which continually come back to haunt me, I have yet to make peace with the thing that still eats at me so this suppressed demon I’ve tried to “forget” will not allow it to happen because a necessary element is still missing and I am still at the mercy of sudden and/or unexpected recall. As we all know, it does not take much to trigger a memory.

Yet when I take the intentional action to forgive, I have done something more than simply sweep the problem under the rug. I have made a step FORWARD into this incredible dynamic known as RECONCILIATION that is the essence of Christ’s Holy Church, and I have dealt with the issue and put it where it belongs. Now it is not simply swept away – it is PUT away, and I can finally have some peace!

Jesus is not ambiguous about this because it is central to everything we are about as disciples, and it is the very lifeblood of any church. Can we share Holy Communion with a clear conscience? Can we eat the bread and drink of the cup of salvation if we still hold some grudge against our neighbor, real or imagined?

I will only tell you in this regard that we must each allow our own consciences to be our guides and participate as we see fit within the context of Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to "eat and drink to your own judgment" (1 Corinthians 11). I will also tell you that if we don’t finally and completely put these demons away from us and send them back where they belong, we will continue to fight the same, tired, old battles that have wrought nothing but depression, anger, division, and general misery. These are NOT the fruits of the Spirit of the Lord God!

However, send these demons back to hell where they belong and I promise you days ahead filled with Spirit-fruit that will give new life to a bunch of tired ol’ bodies begging to be spiritually nourished, and we will be renewed and refreshed just as in the day in which we proclaimed and professed Christ the Lord as Son of the Living God and Savior of the world!! O my dear friends, can LIFE ITSELF be any less?? I say “NO” because anything less is but a slow, painful, agonizing death if only from within.

Whatever it is that is holding us back from making peace with one another, we are compelled by the Lord Himself to GET RID OF IT!! “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose LIFE, that both you AND YOUR DESCENDENTS may live, that you may love the Lord you God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may CLING TO HIM, for He is your life and the length of your days…” Deuteronomy 30:19-20